“Apparently, people, we’re going to bring this out to the street,” said emcee T.J. Natole with a huge grin.
Gathering in a big circle around Natole and co-emcee Alvin Lau, and standing outside of SUNY New Paltz’s glass pyramid, the crowd of collegiate poets pressed in to listen to a classic battle between East and West -- Wesleyan University’s slam poets versus the University of Minnesota.
Earlier in the evening, poets from Wesleyan, Minnesota, SUNY Oneonta and Brown University faced off in the finals. For the uninitiated, poetry slams feel a bit like a cross between a rock concert, a boxing match and a group therapy session.
It comes with its own internal rules and logic. Snaps erupt any time a line of a poem resounds with the audience -- clapping would be too loud and could potentially disrupt the poet’s flow. Poets who get up to the microphone are greeted with a mantra of “don’t be nice.” People can sometimes do excited dances when a poem is going particularly well.
Everything at a slam is judged by the audience. In this case, at SUNY five judges were picked at random from the crowd and scored poets on a 1-10 scale just like the Olympics. When the crowd didn’t like their call, they weren’t quiet about it.
Poems recited during the Margaret Wade-Lewis Poetry Slam Invitational ran the gamut of the extremely serious about topics like rape, anorexia and death to the super silly. One group piece in the finals read a dark comedy poem about cannibalism.
“Give it up for human flesh,” co-emcee Lau joked. That crack got huge applause.
The day prior to the March 5 finals, students from 12 colleges, including Wesleyan, Yale, New York University and Dartmouth, went for the gold. “We had 12 teams coming from as far away as Minnesota competing,” explained host Natole.
Only four colleges made it to the finals, but a majority of the crowd cheering them on came from those 12 schools.
In a tense tie-breaking moment, Wesleyan and Minnesota both chose their champions. But in the end, it was Mike Rosen, from Wesleyan, whose poem about his love-hate relationship with New York City, won the day. Rosen was also named the slam’s best male poet. Other winners included: Best female poet: Franny Choi from Brown, best group piece: Nate Mondschien and Nick Petrie from Wesleyan, rookie of the year: Kate Brady from New Paltz, spirit of the Slam: SUNY Oneonta and most innovative: Franny Choi from Brown.
Tracy Soren, who along with Megan Falley, helped plan the second annual Wade-Lewis Poetry Slam, said that the work to put the event together -- which is the second largest college poetry slam in the country -- took about six months. Poetry teams were getting invites to the competition back in September.
But the event scored the likes of featured poet Andrea Gibson, the first ever winner of the Women of the World Poetry Slam. The headliner opened up the show and got huge applause from her audience.
Jessica Coleman, a 2009 SUNY New Paltz graduate, worked closely with Professor Wade-Lewis before she passed away.
“We’re trying to remember the late Dr. Wade-Lewis,” Coleman said. “She was a big tenant for a lot of the things that happened in the Black Studies Department.”
The graduate praised the professor for her tireless work to make sure that minority students got equal opportunities at SUNY and urged students to remember her.