Art Talk with 2015 Poetry Out Loud Champion Maeva Ordaz

By Paulette Beete
a young Hispanic woman wearing an unbuttoned orange sweater over a black dress with white polka dots recites into a microphone

Maeva Ordaz recites during the Region 3 Semifinals Round of the 2015 Poetry Out Loud National Finals. Photo by James Kegley

“Poetry Out Loud has given me the opportunity to be able to speak up as a person, to be able to get the message across, which, to me, is my experiences coming from an immigrant family and all the hardships we've faced.” – Maeva Ordaz, 2015 Poetry Out Loud National Champion

Thanks to equal parts talent and tenacity, Alaskan Maeva Ordaz, a senior at West Anchorage High School, claimed the title of 2015 Poetry Out Loud Champion as April's National Poetry Month drew to a close. Ordaz rose to the top out of the nearly 365,000 students nationwide who participated in the program this school year. Ordaz, who heads to Columbia University this fall, won both her state competition and the national competition with recitations of "The Nail" by C.K. Williams, "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats, and Brenda Cardenas's trilingual poem "Zacuanpapalotls," which Maeva fell in love with during her first exposure to the program as a sophomore. Just a few hours after her fantastic feat, we spoke to Ordaz about her experiences with the program (as her phone buzzed insistently with well wishes and congratulations). In her own words, here's Maeva Ordaz's Poetry Out Loud story.

When I realized I’d won, the first thing that went through my thoughts was I'm so glad I won this and my parents are going to feel so proud. I'm able to make my parents proud and make my city proud, and I'm able to represent my state. Just being in that moment and recognizing that I've reached the pinnacle of this competition and all the work that I've put into it paid off--it's an incredible feeling. I would not be where I am if not for the support I received from my parents, my sister, my teachers, my friends, everybody. So I'm still in shock. I'm still trying to comprehend.

I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for the support from the people from the Alaska State Council on the Arts, my teachers, my friends, but especially my parents who have provided me with incredible support. Even though at the beginning they didn't know what Poetry Out Loud was, they were still very supportive of it. I'm so grateful that my family has been behind me because coming from my background… I know [that support is] invaluable and should never be taken for granted. 

This is my third third year with Poetry Out Loud. My first year, I got second in my school competition. I didn't advance, but I told myself, “I'm going to go back next year and see what I did wrong and try to correct that and make improvements so that I can get this message across that I want to get across.” I did it last year as well, and I went all the way to state and I won state, and “Zacuanpapalotls” was one of the three poems I recited as well. I didn't make it to the top eight in the semifinals, but it was still a great experience because I got to see what finalists were doing, how expressive they were, how loud they were. So being able to learn from what they did and take that back with me. So this year when I was practicing my poems I thought back to how the winners and the finalists last year recited their poems, and I think that played a big role in me significantly improving this time around.

When I read poems, I look for the ones where I feel a personal connection, oftentimes that's from my personal experiences, or my family's background as immigrants and the sufferings we've had to go through and all the changes that we've experienced. So those poems really speak to me because I feel like somebody else understands me and understands what I'm going through and I'm really grateful that I'm able to learn those poems and get that message across because that's something that resonates with me and my background.

I didn't realized Poetry Out Loud was a national competition; I thought this was just a schoolwide competition that English teachers set up to get the students involved in reading and reciting poetry. So I'm just so grateful that my English teacher forced us to do that and that's when I found “Zacuanpaplotls,” which is the poem I will remember until the day I die. I'm so grateful that my school has Poetry Out loud and that so many schools in the Anchorage School district have also implemented Poetry Out loud in their schools. I think it's a very fulfilling experience for the student. It helps them improve their speaking skills. I think it also helps them connect with the poem and helps them understand that there's somebody else who understands what they've gone through, what they're feeling.

“Zacuanpaplotls” was my incentive to try as hard as possible because I love that poem and I love being able to share the poem's message. For me, being able to challenge myself and actually making it to Finals when I got to recite “Zacuanpapalotls” … it's been so incredible. And I really did feel what Anita [Norman, 2014 POL Champ] was talking about when she said it's just being in that moment and you're not speaking--the poem is.

If I could talk to Brenda Cardenas, I would say, “When I first read your poem, I was in awe of it.” For me, as another Mexican-American female coming from an immigrant family, it just really helped me connect with that whole idea of the cycle of rebirth and everything my family has gone through and the backgrounds they're coming from and how far we've come and succeeded in achieving the American dream. So being able to connect with that poem in that manner, and being able to use the Spanish and the Nahua words that are a big part of my heritage…. It's just an absolutely incredible poem, and I'm so grateful that she wrote it.

I love writing and I've been writing since I was little, but I hadn't actually read poetry really. I hadn't written any poetry. So after tenth grade and [after] I'd gone through the whole process of Poetry Out Loud and actually gone on the website, even though it was past Poetry Out Loud Finals, I was reading poems. I realized that I'm capable of doing this too and getting my message across in such an eloquent manner. And that's one of the things that inspired me to begin writing poetry. And I've been writing poetry every since. I think it's helped me with my confidence and winning these contests and everything. That I am a good writer as well and also it's helped me, being able to put my thoughts and my feelings and my experiences down on paper and being able to share that with my community in Anchorage and in the state, and in this case, the nation.

Poetry Out Loud has given me the opportunity to be able to speak up as a person, to be able to get the message across, which, to me, is my experiences coming from an immigrant family and all the hardships we've faced. I think Poetry Out Loud has provided me with the opportunity to recite these poems that deal with all these issues and has made me connect with poets from different eras. Even though I may be reciting a poem from Keats from several hundred years ago, I am still able to connect with that. It ties me into the rest of humanity and all the writers who've come before me.

Visit the National Endowment for the Arts YouTube Channel to hear Maeva Ordaz's moving recitation of "Zacuapapalotls" by Brenda Cardenas. Visit the Poetry Out Loud website to learn more about the program and find out how your school can participate in 2015-2016.