Art Works Blog

Postcard from Poetry Out Loud 2010

April 29. 2010
Washington, DC

That's me on the far right after the POL finals with Poetry Foundation President John Barr and 2010 Poetry Out Loud National Champion Amber Rose Johnson, who is also Rhode Island's state champion. Photo by James Kegley

On Tuesday night I attended the Finals round of Poetry Out Loud, a recitation contest for high school students that we present with The Poetry Foundation and the state arts agencies. It was sensational---one of the high points of my brief tenure so far. It was exhilarating to see those kids so excited, so committed. They?re really winning kids---they?re passionate, they?re articulate, they?re poised. All the kids that we saw were incredibly impressive, and I can?t wait to go back to the event next year. I?m very proud of them. Coincidentally, the next day I met with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse from Rhode Island, the home state of the National Champion Amber Rose Johnson. He was just beaming about her and really proud and planning to call her. I think it?s one of the NEA?s best events, I really do.

I think we can learn a lot about how to get kids interested in learning from this program. The program is a mode of self-expression, not just rote learning. And when you can combine learning with the ability to express yourself creatively---which is exactly what Poetry Out Loud does---that?s an important part of education. It?s not just sitting in rows in front of the teacher and taking in information. It?s engaging in material and making it your own. And what these teens do is they take the canon of poetry and make it their own, find their own way into it and their own way of expressing it. It?s thrilling to watch that, it really is.

I think there are a lot of parallels between my field, which is theater, and poetry. Most drama until very recently was written in verse. So drama, in a sense, is a form of poetry. And once you include the dramatic canon, you?ve opened up the whole field of poetry tremendously. I think when I played Richard II in college, I was reciting poetry among other things. When you learn a script, you make it your own then, I think, you internalize it. You develop your own relationship to it and your own expression of it. It?s not just reading something someone else has written, it becomes part of who you are. When you talk about actors, you talk about transformation, becoming someone else. And to a great extent, these kids who are reciting poetry are doing exactly that.

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