Name: Hannah Van Sciver, 2014 Hometown: Cape Cod, Massachusetts Major: English Medium of Choice: Words
Street: What inspired you to begin writing poetry? performing it? Hannah Van Sciver: I’ve always loved to read and write. English class was a favorite subject in school. I realized just how much I liked poetry in eighth grade, when students were supposed to memorize a 12–line poem for class each week. I found myself memorizing entire Lewis Caroll, Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Service poems, purely because I liked them. I was first introduced to slam poetry, however, when Taylor Mali performed at my school in the 9th grade. (He’s a very famous slam poet. see http://taylormali.com.) I didn’t realize an art form existed which combined poetry and theatre in such a way. I thought it was incredibly exciting. I saw Mali perform again the following year, and attended a writing workshop soon afterwards which featured spoken word. I remember writing my first “slam” poem during the car ride home. Then I found out about a local teen poetry slam and decided to enter. I wrote two more pieces, and ended up winning the whole competition. (That was my first time “performing” poetry.)
Street: How would you define slam poetry? HVS: Tough question. There are lots of possible answers. I personally think “slam poetry” is any poem which can be performed. I think a Shakespearean sonnet can be a slam poem. (Not everyone would agree with me.) For me, slam is all about the combination of writing and performing, in order to really connect with an audience. It’s electric.
Street: What inspires you when you write the poems? HVS: It varies. I try to always write from my own experience. I find I’m very productive when I’m upset. (I’ve written too many angry love poems to count.) But poems can also come from random ideas. I try to carry a notebook around with me, in case I’m suddenly inspired, or struck by a one–liner. Occasionally, a class writing assignment can lead to a good poem. I’m learning not to force my writing — I think it’s important to write when you want to write. The writing is always better and more heartfelt that way.
Street: Have you always been a performer? HVS: I’ve always loved to be on stage, and I’m a bit of a theatre fanatic. I did theatre as a young child, and did a lot of acting locally (on Cape Cod, where I’m from) and through my high school’s drama club. I’m actively involved with many of the theatre groups on campus at Penn as well. I think the skills I learn by participating in theatre definitely apply in the realm of slam poetry.
Street: Who are you favorite poets? Do you have any role-models? HVS: Too many to mention! I grew up on Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein. I fell in love with E.E. Cummings in middle school. Taylor Mali has been one of my slam influences, along with Billy Collins, and the Excelano Project (a slam group, based at Penn. I was recently accepted into the group!). I also love William Shakespeare, T.S. Elliot, Edgar Allen Poe, Bob Dylan and Sylvia Plath.
My poetic horizons have definitely expanded since I’ve begun to formally study English at Penn. I’ve come to enjoy poets like Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein whom I previously avoided. Ive also been introduced to the work of slam poets Cristin Aptowicz and Shappy Seasholtz, as well as the work of CA Conrad and Michelle Taransky, who all currently reside in Philly. In addition, a creative writing class with Cristin has exposed me to the work of slam artists such as Sarah Kay, Mahogany Browne and Patricia Smith.
Street: What do you see yourself doing with this talent in the future? HVS: I hope to keep writing and performing for my entire life. I’ve been really inspired by the community of poets I’ve met in my short time in the Excelano Project — I hope to learn as much as possible from them in the coming years. I’m learning more and more about honing my writing/performing style, and also about the different venues where poetry can be performed. There is so much opportunity for avid writers these days. For example, I just learned about the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI), a college level national slam competition (CUPSI). While I wasn’t eligible for the team as a new member, I look forward to cheering on the Excelano representatives at the competition this year. I would love to have that experience one day in the future.
Street: Are you working on anything now? HVS: I find I’m always working on something. I have entire folders full of unfinished poems and one–liners. I’m currently rewriting a poem focusing on how astronomy and love are connected. I’m also thinking about a potential show piece for the Excelano spring show (April 1 and 2).
Street: How long does it usually take you to write a poem? Is it a spontaneous thing or a long revision process? HVS: It depends. I typically prefer to get it all out at once, edit the next day and then consider a piece “finished.” (This is rarely how it works.) Some of the best ideas take months to really develop. And sometimes it’s necessary to let something sit for a while before picking it up again. I find once I get frustrated with a particular piece or idea, my ability to write decreases. If it’s forced, it generally doesn’t come out well. I write best when I’m excited to be writing.
Street: Would you say there is a culture of slam poetry? Are there any places in Philadelphia where you’ve found a concentration of it? HVS: Absolutely! There are a ton of poets and performers on campus alone. In addition to the Excelano Project, there is also lots of writing and performing at the Kelly Writers House (on campus/where slam poet Cristin Aptowicz is the writer in residence). Furthermore, I’m constantly learning about slam venues that exist around Philly. There is an abundance of poetry cafes and open mics. I know Temple University has a slam team too.
Street: How has being a part of the Excelano project influenced your work? HVS: I knew about the Excelano Project before I knew they were a Penn affiliated group. It wasn’t until after I was admitted to Penn that I made the connection. Since I got into the group at the start of second semester, they’ve had a huge influence on me. I’ve never had the opportunity to be in such a community of talented poets and performers before. It’s incredibly inspiring. I’m getting the chance to workshop pieces and improve my performance. I’m also getting the chance to perform with greater frequency and in more venues. It’s exciting! The amount of talent in the group is itself an enormous inspiration to me.