Simone Stolzoff is getting ready to tell about 100 strangers that he’s never really been in love. He stands behind a microphone with his eyes closed and his head down. He takes a deep breath, shakes his arms loosely and steps up to the mic, his face hopeful and his hands calm. The College junior is ready to deliver an original poem from memory, and he does it flawlessly.
Stolzoff, along with 11 other student poets, are members of the Excelano Project, Penn’s first and only spoken word group.
Around 40 people auditioned for the club in the fall and about 25 in the spring. With so many auditions and so few spots in the group, Excelano has some of the best talent Penn has to offer.
Excelano’s reputation as one of the most well-respected collegiate spoken word groups in the country is not surprising. Members have performed at the White House, on HBO, at the well-known Nuyorican Poets Cafe and on Broadway.
On March 4, 2001, the founder of the Excelano Project, 2004 College graduate Carlos Andres Gomez, was hanging out with his best friend Brent Shuttleworth and thinking about a poem while Shuttleworth strummed his guitar. The pair started thinking about the significance of the day’s date, which happened to be Shuttleworth’s birthday.
According to Gomez, Shuttleworth said, “‘It’s kind of cool when you think about it … I’m born on March fourth. As in march forth, like a step forward.’”
Shuttleworth’s English teacher had told his class about the word “excelano,” which he said meant “march forth.” And his birthday, being March fourth, was Excelano Day.
Gomez suggested they start a group, called the Excelano Project, to focus on poetry and spoken word. He wanted to call it a project “because the work is never finished,” he explained. “The evolution, the steps forward are never done. It will be a group of us, each pushing the other to go further, braver than before … And thus, the vision was set in motion.”
More than just ‘bootleg rappers’
The group’s current poets come from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences with spoken word. Wharton and College senior Cortney Charleston, the group’s president, was inspired to start writing poetry after seeing his first Excelano show his freshman year.
“I sat through that entire show, and I was just blown away,” he said. “I had this notion of spoken word in my head, but it was very stereotypical, that these people just want to be rappers but don’t have the swag.”
But rather than seeing the “bootleg rappers” he had imagined, Charleston was inspired by the show and saw what a powerful art form spoken word could be. He started writing poems as an outlet for his personal worries and hopes. “A year later,” he said, “I was in the group.”
Lauren Yates, a College senior and Excelano’s director, has a different story. She has been writing poems since she was 7 years old and got into spoken word early in high school. “I never really thought of myself as a stage poet, all of my poems had been for lit journals, or just like little things that I wrote for myself.”
When she came to Penn as a freshman, Yates saw then-Excelano member Josh Bennett perform at the Kelly Writers House Speakeasy during New Student Orientation. “I was just like, ‘Wow. That’s amazing. I can’t do that.”
After seeing Excelano’s two major shows that year, Yates started performing poems in her native town of San Diego and worked up the courage to audition the following fall, when she made the team.
The poets agree that their inspiration for poems come from a variety of sources.
For Charleston, inspiration often comes from other poems, music and personal introspection. Other times, “all of the thoughts will be in prose and then all of a sudden this one line will come through that’s really poetic, and … you just latch onto it and go from there.”
Some members, including Charleston, keep lists of concepts, themes or lines to use for inspiration.
Yates explained that while Excelano used to be more focused on performance, where writers would write poems with the intention to engage the audience, “somewhere along the line we’ve shifted, and we write the poems first, then figure out how to perform them,” taking the content of their work to a deeper level.
Evoking laughter and tears
At an Excelano show, waves of humorous, outrageous performances weave in and out of intense confessions and reflections on life. And sometimes, poems can blend the two.
In their duet poem, “Geisha Circus,” College sophomore Tiffany Kang and College and Wharton sophomore Alice Liu confess their annoyance with people’s perceptions of them as Asian girls. They jokingly say, “We tiptoe through rings of flame. Juggle rice balls for your entertainment,” then angrily shout in unison against racist misogyny, to which the crowd cheers for their bold, but humorous, claims.
Even though each poet’s style varies, from loud and animated to calm and humble, the rules are always the same — no props, dancing or singing.
College sophomore Seth Simons’s articulate, sharp speech and theatrical movement lend themselves just as well to reflecting on the pain of lost love as they do to imitating a whale’s cries and sprays.
The road to CUPSI
This April, five members of the group will head to California for the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational, one of the nation’s most prestigious spoken word competitions. Since its inception in 2001, Excelano has won the competition twice. In February, the group members had to face off against each other at a qualifying competition to determine this year’s CUPSI team.
Even for seasoned Excelano members who are on the team, preparation for CUPSI is a challenge.
While standard Excelano poems are four to five minutes, the competition mandates a time constraint of about three minutes.
Moreover, it is a challenge for the group to perform for people who are not familiar with their work and personalities. While it is possible for members to impress audiences at Penn with their personality and style, at CUPSI, it is a different ballgame.
“People sometimes use their charm to mask their writing, and they don’t push their writing as hard as they could … Against these other schools … it really comes down to the writing,” Yates said.
Excelano as family
The group is meeting for the first time after spring break, and it’s time for them to “check in” with each other, catching up on each others’ lives after being apart for so long. Yates goes first, showing off a new tattoo on her right forearm, that reads “3/4” in a stylized font, in honor of the group.
She got the tattoo after finding out she was not accepted to her first choice school’s Master of Fine Arts program in Literary Arts. “It was a reminder to myself that I’ll always be a poet, even if I don’t end up going to grad school,” she explained.
The group continues to go around the room sharing updates. Jillian Blackwell, a College senior, walks in and passes around a pint of ice cream. Everyone shares the same spoon.
Two members have started dating new people, one is recovering from an ear infection, another was reunited with her father for the first time in four years, one is considering transferring out of Penn, one turned in his thesis proposal, another is prepping for her Bloomers show. No matter the news, everyone listens, comments and cares. To them, Excelano is not just a club — it’s a family.
And from these life experiences that they share with one another, they explore their thoughts, joys and pains. And that’s what really makes a good poem.
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