Poetry Out Loud is a national competition for high school students who are enthusiastic about reading and performing poetry. The program was created with the intention of bringing the art of communication through verbal performance to the public in an accessible way, which is one of the reasons why the competition costs nothing for schools to participate in it, and why all the Poetry Out Loud events that are regulated by the Huntington Theatre Company, the creators of the program, are free for all to attend. All 50 states of the United States of America participate in the competition, along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Because of the considerable amount of interest in this celebration of poetry and communication, in Massachusetts alone, over 22,000 students participated in Poetry Out Loud this year, with 614 teachers participating. The program has skyrocketed in enthusiastic involvement since the beginning thirteen years ago. After all, in its first year, Poetry Out Loud only included 14 schools in Massachusetts, and this year it has boasted the participation of 90 schools.
How the Competition Works for a NHS Student
For a Norwell High School student, there are many trials and tasks that must be completed before one may boast their accomplishment of reaching state finals or nationals. Within the school this year, there was a first round of auditions, as there were many eager performers within our town. This round was not only to find the participants who were serious about the commitment, but also to pick a smaller number of competitors for a next-round competition at the school level. After this preliminary task was completed, the large amount of NHS student participants was reduced to seven school-wide “semi-finalists”, who performed two poems for judges and an audience. From these seven, two awards were granted, to the first place and second place scoring performers. Although both received a trophy and many congratulations, only the first place winner went on to compete against other schools as Norwell High School’s Poetry Out Loud representative.
This competitor would participate in statewide semifinals, which can more clearly be described as the “regional” level competition in Massachusetts, as the entire state was split into four geographically determined sections. At each of these competitions there were approximately 25 competitors, each one representing a different school in Massachusetts. During this round, each competitor performed their two poems, previously recited by them at their schools, only for the number of competitors to be reduced again. From each “regionals” competition, about seven students were selected to move onto the Massachusetts State Finals, making a total of 25 state competitors.
These 25 competitors then prepared a third poem, in addition to their two previous poems, which they may or may not be asked to perform at the state finals. Once at the state-level competition, each of the 25 competitors recites their two original poems, and during a lunch break, the top seven of the 25 finalists are chosen. Only these seven finalists perform their third poem for the judges and audience, so that the top three competitors may be determined. All three receive certificates and prizes, although only the first place winner will compete in the national Poetry Out Loud competition. At Nationals, there is a competitor from each state or other area (i.e. District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands), and a national champion is chosen.
Poetry Out Loud was a truly life-changing experience for me. I know so much about how the competition works up through the state level because I, a Norwell High School sophomore, was the second runner-up at state finals in Massachusetts this year. Because of my personality and interests, this competition was an incredible experience for me to broaden the horizons of doing what I love; after all, I have been involved in performing since I was four years old.
Back when I was a toddler, I played piano at South Shore Conservatory concerts and since then have participated in piano and singing performances and competitions. I have been a thespian since sixth grade, participating in shows both through my school and through local theatres as well. I was never the type of child to competitively play soccer, or to fight with others in the mud, instead theatre was a major part of my life, and still is. It is also a way in which I connect with my grandparents who live across the Atlantic Ocean in Poland, since my grandfather is an opera singer who has been performing for all of his life. The similar interests that we share brings us closer, regardless of how far apart we are geographically.
Since I was not involved in theatre for the winter season at my school, Poetry Out Loud was my way to continue to pursue my love for the performing arts, and so I put all of my heart into my performances. It was such an incredible experience for me to be able to see the results of my hard work come to fruition. During the regional semi-finals, it was eye-opening for me to realize that I was going to be competing against other schools, and that I was the representative for the entire town of Norwell. It was my first time ever representing the town in such a prominent way, and although the pressure was there, I regarded the experience as more of an honor than a job.
Regardless of the storm that had ensued during the weekend of semifinals and the fact that no one in Norwell had power, my mother and I traveled down to Cape Cod, excited just to be partaking in something so important and relevant to my family. During that round of the competition, I learned so much about other people’s interpretations of poetry and certain ideas, and I made close friends with whom I believe that I will stay in contact for many years to come. When I learned that I would be moving on to the next round of competing, I had honestly thought that it was a dream, since I had gone into that round of competition only hoping to do my best, and not expecting too much.
It was still hard for me to believe that it was reality a week later, when the state level competition was to take place. By an incredible coincidence, my father, who travels often for his work, was home for this weekend, and I had my close family to support me as we traveled to Boston. Upon arriving to the Old South Meeting House, I realized how much history was surrounding me, only further inspiration to do my school and my family proud. The comforting faces of the friends I had made from the previous round of competition lifted my confidence, and, although we were competitors, we knew that we would support each other regardless of the result.
After hours of competition, two rounds of poetry from each school, and a nerve racking lunch break, the seven finalists of the state competition were announced. As a quick introduction was given, I remembered that no student from Norwell High School has ever made it into the top seven at the state level, and so I told myself that I would not be a disappointment if my name was not called. As these thoughts, in my attempt to keep calm, swum around my brain, I heard my name called as one of the finalists. Joy and relief filled my whole body, as I stood up to look over at my family, who were beaming as they looked at me. When the seven competitors were excused to take a few minutes to prepare for the third round of poetry, I practically skipped over to my mother, and together we found a quiet corner in which we ran my poem multiple times before we returned to the hall and waited for the round to begin. There may have also been some bouncing and quiet cheering as well, but it was all part of the preparation, really.
As I was the fourth finalist to perform by random order, I listened to and eagerly watched the first three competitors to see what competition I had to face, but it only made me more nervous. The most shocking moment was when the girl who performed before me recited the exact poem that I was about to perform! This added challenge unnerved me even more, since there is a surprise that comes with the first performance of a poem that adds to the effect, and this surprise factor had been taken away from me. However, I took deep breaths and told myself that I would do my absolute best, and that was all I could do.
As I climbed the steps to the stage, stood at the microphone and began, I tried to focus only on what the poem was saying, and how I could relate it to my life. I was able to use feeling in my presentation that the audience could understand, and I truly left it all on the stage.
Once I sat back down, I watched the remaining three performances, before all 25 finalists were called up on the stage to be awarded certificates and to be recognized. Then the seven finalists were called forward, and the big reveal of the top three finalists followed. They congratulated all seven of us, and then I heard my name being called. I had achieved the award of second-runner up in Poetry Out Loud, out of over 22,000 students in Massachusetts who had participated in the competition.
Being one of the top three competitors in the entire state was an unbelievable and fantastic achievement for me, and I am still proud today, as I write this article from my desk at home. In school the next day I was being congratulated from all sides and in every class, and I got to relive the moment of the day before. Throughout this whole competition, I have felt so blessed to make it so far and to do what I love, making lifelong friends along the way. Thus I would like to thank Huntington Theatre Company for making this winter such an unforgettable one, and to warn you that I will be back next year!
If you’d like to join me and the other Poetry Out Loud competitors next year, watch out for announcements about the event in the fall, and be sure to talk to your english teacher about participating!