“My body is a pill, small, and love is the wrong man’s tongue to tell me so,” began Safia Elhillo at the 2013 College Union Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI). Her performance of “What I Learned in the Fire” secured NYU as first-place finishers at the competition, making them the best college slam team in nation for the second year in a row. Two years later, Elhillo is bringing her talents to Vassar for a night of Spoken Word Poetry, hosted by Vassar’s Wordsmiths. The event, Love Started the Fire, is named after her 2013 poem and is a showcase of poems from Vassar’s CUPSI Team and which will also feature some of Elhillo’s own performances.
Elhillo is now a New-York based, Sudanese-American poet.In addition to pursuing an MFA at the New School, she is part of a group called the Divine Fabrics Collective. Founded in 2012 at an IHOP on the Lower East Side, the group is comprised of four poets. Their goal is “to write with nuance, artfully shit-talk and deliver new work at high octane levels.”
Kelly Schuster ‘15, a member of the group and Vassar’s CUPSI Team discussed Elhillo’s writing in an emailed statement. “She writes about loss and mourning and language and she’s wonderful.” But, she approaches the topic of loss in hopes of reclaiming, not mourning. Fascinated with words and descriptions, she aims to build a presence of things lost and imaginary. She has appeared on TV1’s Verses and Flow and was a finalist in the 2011 Women of the World Poetry Slam. She published a short book of poems, The Life and Times of Susie Knuckles, with Well&Often Press and has been featured in several other publications.
Love Started the Fire comes at an exciting time for Vassar’s Wordsmiths. Schuster ‘15, explained, “I am on the Vassar CUPSI Team along with Royal Scales ‘17, Ellie Vamos ‘17, Andrew Yim ‘16, and Cheikh Athj ‘16, with Hannah Matsunaga ‘16 as our coach. I believe in the power of this team and our ability to create meaningful art so fully. I think we collaborate beautifully together and I hope to continue making art with this group for a long time.”
The group certainly does work well together. Their coach, Matsunaga said, “The CUPSI team placed 9th out of 68 teams at this year’s competition,” which placed them among the top teams in the nation. The annual CUPSI tournament was held in Virginia this year and is poetry’s equivalent of nationals, explained Matsunaga. Schuster wrote in an emailed statement, “[The performance was] incredible, and draining–invigorating and exhausting.” And, the group secured this spot with even more competition present. CUPSI team member Scales explained, “this year the ‘I’ actually stood for International because we had our first team not from the U.S compete, Ryerson University in Toronto.”
Overall, the group had positive sentiments to share of their experiences. “My experience with Wordsmiths has been great so far. Every workshop, open mic, and performance inspires me,” wrote Matsunaga.
For Schuster, spoken word allows words to take on new meanings. She wrote, “The transformation that happens over the course of a performance poem, to the audience, to the performer, to the space, to the work itself, engages my senses and transports me to another world–something that words on a page just can’t do for me. Spoken word creates an opportunity to transform someone’s understanding or perception of something that doesn’t require them to know how to read in order to engage.”
These performances hinge on a unique balance between the performer and the audience. This interaction can weigh heavily on the competition’s outcome. “Because there is a competition at stake, slam can also be a toxic space where people expose traumas in ways that sometimes may be cathartic, but also sometimes may be unhealthy for the performer or audience if they aren’t ready to share. At CUPSI we saw a lot of emotionally reckless performances being performed and then rewarded with high scores, which can create a dangerous cycle that encourages artists to put themselves in unsafe mental spaces in order to win,” writes Schuster.
Nevertheless, Spoken word can be both entertaining and uplifting. Its history is rooted in making the art of poetry more accessible. The slam, or competition aspect of spoken word, was popularized in Chicago in the 1980s as a reaction to the more elite and academic styles of poetry, Spoken Word quickly became a way for more diverse performers to express themselves.
“The idea behind slam poetry is that anyone off the street can perform or judge the competition which allows for the space to, in some ways subvert the elitist power structures that typically dominate spaces of art-making,” wrote Schuster.
The openness of the slam attracts the competition and craft to many college campuses where its messages resonate with students. Slams have transformative qualities that can better oneself and his or her community. Schuster explains, “I hope to use this form as a space of healing and community-building, but always a way to be critical and reckon with my own privilege while striving to center the voices whose stories are typically silenced by this society.”
After their impressive performance at CUPSI this year, the group has lots of content to share alongside another highly regarded young poet. The Wordsmiths award-winning showcase and Elhillo will perform this Friday, April 17, at 8:00 p.m. in Rocky 200 for Love Started the Fire.