University Profile: WU-SLam

| Senior Cadenza Editor

On April 9, the 2010 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) semi-finals were under way, and the members of Wash. U.’s premier spoken word group, WU-SLam, were feeling really good about themselves. They had finished top in their first and second bouts to make it to the semis, along with nine other teams out of the field of 35. The 10 teams were split into two groups of five.

“Getting to the semi-finals felt really good, but it was at the end of so much work; we were completely exhausted,” sophomore Lauren Banka said. “We had all lost our voices, and we knew we’d have to stay up the night before to practice for the competition the next day. It was really exciting, really daunting.”

WU-SLam only had to place second or higher to make it into the finals.

“It was weird being in a bout that good and falling just short,” junior Gerald Jackson said. “One thing about slam poetry is that the points aren’t the point, but it’s the poetry that’s important.”

Jackson is WU-SLam’s Webmaster and part of the performing crew that went to CUPSI, alongside Banka, juniors Lucy Gellman and Aaron Samuels and freshman Fiona O’Leary Sloan. The team came in third place in the semis by half a point, ending their run. But based on their overall score, they placed fifth at CUPSI.

Compared to last year, when the team didn’t even place in the top 10, this year was a huge success. CUPSI 2009 was about making a splash—they won three awards, including the award for most innovative team. But CUPSI 2010 was about making a name for themselves. And you could say WU-SLam made an impression.

Samuels is one of the founders of WU-SLam, along with juniors Eric Rosenbaum and Chris Kammerer, and when you ask him about WU-SLam, he runs through the team’s accomplishments the way he performs his poems: quickly, with a rhythm.

“This is the first [time] in history that Washington University has been nationally competitive in an inter-collegiate poetry event,” Samuels said. “Traditionally, it’s been dominated by Stanford, UPenn and Wisconsin. This year, we came back with a vengeance.”

The University of Wisconsin actually won it all this year, but they missed out on two awards that WU-SLam reeled in: Best Performance Team and Best Poem for Samuels’ “Socrates,” a poem two years in the making. Samuels first wrote it his freshman year, after being inspired by a political theory course. In the middle of the semester, Samuels concluded that a lot of today’s societal inequities can be traced back to Socrates, Plato and other philosophical theorists. So he started to write.

He continues to tweak it today. In fact, the whole team is constantly tweaking their poems—Jackson’s “Carbon,” which hinges on the repeated metaphor, “Under the right amount of pressure, carbon can take the form of either diamond or graphite,” started its life as two poems. He found that, individually, neither of them said what he wanted to say about relationships, so he lopped them in half and crunched them together; “poetic surgery,” he called it.

WU-SLam’s performances are also constantly going under the knife. The performance team is obsessed with, well, performance. Its members are always tweaking their inflections, their blocking, their verbal blocking, how they walk on to a stage, how they present themselves to a crowd and how they make their exits. That’s one of WU-SLam’s greatest strengths. They don’t just go up to the mic and read from a sheet of paper they’ve stored into their heads. They live through their performances.

Beyond the performances, the team holds weekly poetry workshops (lovingly named “Inklings”) every Monday at 8:30 p.m. at Ursa’s Fireside. Beyond our campus, the team performs at high schools and works with Prison Performing Arts to connect with kids in juvenile detention centers.

In other words, WU-SLam does a whole lot of everything, and we’re lucky to have them. Pretty soon the rest of the nation will know about them, and it’d be really embarrassing if other colleges knew more about WU-SLam than we did.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.