Photo by Grant.
Photo by Grant.

Lily Gellman, a freshman, is one of fifty students who auditioned for Ellipses, Princeton’s slam poetry team, this fall. Gellman, who became involved in spoken word during her senior year of high school, hoped to continue to hone her passion for spoken word at Princeton and was excited to discover a slam team on campus. After she was not offered a spot on the team, however, Gellman began to reflect on the competitiveness of Ellipses’ audition process. She recalls that several members of the team reached out to her, explaining that Ellipses’ selectivity resulted from the sheer volume of student interest. With only a year as an established group under its belt, even the group’s leaders had not anticipated that so many students would try out, and Ellipses had to open additional audition slots to accommodate the surge of interest.

Recognizing that only a small fraction of those who auditioned were accepted, Gellman was not discouraged by her rejection. “I would have wanted to pursue [poetry] in any case,” she says. When she became aware many of her peers were in the same position, she resolved to launch her own poetry group. Unlike Ellipses, Gellman’s group will not use an audition process, but rather will be open to all interested students, with one restriction—the group will be all female. Gellman hopes that her new group will help remedy the gap between the number of students seeking to pursue spoken word, and the opportunities available for them to do so. She observes, “There’s such a demand for getting engaged in slam poetry, and not a lot of supply at the moment.”

Given the overwhelming interest in Ellipses this year, it is difficult to believe that before 2013, spoken word was largely absent from the Princeton campus. Ellipses co-president Victor Pomary recalls that his experience with spoken word as an underclassman was limited to two open mic events, both of which were hosted independently by cultural groups. In fact, it wasn’t until a little more than a year ago that a handful of students took it upon themselves to create a place for slam poetry at Princeton.

In order to realize their vision, Ellipses’ founders reached out to Princeton graduate student Joshua Bennett, an acclaimed poet who has performed original work at celebrated venues such as the Sundance Film Festival, the NAACP Image Awards, and President Obama’s Evening of Music and Poetry at the White House. Bennett recalls being invited by a small group of students with a “burgeoning interest in poetry,” seeking guidance on how to start their own slam team. Their first meeting was informal and successful. “We met in Frist for about an hour and a half, did some writing exercises, and the rest is history,” he says.

Since that first meeting in Frist, Ellipses has made tremendous strides in terms of establishing spoken word as a celebrated art in the Princeton community. Reflecting on the leap in student interest in Ellipses from last year to this year, co-president Jenesis Fonseca shares that she does not believe the increase stemmed from any “sudden appreciation for spoken word poetry.” Rather, Fonseca feels that after the team’s successful first year, students saw that spoken word was being celebrated on campus, and were inspired to get involved. As the pioneers of spoken word at Princeton, Ellipses worked passionately over the 2013-2014 year to make their voices heard. By hosting on-campus events such as open mic nights and “Arch-Slams,” a play on Princeton’s traditional a capella Arch Sings, Fonseca feels that Ellipses both established itself as “an active group on campus,” and opened many students’ eyes to the power of spoken word.

Ellipses’ efforts to create a spoken word community at Princeton have certainly proven successful, as evinced by this fall’s audition rush. Like any growing community, however, Princeton’s slam community will continue to reorganize and refine itself as it develops. Gellman is not the only student in the process of starting a new spoken word group: Aron Wander and Namkyu Oh recently founded a small group dedicated to “writing with the intention of performing together.”

Unlike Gellman, however, Wander and Oh were initially members of Ellipses, who chose to break off from the team of their own accord due to a difference in interests. Wander, a junior, shares that Ellipses works through a “den system,” by which each member is assigned a “den,” a small group of other students with whom he or she writes and shares poetry. Writing together, however, does not necessarily mean performing together. Preferring group to solo performances, Wander says he had been “working on a compromise” with Ellipses unsuccessfully for some time before he and Oh, a sophomore, chose to amicably part from the group. “It seemed like a lot of the compromises the group was very graciously willing to make were because of [us],” says Oh. Wander is quick to express his discomfort with Ellipses compromising its system for his and Oh’s writing preferences.  “Ellipses was definitely willing to compromise,” he says, “But we felt that, at the end of the day, the best way for us to do the particular writing we wanted to do would be to split off.”

Ellipses’ overarching goal, to “foster a love for poetry” at Princeton, reflects a vision that extends beyond their own group to the community as a whole. In only a year, Ellipses transformed a campus without any formal space for slam poetry into one that boasts three unique poetry groups. In this sense, Gellman’s story, and even Oh and Wander’s, are testaments to Ellipses’ success. Only a year ago, Ellipses’ founders were struggling to make slam poetry a part of arts culture on campus. This fall, the level and diversity of interest they sparked proved to be even greater than the small team could accommodate.