The UMass Boston Slam Society advanced to the 2018 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) semifinals at Temple University last weekend.
The annual event, hosted by the Association of College Unions International, welcomed college- and university-represented teams from across the country to compete for top honors in collegiate performance poetry. The invitational kicked off on April 4 with 65 teams. By Friday afternoon, the Slam Society was one of 20 teams to have made it onto semifinals. Although the team did not advance to finals, Slam Society member Kofi Dadzie was one of three out of 428 participating poets to be named Best Poet at the event.
"To be honest I was surprised," said Dadzie. "It's one thing to like poetry. It's another when people have seen your growth and how they feel about your work. I was raised as an artist. People really held space for me when I wanted to explore what I wanted to explore in my writing. And It means a lot to me. I don't think I could have won Best Poet without the mentorship I received."
Slam Society President José Zepeda said that several factors determine the rankings among teams.
“Judges are told to focus on performance and writing,” he explained. “They’re told to focus on the complexity and cleverness of the writing. Is it succinct? Is it powerful?”
The Slam Society consists of five team members. Zepeda said that these members are selected in January through a point system that is dependent on attendance.
“The selection process is stretched out throughout the year. Participating in open mics, participating in slams, participating in workshops—all of that would allow you to accrue points that would count toward the selection process,” said Zepeda.
When Zepeda joined the Slam Society in 2017, he said the team was already preparing for CUPSI.
“As I started learning more about it, I became more aware of the significance of an institution like ours participating. We are a public university, and we have a very diverse student body with very different experiences and personal stories to share,” said Zepeda, who has lived in Mexico and whose parents are Mexican immigrants. Zepeda said he chooses to focus on themes such as colorism, racism, and agriculture in his poems. “When I became enlightened to [CUPSI], I thought, ‘OK, this is a chance for me to share my story.’ I think it’s important for the only public university in Boston and one of the most diverse colleges in the nation to participate in this.”
Teams must follow certain rules when performing their pieces. CUPSI provides a list of rules for poetry performances on its website, which are adapted from Poetry Slam, Inc. a nonprofit organization that oversees the international coalition of poetry slams. Poems may be on any subject and in any style but may be no more than three minutes long. Poems that run over three minutes will be docked points for every 10 seconds; poems longer than four minutes will risk disqualification. Use of props, costumes, musical instruments, and pre-recorded music is prohibited.
Zepeda, however, said that props and music aren’t necessary to ensuring a powerful performance.
“There’s so many theatrical aspects to a performance,” said Zepeda. “You have tone. You have intonation. You have pronunciation, volume, different tempos. You have all these different areas to expand on in your performance. Those are the main focuses.”
So, what makes poetry slams different from poetry reading?
“I like to think of it as two completely different animals, obviously with some overlap. Generally, the crafting of it and preparation of your piece is completely different [than poetry reading],” explained Zepeda. “You have to have an audience in mind. It defeats the purpose of performing in front of an audience if you can’t tap into their own experiences or allow them to relate to what you’re sharing.”