Art Works Blog

How do you get to Poetry Out Loud. . .

April 22, 2010
Washington, DC

Photo by James Kegley

To borrow from an old joke : "How do you get to Poetry Out Loud? Practice, practice, practice."

I bet that any one of the 53 state champions participating in next week's POL National Finals would tell you that he or she wouldn't have it made this far without the help of some very dedicated coaches, whether that meant a drama teacher, an English teacher, parents, or other supporters. For Alanna Rivera (who we heard from on the blog earlier this week), one of those coaches was local poet Sandra Beasley. I caught up with Beasley via e-mail to get her thoughts on POL.

NEA: How did you get involved with the Poetry Out Loud program?

SANDRA BEASLEY: I was referred to Poetry Out Loud's Virginia coordinators by Magus Magnus, a wonderful poet and experimentalist theater producer who lives in Alexandria. He was following nothing more than a gut instinct that I was a good person for the job; he had no way of knowing that my college years included a number of competitive oratory and debating competitions while at the University of Virginia. The Virginia Commission for the Arts was generous enough to sponsor my sessions with Alanna.

NEA: Were were your top three pieces of advice to Alanna Rivera?

BEASLEY: Our first priority was to focus on the text, and develop an understanding of each poet's thesis that could then enrich her delivery. Too often, when reciting poems we treat them as empty scripts. We're so worried about messing up the pronunciations or diction, we lose contact with the meaning.

In terms of voice, I encourage people to work all at all ranges of volume. If you maintain intensity, a softly spoken stanza can be even more effective than one delivered at the top of your lungs. In terms of gaze, I encouraged Alanna to pick a trip of anchoring points---centered, to the left and to the right---and rotate through them, to ensure she made eye contact with the entire audience.

Alanna has a great dramatic presence, which made it easy to grab the audience's attention. But we then worked on choosing hand gestures and body postures that were not too stagey. I think the judges appreciated that she honored the inflections of the poem as it was on the page, rather than turning every poem into a spoken-word monologue.

NEA: Obviously the POL competitors get a lot out of working with mentors. What did you get out of being a coach?

BEASLEY: When I worked with Alanna, she was at the exact same age as I was when I first fell in love with poetry. As an adult, poetry is a career; I have a degree, a professional community, some formal goals. But once upon a time poetry was an elusive and fancy fish, glimmering in the very crowded river of 1,000 other high school fascinations. It was fun to see that same glimmer catch Alanna's eye, and to be reminded that art must first and foremost be enjoyed for art's sake.

NEA: What do you think are the benefits for students in learning to memorize and recite poetry?

BEASLEY: In memorizing poems, you return the art to its ancient origins, as a way of preserving stories and voices, and passing them from one generation to the next, that can never be denied. The poem becomes embedded in your muscle memory. I can't think of Emily Dickinson's "My life closed twice before its close--" without thinking of how it felt, as a nine-year-old, pacing back and forth across the shag carpet of my grandmother's living room as I repeated the stanzas over and over to myself. I could be locked in prison someday, deprived of access to all paper, but no one can take that poem away from me.

NEA: If you could add a poem to the Poetry Out Loud anthology, what would it be and why?

BEASLEY: There are so many poems to choose from! Perhaps "Night Madness Poem" by Sandra Cisneros. I love Cisneros's work for its fire and its music. "In dreams," she says, "the origami of the brain / opens like a fist, a pomegranate, / an expensive geometry." That was the first poem I memorized in high school. Another choice: Elizabeth Bishop's "Sestina," a poem that is both clever and devastating in its themes. I'd love to see how a student manages the repetitions of the sestina form when delivering the poem aloud.

NEA: Anything you?d like to add?

BEASLEY: If those reading this do one thing this week to support poetry, I would make it this: ask your local public library to order a volume of contemporary poetry. One of the things I love about the Poetry Out Loud anthology is that it places a poet such as Ai alongside Robert Lowell, alongside Jonathan Swift and Shakespeare; in other words, the anthology integrates poems across era and aesthetic. I wish the shelves of all public libraries were so diverse.

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