Hamline’s slam poetry group encourages creative expression through spoken word
By Marla Holt
When poet and educator Sierra DeMulder performed spoken word at Blythe Baird’s suburban Chicago high school, Baird ’18 was moved deeply.
“I’d never seen or heard spoken word before, and it was wild to me,” Baird said. “Sierra’s poems made me feel so many different things, and I didn’t know poems could do that.”
DeMulder inspired Baird to attend a summer Slam Camp, where she was prompted to write a poem about politics. “I didn’t know a thing about politics, so I went online to find something I could write about,” Baird said, and what she found was a “Stop Sugarcoating Childhood Obesity” campaign. “It was supposed to be about public health, but it was really about shaming,” she said. Having grown up obese, the campaign’s messages—like “being fat takes all the fun out of being a kid”—affected Baird personally, so she wrote her first-ever poem about it. She hasn’t stopped writing since.
Two years after Slam Camp, Baird, then 18, became the youngest competitor ever at the National Poetry Slam (NPS), a championship tournament for poetry teams of four to five people representing cities across the country. Today, Baird is a three-time NPS competitor, author of a poetry collection titled Give Me a God I Can Relate To, a Slam Camp counselor, and a well-known YouTuber who shares her poems with young adults worldwide. The creative writing and women’s studies major is also president of the Hamline University Poetry Slam (HUPS) group.
HUPS puts on monthly poetry slams, inviting students to step up to the mic and “speak their truth” using facial expressions, voice intonations, and emotion to deliver verse, Baird said. The events usually attract around 10 poets and 35 to 50 audience members, who interact with the performers by snapping their fingers and murmuring encouraging words like “go on,” “I feel you,” or “don’t be nice.” The poems, shaped to evoke emotion, are lively expressions of students’ political beliefs, cultural values, personal histories, and experiences.
“Our students have great, ferocious voices, and it’s been marvelous to watch these extraordinary young people write from their hearts and hone their stories,” said creative writing professor Deborah Keenan, who was the HUPS faculty adviser when the group started in 2010.
The slam poets are timed and judged by an impartial panel of five peers. The top two winners at each HUPS event are eligible to compete in the Grand Slam at the end of the year. The winners of that event go on to compete at the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational, the collegiate national tournament.
The slam poetry movement took off in the 1980s when open mic sessions started taking place at cafés in cities like New York, San Francisco, and Austin, Texas. Marc Kelly Smith, a Chicago poet known as “Slampapi,” founded the annual NPS in 1990. Saint Paul hosted the NPS in 2010 and won it for the second year in a row, cementing the Twin Cities as a hotbed of poetic expression.
Lewis Mundt ’12, a Minneapolis writer, NPS competitor, and event host whose debut poetry collection, The God of the Whole Animal, was published in 2015, was a Hamline student at the time. He immersed himself in the Twin Cities poetry scene and founded HUPS in the fall of 2010.
One of HUPS’s first competitors was Kevin Yang ’14, who, as a first-year student, won the organization’s first slam in 2010. He competed at college nationals as a sophomore and a senior, when his performance of “How to Love Your Introvert” won Best Love Poem. “I was a quiet kid growing up, and poetry gave me the chance to have my voice heard,” Yang said.
Spoken word, as a free-flowing art form combining elements of theater, comedy, and hip-hop, has given voice to marginalized communities, he added. “It’s a platform in which people can be comfortable speaking out.”
Today, Yang is a youth programs coordinator for Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis and an organizer of Brave New Voices, a national slam poetry festival for 13- to 19-year-olds.
Hamline—with its strong MFA and BFA creative writing programs—is ideal for supporting a student organization like HUPS, said Mundt, but slam poetry touches students beyond just those enrolled in writing programs.
“Slam poetry engages students outside the more traditionally thought of ‘creative disciplines,’” he said. “People from many areas of study and places of interest are slamming, creating this lively engagement that crosses all disciplines. It’s the sort of thing you hope for at a liberal arts university.”
One of Mundt’s favorite memories of HUPS is the group’s advancement to the semifinal round of competition at the 2011 collegiate national tournament. “It validated that slam poetry at Hamline mattered,” he said. “As a group of performers who’d never done this before, we were able to connect with the audience in a meaningful way, and it gave us the momentum to sustain HUPS.”
Mundt noticed that as HUPS became more well-known in the slam poetry community, people were commenting on the Hamline style or voice. “We got this reputation of having a weird, abstract, narrative style,” he said. “We were known as the storytellers.”
Baird said that’s one aspect of slam poetry that makes it an attractive form of creative expression. “Slam poetry can be whatever you need it to be,” she said. “It’s taught me how to articulate something in a way that is clear, concise, effective, and artistic, and to let my experiences live somewhere outside of myself.”