User’s guide to CUPSI: What we learned from CUPSI 2015

Innovators, storytellers, word-engineers.

IMG_1103The poets featured at the 2015 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational are students from 68 different schools across the nation and Canada, but, on the stage, they are more than just a student from NYU, a student from Duke, a student from VCU, etc. – they are word sculptors who are responsible for invoking feelings and inspiring thoughts from their performances. The audience has a critical role as well, which they are told before the bout starts. Every bit of energy they give to the performers will be given right back to them, a wildly accurate statement that many first-time CUPSI viewers are blissfully unaware of upon taking a seat to experience slam poetry.

What might surprise slam poetry novices is the etiquette and expectations of being a member of the audience.

While CUPSI 2016 is a year away, it is never too early to brush up on CUPSI rules, expectations and vernacular by recapping what we learned from CUPSI 2015.

  1. The rules.

As an audience member, it is critical to not only soak up every bit of the performance but to understand the guidelines that the artist has in order to better appreciate their work and understand the competition. Before the bout, the MC explains the rules in brevity, reminding the poets and briefing the audience on what they are about to experience, infamously stating “Poets, your job is to bring us your heart and soul and then let us assign it a numerical value.” The rules to know are as follows:


  • A poet must perform their own work.
  • Each poem performed in CUPSI is scored on a 10 point scale from unaffiliated judges selected from the audience.
  • Each poet has a three minute time limit with a penalty of -.5 points every 10 seconds over 3:10.
  • No props can be used – a prop is defined as anything not available for use by any other poet.

While individual slams such as the Haiku Slam or the Nerd Slam may have separate or additional rules, for the primaries, semi-finals and finals, the rules above stand.


  1. The vibe.IMG_0619

The energy, passion and encouragement at CUPSI creates a certain environment for the competition distinct from the typical college atmosphere. Upon arrival of the slam, team members are caught in lengthy embraces or seen hand in hand with other poets. There are people singing, there are drums playing, there is laughter, there is passion, there is an inexplicable aura of comfort and vibrancy that uplifts the mood of everyone in the room.

“We put in hard work; we are a family. We push each other and grow together,” Saidu Tejan-Thomas, president of Good Clear Sound, VCU’s slam poetry team, said. “We aim to make it (the competition) a safe place for people to express themselves.”


  1. The lingo.

Poetry slam competitions may as well have a different type of language altogether. While difficult to get used to at first, the poetry slam vernacular becomes a seemingly embedded part of the poetry slam experience. Poets from the audience shout words of encouragement such as “go in, poet,” “remember why you wrote it” and “don’t be nice, be nasty!” all phrases which may confuse or startle regular audience members or come off as rude, but are actually for the encouragement and support of the poet.

“Referring to a poet as ‘poet’ is gender neutral,” said Pages Matam, American University Poetry Slam coach.  “It is also for support. Even though you don’t know the poet personally, you don’t know their name, you are still supporting them and their work.”

“It (don’t be nice) means you don’t owe anyone anything.” said Good Clear Sound member Joshua Braunstein. “Be unapologetic on stage and don’t spare your own feelings.”



  1. The poetry.

The poetry itself, along with the sentiments of the poet and the crowd, are something to marvel at. As a poet enters the stage they are greeted with words of encouragement and offered support by the audience and fellow poets, and they are encouraged to take their time prior to grabbing the mic and sharing their work.

The subject matter of the poetry ranges from light-hearted topics such as admiring a beautiful day to more somber topics such as race or gender-equality. Regardless of the subject matter, when the poet unleashes their art, members of the audience are expected to give the same amount of energy back. Hums are indicative of relating to a certain part of the poem and the waving of the hand or snapping of the fingers is synonymous with clapping without disturbing the poet. While the scenario is a speaker-listener type of relationship, upon experiencing the performance it somehow turns into an interactive environment between poet and audience, a phenomena that is easier experienced than told.

“It allows people the chance to be exposed and be part of a community,” Tejan-Thomas said. “This is how we convey messages and it is life changing, tear-jerking work.”

  1. The people.

Diversity. In all sense of the word. CUPSI brings all types of people from all types of backgrounds together in one place for four days, something that this year’s host school, our very own Virginia Commonwealth University, does every day. To be cognizant of gender pronouns, every poet has an entrance pass with a sticker which addresses their preference of gender.IMG_0610

  1. The coverage.

Last week, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat among others were filled with pictures, videos, selfies and more to broadcast to the world the various forms of coverage for CUPSI. Attendees were encouraged to use the hashtag #CUPSI15 to share their personalized event coverage of the poetry slam competition. Want to see more of our coverage of the event? Follow our Twitter at @vcu_commons, Facebook at and our Instagram at @VCUstudentcommons.

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