An Interview with Alanna Rivera, Virginia's Poetry Out Loud State Champion (Arlington, VA)


Young woman in orange shirt at a microphone

Alanna Rivera was one of only a handful of underclassmen nationwide to make it to the Poetry Out Loud National Finals. Photo credit: James Kegley

Virginia's Poetry Out Loud state champion, Alanna Rivera took third place in the 2007 Poetry Out Loud National Finals. Now a junior at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia, Rivera spoke with the NEA about her participation in the program and how it's affected her relationship with poetry.

NEA: What's your favorite memory from the National Finals?

ALANNA RIVERA: My favorite memory from the National Finals was meeting Garrison Keillor. He inspired me to wear my favorite sneakers.

NEA: Has the program increased your interest in poetry or in performing?

RIVERA: When I was younger I used to write poems but was so unsatisfied that I sort of defenestrated poetry all together. I started out thinking that I was doing this all for the sake of performing, but I ended up reestablishing my relationship with poetry. I like it again, but I don't love it, because we still don't know each other that well.

NEA: How did working with local poet Sandra Beasley prepare you for the National Finals?

RIVERA: Sandra Beasley thoroughly prepared me for the National Finals by showing me things that I had never considered and teaching me that when I performed the idea was not to distract the audience from the poem and its meaning. She showed me where to focus my attention and how much was too much. We chewed the poems apart and sewed them back together until we were both satisfied. Without her I would not have made it as far as I did in the National Finals.

NEA: Out of the three poems you recited at the National Finals, which one carries the most meaning for you?

RIVERA: "Conversation" by Ai carried the most meaning for me. I love that poem because when I read it for the first time, it was like listening to my voice for the first time. Even before I knew what it all meant I felt something, I saw mist and curiosity rising from the page, we began breathing the same air, and we were one. I will always love that poem, even if my relationship with poetry does not work out in the end.

NEA: You said in your Poetry Out Loud bio that you participate in jazz band and marching band. Did your knowledge of music affect the way you delivered the poems?

RIVERA: In jazz you learn the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of the musicians, though sometimes it takes you a while to hear them. I think poetry is a lot like that. Reciting a poem is like a jazz solo: you're allowed to play your heart out, but you have to respect what the composer was feeling when he gave you those twelve or sixteen bars. You play for yourself, but you also play for the people who couldn't be there to voice their opinions, and you tell everybody what they had to say. My musical background helped me in understanding that I was no longer the musician, I was the musical instrument.