New Jersey Poetry Out Loud is the New Jersey chapter of a national poetry recitation program public, charter, parochial, and home school students from grades 9-12 across America. Every year, CavanKerry Press is proud to be involved with the enrichment of poetry education through the NJPOL. Each year, several of our authors assist with the competition as judges, we donate 500 books to over 100 participating schools in New Jersey and to the state finalists, and we grant scholarships to further the education of poetry instruction for the NJPOL teacher from the winning school.
CavanKerry author Teresa Carson, who will be supplying us with thoughts on poetry every month based off her weekly la poesia della settimana emails, was once our Associate Editor and was responsible for establishing the collaboration between us and NJPOL. We’re forever grateful for what that has grown into.
I hope you and your loved ones are healthy and safe.
This week my series on “seeing in a dark time” is interrupted by a great delight: Holly Smith, poet and teacher extraordinaire, “thinking out loud about poetry recitation.” Seven or so years ago, I met Holly through Poetry Out Loud, a national poetry recitation competition for high school students. Year after year, her students own the New Jersey state competition. Holly’s deep connection to poetry and her rare level of commitment to her students are the foundation of their POL success. I always jump at the chance to visit her classroom not only because I enjoy working with her students, but also because I like watching her in her “natural habitat.” Don’t tell her, but I’m more than a little intimidated by her powerful intelligence, which is on full display in this note.
Yes, today’s note is a bit longer than usual. Trust me: it’s worth reading every word, because Ms. Smith (as her students call her) is THE teacher we all wish we had had at any level of our education. The attachment contains the poems mentioned in her note. Now I’ll step out of the way and let Holly speak.
Dear Poetry Explorers:
In late February I had the opportunity to spend some time with Teresa in Sarasota. She told me about the genesis of this weekly email discussion on poetry, and then lovingly “voluntold” me to be a guest contributor.
I am 18 years into my career as a high school literature teacher in Jersey City, NJ at a public college-prep magnet school, Dr. Ronald E. McNair Academic High School.
This week I will be thinking aloud about poetic recitation (was that a pun?).
McNair (my school) got active with Poetry Out Loud in 2011, and we started getting good in 2013. Very good. Every year since 2013, we have either taken 2nd place in NJ, or won NJ and went to Nationals in D.C. to compete against students from the 54 states and territories. My students were NJ State champs the last 3 out of 4 competition years. (This year’s NJ and National competition was cancelled due to COVID). So through coaching these students I have had to focus on issues in recitation.
For the average person, recitation isn’t about delivering a memorized piece. It is reading a poem aloud from a page, either approaching it cold having never read it prior, or using the page as a sort of script. In those cases, you need to rely quite heavily on the guidance the poet has (hopefully) so helpfully left for you. Punctuation. Line breaks. Stanzas. Forms. (We know how to read a limerick when we see one. If it is a sonnet, we are looking for turns, or perhaps shift into a punchline of a couplet.) Perhaps transitional words are traffic signals (for, and, not, but, or, yet, so…, or conditionals such as “if”), or other choices at the word level demand our tongue perform specific acrobatics (rhyme, sibilance, echoed sounds, etc.).
The voice becomes a font. The ear becomes an eye.
I think what we are doing when we transfer the poem into the air is looking for the weight in the poem. Sometimes our brain unconsciously “edits” the poem as we read, changing articles, adding plurals, or stumbling over words or sounds that feel awkward because they don’t usually appear so consciously in regular speech. For me, the moments of stumbling and error in the reading aloud is where it gets interesting. Where the poem asks us to slow down and be careful to read the words as they have been composed, not how our brains (so used to scanning and rushing) want to gloss them.
If it isn’t your practice of voicing a poem, even to yourself alone as you read, give it a try. At the very least it will slow you down. And hopefully it will also act as an oral highlighter, allowing you to notice some of the patterns and choices in the piece.
I am sure my Advanced Placement Literature students (forced by cruel me to memorize a poem over the summer), and the students who willingly enter the school contest for Poetry Out Loud each December would love to have the paper in front of them to recite. But they must memorize. I also memorize a piece each year to keep myself rooted in beginner’s mind. (This year I will be memorizing “Mi Historia” by David Dominguez.)
