Art Talk with 2019 Poetry Out Loud National Champion Isabella Callery

By Paulette Beete
Isabella Callery holds her Poetry Out Loud National Champion glass trophy

2019 Poetry Out Loud National Champion Isabella Callery. Photo by James Kegley

At approximately 9:30 pm on Wednesday, May 1, Isabella Callery (Anishinaabe)—one of only nine students to make it to make the final round of competition from a field of more than 275,000 high schoolers—heard her name announced as the 2019 Poetry Out Loud National Champion. When we spoke with her later that night, she confessed that it all still hadn't quite sunk in. "I don’t think I’ve realized it yet—still. I’m so happy. It will always be one of the most important moments of my entire life," she told us as her phone continued to buzz with congratulatory texts and tweets. A senior at Arcadia Charter School, the Minnesota teen heads to college in Wisconsin this fall to start working toward her goal of becoming a juvenile rehabilitation therapist. We spoke with Callery—who recited poems by Joy Harjo, Natalie Diaz, and Thomas Lamb at the National Finals—about how participating in Poetry Out Loud transformed her relationship to poetry, how she plans to keep poetry in her life, and why she believes there's a poem for everyone.
NEA: How did you get involved in Poetry Out Loud? CALLERY: I got involved through my English teacher, Scott Grave, whom I love very dearly. I started in ninth grade, so I’ve done it four years now. I’ve had a lot of practice. I have made it to state finals all four years, and this is the first year that I’ve made it to nationals! So, this was a nice hurrah on my way out. NEA: If you had to describe this whole experience using just five words—they don't have to be in a sentence—what would you say? CALLERY: Empowering, self-driven, practice, nerve-wracking, happy. NEA: Why is "empowering” a word you associate with Poetry Out Loud? CALLERY: People around that I see don’t really get that moment on stage. They don’t get to talk about things they love. [Through this program] people from all over the country get up and share something they connected to, share something they have found empowerment through. To be able to get up in front of a huge stage of people and speak, that’s an opportunity not everyone would have had without Poetry Out Loud. NEA: How has participating in Poetry Out Loud changed your relationship with poetry? CALLERY: Completely. I have been a huge fan of slam poetry my entire life. [Poetry Out Loud] gave me a totally new look on poetry as a whole, and [showed me] that there’s more depth in other types of poems other than slam poetry, that you can take written poetry—and it takes a few times reading it—but there is the same depth there as you would have just openly saying things that have happened to you. NEA: How do you see poetry being part of your life as you head off to college and everything that comes next? CALLERY: Poetry will always stay with me. Most of all, I think that a lot of the public speaking—getting comfortable on a stage—that will really be what I use a lot. And just being able to use poetry as an outlet is always a really beautiful thing. NEA: What is something that you learned about yourself—or just in general—from participating in Poetry Out Loud? CALLERY: I think that something I learned is that… there’s a poem for everyone. No matter who you are, there’s a poem that you will connect with and you will feel a really deep relationship with no matter who you are. NEA: Why do you think that is? CALLERY: Because there’s such a wide variety of poems, and because there is someone from your demographic who has gone through what you are going through, who’s felt the same way. NEA: What’s been the most challenging part of being part of Poetry Out Loud, and what’s been the most joyful part or the best part? CALLERY: The best part has been the euphoria of it all, getting to meet new people, and getting to see new things and experience new things. The most challenging part is definitely all the anxiety beforehand. NEA: What would you say to encourage other high school students to be part of Poetry Out Loud? CALLERY: You will find yourself in a poem and you will feel a connection to it that is more beautiful than you can imagine. Visit the Poetry Out Loud website to learn more about the program, browse the Poetry Out Loud virtual anthology, and find out how your school can participate in the program.