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Looking in: Poetry Out Loud

Cecilia+Ergueta+on+stage+during+the+Poetry+Out+Loud+competition
Cecilia Ergueta on stage during the Poetry Out Loud competition

Cecilia Ergueta on stage during the Poetry Out Loud competition

Cecilia Ergueta on stage during the Poetry Out Loud competition

Cecilia Ergueta, Columnist

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A solitary microphone stands, positioned center stage. A single blinding spotlight casts a circle on the bare floor. The room hushed, all eyes focus on the teenager striding evenly from the velvet-curtained wings. Across the country, 3 million involved students recognize this defining image of Poetry Out Loud, a national poetry recitation competition. This year, I was fortunate enough to participate for the first time, entering what would become an unforgettable experience: I moved on to become the 2017 Delaware State Champion, proceeding to the National Finals in Washington, D.C. along with 52 other students from the US states and territories.

 

Poetry Out Loud “encourages students to learn about great poetry through memorization and recitation” through its pyramid structure, which narrows down the final champion from the classroom, school, regional, state, and national levels. Students select three poems from the Poetry out Loud anthology posted online that fulfill different criteria (one less than twenty lines, one written before the 20th century, one free choice), and are assessed on specific evaluation criteria (including physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, evidence of understanding, overall performance, and accuracy). Poetry Out Loud was created in 2006 by the National Endowment of the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. Stephen Young, the foundation’s program director, shared his motivation for POL: inspiring and challenging students. “We wanted to give teachers a new way to teach poetry. Instead of asking students to read a poem and then write a paper about it, this contest emphasizes the pleasures and the sounds of poetry. It requires no less analytical skill than writing a paper to decide how you’re going to recite a particular line or what intonation is called-for here, what emphasis do you want there.” The high regard POL holds for its participants is demonstrated in the organization’s generous rewards; each year, a total of $50,000 is awarded in school stipends and awards. As State Champion, I earned $200 for myself and $500 for Wilmington Friends to buy poetry books, in addition to the all-expense paid trip to National Finals in Washington, D.C.

 

On April 24th, 53 students from all American states and territories (including Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Washington, D.C.) gathered in a room to meet each other. Right off the bat, one thing was clear: everyone was there because he/she loves poetry! “The kids that compete in POL aren’t just doing it to add to their list of high school accomplishments or casually mention it in a college essay. They actually CARE about poetry and understand its power on both an individual and societal level. I think that’s what I loved most about my experience with POL this year– the passion and spirit that each state champion brought to the table,” shared Iman Dancy, North Carolina State Champion. The students who ascended to the national level each had their own story; while some had backgrounds in theater or literature, others stumbled upon the opportunity: “When I heard the announcement that my school would be having a poetry recitation competition, I said, ‘why not?’ It wasn’t until I started the competition process that I realized how serious and legitimate POL actually is,” related Dancy (NC). “When I was a freshman, I watched kids at my school compete, and I just wanted to be like them” confided Simon Rabatin, Rhode Island State Champion. The students who showed up were passionate about poetry, but just as eager to learn about each other and connect with like-minded peers: “I was surprised about how inviting and friendly all the people were. Everyone was so kind throughout every level of the competition, and that made performing much less nerve wracking,” added Emily Friedrichsen, Vermont State Champion.

After formal social events such as the meet-and-greet and welcome banquet, students found themselves sticking together to chat, laugh, share poetry, and explore the city for the three days of the competition: “My favorite moment throughout the course of the competition was probably exploring D.C. with our little pod of East Coasters the day of Semifinals… it was thrilling to just enjoy the city for what it was and whatever came to us. It’s funny, but my most memorable moments come from being off-stage, just spending time with my fellow state champions,” shared Dancy (NC).

