In a crowded high-school classroom last Friday, under bright fluorescent lights, a little over 50 people crammed into hard, plastic chairs and desks or stood tucked into corners. A mix of the young and old, students, teachers and adults, they had come to hear from Emily Dickinson, to catch a few words from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Naomi Shihab Nye. They had come to witness the first Haywood County district Poetry Out Loud competition, where 15 high school students stepped, for a minute, out of their own lives and channel the heavy hitters of poetry, both living and dead.
It’s all a part of the national Poetry Out Loud program, a poetry recitation competition now in its sixth year that brings high-school students across the country into the world of spoken-word poetry.
The Haywood competition was a culmination of competitions held in classrooms across the county, each English class picking its best performer to send to a school-wide competition, and those winners advancing to the district challenge. The district victor was Tuscola senior Anne Kram, who took the prize for her gripping rendition of Sanctuary by Jean Valentine.
In addition to bragging rights and a basket full of poetry-related swag from local businesses, Kram will now journey to Raleigh in March to go head-to-head with other poetry aficionados from around the state. If she gets as far as the national competition in April, there’s a $20,000 pot up for grabs.
But that’s not why Haywood County’s high schools got involved in the program, said Tuscola High School English teacher and district program coordinator Helen Pollifrone. She said teachers were tipped off to the idea by the Haywood Arts Council, which has supported the program throughout the year. When the school system decided to apply for — and subsequently won — a two-day poetry workshop with Haywood County poet Michael Beadle, the spark of excitement for poetry lit in their students, Pollifrone said.
“That’s what really got the kids excited about the whole recitation thing,” said Pollifrone. “When this first started, we thought we might have a couple of students. And all of us were really surprised at how many students were just thrilled to do it. And picked poems that are tough.”
Although sending a student to the state competition is exciting for the district’s teachers, Pollifrone said the best outcome was that ardor for learning and poetic expression that it kindled in many students.
“I think they got a whole new appreciation for poetry,” Pollifrone said. “So many of our students thought of poetry as something they had to read, something they didn’t feel connected to.”
But now, she said, students are already coming to her discussing what poems they’ll select for next year’s competition.
This renewal of interest in poetry is one of the main aims of the national Poetry Out Loud program, which is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. Poetry has been creeping back into the mainstream cultural consciousness thanks to the slam poetry movement and the raging popularity of hip-hop music. Poetry Out Loud was born on the coattails of that success, created to inspire students not only to love poetry but to love performance and conquer the fear of public speaking.
The program not only offers a venue for competition but gives teachers a wealth of curriculum and lesson-planning resources to back up the short recitations with real knowledge. Help like this, said Pollifrone, is one of the best things the program has offered them. To be successful, she said, students don’t just have to hone their performance skills, they have to really know their poet, must truly learn about their poem.
“It wasn’t just standing up there and reading a poem,” said Pollifrone. “You had to recite it, so you had to memorize it. They really, really had to know their poems to get up and do that. They had to get to know their poem, they had to get to know their author in order to really put the voice to it.”
And, she said, some of the most successful students were also some of the most surprising.
“Some of the students that got up just did these dramatic recitations,” she said. “We were shocked. Some kids who normally aren’t the leaders in the classroom academically, it allowed them to shine in a different light.”
For most of students, the competition is now over, but they’re still so excited about it that they’re already looking to next year’s competition, asking how they can improve and scanning the Poetry Out Loud eligible poem lists for the perfect piece. And Pollifrone said that, if for that alone, the program is worth keeping.
“That, to me, is a success,” she laughed, “if it has kids wanting to go out and read poetry.”