Spencer Brownstein ’18

April 4th marked the first night of the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI), an international slam poetry tournament for college students sponsored by the Association of College Unions – International (ACUI). This year, the tournament is hosted by Temple University in Philadelphia. As we speak, teams from all across the country, Canada, and the UK are going toe-to-toe, wielding poems and slamming in the name of glory! Of course, Macalester is not missing this party.

This marks my second year as a member of Macalester’s CUPSI team, and I couldn’t feel prouder of the work my teammates and I have put in over the semester. The team is comprised of five Macalester students but is not limited to members of the MacSlams Organization or the English Department. We all won our spots last semester by participating in one of three monthly slams organized by MacSlams. The people who placed in the top three of each of those monthly slams earned a place in the December Grand Slam. The top four competitors in the Grand Slam became the 2018 Macalester CUPSI Team, with the person in fifth as our alternate. I actually took first place at Grand Slam, which was pretty cool. My fellow teammates are John Ratz ’18, Jonathan Amezquita ’18, James Hartzer ’20 and Janey Fredman ’21. Our coach is also a Mac alum, Oliver Schminkey ’16.

Once the team was decided, we started working over winter break by doing a 30/30, writing thirty poems over thirty days. These poems weren’t meant to be polished. The exercise was just a means to get us in the mode of writing constantly.

When the spring semester began, we started practicing once a week, where it is a rule to always bring something new, be it a brand new poem or big edits made to an older one. Our coach would then lead a workshop where we took turns editing all of the poems for that session. We worked hard to maintain a professional yet inclusive and positive space. We wanted to make sure everyone could speak up when they had edits to offer. During these workshops, the person being edited mostly remained silent, a practice we adopted to aid the poet in question to absorb and understand all of the critiques they were given, even if they wouldn’t be used in later drafts.

As productive as our weekly workshops were in generating content, it was our team retreat that really shifted us into high gear. It is a MacSlams CUPSI team tradition to go on a short trip every spring break for some group bonding and intensive workshopping. We stayed at the Grand Casino in Mille Lacs (where I happened to win $200 on video poker), and over the course of our two day stay we spent about 13 hours holed up in our hotel room workshopping.

The hard work paid off! John and I, the two current members who have competed at CUPSI before, each wrote 4 poems that we think are really solid. After my last retreat two years ago, I only had one. It’s an amazing problem to have too many good poems we could use in the tournament.

Our “No New Edits” deadline came shortly after spring break, and we shifted workshop time from writing to performance. We only had about five days to memorize our poems, and that was only the tip of the performance iceberg. Our coach had a number of wacky exercises up their sleeve. Sometimes we had to try to get through the whole piece while the rest of the team heckled us. Once we had to stand a foot away from a partner and simultaneously yell our poems at each other to practice memorization. The longest and most grueling performance exercise, in my opinion, was “Start & Stop,” where we tried to perform our poems perfectly, but whenever we made any sort of mistake we had to stop and repeat ourselves over and over again until the performance was perfect.

On April 4th, we met up at three in the morning to catch our flight to Philadelphia. The tournament began soon after we landed, and later tonight we will compete in our second preliminary bout. As a team, we’d all really like to make it to semifinals, so wish us luck!