One moment that was perhaps particularly revealing was on the final night: after two days of poetry-packed competitions, the prizes already awarded, the speeches held, students gathered of their own accord to hold a private poetry slam– because what else would the country’s 53 top poetry reciters do on their night off? The poems shared, most written by the reciters themselves, were raw, intimate, and powerful: “My favorite part about POL was when people presented their own poetry. A lot of the poems were extremely personal, and I felt like I got to know a lot of people through their art,” mused Jessica Howard, Virginia State Champion. By the end of the evening, students felt they had shared more than their art; they had shared themselves, forming an intense bond with people who they knew could appreciate their gift.

 

Of course, in between exploring the city, sharing our own poetry, and exchanging cultural differences, there was still the competition itself, which was, in a word, inspiring: “An exciting competition brings the poems to life–and the communal experience of sharing emotions that these poems stir up, that communal experience makes poetry’s importance tangible, real,” shared JoAnn Balingit, Delaware Poetry Out Loud State Coordinator and Delaware’s 16th Poet Laureate. On the first day, student performances were divided into three regions (East Central and Northeast, Midwest and South Central, and Upper Northwest and West). At these Semifinals, students recited two rounds of poetry and were whittled to the final nine of each region. After a final round of poetry at the Semifinals, the final three moved on to compete all three rounds the following day in the National Finals. This year, I proceeded up to the final nine of my region, which is only the second time anyone from Delaware has made it that far. This means I had the privilege of reciting all three of the poems I had prepared, which was a truly special experience. The next day, all remaining State Champions attended the National Finals, this time as audience members. I expected some students to be disappointed at not being on stage, but this was not at all the case; excited and proud, students betted on and rooted jubilantly for their regional champions. “I think this shared passion we all had for the power of poetry made the entire experience feel less like a cutthroat competition and more like a congregation of people that just love poetry! We all genuinely enjoyed seeing each other perform and succeed,” expressed Dancy (NC). At the end, the competition was just another poetry slam for students to enjoy each other’s unique and powerful contributions: “No one acted like it was a competition. We were all long lost friends who just happened to compete against each other,” shared Howard (VA).

 

Whether as first-timers or longlife poetry lovers, everyone who went through Poetry Out Loud felt deeply touched by the power of poetry. Already from the beginning, students are impacted by the poems they learn. JoAnn Balingit, who in addition to being Delaware’s Poet Laureate from 2008 to 2015 has worked as a POL coach, judge, and state coordinator, shared her experience helping students prepare: “By far the most fulfilling and fascinating role is coaching students as they perform a poem. To see someone love and identify with a poem, first of all, is a beautiful thing. It’s that sacred conversation between the artist and the art lover, the poet and her reader, happening live! Humans communicating beyond the physical restrictions of time and space…  And then there are the fun geeky things in loving language and wordplay– helping students to tinker with individual words and delivery.” This love for language was echoed by Samara Huggins, Georgia State Champion and 2017 POL Champion in an interview: “It’s a different language. It’s different from prose or spoken word. The poet has to use the least amount of words possible and follow a structure; that makes every word even more important, every piece of punctuation that more necessary. It communicates an emotion. It communicates an idea, a thought process, a feeling, and those are all really important for us to understand in poetry.”

 

Many students see poetry as a powerful communication tool: “I think poetry is an exceptionally expressive vein of literature– and I’m all about expression,” shared Rabatin (RI). “Poetry, as a creative outlet, allows writers to explore themselves on a deeper, emotional level, expressing and reflecting on topics that they couldn’t delve into as deeply in other areas of their lives. After dissecting and embodying poets’ experiences through my recitations, I can understand their journeys in a way I don’t think I could before POL. And I think that’s what poetry is about. Connecting human beings despite, or perhaps, as a result of their vastly different realities and perspectives,” proffered Dancy (NC).