For the National Poetry Out Loud competition, students select three poems from a (rather excellent) database of published recognized poets (www.poetryoutloud.org). One poem must be 25 lines or fewer (short), one must be pre-20thCentury (old) and the other is of their choosing. They can choose the order of poems, usually their signature or strongest piece first, as the early rounds are elimination rounds. The philosophy of the competition is to celebrate the ancient art of poetic recitation, where the student is the vessel of the poem. They are the text and must deliver and interpret the piece for an audience who may or may not have a strong grounding in poetry. The judges see the poems ahead of time and can prep as they wish.
I tell my students: the audience is giving you the gift of their attention, honor that. Be conscious of the experience you
- can credibly produce through the natural timbre of your voice
- want to share with them.
This might be warmth and charm, a sharing of cultural knowledge, anger, a moment to let the audience be in their own thoughts and memories, a bit of verbal cinema via imagery, humor and playfulness, a spiritual meditation, etc.
The students sit with the piece for months (and with a signature poem, often years), memorizing, building their vocal, facial and physical rhythms, and practicing with a microphone. It is a recitation, not a dramatic monologue, which means a natural vocal delivery is preferred over stylization. In the competition they are judged on the following: Physical Presence, Voice & Articulation, Dramatic Appropriateness, Evidence of Understanding, Overall Performance and Accuracy.
Some of the work the students do with the poem is obvious. Looking up vocabulary, perhaps some context on the poem or poet. Reading some critical analysis of the poem. In other words, having a rough sense of what the poem might mean. But this will shift as they actually memorize the piece, and this will even shift during each individual recitation of it.
The recitation is all about suspension.
My role is not to tell them what the poem means. It is to listen with my best guess as to how the recitation is creating (or destroying) suspense in the audience. How time is controlled and develops. And then asking the student if that is the effect they want or what they intended.
How do sounds hang in the air and should they be allowed to fade, or overlap to the next? How does the sentence populate our mind with the intended idea? Sometimes that might not be clear until we reach the line’s end. How does a title, or an element of the poem get revealed? How do images take shape in the air? Which might need support from a gesture or pantomime to be better understood? Which lines or words need a moment to digest? Maybe to allow us to appreciate a crisp turn of phrase, to laugh, or to process a complex idea.
I ask them to move the poem around on the page to match how it will be spooled out in the air. Tear apart the form and “re-line” the poem as they will be revealing it. This helps in the memorization and making “the mind’s eye” remember a more accurate script of the poem. So, for example, an enjambed (mid-stopped) line might now be an unbroken sentence again. A series of repeated phrases (anaphora) might get pauses where there is no punctuation on the page. A stanza break might get a longer pause, or no real pause if the idea is connected.
Every poem has a different logic and has different weights built into the original text. Some poems are harder to “get” on just one reading, requiring more work on the part of the reciter to communicate meaning. Every student brings their own natural cadence to the piece. And at some point, the question becomes, “Who is the speaker of this poem?” and “What is the situation of this poem for that speaker?” This can become a huge interpretive move on the part of the student and where the magic of the recitation happens. The speaker doesn’t have to be what is suggested by an on-the-nose read of the poem itself. It can become a friend speaking to another friend, a teacher-like lecture, a young protestor trying to wake up the adults in the room, a moment to walk in the shoes of a parent, or a person visiting the photo album in their mind.
Once the student reaches that point in their work with the poem, the choices all need to flow from that understanding of the poem. Even if the listener doesn’t know the exact speaker the student is drawing from, they will still see the intentionality and unified tone that comes from the student having their own grounding in the poem.
Unfortunately, I don’t have access to every recitation that my students have done, so these are not necessarily “signature pieces,” but quite a few were available on Youtube to share. I invite you to watch the recitation before reading the text of the poem. Sometimes it is also interesting to listen to the audio along with the text. (This year, I recorded audio during practice sessions and had my reciter fine-tune based on sound alone). I give a bit of commentary on some of the choices the students made in the recitations.
