It’s that time of the year again. Time for teams and their coaches to gather from colleges across the country for relentless head-to-head rounds as rowdy audiences cheer on their peers and heckle scorekeepers. But you won’t need to hitchhike to Houston for a chance to watch these epic battles unfold. Instead, the nation’s largest collegiate team poetry slam will return home this week to its birthplace — Ann Arbor.

College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational

Tomorrow through April 9
At UMMA, the Union and the League

The College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) is an annual competition that brings together teams of poets for four nights of creative expression and friendly competition. Founded in 2001 with seven teams, slam participation has since ballooned to include roughly 40 college groups.

“This year we’ll have the largest number of teams to date,” said program leader and CUPSI founder Robb Thibault. “There’s going to be a wonderful variety of returning colleges from around the nation, as well as some local Michigan schools that I’ve never seen participate before, so it’s going to be very exciting.”

Thibault started playing with the idea of a collegiate slam competition in 2000 as he experimented with weekly poetry readings while working at the Michigan Union.

“I kept thinking that it would be a cool thing to do on a campus, since it’s a can’t-miss kind of thing,” Thibault said. “We started a fall poetry reading program to see if it would appeal to Michigan students and we ended up getting 700 people every other Wednesday on a regular basis.”

The slam itself features rounds known as “bouts,” in which teams of four or five poets compete using a unique scoring system. Each poet has three minutes to perform an original piece, and each poem is given five scores — the middle three are added together to give an overall score. Groups of up to four people may read at the same time, but any use of music, costumes or props is prohibited. The teams with the highest collection of scores progress through four days of competition to a championship round.

The slam’s scoring method is unconventional and often controversial — five random members of the audience are selected before the start of the competition to act as judges, doling out scores ranging from zero to 10. These scores are often contested, and audience members are not shy about their feelings regarding the judges’ choices.

“These judges are charged with the sacred honor of having to give numbers to words,” Thibault said. “Sometimes they’re highly praised for their valuable scoring, but sometimes, when the crowd doesn’t like what they see, they’re scorned. The judges play a great role in the slam and they cause a great deal of concern, and no one seems to like them in the end.”

Thibault is quick to remind his participants that, despite the competitive nature of the slam, the presentation of the event as a gathering of poets and poetry aficionados is the true goal of the venue.

“The poetry itself is really what matters,” Thibault said. “We like to think of the axiom, ‘Points are not the point, the point is poetry.’ No matter what, you’re up there doing what you love and what’s most important to you artistically and as a human. That’s what it’s really all about: freedom of expression, creative speech, diversity and having fun.”

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