Arts & Culture

Brown/RISD poetry slam team earns 5th place in annual competition

Brown/RISD poetry slam group ranked historical highest at 2019 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, April 22, 2019

(L-R) Poets Dāa Guy RISD ‘19, Blessed Sheriff ’19, Kris Cho ’22 and Manuel Ávalos ’19 competed at the annual College Unions Poetry Slam last weekend, sharing complex works that celebrated their identities.

Last weekend, Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design’s joint poetry slam team sent members Kris Cho ’22, Blessed Sheriff ’19, Dāa Guy RISD ’19 and Manuel Ávalos ’19 to take part in the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitation, an annual collegiate poetry slam tournament. The team took home 5th place, falling just 0.2 points short of a spot in the finals.

A poetry slam is a competition in which poets perform spoken word and “slam” poetry which combine the elements of performance, writing, competition and audience participation.

“(Poetry Slam) is a weird game that started off in bars in Chicago. … People thought it would be interesting to bring poetry back to everyone, because before that people thought (of) poetry as (being) very elitist, so they wanted it to be just a spoken thing where people can read work and also encourage (others) to write,” Ávalos said.

The four group members selected to compete this year performed group and individual pieces that drew on intimate themes and subject matters that were expected to resonate deeply with others. Sheriff’s piece “Anarcha” voiced her anger toward the institutional discrimination against African American women and received the Best Poem Award at CUPSI. Nominated in the same category, Ávalos’ “La Cempoalxóchitl” narrated the story of his family’s struggle with the AIDS crisis. Cho and Guy both talked about feeling estranged from their cultural norms — Korean and Jamaican respectively —  and celebrated their resistance aginst family expectations in their respective works “Edit Please” and “Rastafarian: Reggae.”

While topics in solo performances are commonly derived from individual experiences, members seek to forge connections with each other in group pieces. “It’s a lot of just talking to each other. We just talk about our lives and talk about things that we think about a lot and see where there (are) overlaps and try to write something together to match that,” Ávalos said. Ávalos and Guy’s group performance “Masculinity: Detox” was inspired by their mutual perception of beer as a symbol of toxic masculinity.

“Our father,” written and performed by Sheriff and Cho, narrated the turmoil they felt in finding their identities without father figures in their lives, while “Google Translate for Immigrant Mothers” by Cho and Ávalos used Translate as a medium to break down the actual, unscripted meanings behind the language of immigrant mothers.

“Something I really wanted to focus on this year was confronting your own emotions,” said Chrysanthemum Tran ’17, the poetry slam team’s coach. She explained that a large part of her coaching involved helping the members articulate and express their genuine emotions, while she also offered support when urging them to confront their vulnerabilities.

According to the official rules of the tournament, contestants are required to prepare several original compositions, each under three minutes long, which they then perform in preliminary “bouts,” or four round intervals, for the first two nights. The compositions can be individual or collective and sometimes feature the voices of several different poets at once. Top ranking teams then enter the semi-finals, where they perform four more pieces. The Brown/RISD team made it to the semi-finals with a cumulative score of 227.2 — the second highest ranking out of the 58 teams.

Each year, the Brown/RISD poetry slam team selects its representatives through an open mic slam in the fall semester, in which all interested students are welcomed to try out for one of the team’s coveted five spots. The performances are scored from 0 to 10, including decimal points.

The club chooses judges for the open mic slam using the rules followed by CUPSI, which require judges to be completely random and have no prior affiliation with the performers. “There’s kind of a joke in the slam poetry world that it’s even better if you don’t know anything at all (about poetry),” said Ávalos.

Ávalos explained that poetry slam is not only about writing but also depends on performance and storytelling abilities, which require careful choreography and preparation. “We practice every single detail down to even how you adjust the mic, how you walk on stage, how you prepare before you start, how you read it, how you end it and how you walk off,” he said.

Ávalos became interested in poetry slam after seeing the Brown/RISD team perform at A Day on College Hill. He has since taken part in the CUPSI competition during his second year and fourth year at the University.

Since 2010, the Brown/RISD poetry slam team has produced numerous notable alums who have successful careers in poetry, including Phil Kaye ’10, Jamila Woods ’11, Franny Choi ’11 and Tran herself, among others. 

Apart from coaching, Tran and her co-coach Justice Ameer ’16 also just recently performed their debut two-woman musical performance, ANTHEM, at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “There’s no shortage on these campuses of poets whose talent and voices urgently expose necessary truths — personal reckonings with politics and narratives historically ignored by the ivory towers of poetry,” she said.

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