Everyone was getting word drunk. Eleven poets took the stage to compete at last Wednesday’s poetry slam. It only took about an hour for the audience to start getting giddy, a term slam poets have coined as “word drunk.” As the night went on, the energy continued to rise, and so did the judges’ scores.
About 70 students packed the small space at the Cowell Fireside Lounge, sitting on the floor, piling on the stairs and standing in the doorway to support their friends and listen to the poets reflect on feelings of fear, anxiety, love and rejection.
“Slams bring people together in communion through the courageous act of expression,” said Kinetic Poetics Project (KPP) event organizer Alexandra Moskow.
Exploring everything from gender identity to the endurance of the bristlecone pine tree, the slam is a place for inexperienced and resident poets to connect with the audience and share experiences — whether it’s pain, love or self doubt.
“I began to use [poetry] as an emotional outlet — like a journal,” said Haley Ledezma, a first-year student who has written poetry since childhood. “It’s important that artists have a space to share their work, to inspire and be inspired.”
But poetry slams don’t end at the Cowell Fireside Lounge. While some students attend slam poetry night just to share their poetry, others have future competitions in mind. The competitions build up to the annual campus-wide poetry slam festival, and then the national College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI). This year’s campus festival is about a month away, and the competitors are already set.
“The energy at the slams is so welcoming,” Ledezma said. “Watching other poets inspires me to try out new things and improve my work.”
KPP’s weekly poetry slams start with the emcee choosing five judges from the audience to score their peers on a scale from one to 10. To avoid bias, anyone can volunteer as long as they don’t know any poets performing. One of the judges from last week’s slam, Nicki Thompson, often volunteers as a judge to be more involved in the atmosphere.
“I try to judge fairly and account for both the poetry content and the performance aspect,” Thompson said. “I usually give high scores to poets that are very clever with their words, very intense or poems that introduced me to a new perspective.”
At poetry slams, shouts, whistles and snaps are the norm.
“Students frequently read in front of an audience for the first time at our slams,” said event organizer Alexandra Moskow. “People often leave feeling heard and understood, making connections with others and feeling inspired to write and express their own feelings.”
After the second round, the judges chose Haley Ledezma, Jess Prudent and the grand slam champion, third-year Natalie Antolin, as the three contestants moving on to the campus festival in late February.
“I’ve been through a lot in my past, so expressing my feelings through words is empowering,” Antolin said.
These three finalists will join the other past thirteen qualifiers, and the top winners from the past seven slams, performing at the 14th Annual Spoken Word Festival held at Porter College Theatre from Feb. 24 to 26. The Annual Spoken Word Festival is one of the “largest national collegiate poetry festivals of its kind” according to KPP’s facebook event page.
“Kinetic Poetics Project is more than just a poetry club that puts on slams to qualify poets for the winter festival. It’s a family of extremely empathetic people who are there to laugh with you, cry with you and listen to you share a piece of yourself,” said Kelsey Schroder, a second-year student and performer.
Combining both student poets and professional poets, the weekend long festival celebrates spoken word. The top five scoring UCSC poets at the festival will represent the university at the 2017 CUPSI. UCSC’s KPP has sent a team to CUPSI 13 times, and won in 2005. Last year, nearly 70 teams participated from across the country.
“We are less focused on the competition in general, more about the words, the poem,” said CUPSI organizer Kim Pho. “CUPSI provides that interesting opportunity to be able to share their thoughts, experiences, and opinions with people who are in similar places in their lives.”
But for many, though CUPSI is an opportunity for national competition and recognition, it isn’t the end goal.
“I’ve never been a part of a community of students who are as accepting and understanding of each other’s unique individual stories,” Schroder said. “I’m extremely grateful to KPP for the welcoming and loving environment that they’ve created.”
*Look out for more updates regarding the 14th Annual Spoken Word Festival, scheduled for Feb. 24.