Fourteen high school students from the greater Atlanta and central regions of the state gathered on stage at the Kennedy Theatre at the Atlanta History Center on March 1. They had come to present their selected poems in the regional finals of the annual national Poetry Out Loud program. The three or four students with the highest scores would go on to the state finals, held at the Atlanta History Center, and, ultimately, to the national finals in Washington, D.C.
It was a full house in the intimate theater with an audience of family, friends and teachers to support them. Also in-house were four judges charged with evaluating the students’ performances on each of two poems.
Among the contenders was Catherine Wang, a Yale-bound senior at The Westminster Schools in Sandy Springs. It was her second year participating in Poetry Out Loud. She was chosen for the 2019 state finals that first year.
Each year thousands of students across the country take on POL’s rigorous, exacting and competitive effort all about poetry. For Wang, her enthusiasm for poetry blossomed in a sophomore creative writing class, heightened by recitation of poetry in English class.
She does not write poetry, she said, but loves reading and interpreting it. Presenting it via POL has been her way of sharing and furthering others’ enthusiasm. “POL has been a great way to meet people from other schools and communities, too,” she added.
Poetry Out Loud begins in the classroom in the fall semester in schools that have registered to participate. School instructors judge the presentations on the same POL evaluation criteria used throughout the levels of competitions. Wang said about 10 of 14 students in her senior class participated this year. She was the only one selected to go on to the all-school level.
For all levels of the Poetry Out Loud competition, a student chooses works from an anthology of more than 1,000 classic and contemporary poems. At least one poem must be 25 lines or fewer and another must be written before the 20th century. For regional finals, two poems are required; for state and national finals, three poems are required.
The anthology assembled by POL spans the spectrum of subjects. “The selection is diverse enough to give everyone a voice,” said Jesse Breite, Upper School Language Arts instructor at Westminster Schools.
He is a strong advocate of Poetry Out Loud among teachers and students alike and has been involved with POL for 15 of his 16 years as a teacher. “POL can help change the culture and perspective of poetry when students get emotionally invested in interpreting and performing poetry in high school and beyond,” he said.
Breite is a poet in his own right. He has published a chapbook of poetry, The Knife Collector, and more than 100 poems in the last eight years in various journals.
He encourages his students to go for the POL experience. “At the class level, it’s not unusual for even shy students to try it. Some students hope to improve public speaking skills through POL, and many succeed in that,” he added. “The more surprising element,” he said, “is that male athletes also join the competition. It can be a cool thing to do and the enticement of extra credit motivates many students.”
Choosing a poem from the anthology may sound daunting. Wang said it helps that the collection is categorized. Last year she chose message-driven works, but this year searched for poems with strong visual imagery. Her choices were contemporary works: “Dragons” by Devin Johnston and “A Certain Kind of Eden” by Kay Ryan.
For students, the effort is demanding. They must recite from memory, and Poetry Out Loud has a set of judging criteria based on “accuracy, physical presence, voice and articulation, evidence of understanding, dramatic appropriateness, and overall performance.” Experts and Instructors from the literary and performing arts serve as judges.
“The poem must speak through you,” said Wang. “Understanding every single word in the poem is critical,” she emphasized. Plenty of practice is a must too. Wang practiced with hand-writing the work, voice recordings, videos and performing for her family. “They will see things like gestures and speech that you don’t catch yourself.”
The 2020 GA POL state finals were scheduled to take place at the Atlanta History Center in mid-April, but the fast-spreading COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to those plans. GA POL opted to hold the state finals virtually. Nine state winners submitted videos of their presentations to the judges. Traditionally, the state champion would go on to represent Georgia at the national Poetry Out Loud finals in Washington, D.C., but the finals were canceled because of the coronavirus.
In 2020, the 15th anniversary year of the national program, GA POL broke a record for the most schools participating: 106 schools in 59 counties; more than 13,000 students; and 574 teachers, said Emily Cobb, AHC outreach programs manager and Poetry Out Loud state coordinator for seven years.
Since POL’s inception, 3.8 million students from 16,000 high schools nationwide have participated in this program. The Atlanta History Center has coordinated the Georgia Poetry Out Loud program for 12 years.
Poetry Out Loud is a partnership of National Endowment for the Arts, Poetry Foundation, and state arts agencies, including the Georgia Council for the Arts.