Along with Shakespearean Sonnets, “The Owl and the Pussycat” by Edward Lear, and “Invictus” by Ernest Henley–all great warhorses or bird/cat chariots of the p’try world, students at a recent Poetry Out Loud presentation I judged in Minneapolis gave us poems by Langston Hughes, Benjamin Alire Saenz, Edna St. Vincent Millay, the Irish poet Eavan Boland, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and Dudley Randall. Over the last ten years, Poetry Out Loud has become a national “night out” for spoken word. No longer do we declaim solely from a school stage, though this is where each school starts the selection of its contestants. We carry our voices all the way to Washington.
I couldn’t be more for it. Not only did I get to enjoy Khadro (I’m guessing of Somali origin) in a voice like milky silk present Mary Howitt’s “The Spider and the Fly” with the simpering irony perfect for this lightly ironic enchantment, but I welcomed stout-hearted Hassan turn Benjamin Alire Saenz’s “To the Desert” into a celebration of one who “taught me how to live without the rain.” Now after a few minutes with Google, I’ve read Saenz’s website biography and understand that his desert is the American Southwest, its vivid complicated border history, his own peregrinations through priesthood, service in Tanzania, graduate school in Iowa and California, and the publication of many books of poetry and fiction.
Our Poetry Out Loud presenters in what’s called the Metro Central area couldn’t have been more varied–some quiet and intense; others flamboyant and visceral. “You should have been in Winona,” commented the coordinator of Minnesota’s Poetry Out Loud: “Almost everyone spoke in subdued tones.” In part she referred to the wide variety of origins and ethnicities present on our stage. Though I’m guessing, I’d place our students’ recent origins on a world map with an emphasis on Africa, either directly or via their parents. Whereas Poetry Out Loud in southeastern Minnesota undoubtedly was performed almost entirely by third or fourth generation German/Scandinavians with a few Irish thrown in.
The guidelines for judging Poetry Out Loud emphatically support presenting a poem in what I’d call the “inside-out” style, meaning that the presenter absorbs each poem’s complicated means–rhyme and rhythm, tone and color of language, sound and sense–and subdues declamation and theatrical gestures in favor of intense, subtle delivery. In fact, many of our Metro Central participants did NOT follow these strictures. The Africans among them come from a tradition of oral declamation. In Somalia, for instance, the history of poetry has been, until very recently, entirely oral, and poets are renown for the long sagas they have by heart, and for their ability to rivet an audience with a full-bodied, richly declaimed presentation. When you live a nomadic life, with no film or TV to mesmerize you with drama on demand, a poet must kindle all kinesthetic, oral and literary organs, dramatizing against a wide empty sky. American notions of poetry oral presentation come from a very different tradition, one in which poetry has developed internal castles of complicated associations and shades of meaning which can easily be missed in excessive dramatization.
More recently, too, we poets have been forced to find a niche separate from film and TV’s often empty excesses. We tone down in order to be heard. The winner of the Metro Central competition did exactly that. She went deep inside the poems; she subdued herself to let the poems speak through her. Her voice had resonance and subtlety; her gestures were minimal. She gave a memorable performance, well within the guidelines established for the competition. But hers was not the only excellence. The second-place winner gave a vibrant performance. In her hijab and head scarf, with a vocal range more like singing than reading aloud, she breathed warmth into her chosen poems.
I’d say it’s time to reconsider the guidelines, to recognize the widening experience of American poets and their student presenters. This is a change-in-the-making. I’ll be watching to see what the poets-in-power make of it.