How Do You Get to Poetry Out Loud?

By Paulette Beete

Not only was Nicholas Amador—now a sophomore studying astrophysics at Harvard University—Hawaii's Poetry Out Loud champion for three straight years, but he also placed in the top three at the National Finals each of those years. Having declared poetry persona non grata in fifth grade—thanks to a slight misunderstanding during a class assignment involving Edgar Allan Poe—Amador fell back in love with reading and poetry just before he started high school at Honolulu's Punahou School. After participating in a mock version of Poetry Out Loud freshman year, Amador signed up for the real deal as a sophomore. As he told us when we spoke the day before the 2018 National Finals, "I didn't know what [Poetry Out Loud] was before this class, but I enjoyed it so much… I was like I want do this next year. I did it, and I've been hooked ever since." Here's more from Amador on falling in love with Poetry Out Loud, the challenges and joys of the competition, and why he thinks the arts and science are a perfect mix.

NEA: Did you have a relationship with poetry before you started participating in Poetry Out Loud?

AMADOR: I didn't have much of a relationship with it. There was a class in fifth grade, the English class I was in, and part of it was poetry recitation competition. You could pick any poem you wanted. Most kids picked Shel Silverstein. I picked "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe. I memorized it, and I had to write a little report on it. You had to do a drawing to go with it. I'm not an artist so I tried to do this clever thing where I had the chamber door which was open and I colored in with the pencil and I used my eraser and wrote "Nevermore." But one of the requirements was that I had to use color… so I ended up getting like a 2 out of 5 on the assignment. I was like I'm not good at this. So from fifth grade all the way until eighth grade I just didn't read poetry. I didn't read books. I was kind of discouraged. Then I all of a sudden just fell in love with [reading] again when [we had to read] To Kill a Mockingbird. I sort of tumbled into reading more poetry and reciting it. It's compounded by the fact that I do a lot of theater, I think. I definitely would not have had the confidence to go onstage and read poetry in front of people had it not been for my theater background. Because I started theater in sixth grade—musical theater, singing and dancing on stage. I'd say that my relationship with poetry runs tangent to my relationship with theater and it's culminated in my experience with Poetry Out Loud.

NEA: When you're reciting poetry, what is it that you want the audience to take you’re your recitation?

AMADOR: I want everybody to take the poem and think about what it means to them. I do write my own poetry too, and my experience with it is that I have something in mind, an idea that I'm hoping to express. Then I'll share the poem and somebody will read my poem and read into something that I didn't even put in there, [which I think is] cool. So when I interpret the poems that I read for Poetry Out Loud I have to figure out not just what the poem means, but what it means for me. The most important thing is that people hear me saying the poem, and internalize it to them, figure out a way that they can relate to it. What does the poem mean to me as a spectator watching it?

NEA: I know you have a tremendous passion for science, and it's what you plan to study in college. What skills do you think you've developed through engaging with the arts that you'll bring into your work as a scientist?

I want to be a science communicator, which is the perfect blend [of art and science]. I look up to people like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson who take these really abstract scientific concepts and pack them really nicely into edible bite-sized pieces of science that are really poetic. One of my favorite [works] is The Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan, where he talks about the picture of the Earth taken from the Voyager I probe. Earth just looks like this tiny blue dot; it just looks like any other planet or star. This year I'm actually a teacher's assistant for a physics class of sophomore and juniors. Part of what I do is I walk around the classroom and answer people's questions and try and explain the concepts. I think my work with Poetry Out Loud has definitely helped me to have the confidence to be able to speak about other things that I'm interested in. It's not just about the poetry. It's about sharing what I love with others.

NEA: What's been the most challenging part of participating in Poetry Out Loud? And what's been the most fulfilling part?

AMADOR: The most challenging part is the nerves right before going on stage. When I'm in a show, I don't get nervous before performances. I always get nervous during auditions because then you know you're being judged. That's literally what you're there for. But when I'm in a show it's like I'm another character. So if something goes wrong, it's like, "Oh, that's not me, it's this other dude." But with poetry I get the same kind of nerves that I get at an audition. It's something that I struggle with but there are all kinds of ways to deal with that. Just breathing backstage and focusing on [thinking,] "This is the poem. It's not me anymore; it's this thing that I'm sharing that's beyond just myself."

[The most fulfilling part has been] meeting the people. I'm still in contact with people I've met at all levels of the competition—school, state and national. It's so great to be part of this community where everybody loves poetry and wants to share it…. What I really didn't expect is that people would be so nice and that I'd make these what I hope are lifelong connections and friends. It's just been amazingly eye-opening to meet all different kinds of people and hear what they have to say, and be part of such a diverse community. I wish that everybody had this chance, had this time in their life to meet people from all over the country. When do you get to be in the same room with one person from every single state and DC and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands? The influence that having met people from all over the place has had on me is probably the biggest way I've grown [because of Poetry Out Loud].

NEA: Why has it been important to engage in the arts during your high school years? And how are you going to stay involved in the arts in college?

AMADOR: [As] teenagers, we're not kids anymore. We've advanced to the stage in our life where we have opinions on things that are our own. We can look at our world and see injustice, see things that aren't right. We have people that we look up to and people we don't agree with. It's very important to have ways of expressing your feelings toward things. And art for me, and poetry especially, is a way to do that.

[In college] I'm going to continue to write. I'm going to continue to share my own poetry out loud as much as I can. I want to do theater. I want to keep auditioning for things. Physics is the career I want to pursue but it's so important to have arts be a part of your life, because without it, what are you living for, really? It's really important to be able to express yourself because people change and you always have to have a means of sharing that change with other people, and that's the role I want poetry to play in my life.

The 2021 Poetry Out Loud National Semifinals will be broadcast Sunday, May 27 starting at 12:00pm ET on Meet the state and jurisdictional champs and find out when each region's students are competing in the Poetry Out Loud program book [PDF].