While poets of the page may publish their writing in the Canon, Tufts’ literary magazine, spoken word poets work outside and beyond the written word. Many write, practice and compete within the Spoken Word Alliance at Tufts (SWAT).
Since the group came together in the fall of 2013, it has seen rapid growth. This March, six group members will compete in an annual national poetry slam tournament, according to SWAT President Jonathan Moore.
Before entering college, Moore wanted to gauge interest in spoken word at Tufts — it “came as a shock” to him that Tufts did not already have such a group. The summer before his first year, he posted in the Tufts Class of 2017 Facebook group to look for partners in starting a group.
“I made a Facebook group and had a meeting during the fall that year,” he said. “We had a group [comprised of] mostly seniors and juniors, who had tried to do something similar … before I got to campus, so we got together and elected an [executive] board.”
Moore, a sophomore majoring in American Studies, explained that the goal was to provide an opportunity for people to learn about the art form, as well as an opportunity for those who are passionate about it to perform.
“Basically, we got started because there needs to be a stage for spoken words,” he said. “There needs to be a stage where students could perform this art in front of others; there needs to be a space for people who are interested in spoken words to go and learn from people that have been doing this.”
Moore said that since its establishment, SWAT has held events including open mics and collaborative slams, which has involved much of the Tufts community and facilitated the group’s success so far.
“[The] reality is that it’s really free form and a very open art form that encourages being different and being you,” Moore said. “We have [had] great success, we had a lot of people engaged in spoken words. We’ve had a great time so far.”
He noted that the group is focusing more on performance this year, as there are several organizations for written poetry on campus.
“Last year there were people in SWAT who did not do spoken words — they were just writing poems, but they didn’t actually read their thing[s],”Moore said. “But in the beginning of this year, in the fall, we made a mandate for us to focus on spoken words, because … there are already spaces for those writers who aren’t looking for spoken words.”
In order to perform poetry in a competitive fashion, a team of slam poets from the Tufts community in and out of SWAT — whose members were chosen from a Grand Slam event held earlier in December — has been busy practicing and preparing for the 15th College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) later this month, according to Moore.
CUPSI is put on by the Association of College Unions International (ACUI), and focuses on three core competencies: “communications, intercultural proficiency and student learning.” Held at different locations each year, this year the four-day competition will take place in Richmond, Va., where the SWAT team will be competing against more than 60 other teams.
According to senior Amber Rose Johnson, SWAT programming director and CUPSI team coach, whose expertise and knowledge from previous competitions and performances Moore credited as crucial to the team’s formation, the focus of CUPSI is more on the art itself than the competition.
“There are also workshop opportunities and these community-building opportunities and opportunities to do social justice work,” she said. “It’s a full festival [with] an entire purpose [for] a bunch of poets to get together and share their work and share the love of what they do.”
There are no specific judges and no criteria other than the spectators’ opinions, Johnson said.
“The judges in any slam are just random people that come to slams [who] don’t know anybody that is performing,” Johnson said. “There is no specific criteria, every judge is every person’s own opinion, and that’s what makes it really fun, and what makes it also very arbitrary.”
Tufts’ team consists of five members and an alternate who have slam poetry experience varying from four years to three months. During its practices, the team writes, edits and performs poems, according to sophomore Rachel Steindler. Members also practice writing with other people to work on group pieces. All told, each person on the team will bring three pieces to CUPSI, including individual and group pieces, Johnson explained.
“[The team] writes the most, but it’s not always producing the work,” Johnson said. “You write something, and then decide to commit to that poem, and then we will keep editing the poem for several practices until it gets to a good place, and then write something new, as opposed to writing something new every day.”
According to first-year Azmina Karukappadath, the stories of people in her family are inspirations for her.
“My poem is dedicated to my mother … she has an accent and [it] is basically her struggle with [that],” she said.
Junior Kaitlin Pang said she shares a similar motivation for writing and performing.
“My poems I am working on right now [are] also about my mother, and her mother and her mother,” Pang said. “So it’s about inter-generational inheritance of trauma. And how I carry the trauma of my ancestors, and how I will pass that down to my grandchildren.”
Based on these and other poems, the team is developing a mission called “Disrupting White Spaces,” according to team member Rajah Reid.
“[The mission means] kind of reclaiming things that either white people have appropriated or distorted,” he said. “And as a Black and Asian team, I think it brings something that’s needed and that’s very unique and very powerful.
Johnson commented on the importance of the mission for the team.
“I think it’s really cool, and I think this should be a thing that happens every year for different teams, and they should write a mission and that should be documented, because every group of people is gonna have something different,” she said.
Unlike other spoken word groups, SWAT was not started for the purpose of activism. However, as the group grows, it has became important to them to provide a place for their members to share their stories, Moore said.
“Although SWAT was not started with the intention to be a safe space for people of marginalized identities, particularly students of color, [with] the first e-board that we elected last year, it became important to us and to the members of SWAT,” he said.“Last year and this year, the majority of e-board members are students of color, so we really try to lead the organization in a way that respects everyone’s identity and embraces their identity, but encourages them to utilize this art form to activism if social justice is important to them.”
Although SWAT does not have a political agenda as a group, it aspires to create a respectful place for people to learn from each other.
“We don’t have a political agenda by any means, but it would also be [non]sensical to say that we are apolitical,” he said. “It’s definitely a space that we encourage people to disagree but we encourage it in a way that is loving and respectful of one another, so it is not really a place for opinions to pile up and not a place for people to wage wars against one another.”
Moore also stressed the importance of listening in this process.
“It’s really a place for us to explore and for us really to share stories and also being able to listen, [which] I think [is] a huge part of SWAT,” he said. “And the biggest thing we get out from people that never came to SWAT meetings [but] come to SWAT open mics [and] SWAT shows was their listening, and that’s really important to us. We stress the importance of it, [as] it takes a certain type of love for someone to listen to them; if you are a stranger, to listen to their stories, that’s something that is super powerful.”