“I’m Just Glad I Got to Be Here and Share My Poems”
We live in secret cities
And we travel unmapped roads.
We speak words between us that we recognize
But which cannot be looked up.
~ “The Cities Inside Us” by Alberto Ríos
On April 28, at the tail end of the fifteenth annual National Poetry Month, 53 high school students (one from every state and territory in the United States) gathered in Washington, DC, to recite poetry. And here’s the best part: no one even looked at them funny. Every one of those students found themselves in a room full of kids exactly like them.
Poetry Out Loud is a six-year-old national contest co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation in partnership with state arts agencies. This year, over 365,000 students across the country participated in the memorization and presentation of a poem. Each one of them will now carry that poem in their heart, and maybe, just maybe their presentation touched the heart of someone else. But ultimately, there is only one winner.
I sometimes struggle to reconcile the competitive nature of this event (the national winner receives a $20,000 scholarship) with the larger objective of inspiring a love of poetry in young people. Many of the students involved are highly competitive, trained in speech and debate, and able to recite long poems in a single bound. But others are shy and thoughtful, finding poetry as a way to express a hidden part of themselves.
Oregon’s 2011 state champion, Nathaniel Dunaway, a senior at Crook County High School in Prineville, OR, is both: a skilled performer and a contemplative writer.
I first met Nathaniel in 2009 when he represented his school for the first time at the state contest, at which he was a finalist. He returned the following year as a junior, a little taller, and was a finalist again.
As I was preparing for the 2011 state contest, I was pleased to see that Nathaniel would be representing his school one last time during his senior year. He delivered a polished and relaxed performance that, after two years of being a state finalist, earned him the well-deserved honor of being named state champion.
In an interview at the state contest, Nathaniel admitted, “Without Poetry Out Loud, I wouldn’t be a published poet today.”
What a great surprise to learn that he recently had an original poem published in the High Desert Journal, an awarding-winning literary magazine. He has already been accepted to Western Oregon University, telling me that his admission essay discussed his Poetry Out Loud experiences.
His coach, drama teacher Anita Hoffman, told me that upon his return to Prineville after state, he recited “Abandoned Farmhouse” by Ted Kooser to 750 of his fellow students at a pep assembly in the gym. Mrs. Hoffman said you could have heard a pin drop (a major accomplishment during a pep rally cheering on the wrestling team and the cheerleading squad) and, as Nathaniel finished, the entire student body rose to give him a standing ovation.
Nathaniel’s entire family was present in Washington, DC, to see him advance to the Western regional finals and untimately receive honorable mention for his performance. It was everyone’s first visit to DC and they were pleased to get a “backstage” tour of the Capitol from Rep. Greg Walden’s office.
When I talked to Nathaniel after the contest, I asked him how he felt. Was he disappointed that he hadn’t advanced to the national finals, now that it was the end of his senior year?
You know what he said? “I’m just glad I got to be here and share my poems.”
Folks, that’s what arts education is all about.
In the midst of an intense competition environment, this young man from a sports-focused high school recognized that it wasn’t about winning or losing, it was about playing the game.
Video interviews of students from the Oregon Poetry Out Loud Contest can be found at the Oregon Arts Commission site and more information about the national program is available at poetryoutloud.org. This year's national winner, Youssef Biaz, can be seen in a video on the White House website (Youssef recites at 32 minutes).
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
~ “Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye