Art Works Blog

Poetry Talk with Youssef Biaz, 2011 Poetry Out Loud National Champion

"Find a poem you feel like you wrote in another life.... If you find yourself thinking too hard about why a poem might be a good choice, it’s not the right poem." -- Youssef Biaz

This year we're celebrating the 10th year of Poetry Out Loud--a recitation contest for high schoolers in partnership with the Poetry Foundation and the state arts agencies. Forget what you think you know about poetry. Reciting poetry from poets as diverse as Queen Elizabeth I, Langston Hughes, Kim Addonizio, Sherman Alexie, and hundreds of other poets, each time they take the stage these young competitors remind us that poetry is dynamic, poetry is exhilirating, poetry is downright magical! Don't believe us? Head over to the Poetry Out Loud website where you can check out some of these teens in action.

As part of our anniverary celebrations we've asked some program alumni to reflect back on their Poetry Out Loud experience. Youssef Biaz, the 2011 Poetry Out Loud National Champ (and Alabama state champ), claimed the coveted title after advancing through a field of 325,000 students nationwide including the other 52 state champs. Biaz is currently working toward a degree from the University of Southern California, where he studies film production and computer science. Keep reading to hear him reflect on the competition and how poetry continues to influence his life.

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement with the arts?

YOUSSEF BIAZ: It was actually a poetry recitation I did in fourth grade. I recited "Wavy Hair" by Shel Silverstein. And I believe I messed it up.

NEA: Fill us in on your life since being named Poetry Out Loud National Champion. Has poetry informed any of your more recent endeavors?

BIAZ: Since my last Poetry Out Loud competition I’ve been in college, studying film production and computer science, and those endeavors have mostly taken my focus off of poetry for the past few years. However, I’ve taken every opportunity to recite poetry when asked, and I’m currently working with a musician on a CD pairing poetry recitations with jazz.

NEA: Any plans for the future?

BIAZ: Graduate ASAP, then head to sea on a sailboat. Other than that, no plans at all.

NEA: Who are some poets or writers who inspire you?

BIAZ: Bukowski, Denis Johnson, Jackson Burgess

NEA: What is your favorite memory of participating in Poetry Out Loud?

BIAZ: There are so many great memories from my Poetry Out Loud experience. My favorite memory during the national event, though, has to be from the Top 9 Finals competition in 2010. All nine of us reciters gathered backstage for snacks, and to calm our nerves, we began playing a few improv games. After a few minutes and many laughs, we had forgotten that we were even performing.

NEA: What advice would you give to students participating, or thinking about participating, in Poetry Out Loud?

BIAZ: Find a poem you feel like you wrote in another life. I can’t stress how important it is to really relate to the material you’re performing. It has to be a part of you, and the choices you make in performing your poem have to be instinctive in order for it to communicate viscerally. If you find yourself thinking too hard about why a poem might be a good choice, it’s not the right poem.  And finally, relax and let go—no performance has to be the perfect performance. Every time you recite it, it should be different, and that should come from how you feel in the moment that you’re reciting. Don’t beat yourself up over “mistakes” you feel you make. Your understanding of the poem will evolve as you evolve, and so it’s important not to get stuck in robotic repetition or expect only one recitation out of yourself—once you truly know your poem, you can recite it with a fresh voice every time, and the ‘mistakes’ are part of that novelty.

NEA: What would you like to ask yourself--and answer--as the final question of this interview?

BIAZ: Has winning a national poetry recitation contest cured you of your bitterness and taught you healthy ways of facing the inevitable disappointments in life? No. But that’s what the poetry’s for. 

For the next several months, our 2014 Poetry Out Loud National Champion Anita Norman will be a featured columnist on the Art Works blog. You can check out her first post for us here




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