Arts & Culture

Poets perform creations, earning sixth place in nation

Two members of Brown’s team earned perfect scores in a national poetry slam invitational semifinal round

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, April 8, 2013

The student group WORD! held a poetry slam for Brown and RISD students to select the five competitors who would compete at the annual College Unions Poetry Slam in New York City held last week.

For the second time in history, Brown made it to the semifinals of the 13th annual College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational.

“I often think of CUPSI as the March Madness of poetry,” Jesse Gumbiner ’15 said. “Anything can happen, and it’s the best of the best performing.”

The team of five students — Paul Tran ’14, Hans Gao ’14, Sydney Peak ’15, Kelsey Kawana ’16 and Gumbiner — along  with its coach, Rhode Island School of Design student Jess Chen — traveled to Barnard College in New York City last week to compete against 58 college teams.

The team earned sixth place in the nation with a semifinals score of 110.6, losing to New York University, the team that eventually captured the first place title.

“I could not be more proud of my team and the poetry we put out there,” Kawana wrote in an email to The Herald. Though she was the only freshman on the team, she said everyone “collaborated equally.”

Each school has about four to five competing poets who go through two preliminary bouts against three other schools, Tran said. Brown was one of three schools to win first place in both of its preliminary bouts, he said.

“When we got first place the first night, we were really surprised,” Gumbiner said. “We had accidentally miscounted the total score and thought we got third place.”

When the emcee announced Brown as the first place winner, “we all freaked out,” he said.

“We didn’t come in the competition with high expectations to win. We just wanted to have fun,” said Tran, the only member of the group who had previously competed in CUPSI.

A former competitor from Barnard told the team she had heard of its reputation, Gumbiner said. “We got really excited. She said that everyone was talking about how we have really good writing. We we were really happy to hear that we were being recognized.”

Only the top 15 schools advance to the semifinals. “Our main goal was to make semifinals. We didn’t really care much about winning the entire thing. It was more about getting to the final stage, where a lot of people are listening,” Gumbiner said, adding that about 500 people sat in the audience on semifinals night.

In February, the student spoken word group WORD! hosted a poetry slam open to RISD and Brown students. Out of 13 competitors, five poets were chosen to form a team that would compete in CUPSI, Tran said. The group then nominated Chen to be its coach.

“I never thought that I would ever end up in a position of leadership in the poetry community,” Chen wrote in an email to The Herald. “It was with my involvement with WORD! and the Providence poetry slam community since my sophomore year that I developed my voice as a spoken word poet.”

Once the group formed, it held practices at least twice a week, Tran said. Chen took charge during the meetings and Chahney Hinds ’12 acted as assistant coach, though he was unable to attend the competition.

“This year, we were all kind of meeting each other for the first time, but we grew to trust (each other) and build friendships,” Tran said. The team’s bond was one reason why they performed better than last year’s team, he said.

At CUPSI, judges are selected from the audience, where they rank solo or group performances from zero to 10, “with a 10 being the poem that if you were reincarnated, you would want to come back to that moment to hear the poem again,” Tran said.

Brown’s team earned two perfect scores during the semifinals round — one to Gao and one to Tran.

“(Gao’s) really impassioned and serious performance resonated with the audience. … They were chanting ‘10’ after it,” Tran said. “It was the most tweeted about performance.”

Tran’s solo semifinal performance was a “persona piece” about his incarcerated father whom he has not spoken to in 14 years.

“I did it in his point of view, in his voice,” Tran said. “I was really trying to understand what exists behind the evil and torture that I have tried so much of my life to forget.”

Other performed pieces focused on a variety of topics, from the westward expansion and its relationship to a woman’s body to Vietnamese women in nail salons. One poem, addressing suicide of LGBTQ individuals, was  written on the bus ride to New York by Tran and Peak the night before they performed it.

Though students are not allowed to use props during their performance, they may use their bodies and their positions on stage to complement their words. “When we’re doing persona pieces, we’re very much into these characters,” Tran said, noting the performer’s focus on voice, body postures and hand gestures.

Despite not making it to the final round, the team still managed to take home two awards. One of them, the “Pushing the Art Forward” award, was created specifically for the Brown team that competed in 2010, Tran said.

The award is given to teams who are “pushing the boundaries and … setting the bar higher,” Tran said. This was the third time Brown has won the award.

“People are listening. As a team, we are very excited to be a part of this small ripple that is changing the slam scene and breaking down the boundaries between slam and theater,” Chen wrote in an email to The Herald.

While some students write poetry simply to “score well” in the competition, the Brown team members write their poems “for the sake of performing,” Gumbiner said.

Coaches from each participating university deliberate and nominate schools or individuals to receive awards, Tran said.

“Our coach said that … as soon as Brown’s name came up, most of the room raised their hand — they didn’t even keep naming nominations,” Gumbiner said.

The second award was an individual award for Tran, who became one of three students to receive the Best Poet award.

“To be one of the first Asian American poets to win this recognition and to be the second person from Brown to win, it was really special to me,” Tran said. Though he won an individual award, he said he “thinks of it as a team award.”

“I owe so much of who I am as a writer to this entire team and to each person for pushing me,” he added.

  • Sarah

    I was at CUPSI and I saw some amazing work from the folks at Brown. Ya’ll are a talented group!

    I’d just like to point out that Simmons College actually ranked 6th in the nation and not Brown. If you search for CUPSI 2013 final results, it will say that Brown actually ranked 8th. Simmons lost first place to NYU in the semi-finals round. Just wanted to clear that up.