Marginalized Given Mic Through Spitshine

The slam poetry team at the University of Texas at Austin is already preparing for the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational, which will be held in Chicago in April. Spitshine won the CUPSI championship title in 2014. On October 12, Spitshine held their CUPSI qualifier to decide which poets would represent UT and take another shot at the championship.

Story by Katarina Brown

Photos by Laura Godinez

For those unfamiliar with CUPSI or Spitshine, think activism through spoken word performance. Joshua Nguyen, former Spitshine member and MC for the night, opened the CUPSI qualifier slam. The audience included friends of the hopeful competitors hoping to score high enough to make the university slam team. Poets could be seen in the hallway outside, murmuring their pieces under their breath and practicing to get their pieces within the three-minute time limit.

Host Joshua Nguyen entertains the audience as he announces performers.

Host Joshua Nguyen entertains the audience as he announces performers.

The anxiety at a slam poetry qualifier is different since competitors have no idea who will be judging them. Judges are selected randomly from the audience. The only requirement is an unfamiliarity with everyone on the stage. From there, each poet gets judged on a scale from one to ten.

“A slam can often be messy and unfair. It’s an attempt to make the subjective objective,” team coach Arati Warrier says. “I personally don’t care about the points and gimmicks, but I am grateful for them, because of all the people slams have given me.”

Despite randomized judges, poets were willing to take their chances to become a part of Warrier’s team. The event had a record 18 people sign up - each performing for a possible slot on the five-person team. “Only 13 people are allowed to compete, so we had to turn a few people away,” Spitshine co-president Jasmine Bell says. “Still, it’s exciting. It shows that Spitshine is growing.”

Co-founders Ariana Brown and Zachary Caballero created Spitshine Poetry in 2012, thereby creating the first and only slam poetry club on the UT campus. While the organization still hosts writing workshops every Thursday evening, the mission of the club has become much wider.

“I see Spitshine as a medium for the communities who aren’t given a platform,” poet and UT law student Noor Wadi says. When Wadi arrived to Austin, she was looking for a place to perform spoken word poetry. “It’s one thing to write for yourself, it’s another thing to have a space where you can share.”

Bell says this sense of community is intentional. “Our primary goal is to foster a safe space on campus for marginalized voices,” Bell says. “We’re on a campus in Texas that is mostly white, so it’s hard to find a space like that.”

Asa Johnson, Jasmine Bell, Bianca Perez, Noor Wadi and Philip Oh are the five Spitshine contestants who will be representing UT at CUPSI in Chicago in April.

Asa Johnson, Jasmine Bell, Bianca Perez, Noor Wadi and Philip Oh are the five Spitshine contestants who will be representing UT at CUPSI in Chicago in April.

Coach Warrier says this open atmosphere is something she’ll also work to cultivate on the competitive team. “I’ll give people prompts to get them started writing, but in the end my writing workshop is not as important as what’s in your heart,” Warrier says. “Fuck the prompt then.”

After the poets had performed two slam poems each and been judged, coordinators calculated each poet’s individual score. Decided by popular demand, Jasmine Bell, Asa Johnson, Philip Oh, Bianca Perez, and Noor Wadi were welcomed to the 2016-2017 Spitshine team.

“Before each poem, I turned around and whispered, ‘Speak your truth,'" New team member Philip Oh says. “I was so nervous, but I’m so happy to be on the team."