 

Poetry advocates such as Balingit argue vehemently that we, as humans, all need poetry: “It’s especially important to connect young people with poetry because we need ways to keep our connections with each other open, meaningful and honest. Describing how we feel is so hard to do! And poetry gives us the best language for doing so, teaching us that with imagination and practice we can create our own best language for articulating how we feel and what we believe in. Language is power.” For many, stepping into the world of Poetry Out Loud is a necessary escape, providing a crucial way of experiencing life through art: “Our world is so fast-paced and driven by instant gratification; poetry holds this unique capacity for getting us to stop, look around, pay attention, and truly be in the moment,” expressed Jake Rashkind, WFS Poetry Speaks club sponsor and Head of the English Department. With similar urgency, Balingit expressed that to her, the most important goal of the POL competitions was “introducing young people and their families to the art of poetry- -to what a vital art form poetry is.”

 

At Wilmington Friends School, poetry has had a transformative effect– which will only be increasing in years to come. The Poetry Speaks club, which was founded in 2015 by Hannah Kushner and Gustavo Silveira, started off as a grassroots effort to create a space for like-minded individuals. Slowly, members trickled in to form a small, but passionate base: “One thing that struck me was the diversity of students who got involved. When we asked why people joined, many reported having a moving emotional connection with poetry or a specific poem, but others simply stated that when their English teacher announces a poetry unit, they cry ‘yes’ while everyone else cries ‘no,’ expressed Hannah Kushner ’17, former co-Clerk of Poetry Speaks. Throughout my experience of ascending the levels of competition, the Poetry Speaks community was supportive and enthusiastic; from the very beginning, at the school-level competition last year, they overrode my hesitancy and goaded me into competing, for which I will be forever grateful! Now, as co-Clerk of the club with Bella Stuccio ’19, we are eagerly working with the WFS English Department to expand poetry’s influence at Friends by creating a schoolwide competition: “We want to challenge each rising high school student to learn one poem from the POL anthology, giving each student the opportunity to find a connection with some poem and perform it for their peers,” announced Rashkind. Through conversation with students at the national and regional levels, I had already discovered on my own the power for school-wide competitions to involve the entire school in a celebration of poetry, often inspiring unsuspecting students who then discovered their secret talent for the artform. Whether he/she ascends to become state champion or not, every student takes away valuable lessons from developing such an intimate connection with a poet and his work: “We have the strange notion that poetry can only be ‘done’ by those who are committed full-time, and those who possess an extraordinary artistic talent; I firmly believe that few activities are so intensely human as sharing poetry,” shared Gustavo Silveira ’17, former co-Clerk of Poetry Speaks. “I think the upcoming program will help a lot of students who have a connection with, and talent for, poetry that they haven’t yet recognized in themselves,” agreed Kushner ’17.

 

I feel an immense personal gratitude to Poetry Out Loud for providing me this opportunity. Naturally averse to athletics and aggressive competition, this was the first time I have been recognized at such a level, and I couldn’t be happier that it was through poetry. As Delaware State Champion, my experience didn’t stop at the competitions. At a time when the arts are threatened economically with budget cuts and culturally with underappreciation, I was called on to advocate for poetry and the arts in person through performances and meetings with my Senators, Governor, and State House of Representatives. I was invited to share personal poems alongside other Delawarean poets at a gallery opening, connecting with artists to whom poetry is everything. I was encouraged to share my poetry through radio interviews, classroom recitations, and private performances, spreading my pieces of art to the world. Poetry is more than acting and it is more than literature; it is a way of defining an artist’s work through your own interpretation, choosing a skin to slip into and meld into your own, surrounding yourself with words and images and sounds that you can claim ownership to by sharing them with others. Meeting with other teens in Washington, D.C. who were motivated by the same passion but interpreted it in countless unique ways of their own was surreal; I’ve rarely been so inspired as I was by the pure talent and unimpeded artistic zeal demonstrated by those 50 individuals.

My future doesn’t explicitly include poetry. I’d like to write, travel the world, and study sociology. But even without the microphone, the spotlight, and the velvet curtains, I know poetry has entered my life– and I don’t plan on letting it go.

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