Art Works Blog

The Steps to Poetry Out Loud

Washington, DC

Zamyia Felton

Zamiya Felton of Charlotte's West Mecklenburg High School was North Carolina's 2010 State Champ. Photo by James Kegley.

On April 28 and 29, 53 eager young people from across the U.S. will descend on Washington, DC---with their families and teachers in tow---to compete in the 2011 Poetry Out Loud (POL) National Finals. On Thursday, three semi-final rounds will yield nine finalists who will compete on Friday evening for scholarships and, of course, the title of National Champion. POL is a partnership program with the Poetry Foundation and the state arts agencies. We asked Mimi Herman who coordinates the program for North Carolina to give us an inside look. (Visit our newsroom to learn more about next week's events, including the one-time-only live webcast.)

Thanks to Poetry Out Loud, every month is Poetry Month for high school students across the country. This national poetry recitation program makes poetry cool in school. Students memorize great poetry, then compete, not for who can be loudest (despite the program’s name) or most theatrical, but for who most deeply understands and embodies a poem, who gets a poem, and can recite it as if it is being created before the audience for the first time: newly forged and still glowing.

I’ve been the North Carolina state coordinator for Poetry Out Loud since 2005, when we started with 11 schools, 31 teachers, and roughly 2,100 participating students. Since then, we’ve grown to 86 schools, 198 teachers, and just shy of 10,000 students.

For years, English teachers have looked for ways to help their students take poems seriously---or take them at all. “Before this I thought poetry was an old dead art,” said Daisy Marshall, a 2011 North Carolina semifinalist.

Poetry Out Loud has changed this by giving students an opportunity to make poems their own---for life. Poems are not handed out to whole classes, to be dissected and pinned to boards. Instead, students choose from a rich and ever-expanding storehouse that encompasses the history of poetry from Shakespeare through Sherman Alexie. They get to explore and discover, to say: This is my poem…and this one.

Jermani Horton, another semifinalist, said, “Poetry Out Loud has taught me that I can still relate to poems that were written hundreds of years ago.” The act of choosing, and memorizing, helps students understand who they are by understanding in a visceral way why certain poems speak to them. This is poetry’s---and Poetry Out Loud’s---greatest gift to them, not winning a competition.

Taylor Bell, a finalist, explained, “I’ve learned not to read into a poem but to read out of it.” After students choose and develop relationships with their poems, the classroom competitions begin, leading to increasingly higher—and tougher—levels: school, district, state, and nationals.

In North Carolina we build Poetry Out Loud through individual teachers, trusting that a program this great will spread down the halls. One teacher this year; an entire school the next. We invite participation through newsletters, listservs, emails, and word of mouth.

Not only do students claim ownership of the poems they discover; teachers claim ownership of the program itself. In early fall, when teachers register online for the program, they sign up as Poetry Out Loud Coordinators for their schools and districts. Teachers are famously overcommitted, but every year they volunteer. Rather than micromanaging the program, we give teachers online kits on the North Carolina Arts Council Poetry Out Loud Resources page to manage each level of the program---classroom, school, and district.

From the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Outer Banks, teachers are inventing ways to incorporate Poetry Out Loud into their communities: from Haywood County, where every high school is participating; to Dare County, where reciters and art students create artwork reflecting the poems. The Poetry Out Loud festival comes complete with orchestral accompaniment, and poetry, rather than football, is the playing field on which a fierce high school rivalry is enacted.

In spring, hopefully not in competition with an ACC basketball game, we hold our state semifinals and finals. It’s a marathon day, with students arriving from all over the state. These students come a long way to the state championships, not only in miles, but also in overcoming shyness and academic challenges to become the poetry champions of their districts.

Poetry Out Loud requires substantial discipline and courage from students---and rewards them in even greater measure. “Here are the steps to Poetry Out Loud,” said Ann Florence Kram, one of our 2011 finalists. “You search through hundreds of poems to find one that you connect to, one that you love. Then you must take those feelings, and force others to feel them. You go on stage, rip your chest open, and allow your heart to be fully exposed to a group of strangers. The feeling you get once free to share your emotions is a high that cannot be matched. That's poetry, that's performance, that's Poetry Out Loud.”

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