Poets slam their way to nationals

The University’s poetry slam team ranked third last year at the national competition.

Poets slam their way to nationals

Raya Zimmerman

After four years of saying âÄúyesâÄù to every alcoholic drink offered to him, Michael Lee has been saying âÄúnoâÄù each time he recites his poem, âÄúWaking up naked.âÄù
âÄúThe strongest I have ever felt was the first time I said âÄònoâÄô to a drink,âÄù the poem reads. âÄúI have said âÄònoâÄô every morning since Sept. 29, 2008.âÄù
His poem was born out of his long struggle and inspiring success of becoming sober from alcohol and drugs. During his first year of sobriety, Lee said he wrote hundreds of poems.
âÄúI was living in a delusion,âÄù he said. âÄúPoetry allowed me to see the world instead of creating my own.âÄù
Lee is a returning member of the University of MinnesotaâÄôs poetry slam team, USlam, which offers students an opportunity to create and present poems at competitions.
Only in its third year, USlam tied with Macalester College for third place last year in the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational. It ranked fifth at CUPSI its first year.
Last yearâÄôs high ranking drew Kait Rokowski to the team. Rokowski, who transferred to the University this year, started at the youth level âÄî which includes poets ages 13 to 19 âÄî and worked her way up to the adult levels, placing 23rd while on the Portland, Maine team in 2010. Just a couple weeks ago, she participated in the Women of the World poetry slam and ranked 24th.
She said being on the USlam team is like being part of a family, which they call the âÄúslam fam.âÄù âÄúWe treat each other like siblings most of the time,âÄù she said.
Although hugging is a regular part of their off-stage routine, this persona shifts gears in the spotlight.
âÄúWeâÄôre nothing but teddy bears when off the mic, but when on the mic, weâÄôre fierce,âÄù Rokowski said.
She said the only time she listens to rap is when she preps to go on stage. Her favorite jam by P.O.S. is quite a contrast to her typical Bob Dylan track.
âÄúI think of it as being a boxer, a one-two punch kind of thing, like getting gritty,âÄù she said.
Rachel Kargleder, a freshman, said while on stage, she concentrates on how she will emanate energy toward the audience. Although she maintains strict focus, she admitted she can get distracted.
âÄúSometimes when IâÄôm in the middle of the poem, IâÄôll think about things I have to do, like âÄòoh crap I forgot to turn my TV off before I left,âÄôâÄù she said. âÄúAnd then IâÄôll think, âÄòoh wait, what did I just finish saying?âÄôâÄù
When she runs a blank, she said the snapping fingers of the audience members helps.
Saturday night, the four members of the team were greeted with a chorus of snapping as they performed at the fundraiser TransSlamMania, which it co-hosted with the Trans Youth Support network to raise funds to fight transphobia (the fear of transgender people) and to send the USlam team to nationals.
The team will first compete April 1 at Macalester College and April 2 at Hamline University against teams from Macalester, Hamline and Carleton College in a four-by-four bout where they will perform personal and group pieces.
Regardless of their standing next weekend, they will make the trek to Ann Arbor, Mich., for this yearâÄôs CUPSI April 6 through 9.
The four team members meet weekly to perform their poems for each other and edit each otherâÄôs work, but with competitions looming, they have been more proactive in solidifying their pieces and have been focusing more on the performance aspect.
Matt Carlyon, a freshman on the team, said each poet prepares about three pieces to perform for the three rounds at nationals. They bring a couple others just in case performers before them touched on topics similar to theirs.
The team has two coaches, âÄúwho are incredibly brilliant,âÄù Rokowski said. âÄúThey enforce community and the family of slam.âÄù
Coach Sam Cook was on the St. Paul team in 2010 and won the adult tier of the national poetry slam that year along with the teamâÄôs other coach, Sierra Demulder, who also won in 2009.
âÄúThe community itself is really inspiring,âÄù Carlyon said of the support system on the team. âÄúTheyâÄôre willing to reach down and help out the youth.âÄù
He said the extensive experience the coaches have provides team members insight to suggest different ways of performing and to look at their pieces from different perspectives.
What inspires these artistsâÄô poems?
Carlyon said his work is usually âÄúodd.âÄù His poem that he performed Saturday night conjured an image of God working at Perkins, which drew on his past experiences with religion.
KarglederâÄôs poem, which she performed Saturday, told of an unhealthy relationship in her past.
âÄúFor me, it lets people know this is something that pulled the metaphors out of me,âÄù she said. âÄúI hope it instilled that feeling in people that when youâÄôre in a co-dependent relationship, it can get creepy, strange and awkward in ways.âÄù
Rokowski said she can be inspired by âÄúall kinds of things,âÄù but her focus right now is on womenâÄôs rights.
Each of these individuals joined the USlam team for various reasons, and each brings unique experiences and perspectives.
âÄúPoetry is a way for me to just be myself,âÄù Kargleder said. âÄúThere are many places throughout life you have to act or be a certain way, but when youâÄôre writing poetry, you can say whatever you want. ItâÄôs your chance to be a god of words.âÄù