In 2007, Virginia's Poetry Out Loud state champion, Alanna Rivera, took third place in the Poetry Out Loud National Finals. She won a sizable scholarship and round-trip plane tickets to anywhere in the USA. I was so proud to cheer her on as her coach. Here's a snippet from the interview she gave at the time to the NEA.
NEA: What's your favorite memory from the National Finals?
ALANNA RIVERA: My favorite memory from the National Finals was meeting Garrison Keillor. He inspired me to wear my favorite sneakers.
RIVERA: When I was younger I used to write poems but was so unsatisfied that I sort of defenestrated poetry all together. I started out thinking that I was doing this all for the sake of performing, but I ended up reestablishing my relationship with poetry. I like it again, but I don't love it, because we still don't know each other that well.
NEA: You said in your Poetry Out Loud bio that you participate in jazz band and marching band. Did your knowledge of music affect the way you delivered the poems?
RIVERA: In jazz you learn the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of the musicians, though sometimes it takes you a while to hear them. I think poetry is a lot like that. Reciting a poem is like a jazz solo: you're allowed to play your heart out, but you have to respect what the composer was feeling when he gave you those twelve or sixteen bars. You play for yourself, but you also play for the people who couldn't be there to voice their opinions, and you tell everybody what they had to say. My musical background helped me in understanding that I was no longer the musician, I was the musical instrument.
I bet that girl is gonna go very, very far. Recently, the NEA interviewed me about working with Alanna, and about the value of keeping poetry recitation alive through the Poetry Out Loud competition. You can find that interview here. An excerpt:
NEA: Obviously the POL competitors get a lot out of working with mentors. What did you get out of being a coach?
BEASLEY: When I worked with Alanna, she was at the exact same age as I was when I first fell in love with poetry. As an adult, poetry is a career; I have a degree, a professional community, some formal goals. But once upon a time poetry was an elusive and fancy fish, glimmering in the very crowded river of 1,000 other high school fascinations. It was fun to see that same glimmer catch Alanna’s eye, and to be reminded that art must first and foremost be enjoyed for art’s sake.
NEA: What do you think are the benefits for students in learning to memorize and recite poetry?
BEASLEY: In memorizing poems, you return the art to its ancient origins, as a way of preserving stories and voices, and passing them from one generation to the next, that can never be denied. The poem becomes embedded in your muscle memory. I can’t think of Emily Dickinson’s “My life closed twice before its close–” without thinking of how it felt, as a nine-year-old, pacing back and forth across the shag carpet of my grandmother’s living room as I repeated the stanzas over and over to myself. I could be locked in prison someday, deprived of access to all paper, but no one can take that poem away from me.
This year's nationals take place April 26-27, at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium. If you're interested in attending--these events are free and open to the public--find out more here.
In other news...Raisin Bran is the unhealthiest breakfast cereal? Seriously? I feel betrayed.