Art Works Blog

Poetry Out Loud Talk with 2013 National Champion Langston Ward

Langston Ward was crowned the Poetry Out Loud National Champion in 2013. Today he's studying history and playing football at Harvard University. We recently caught up with him to talk about his Poetry Out Loud experiences and the impact poetry has had on his life.

NEA: Can you tell us about your life at Harvard University? 

LANGSTON WARD: I'm a junior now, entering my third year at Harvard. I declared a History major last year, after experiencing a number of different fields and have had some great professors so far. Other than school, my time is pretty much all taken up by football. The guys on the team are my best friends on campus. Harvard has been a really positive experience so far.

NEA: Let’s go back in time to when you first participated in Poetry Out Loud.  What was it that made you return for consecutive competitions?

WARD: My freshman year was the first time I participated but I came second to last in my classroom contest. Sophomore year was the first time I got to my state contest. There was a moment in class when I performed in front of my peers and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. I was taken aback by [their reactions] so I wanted to keep going. It ended up being something I really liked to do on my own that was really different from anything else I was doing at the time. It operated a different part of my brain so that was what made me latch on to it.

NEA: Were you involved in the arts before you participated in Poetry Out Loud?

WARD: I played cello in my high school orchestra, and I sang and [played bass] in my band with my buddies in high school.

NEA: How did you balance practicing your poems with academics and football?

WARD: Fortunately the Poetry Out Loud season was always after football, so I could dedicate my time to music and Poetry Out Loud during that time. I didn't emphasize the practicing aspect much. My approach was to try to replicate how I felt the first time I read a poem. A lot of that involved not over-processing [the poems]. I didn't practice in front of people because I didn't want to read their reaction or get their feedback [because] I might feel disingenuous. The first time my mom listened to any of my poems would always be at the regional contest.

a young african-american man in a gray suit recites into a microphone

Langston Ward recites during the 2013 Poetry Out Loud National Finals. Photo by James Kegley

NEA: Do you still remember the poems you recited all those years ago?

WARD: I actually do, I get asked to perform them frequently. [laughs] Coming in as a freshman on the football team, the biggest and oldest guy on the team came up to me on the first day, and said,”'I know you do poetry. You're going to do a poem for us [for the team talent show.]” I wasn't going to say no to him, of course, so I ended up [reciting] "Chicago" for the team, and that was my introduction to the football team. They loved it.

NEA: What surprised you most about attending the national competition in Washington, DC?

WARD: Some of my fondest memories from high school are from [that trip]. It felt like you were an ambassador from your state and it was just amazing [to meet] all these other kids from all over and to listen to what they were doing with these poems, because almost everyone is doing something different. To hear how someone interprets something in the anthology that you weren't really into and see how they really capture it perfectly was really exciting.  

NEA: Are you still in touch with some of the people you met at the national competition?

WARD: There's actually a girl who was the New Jersey champion my junior year who was on my floor my freshman year [at Harvard], so I see her around all the time and that's pretty cool.

NEA: After winning the national competition, what was your experience like?

WARD: The main perk was being asked to perform, which at first I didn't see as a perk. I don't have too much of a problem with stage fright but I'm not the type to stand up and perform. But I always enjoy sharing. However apprehensively I entered the situation, people would always be touched by the poem and I really appreciated that.

NEA: Do you believe your life would be different had you not participated in POL? If so, how?

WARD: In a pragmatic way, I wouldn't have had someone helping me pay for college for these three years. I also would not have gotten into poetry at all. I wasn't really into poetry before [Poetry Out Loud] even though I'm named after an amazing poet. It wasn't something I was reading or even interested in. But through this classroom requirement it really snuck up on me how much I would connect with these poems and how much poetry would be something I could carry with me for the rest of my life.

NEA: What are some skills you acquired from reciting poetry that have helped you in college?

WARD: I think being honest with how you interpret things is an important connection I see. Trusting yourself about how you feel about a piece of art or a piece of literature or poem, and being able to share that honestly with people.

NEA: What would you say is the best reason for a high school student to participate in Poetry Out Loud?

WARD: You have to give poetry a chance. Poetry snuck up on me. It was something that really latched onto me. Something like that could happen to anybody if they just give it a chance.

NEA: What types of books or poems are you reading now?

WARD: I read occasionally, I'm reading a lot of other material for my classes [laughs]. Recently, I've been into the Beat movement. I've been reading some Kenneth Rexroth even though he doesn't really define himself as a Beat poet. I find that movement really fascinating historically and the content of what they're talking about.

NEA: What are your hopes for the future, your plans after you graduate?

WARD: I have thought about it a lot but I still don't know what I want to do. I'm comfortable with that right now. We'll see what the future holds.

NEA: Our last question for you: why do the arts matter?

WARD: I think that's a really personal question in a really important way in that I think the arts matter for different reasons to different people. I think that's the beauty of the arts. I think the arts are our best attempt to carve out what it means to be a human being and that means different things to different people.  Whatever you can carve out within that is your piece of the arts. I think everyone should at least try to do that for themselves.

It's not too early to make your plans to join us for the 2016 Poetry Out Loud National Finals in Washington, DC at GWU's Lisner Auditorium (and live online at arts.gov) May 3-4.

Comments

What a talented young man, not only is he a wnderfull poet but plays music andfootball as well. His parents must be very proud. I must say, great coverage of the Poetry Out Loud series.I look forward to the next update.

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