In between rounds at the 2018 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational, host and Philadelphia-based poet Kai Davis wanted to bring the energy up in the room. She led the crowd in a verse of North Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares.” Everyone from Babel, Temple’s performance poetry group, rapped along with her.
Temple hosted the 2018 CUPSI from Wednesday to Saturday in the Student Center and the Temple Performing Arts Center.
Organized by the Association of College Unions International, the spoken word tournament has visited a different college every year since it was founded in 2001. This year, teams from 66 schools participated.
“We are international winning artists, so for CUPSI to be here means so much,” said sophomore public relations major Natalia Garay. “We’ve worked so hard for it, and we work so hard for it every year.”
Garay is Babel’s social media and event coordinator.
New York University’s team took home the grand title at the finals, held on Saturday at TPAC. The finals and subsequent award ceremony were hosted by Davis, a 2016 Africology and African American studies and English alumna and the former creative director of Babel.
Temple’s team, which consisted entirely of Babel members, came in second place in Friday’s semifinals. During Saturday’s award ceremony, the group also took home the Best Poem award for its piece “Meek Free,” about how the rapper’s arrest represents Philadelphia’s broader systemic racial injustices. Babel members also won the Best Love Poem award for “Genesis.”
Temple won CUPSI in 2016 at the University of Texas at Austin and won in a four-way tie in 2017 at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Junior political science major and CUPSI competitor Veronica Nocella was proud of Temple’s semifinals achievement.
“The performance was really electric, and I think that was the help of the audience,” she said. “We had a lot of people from Philly show up, not only people from Babel. So it was good to have that much family that were also in the audience to just help keep our spirits high.”
CUPSI teams compete in a series of bouts, consisting of four rounds. In each round, a team sends up one poet or group of poets to a perform a piece. Each poem is then judged on a scale of one to 10 by five random audience members, selected before each bout, who have no affiliation with the competing schools.
Preliminary bouts take place the first two days of CUPSI, followed by semifinals on the third day and the final stage on the fourth. NYU competed against Stanford University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Wellesley College in Saturday’s finals.
Though competition is an important aspect of CUPSI, participants can also attend supplementary activities during the four-day event. These include writing workshops, ice cream socials, open mics and themed slams, like the Nerd Slam and Head to Head Haiku Slam.
These activities help foster one of Garay’s favorite parts of CUPSI: the sense of community.
“We are always very excited for CUPSI, solely for the fact that we get to see our friends,” she said. “We are friends with a lot of other universities, and we get to see them and we get to support them and hear new poems from them.”
ACUI Educational Program Manager Kim Pho said this encouraging community is especially important in slam poetry, which often tackles sensitive topics.
“When you talk about race, when you talk about LGBTQ issues, when you talk about religion, like these identity pieces of what makes a person a person, this is just a way that students can reclaim who they are and share that with the world,” she said. “Especially in a world where it’s not so common or it’s not fully accepted.”
Ugochi Egonu, a freshman creative writing major at NYU, writes about race and womanhood in her work. In one group piece, she and her teammates spoke about how most college parties aren’t welcoming to people of color, women or the LGBTQ community.
“To me, poetry is one of the avenues I use to tell my own stories and to give voice to the things that I thought made me voiceless,” she said.
Egonu said she enjoyed her time at Temple during CUPSI, and found that the sense of community in slam poetry was especially strong in Philadelphia.
“I am honestly so impressed and amazed by all the beautiful love they show for each other and they all show for their own stories,” she said. “I’m glad I got to witness that and be a part of that, and I hope to be welcome when I come back.”