The Poetry of Speaking Up: A Conversation with 2021 Poetry Out Loud National Champion Rahele Megosha
When we asked Poetry Out Loud National Champion Rahele Megosha how she felt after claiming top prize at the 2021 competition, she admitted the moment had left her speechless. Luckily, that wasn’t the case as Megosha, then a senior at Washington High School, recited her way to becoming South Dakota State Champion before being declared last year’s national winner. Now a freshman at Columbia University, Megosha kept up an active schedule in high school, including participating in Student Council, Speech and Debate, and the Black Student Union. She also made time to work as a volunteer for Warrior Read, which helps new English speakers gain proficiency in reading. As she described her high school life, “Everybody always sees me running around and doing announcements or advocating for this or advocating for that, so I'm pretty much everywhere.” Megosha credited her experience in Poetry Out Loud with helping her to build her self-confidence. She is also eager to use the platform the program has given her to continue to speak out and to encourage others to raise their own voices about the things they believe in. What follows is our interview with Megosha, carried out via video conference.
NEA: Tell us about how you got involved in Poetry Out Loud.
MEGOSHA: Usually the captain of the speech team does Poetry Out Loud when they’re a senior. My first experience with Poetry Out Loud was when I saw one of my really good friends and teammates do it two years ago and she got to the state finals. [When] it was my turn this year I was super excited, because poetry has always been my thing when it comes to speech and debate. My first-ever competition I did poetry for Interp, and ever since then I've been trying to incorporate it in whatever pieces I do. Poetry Out Loud was really fitting for me.
NEA: What do you like about poetry?
MEGOSHA: I swear the question gets harder every time someone asks me! My current answer is that I love how whenever you have a variety of people read the same poem, everybody will understand it differently. You get so many perspectives from one person and one poem, but that might not even be the reason why [the poet] wrote that poem. It's kind of crazy how everybody finds a piece of themselves in words that weren't even meant for them.
NEA: One of the poems you recite has to be written pre-20th century. How do you find a connection with someone that could have been writing 200 years ago?
MEGOSHA: My pre-20th was "Breakfast" by Mary Lamb. I read it, and then I had to check again that it was a pre-20th poem. I was like, "This is so weird, because the way it's written you almost couldn't have guessed that it's a pre-20th." The poem takes something so mundane and simple and makes it really beautiful. It wants you to look at the simple things in your own life and understand why those are beautiful and need to be appreciated. This is a message that resonates at that time period and in this time period. I think that when it comes to old poetry we can always find those messages. You can read a poem from the 1600s and still find something beautiful. It can be about love or despair or tragedy, and those messages never really get old. They just have a new form.
NEA: What is something you learned about yourself during the competition?
MEGOSHA: <laughs> I definitely didn't give myself enough credit. Doing the state competition or even during prelims, I honestly didn't really expect much. Then for semifinals I was like "Yeah, everybody's so good. I don't even know what to expect." And then I was like "Wait. Did they just say my name?" The whole time, honestly, I had to teach myself, "Hey, that's possible for you. Don't put yourself down. You're in the competition too." So [I learned] self-confidence
.NEA: What was the most challenging part of competing in Poetry Out Loud? And what brought you the most joy?
MEGOSHA: The most challenging part was definitely trying to understand the poems. I remember sitting there for hours researching the poets and their backgrounds and [thinking about] what situation they have to be in to write the poem. I feel that took a lot of drive and dedication because when it comes to someone else's emotions it's really difficult to understand, especially when you have not experienced those experiences. In terms of what I enjoyed most I really, really love performing. There is nothing that can beat that, performing and kind of falling into that character of that poet and that experience and taking it as your own. There's no better feeling.
NEA: Because of the pandemic, your Poetry Out Loud recitations were recorded on video rather than in front of a live audience. How did that change the feel of your performance?
MEGOSHA: When it comes to performing, a lot of that drive and the best performances come from the reactions you get from your audience. All of a sudden that's gone, and you're like, "I'm alone in a room." You have to find why you're doing it. It takes a lot more strength, especially because when you're looking in a camera and you get to see your playback, you get to see exactly what you looked like. You get pretty hard on yourself. But what was great is that through Poetry Out Loud there was a lot of support for me so whenever I would perform, I would have people in the room. I'd be like, "You're my audience. Don't say anything. Stay in the back of the room, but I need to feed off your reactions when it comes to performing."
NEA: You’ve talked about using the state championship and this whole experience as a platform.
MEGOSHA: In any situation when someone asks you to use your voice and they're specifically asking you, that is a platform. I am the first winner from South Dakota, but I am also the first Black woman from South Dakota to win. It is an incredible opportunity, and that is your chance to say what you're passionate about. I may be passionate about poetry, but I'm also incredibly passionate about activism and human rights. When it comes to someone giving me a voice I'm going to use that in order to help anyone that's around me. This has been such a crazy opportunity, because now people are asking, "Rahele, what do you think?" I'm like, "I think about this, but also I want to tell you about this. Hey, while you're still here let me tell you about how I feel about these important issues.”
NEA: What would you say to encourage someone to participate in Poetry Out Loud?
MEGOSHA: I feel like a lot of people come in with a negative attitude when it comes to poetry. They have never understood it in a way that would affect them because they have not found the type of poetry that suits them. When it comes to Poetry Out Loud, because there is literally a website with an anthology of various types of poems, you can find something for you. It takes work, but once you find it, then you get excited. Then you get motivated because you have found poetry, you have found something to connect to yourself and something to relate to.
NEA: Looking to the future, what do you hope you're still carrying with you from your Poetry Out Loud experience?
MEGOSHA: I really hope I take the self-confidence that I've gained from Poetry Out Loud, the motivation and the dedication and the way that I've been able to use my voice into whatever I do. This can also be connected to speech and debate, because when someone gives you a [platform] you become addicted to speaking up, and now that that has literally been given to me at this point in my life I'm definitely never going to let it go. I'm really grateful for that.
NEA: What is something you wish I had asked you?
MEGOSHA: I wish that you would've asked who is someone that got you there and someone who has been so supportive to you. My answer would be my speech and debate coach, Michelle McIntyre, because I love her so much. She has been such a blessing these past couple years. If you had known me three years ago, I was a non-confrontational person. I was very introverted. She [helped me find] that voice, and now I'm never stopping.
NEA: If you had five words to describe the whole experience of being part of Poetry Out Loud, what would you say?
MEGOSHA: There is nothing like it.
Join us Sunday, June 5 at 7:00 pm ET/ 6:00 pm CT/ 4:00 pm PT for the Poetry Out Loud National Championship. Watch live at arts.gov/poetry-out-loud.