May 01, 2007

Golly Damn

Just got back from an exhilirating evening watching the National Finals of the Poetry Out Loud competition, held this year in DC. Poetry Out Loud is a recitation contest for high schoolers; about 100,000 participating kids are winnowed down to 51 state champions (including the District of Columbia). Kudos to the cosponsors, the NEA and the Poetry Foundation, for putting their money where their mouths are: $200 for each state champion, $500 to each state champion's school for the purchase of poetry books, and hotel and airfare to DC courtesy of Southwest Airlines. The judges included Marilyn Chin, Garrison Keillor, and Kwame Dawes; judges for the Semifinals included Major Jackson and Ethelbert Miller.

This year, the Virginia Commission for the Arts gave me the honor of coaching Alanna Rivera, the Virginia champion. The options for poems are drawn from an anthology created specifically for Poetry Out Loud, representing a range of eras and styles--you can browse here. Alanna chose a rich but challenging trio: "Walking Down Park" by Nikki Giovanni, "Conversation" by Ai (which is partially written in the voice of Robert Lowell), and "A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General" by Jonathan Swift.

We've been working on these poems all month, focusing less on the basics of diction and memorization--she already had those nailed--and more on the nuance of what the poems said, where to emphasize a line, and body language. The hard work paid off when Alanna made it to the finals, where the stakes got higher: $1,000 scholarships for each of the 12 finalists. And then, something incredible...tonight Alanna Rivera placed in the top three, securing a $5,000 scholarship! And the girl who got first place--and incredible $20,000 prize--was the Washington, D.C. champion!

It's a good day to live where I do.

The first and second place winners used extremely dynamic delivery styles, performing the poems as dramatic monologues; the winner, in fact, turned Anne Sexton's "Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward" into a showstopper, and will use her scholarship to attend NYU's Tisch School for the Arts this fall. A dramatic style is great, and always a crowd pleaser. But what Alanna offered--and the reason the judges recognized her in the top three, I think--were poised and nuanced readings that honored the poet's own voice. There's something to be said for letting the words speak: at the end of the day everything else, from showy hand gestures to character accents to anguished pauses, is just distraction from the power of the original poem.

Golly damn. All of this to say that watching Alanna live and breathe these poems for the last month has been amazing. Congratulations to ALL the participants--but really, the lucky winner tonight was Poetry. And me, for getting to tag along for the ride.


Talia said...

How cool. I think getting kids excited about poetry, or at least the ones who aren't naturally excited about poetry, is arguabley the most difficult thing for an English teacher. I love seeing things like this going on, things that don't focus on sports, etc. There are some kids waiting in the wings to coome out and be fantastic poets.

Valerie Loveland said...

I haven't been to a reading in forever.

Brian Wilkins said...

That's fantastic! Congratulations both to Ms. Rivera, and you. It's always great to help someone grasp an experience that will be theirs and theirs alone for the rest of their lives.

J. Newberry said...

I saw a very early version of the Poetry Out Loud materials. I'm glad that this has grown so much. I'd love to have seen what you saw.