Meet Cameron Clarke who came in 2nd Place in NJ in 2013. (He’s taken the loss well. He became a Rhodes Scholar in 2017.) He recites “And Yet Do I Marvel” by Countee Cullen:
The challenge of the poem was to communicate this beast of a complex sonnet to the audience, sound natural, and clarify meaning for them. The sonnet itself lacks some of the verbal cues for turns that would provide natural “rests” for the listener, until the “yet” in the final couplet. It is essentially a series of questions with no question marks. It is revealed in “chunks” of images. Cameron’s rich vocal register allowed him to preserve the philosophical weight of the poem without feeling like he was trying on clothes too large for him.
His recitation plays with sound (particularly the sensuousness of “flesh” and the two reads of “awe-ful” and “awful” towards the close). He builds some beautiful momentum in the middle that echoes the movement and struggle of Sisyphus and Tantalus, and then backs up to coolly note the “inscrutable” ways of the divine). He clearly makes some choices in the poem and is polished and controlled, especially turning the comment into question at the poem’s close. We later learned that more movement was the standard in the competition, although on paper it was discouraged. He was being old school in his recitation style of arms down.
Current senior Samantha Paradero wasn’t able to compete at the NJ State competition due to the COVID cancellation. She will be attending New Jersey Institute of Technology in the fall to study machine learning and artificial intelligence. She recorded this recitation of “Snow Day” by Billy Collins:
This poem could go horribly wrong and just melt into a cutesy fluff of a recitation. It is narrative and accessible to the audience (up here we do get snow). But Samantha avoids the schmaltz by being cinematic in revealing the various settings as they shift (the white town, the walk with the dog, the kitchen, the playground). She was also sensitive to the playfulness with sound in the piece. The obvious example is that fabulous list of day care centers, which clearly Collins delights in revealing (just keeping the order straight in your head is a feat). But there is some subtle internal sound work happening (“libraries buried”, repetition of “closed”, “Toadstool School,” “darting and climbing and sliding,” “grandiose silence of the snow,” and “riot is afoot”) that Samantha showcases through her articulation. She gives us time to enjoy the charm of the moment and the humor that Collins is famous for.
Samantha transformed once she began practicing on the microphone. She started her work with POL with a strong spoken word cadence (that “vocal fry” quality). It is part of her style, so I didn’t want to tamper with it. As she found her way into the poem it naturally reduced because the style wasn’t serving meaning anymore. It gave her a way into recitation, which was valuable. She began to play with letting sounds hang and resolve in the air. And enjoying the textures of sounds.
As she practiced and recited the poem more often, the first two stanzas started to feel weird in context with the rest of the poem. Particularly the image of the train:
Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,
its white flag waving over everything,
the landscape vanished,
not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,
and beyond these windows
the government buildings smothered,
schools and libraries buried, the post office lost
under the noiseless drift,
the paths of trains softly blocked,
the world fallen under this falling.
Why does Collins mention the train? “Fallen under this falling.” What? Falling snow, ok. But what does he mean by “fallen”? And then the war imagery of the opening (“revolution,” “white flag” of surrender, perhaps a train blockade) became clearer. On paper the stanza breaks also feel arbitrary in places (let’s go with five line stanzas, sure), but Samantha breaks that up into the logical narrative “movements” between settings.
Meet Celeste Sena, NJ State Champ in 2016, went to Nationals. She just graduated New School as a drama student. Here she is reciting T.S. Eliot’s “La Figlia Che Piange”:
In the recitation, the title is important as it is the kick-off of the piece, and it also gives the audience a second to mentally calibrate the reciter’s visual presence to the voice. Both Celeste and Cameron have these beautiful rich voices unusual for teenagers, so there is a moment of just letting the audience react to their instrument. This clip cut off the title, but she achieves the same effect with the epigram. I coach my kids to be in the vessel of the poem even for the title. Some students read the title as themselves, take a beat, and then start the poem as the vessel with the first line. To me that is disruptive to the flow of information in the poem.
Celeste, as you can see, is just a cool kid in general. Here we have a modernist piece where, yes, there is a sense of narrative to trace, but it jumps in time and there is a bit of ambiguity about who is the he and she, who is the speaker (or more accurately, when is the speaker?). For Celeste, this piece was navigating the segments of the poem as if she were a director, which is apparent in the explanatory mode she takes in the middle of the poem. So she’s a bit outside of the poem until the second half. She uses variety, playing with volume, facial expressions, etc. to isolate moments and phrases. Her voice has color and tone. The stretching of “lean” coupled with her gesture, the growl of “resentment” with that natural head shake, the crisp consonance of “light and deft” for example. Here her gestures are absolutely imperative to keep us moving through the poem. They don’t replace meaning, but they orchestrate our mental attention.
