Cadenza | Poetry
Balancing rocks and balloons
WU-SLam approaches national poetry competition with confidence
Ruth Durrell is a box of rocks. Well, not actually—she’s a freshman on WU-SLam’s College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) team, but according to team coach freshman Tori Taylor, she is.
“She’s a box of rocks, as in just really hard images and really hard words,” Taylor clarifies. Sophomore Casey Mason? A bag of balloons. “She’s just like, ‘Are you smart enough to get this?’” Junior Hannah Beilenson and sophomore Rosie Wallach both strike a balance of rocks and balloons, while final team member junior Savannah Bustillo is “a different shape altogether.”
Together the five teammates plus their coach make up the contingent WU-SLam is sending to CUPSI, hosted at the University of Illinois at Chicago this year. It’s these differences in each member’s style—concrete imagery versus head-in-the-clouds metaphors—that make the team a cohesive unit as a whole, despite it being the first time any of the six have competed in the event.
Each year, the WU-SLam CUPSI team is selected through a two-part process. First, the three top finishers at the group’s Grand Slam held in late January are automatically selected for the team. This year, those three were Beilenson, Wallach and Mason. The other two competitors and coach are then selected from a nomination and voting process within the group, typically a week after the Grand Slam. Bustillo and Durrell were selected as the two wild-card contenders this year, while Taylor and sophomore Eva Dalzell, who is not travelling to the event, were chosen as coaches.
Competitive poetry may sound like an oxymoron, and to some degree, it is. CUPSI, while nominally a competition, even emphasizes the event as primarily an opportunity for poets to share their work with other writers from across the country and further develop their craft. The competitive aspect is always there, but, more than anything, the WU-SLam team just wants to show off their hard work.
“I think it’s really hard not to feel competitive about it but we worked really hard no matter what happens. Poems are cool as f— no matter what happens,” Beilenson said of the group’s expectations going in.
“There’s no way we’re going to perform all of those poems,” Wallach added. “But we’re competitive because we know what our repertoire is, but we just want to show it off.”
That repertoire includes both group and individual pieces performed in two preliminary bouts that decide which groups move to the semifinals. Bouts consist of four teams that perform four pieces over the course of a bout. If a team wins its bout, it is given one point, while the team that loses is awarded four points. The teams with the lowest scores after their two preliminary bouts move on to the semifinals.
It’s the second consecutive year that the WU-SLam team has been an all-woman team, but no one in the group feels that that dynamic will hurt their chances.
“It’s okay. Well, one, because we’re of different backgrounds; so even if we were to write about our experience as a women they would be different. But also, most of our poems are not actually focused on our experience as women; so it’s not like our group as a whole is a women-focused team,” Mason said.
For the WU-SLam team, the hope is that tackling those different experiences—an array of issues from depression to OCD to being white passing—will showcase just how varied their talents are.
Bustillo’s poem “Missouri is killing me” deals with her own experience of being white passing in a Midwestern, conservative state and how her own sight affects those feelings. Wallach’s poem “on inhabiting a chronically ill body” talks about living with a nonvisible disability and the day-to-day microaggressions associated with a chronic illness. But perhaps the poem the group is most excited about is Durrell’s.
“Ruth has this amazing poem about the Pledge of Allegiance that I think is one of our strongest poems in general,” Beilenson said. “I think it’s important to know that Ruth is a freshman and is one of the most powerful members of the team and honestly has been a blessing to WUSLam since the moment she joined.”
Doing well in slam poetry is necessitated on a seamless mix of not only types of poetry, but also of writing and performance. And just as the team is comprised of rock and balloon poets, there is a mix of performance- and writing-inclined poets.
“So I’ve always been a performance heavy poet,” Beilenson explained. “I’ve always been in that ‘I’m a performer, I want to be dramatic and give you emotional whiplash’ [mode]—that’s how I’m going to perform a poem.”
“I’ve always been a page poet, like always, and it’s so hard to make a page poem into a performance poem,” Mason added. “I did it for one of my CUPSI poems though, so it can be done.”
The group’s stated goal is to move past the preliminary rounds and into the semifinals, but, according to Taylor, it’s okay if it doesn’t happen. As for her time as coach despite being on campus for less than year, Taylor feels mildly inadequate but is grateful for the experience.
“It’s a big ol’ question mark, but it’s been a good experience. Definitely I’m learning,” Taylor said.
The group is at the end of another nightly three-hour practice after two months of daily three-hour practices, and everyone is tired. Sitting in a Siegle classroom, ready to go home and sleep even just a little before hopping in a car and driving the five hours to Chicago in the morning, some still haven’t even packed. But the nerves typically associated with an inexperienced team are absent. There is no insecurity about their work, only confidence in the tremendous amount of effort the group has put in so far. For the 2017 WU-SLam CUPSI team, the competition is turning from a bag of balloons into a box of rocks—the idea becoming a reality—and nothing could be a greater relief.