Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience


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Poetry Out Loud

Poetry Out Loud is a national recitation contest for American high school students, a joint project of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, now in its sixth year. In 2009-2010, close to 325,000 students took part. According to the website’s About page,

Recitation and performance are exciting current trends in poetry. There has been a resurgence of poetry as an oral art form, as seen in the slam poetry movement and the immense popularity of hip-hop music. Poetry Out Loud builds on that momentum by inviting the dynamic aspects of slam poetry, spoken word, and theater into the English class.

The national contest is run in a federated fashion, with each state’s arts agency solely responsible for the contest in that state, although “teachers, students, and poetry lovers everywhere can use this website and its accompanying educational materials to organize their own recitation contests.” In my state, Pennsylvania, the competition is carried live on PCN, our state equivalent of C-SPAN, and last March I was able to watch it online after a friend who has TV alerted me that it was on. I realize this might not be everyone’s idea of gripping television — it doesn’t have quite the glitz and glamour of “American Idol” — but I found it quite exciting.

You can do a video search of “Poetry Out Loud” to see finalists from around the country; New Jersey and California seem to be the best represented on YouTube. Here’s the Rhode Island state winner from 2010, Amber Rose Johnson, with a joyful performance of Nikki Giovanni’s “Walking Down Park“:

Last year, the first deaf student to enter, Tiffany Hill, won the Oregon state contest. Check out the Facebook video of her signing “Inside Out” by Diane Wakoski. This is fascinating because of the way it challenges conventional notions of what poetry recitation can be. And it suggests parallels with dance interpretations of poetry, as well.

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