Tucked into a hallway next to Cowell Dining Hall, you’ll find people hungry for more than just food. There was a full house on Wednesday night inside Stevenson Fireside Lounge — a hidden community of kindred spirits eager to devour poetry. About 90 students and community members squeezed in shoulder-to-shoulder and flooded the doorway, ready to begin UC Santa Cruz’s first poetry slam of the year.
Kinetic Poetics Project (KPP) is a student-run organization for anyone interested in listening to or sharing poetry in a safe space. The organization holds slams every other Wednesday night in the lounge. On those nights, members from all corners of the campus community gather to listen and be heard. Last week, 13 people signed up to share their work, and all of their performances fit neatly into their time slots.
At the start of the show, organizer Alexandra Moskow greeted the room with a warm smile. The third-year art and sociology major discovered KPP at the OPERS Fall Festival in 2013 and has worked with the organization ever since. She encouraged attendees to leave their biases aside — a mutually understood golden rule of the slam community.
Moskow described each new poet as “being born” when they came to the stage. During the show, crowd members ferociously snapped their fingers to lines that resonated with them — audience etiquette intended to encourage the performer without the disruption of clapping.
A poetry slam is an event where poets compete against one another, advancing to the next round based on numerical scores given to them by judges. In this case, the top two performers will head to the organization’s 13th Annual KPP Spoken Word Festival, which is tentatively scheduled to run from Jan. 29-31 in the Porter Dining Hall. Despite this honor, the poets seemed to shrug off any sense of competition and existed cohesively. The audience booed when contestants were given low scores, and those who stumbled or forgot a line on stage were met with encouragement.
Performances ranged in style. Some chose to sing, while others memorized their pieces. Kari Davis did both. The second-year linguistics major had the crowd chuckling along with her one moment and almost moved to tears the next. When asked about her sense of humor, she blamed her nerves.
“Tell jokes and hope that your fear doesn’t eat you because it’s laughing,” Davis said.
In one of her poems, she painted a chaotic and emotional scene of an ambulance arriving for a loved one. The story unfolded into song and lulled the crowd into a trance — even snaps were hushed. When asked about the crowd’s response to her poetry, Davis beamed with exuberance.
“So many strangers hugged me today,” Davis said. “It feels great.”
That sentiment is no accident. Moskow described the unique space KPP spent years cultivating in the Santa Cruz community since its inception, and why that space is so necessary.
“KPP has opened up a safe environment for people to share personal narratives, whether that be of trauma or joy,” Moskow said. “Poetry cultivates a collective experience and consciousness.”
The energy of KPP is kinetic and contagious. Both Moskow and fellow organizer Billy Butler dedicate much of their time to the organization. They reach out to Student Organization Advising and Resources (SOAR) for guidance and other on-campus funding bodies for financial support. On the night of the slam, students passed around a bicycle helmet to collect donations. KPP encourages students to pitch in, even if it’s the loose change in their pockets.
“We’ve always managed to pull through for the past 12 years we’ve put on a festival and sent poets to CUPSI [College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational],” Moskow said. “We’ve made it happen every year.”
CUPSI is an event designed for poets to compete for top honors and share their talents on a larger scale in a space that nurtures safety. It will take place next year from April 6-9 at the University of Texas at Austin.
KPP can be a gateway to additional opportunities like CUPSI, but it exists first and foremost as an extended family of free-flowing creativity. No matter the reason for seeking out KPP, whether you’re a writer or listener, the organization has a place for everyone.
“It’s organizations like KPP that both inspire me and make me feel comfortable enough to potentially share my poetry one day,” said audience member Ezzie DeGiovanni.
Kari Davis, who placed among the top competitors in Wednesday’s slam, encouraged those like DeGiovanni who haven’t yet participated to try it out.
“When people come to see slam poetry, they’re really hungry and they want to eat your soul,” Davis said. “I used to be scared of that but then I realized your soul is limitless, so why not give a piece? If you’ve got a piece and you’re out there, there are people starving, so don’t be greedy.”