Word Power

April 21, 2015

Xiaoqian Zhu

Annika Hansteen Izora ’17 performs a poem at CUPSI 2015.
Photo credit: Sarah Knapp

During spring break, the competitive team of Oberlin’s slam poetry club, OSlam!, traveled to Richmond, Virginia, to compete at the College Union Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI), the world’s largest collegiate-level poetry slam competition. The team won first place in both the first and second preliminary bouts, and placed 16th out of 68 competing college teams in the semifinal round, marking the first time Oberlin has broken into the top 20 at CUPSI.

“It’s just our second year, and we got 16th in the nation,” says Annika Hansteen Izora ’17, cochair of OSlam! and one of the competing poets. “It’s insane, especially because compared to a lot of other teams that have these huge, well-known poets such as Neil Hilborn, as their coaches, we were just by ourselves.”

Indeed, from competitor to coach, the team is entirely composed of current Oberlin students. Out of its 12-person competitive team, OSlam! selected five members to attend CUPSI by holding a Grand Slam Poetry Competition in November 2014. The 12 poets each prepared three poems of various lengths that they performed for a panel of five judges. Based on their performances, five poets were chosen to represent Oberlin at CUPSI, along with coach and club co-chair B.J. Bato Tindal. The final competing team included Alison Kronstadt, third-year and cochair; second-years Christopher Puglisi, Sarah Knapp, and Izora; and first-year Maya Berkley. To prepare, the poets began developing their pieces in November, progressing to memorization and working in pairs on duet poems, attending practice after practice in March.

Exhausting as it may be, the students say they find CUPSI to be a rewarding experience. “You share your stories with shaking palms and everyone takes you in with such love and acceptance. It is just incredible to be surrounded by that kind of energy—by people who believe in the power of words—for an entire week. We are so thankful to be a part of that,” Izora says.

OSlam! beat its personal record at CUPSI this year, but it does not plan to stop there: One of the group’s missions is to gain recognition for Oberlin’s poets, and create a network with the rest of the poetry world. Bringing other poets to campus, with an array of different experiences and backgrounds, is just one way to connect Oberlin with the greater poetry community. In doing so, OSlam! creates connections with other groups on campus as well, collaborating with the Sexual Information Center, among other organizations, to fund and host poet visits and talks related to campus-wide issues.

Besides working on the Oberlin campus, students involved in OSlam! say they want to get more involved with the Oberlin community, specifically with the slam poetry program Oberlin High School is developing for its students. By hosting workshops and performances for young people in Oberlin, OSlam! members say they hope to demonstrate to high schoolers that their opinions are valued and can have an impact on the world.

Izora says she has a particular interest in working with girls and people of color. “I feel that black and brown women are often told their voices aren’t important. I want to show them how to write and let them know how powerful their words can be,” Izora says.

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