Art Works Blog

How Do You Get to Poetry Out Loud?

Washington, DC

At the 2010 Poetry Out Loud National Finals, state champs warm up in the green room before the start of the championship round. Photo by James Kegley

Before Poetry Out Loud (POL) State Champions get to the National Finals, they have to get to the state finals. And sometimes that can be a story in itself. It can be extraordinarily difficult for some of the students to travel to their state championships due to huge distances, bad weather, poor roads, and, in some instances, lack of roads entirely.

In Hawaii, weather isn’t usually an impediment, but they do have to watch out for vog, or volcanic fog. In fact, the 2010 state finals almost had to be canceled! The Chilean earthquake and resulting tsunami occurred the day before the scheduled state championship. We were on tenterhooks, waiting to make sure that everyone was okay and to learn whether inter-island travel would be affected. Fortunately, the effect of the tsunami was minimal by the time it reached the Hawaiian Islands and the event was able to proceed the following day, with all students arriving safely. Hats off to the Honolulu Theatre for Youth, which partnered with the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts on the Hawaii Poetry Out Loud program.

Juneau, Alaska, where the Alaska state championship was held, is water locked. Anyone traveling there must arrive by ferry or commercial aircraft. The state is vast, and weather plays a significant role in whether travel is possible. Some of the students had no difficulty reaching Juneau---other than very long trips. To get to Juneau on the Southeastern coast, Jessica Anderson traveled 1,200 miles from her hometown of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. In Unalakleet, near the Bering Sea, blizzard conditions closed airports and prevented local champion Kendra Fleharty from taking her scheduled flights. Her school system volunteered its plane to brave the weather. She arrived in Anchorage at 2:00 a.m. and then caught a connecting flight to Juneau. That’s dedication! Kudos to the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council, which partnered with the Alaska State Council on the Arts on the Alaska Poetry Out Loud program.

Of course, sometimes weather and distance aren't the reason the location is challenging at all. In New Hampshire, for example, the state finals had been scheduled for a year to be held on a Thursday evening in the House chambers of the State House, known as Representatives Hall. House legislative business was extending, however, to the point where it looked like it would not be concluded in time for the POL championship. But William O'Brien, New Hampshire Speaker of the House of Representatives, very kindly kept the House working overtime on Wednesday to ensure that the chamber would be free for the students on Thursday. In addition, O'Brien, a poetry lover, recited a poem for the students in his opening remarks and---although he was expected at an event elsewhere---he stayed at the event because he was so impressed with the students.

All in all, it takes a great deal of effort and perseverance on behalf of families, teachers, the state agencies and their partners, and, of course, the students! It’s an effort we recognize and truly appreciate and look forward to cheering today and tomorrow at the National Finals!

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