I still have no definitive answer to what Eliot means by “I should have lost a gesture and a pose,” but I believe that Celeste does. She keeps the language of Eliot pristine (I am obsessed with the word “cogitations”). She treats the subject seriously but with a bit of playfulness. This poem could become overly dramatized or shallowly glide over the sounds, but she keeps herself rooted in the language and tonal shifts.
Meet Breana Sena, NJ runner up 2017, NJ Champ in 2018, went on to Nationals. She is currently a law student at NYU. Yes, Celeste’s sister. Breana recites Nikki Giovanni’s “Mothers”:
Breana had just lost her grandmother that summer, so this poem spoke to her as a memorial piece. Breana wanted to keep the warmth and not just march through it. The conversational tone was important to her, as was the magic of the tonal shift in the middle of the piece “The room was bathed in moonlight…”. This poem is also deceptively simple. It is structured as a retelling, and there are many digressions and small personal details that could just turn it into a rambling mess.
Breana is radiant and charming. She brings us credibly into these family memories, speaking to us as if we are friends. And her timing creates the impression of receiving these memories as she speaks, but also gives us time to receive the images. Breana highlights sections of the poem for us, the images of the mother, the shift to inhabiting the child’s recollections, and nesting the recitation of the poem that becomes a family legacy into her recitation. But she keeps that bit of mystery in her voice about the evening backdrop of the poem and the child’s inability to fully understand the family dynamics at the time. This is a recitation about being present together, speaker and audience. And inviting the audience to reflect on their own family relationships.
And finally, meet Joseph G. Kim Sexton, 2019 NJ Champion, went on to Nationals. Joe took a gap year to study in Bolivia. He will be starting in the fall as a philosophy and film student at Princeton. He recites Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died”:
We later learned the correct pronunciation of Brendan Behan(Bee-en)! Which was frustrating because we had researched so much the context and allusions in the poem. Ah well.
This poem shows up pretty often in NJ Poetry Out Loud competitions. Why not? O’Hara is cool. New York is cool. But it often feels like a little kid in the closet trying on an adult’s jacket. Again, as a narrative poem, it is deceptively simple. It is a huge list from the eyes of a bohemian observer set loose in Midtown New York on some errands before a dinner party. This poem creates a little world, a world accessible to people familiar with the city, but it is also very coded in terms of the specific titles, time period, and brands O’Hara references.
I just asked Joseph tons of questions about this poem. Mostly about the speaker’s tone towards his actions. Like why the distinction of the cigarette brands. Why O’Hara was buying smokes from a movie theater. If there was a logic to the gifts he was selecting for the hosts. For this recitation, establishing who the speaker was for Joseph was key, especially to Joseph’s own identity as a playwright and filmmaker himself.
O’Hara is playing a bit of a game here to impress and move in the world of publishing. But his self-recriminations, humor, and reflection at the end upon getting the news of Billie Holiday’s death show us the heart of his poetic self. Joseph leaned into his instincts as a stage person, inhabiting character while not forgetting he is delivering lines and imagery.
All of this is to say, I appreciate how Poetry Out Loud creates an opportunity for students to explore humanity within a sandbox that is poetry. Their selections and interpretations allow me to stand aside as a teacher and engage as a listener, being open to discovery and being in time with the student and the verse. In turn, students even surprise themselves by coming into a true ownership of an other’s words by inhabiting them so closely in mind and body.
“As a literary institution and publisher, CavanKerry Press sees the uniqueness and importance of such programs as Poetry Out Loud. NJPOL is a testament for the need of poetry and the skills it provides in literacy while boosting confidence but most importantly aids in our youth’s self-discovery. Literary arts equip young adults with the skills to communicate effectively and help them find and define their place in the world. We honor students, teachers like Holly, and NJPOL for their continuing commitment to poetry and the art of recitation.” – CavanKerry Press