|2012 Wyoming Poetry Out Loud contestants|
“Don’t worry, you’ll do fine,” they kept telling her. Shalene had the worst kind of nerves—so internalized that they could not be assuaged no matter what; nerves that would most likely get worse in the short hour until the competition would begin.
As a fellow sufferer of that plight, I commended her for just doing it. “No matter what happens, you will have this experience, and you can say, ‘I did it.’ That’s really important.” I knew of what I spoke, having let those kinds of nerves hold me back from participating in many creative endeavors.
All the students competing that evening had some degree of nerves working on them. At the dinner before the competition, the atmosphere was chatty but expectant. Teachers had brought their school’s competitor as well as assorted supporters—fellow students, parents, friends.
As coordinator of Wyoming’s Poetry Out Loud program, I’d seen several years of students’ POL nerves. The competition is a unique experience, drawing on aspects of dramatic, spoken word and slam performance, speech and debate, and just plain ol’ elocution, a mostly forgotten tradition from the Victorian era, when recitation of favorite memorized romantic verses was a favorite parlor game.
Eligible ninth through twelfth grade POL competitors choose poems to memorize from the POL “canon,” a selection of a few hundred poems by well-known published poets from the 16th Century up to contemporary poets of today. Contestants only have two requirements when picking poems: that one of the three poems they choose be pre-20th Century and one be 25 lines or less. One poem can fill both of those requirements. After the selection process, the memorizing begins for the school competition. The winning student from the school comes to the state contest. Each state champion and a chaperone receives an all-expenses paid trip to Washington D.C., for the contestant to compete in the national finals.
The key to a good POL recitation is linking the meaning and emotion of the poem to being able to deliver the poem to the audience, and not just the audience that is sitting in chairs out front, but for the audience about whom the poem was written.
This audience, or the tribe, as I learned at the public poetry workshop put on by Jim Coppoc, a poet, spoken word artist and performer, and one of the judges for Wyoming’s 2012 POL competition, is probably the most important component. In knowing that audience, the reciter has probably studied what the poem is trying to convey, also learning something about the poet in the process. That seems to be the formula for the most successful poetry recitations. Dramatic emphasis when needed, pregnant pauses, and use of the rhythm and meter of the poem are also good indicators that the reciter has studied these elements of the poem, and practiced the poem out loud, to listeners.
This year’s winner, Sara Ellingrod from Arvada/Clearmont High Schoool, also won the 2011 state contest. Her teacher/mentor/coach, Linda Crawford has had the state winner for the past three years. State winners can keep coming back to compete in the state competition, but not if they win any one of the twelve final places at nationals.
Sara nailed several aspects of Poetry Out Loud performance criteria. Contestants are judged on physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, level of difficulty, evidence of understanding of the poem and overall performance. Her level of performance took a definite leap from the previous year.
Casper student Hannah Hout earned the runner-up spot. She is also a returning contestant from 2011, and her performance as well reflected a studied improvement.
As it turned out, this was Shalene’s first time ever on a stage. That’s a big step, a big leap and a big responsibility, to go from a classroom setting to a formal and dramatic stage performance with only the sparest of instruction or training. As all the contestants did, Shalene walked out on that stage, forgotten phrases and all, and just did it. Taking that first step is always the hardest, and often, the most brilliant.
By Linda Coatney