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Spotlight on: Ellipses

If your understanding of spoken word poetry is smoky clubs, tilted berets and the chilling rustle of snapping fingers, you’re wrong. For co-president Alec Lowman ’16 and about 20 other students who make up Princeton’s slam poetry group Ellipses, “it’s about storytelling and about hearing as many stories as we can.”

What really sets spoken word poetry apart from the more traditional, on-the-page poetry is that the pieces “demand to be performed,” explained co-president Hannah Srajer ’17. According to Srajer, audiences do not have the time or the means to pore over every painstakingly placed comma or admire the way the line breaks communicate emotion. Rather, Ellipses’ leaders believe that the task of transforming words on a page to an ephemeral but striking piece of art lies solely with the performer.

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According to Lowman, a big difference between page poetry and spoken word is that writers must be more conscious of their audiences and their understanding of the piece.When page meets stage, the artists only have one shot to present their words to one specific audience.

As a group, Ellipses strives to foster a safe community for members to explore the art form in unique and truthful ways that also enhance their understanding of themselves. “I think it’s something that I do that reminds me that I’m alive,” Srajer said. “It’s the way I feel connected to the world, the way I feel connected to people.”

At the same time, spoken word is also highly personal. With every eye in the audience fixed on one speaker, who is responsible for both the script and the delivery, there’s no room for distractions or cover-ups.

“We live in this age of screens where we sort of learn about each other through computers, television … and it’s important to tell your own story because if you don’t somebody else will and they’ll get it wrong,” Lowman said.

Ellipses meets several times a week — once as a whole group and twice a week in “dens,” smaller groups where the artists can work in a more intimate setting. Group members have the opportunity to share their work about once a month in gatherings called arch slams. Ellipses’ largest on-campus events are their Fall and Spring Showcases, which are also the group’s main sources of funding. These performances, which have often sold out in the past, incorporate live music and lighting to help create a heightened atmosphere.

In addition to on campus performances, Ellipses has taken their spoken word poetry to a national, competitive level. Ellipses placed third at the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) last spring. More than 50 college teams from across the nation submitted their greatest individual performances to be scored; the scores of individual members were then composited into a group total.

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In the initial bouts, the judging panel included people from all backgrounds, ages and levels of experience with poetry and performing arts. The diverse array of judges emphasized that spoken word is meant to be considered, understood and (hopefully) enjoyed by anyone.In the final rounds, more seasoned judges were selected to ensure more nuanced feedback. This year, the Princeton competitors will reflect the combined talents of not only Ellipses but also two other spoken word groups on campus: Songline and Sister Speakers.

In addition to creating art themselves, Ellipses hopes to promote spoken word on campus beyond the scope of their membership. With last year’s addition of an audition process to select new members, it has become increasingly important to the group to ensure plenty of opportunities exist for the general student body to get involved in spoken word poetry.

“Part of the whole ethos of slam [poetry] is supporting diverse voices and giving everyone the right to step up to the mic,” said Lowman.

Ellipses balances individual expression with collective progression as they strive to promote slam poetry on campus and the value of storytelling. The only thing left to do is to throw on a black turtleneck and give a round of snaps to the poets who take risks to articulate their individual truths and contribute to a collective understanding.

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