Swarthmore Slam Poetry Team Preps for CUPSI with Help of Coach Vision

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

On March 12th, five poets from Swarthmore will travel to Boulder, CO, to compete in CUPSI (College Unions Poetry Slam Invitation), the 2014 National Poetry Slam Competition. Joining students Rose Wunrow ’16, Haydil Henriquez ’14, Maria Vieytez ’16, Kat Rodriguez ’17, and George Abraham ‘17 will be their coach, Perry “Vision” Divirgilio.

Although Vision has run poetry workshops with OASIS (Our Art Spoken In Soul) over the past several years, this is his first year as Swarthmore’s poetry coach. In addition to coaching Swarthmore’s CUPSI team, Vision is the artistic director of the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement, an organization that encourages Philadelphia teenagers to express themselves through poetry.

When Henriquez first met Vision, she was reminded of Hagrid. “You know how Hagrid was always a protector, that’s like who [Vision] is,” Henriquez said.

Vieytez was somewhat overwhelmed by her first encounter with Vision, when he told the poets his strict regimen for vocal care. “He was really scary,” she said. “He was like, ‘You can’t have dairy, you can’t have carbs, you can have tea, it should be ginger tea, I better not see you wearing fucking no scarf in the winter.’”

“I don’t care if it’s 70 degrees outside, you better put a scarf around your damn neck,” Vision said in an interview with The Daily Gazette. “That’s your weapon in competition.”

When asked to describe Vision’s coaching style, members of the CUPSI team gave similar answers. “Oh, he’s real. He’s real,” Henriquez said. “That’s the only way to describe Vision. I think that’s one of the things I appreciate most about him.”

“He’s going to tell you something once, and he expects you to do it all the time,” Henriquez said. “He’s like that big brother who is very chill but very strict all at the same time.”

Vieytez gave an example of one of Vision’s dictums. “He’s like, ‘You’re going to work, whether or not you feel like you can write that day, you need to be disciplined,’” Vieytez said. “That’s the thing he’s brought to all of us.” Vieytez described Vision as having a “tough love” attitude towards coaching. “The affection is violent,” she said.

Wunrow agreed. “It’s like tough love, but the best type of tough love,” she said.

“I’m going to give you a pat on your back if you’re doing well and I’m going to kick you in your ass if you’re not,” Vision said. “I’m not going to tell you you’re doing amazing things if I know you’re bullshitting me.”

“If he thinks we’re bullshitting him, he’s going to call us out on it,” Wunrow said.

In addition to helping the CUPSI team with the technical aspects of writing and performing slam poetry, Vision serves as emotional support during the process. “Vision always emphasizes that we always need to be there for each other. If someone goes to a dark place in a poem, as soon as they come offstage, their teammates are going to be there to help pull them out of that moment,” Wunrow said.

“We have this saying, everybody always says, ‘go in.’ That’s the thing for poets, go in, find that place. But somebody’s gotta be there to pull you out when you go in, and I feel like that’s part of my job,” Vision said. “If you’re gonna go there, I promise you that number one, I’m gonna go there with you, but number two, I’m gonna help you get out of that moment.”

Vieytez concurred. “As a coach, I think he’s great because he lets us write what we need to write, and he lets us do it without leaving us alone in that,” she said. “He doesn’t leave us with the repercussions, to deal with them ourselves.”

Vision mentioned that many slam poets experience emotional struggles during performances due to the necessity of returning to those difficult emotions that inspired the poem. “When you get onstage, you still gotta connect to that,” Vision said. “You still gotta live in that moment where you wrote it. If you wrote it in a dark room with Jewel playing in the background, you gotta recreate that moment in your mind when you get onstage.”

For Vision, telling one’s own truth is the most important aspect of poetry. “We need to tell our stories. If we leave here in first or fiftieth place, people are going to know Kat’s story. They’re going to know Haydil’s background. They’re going to know what George has to say. That’s what matters most,” Vision said.

“He wants your poems to actually reflect your story,” Henriquez said. “He’s all about getting in touch with your sensitive side and challenging yourself.”

Even in the heat of the competition, Vision keeps this purpose in mind. “If somebody comes to me and is like, ‘Yo Vision, I need to tell this story,’ go tell it,” said Vision. “It may not be our best poem, we may be down a little bit and another piece could put us over the top. I don’t care. You need to tell that story? Tell that story. You need to get free tonight? Go get free. That’s why we do this.”

“We didn’t start writing for tens,” Vision said. “So we always gotta get back to the purpose, to the root. […] As long as we stay grounded in that, we’ll never lose, no matter what place we come in in a bout.”

“We can’t control the points,” he said. “We can control telling that story.”

“He’s going to make sure he works on you so that you’re tough enough one day to do it on your own,” Henriquez said. “But he’s going to be tough on you. He’s a protector.”

Vision expressed his pride in the CUPSI team. “They’re really putting Swarthmore on the map,” Vision said. “I really want the Swarthmore community to be proud of this team and support them […] because they’re busting their ass.”

“Tell the professors to cut them some damn slack,” Vision said.

The CUPSI team will be holding a showcase on Saturday, March 1st at 7:30 PM in SCI 199.

Featured image by Martin Froger-Silva ’16/The Daily Gazette

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