Friday, March 27, 2015

Poetry Out Loud Statewide Finals

    This year’s statewide Poetry Out Loud poetry recitation competition produced another memorable set of performances that reaffirmed the value of this annual program.
    I was again fortunate to be asked to participate as one of five judges for this year’s competition. The day is a moving experience that offered the excitement of competition as well as a moving aesthetic experience.
    The annual Poetry Out Loud program, sponsored nationally by The Poetry Foundation and in Ohio with additional support from the Ohio Arts Council, is a showcase of both talent and poetry’s ability to explore human experience.
    Held in Columbus at the beautiful Lincoln Theater on March 7, the event brought together students and their high school coaches from throughout the state. Sarah Binau of Bexley High School edged out last year’s statewide winner, Lake Hilburn of Columbus Centennial, to take first place and advance to the national competition in Washington, DC, on April 28–29.
    Sarah placed fifth last year, and Lake went on to place second nationally in 2014.
    The judges work from a set of guidelines to assess each participant’s presentation, but evaluating any type of performance admittedly has subjective elements. Each judge may see a given performance slightly differently, including in such areas as presence and difficulty of the poem selected by the student from a list of classic and contemporary poems that is revised annually. That range of five viewpoints, along with additional evaluation of accuracy, assures a more balanced set of scores.
    Poetry Out Loud is not a performance competition. It is a recitation, and although limited dramatic gestures are allowed, overdoing the performance angle can be costly. This limitation forces participants to focus on the poem itself, to find a way to embody the voice of a poem’s speaker and the soul of its content, rather to rely on a more individualized or personal delivery.
    Listening to these impressive students, I heard and felt a number of familiar poems in ways I had not experienced them before. For that alone, aside from witnessing the culmination of what had been months of intense and careful work on the part of the competitors and their coaches, Poetry Out Loud offers a revelation and reminder that both readers and writers of poetry are channels—vessels, vehicles—for something more than ideas or feelings or opinions, that the attention that the writing and reading of (and yes, listening to) good poetry demands is in truth a path to some form of self-discovery, often surprising and never insignificant.
    I suggest that all OPA members consider attending the statewide competition next year, which is likely to be the first weekend in March. I guarantee a rewarding experience that will remind you how important it is for a reader/speaker to truly own a poem in the way that nothing but memorization can allow.
    For more information about Poetry Out Loud, visit

Steve Abbott

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