Poetry Out Loud: A Short Story

A quartet of orchestra students was perched on a small stage jutting out of the auditorium wall. They played a seemingly endless medley of fast-paced tunes filled with shrill staccatos aligned with the pounding of my heart. A group of restless contestants made small talk with tapping toes and twiddling thumbs, while some whispered lines under their breath. When the quartet’s song finally finished with a carefully calculated flourish of notes, the lights dimmed. After the emcee’s brief introduction, we graced the stage. 

“Good luck,” the girl next to me whispered. I was finally up and headed for the belly of the beast, center stage. I shuffled up the stairs looking straight ahead. The audience was virtually nonexistent, the only sources of light formed by the dim red glow of an exit sign and the blinding spotlight.  An encouraging nod from the host was my cue to begin.

Since 2005, over 3 million students have competed in Poetry Out Loud, a national poetry recitation competition. High school students memorize and recite a poem each, which is judged in the following categories: dramatic appropriateness, physical presence, voice and articulation, evidence of understanding, and accuracy. These elements then determine the strength and score of a recitation. The program starts at the classroom level and builds up to a school-wide contest, followed by regionals, states, and finally, the national competition of which the grand prize is $20,000.  

My fingers fidgeted with the sleeves of my sweater and my voice wavered as I stated “Caged Bird" by Maya Angelou. As the poem progressed, muscle memory kicked in and my voice grew stronger and louder. By the fifth stanza, I nearly shouted, “his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing.” I then slowly articulated the final lines, with the intention that they’d ring in the air long after I was gone, “for the caged bird sings of freedom.” I hurried off the stage, invigorated by my recitation and warmed by the audience’s polite applause. Several performances later, the competition came to a close. 

“All of the participants did a fantastic job tonight,” announced the emcee. “The winner and runner-up of tonight’s competition will compete at regionals!” The runner-up was announced. I knew I had tried my best but was it enough to win? “And the winner is Amanda Gordon!” My question was answered.

When my English teacher showed the class a promotional video for Poetry Out Loud, which consisted of talented teens reciting Shakespearean sonnets as if they belonged on the stage of The Globe Theater, I was amongst a few confused and slightly horrified faces baffled that we’d have to do the same. Though first published in 1983, Maya Angelou’s symbolism of the black American experience through a caged bird is still potent today as African Americans continue to fight for social justice and equality. Poignant lines dripping with emotion were easily etched in my mind. A rectangular mirror framed by an indented silver border was my only confidant when it came to practicing the recitation. When the class competition finally rolled around, anxiety-ridden anticipation filled the air.  When it was finally my turn to recite, I reluctantly trudged to the front of the room. Though multiple eyes were most likely on me, I stared straight ahead into the artificial eyes of a smiley face. There was a sheet of paper haphazardly stuck to the window. I couldn’t tell if it had been placed there deliberately, but I took a deep breath and recited as if it was just me and him. When I realized I reached the last stanza I was giddy with excitement to return to my desk.

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The next day, my teacher slid a paper on my desk that explained the next steps for Poetry Out Loud classroom champions. I’d have to choose a second poem to recite for the school competition, and a third poem in the event that I made it to the regional competition (yeah, right)  that was less than 25 lines or written before the 20th century. The second poem I chose to recite was titled “Apollo” by Elizabeth Alexander. The piece is written from the perspective of a young black girl who, in 1969, watched the men of the Apollo 11 mission walk on the moon. The poem starts with the young girl's fascination towards the astronauts. What catches her attention next and amazes her even more is that the white people at the road shack (where they are viewing this historic moment) are so immersed in the outer space phenomena that they don’t notice or judge the little girl and her family by the color of their skin. The girl comes to a hopeful yet haunting  conclusion:  “This talking through static, bounces in space boots, tethered to cords is much stranger, stranger even than we are.”

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I raced to the entrance of Bulmer Telecommunications Center at Hudson Valley Community College in an attempt to escape the onslaught of cold rain and snow. The lobby adorned a huge sign that read “Poetry Out Loud New York Regionals.” Taped to a set of double doors was more information about the competition. I opened the heavy wood doors and made my way to the first thing I saw, the registration table. I was early, only joined by one other contestant. I checked in at the desk and the hosts welcomed me to refreshments down the hall. I adorned a mustard yellow turtleneck, tweed blazer, a jeweled necklace, and two-tone boots. Dozens of soaring white swallows were printed on my blue skirt, in light of my “Caged Bird” recitation. (Ms. Frizzle would be proud!) 

Within a few minutes, contestants filed into the cozy auditorium and sat in assigned seats. I greeted the girl next to me. It was her second year competing at Poetry Out Loud and when I found she was a junior too, we bonded over our loathing of Common Core math and the SAT. The emcee finally came to the stage and introduced himself and the judges, and proceeded to explain that each contestant would recite two poems. Then, the top six highest scorers would recite a third poem in the final round. The winner and runner-up of this contest would compete in the state level competition. Each performer was introduced with a short, self-written biography. Two contestants were homeschooled. One lived on a farm with her five younger brothers and chickens. The other was a ballet dancer for The Nutcracker! In the first round, one of the few male contestants recited “Ozymandias” by Percy Blythe Shelley. In the middle of reciting he paused, turning around so his back was facing the audience. He then proceeded to throw up his hands and shout, “MY NAME IS OZYMANDIAS!” I stifled my laughter with a cough. The first two rounds flew by and I was awestruck by the talent of the competitors. When it finally came to announce the finalists, the emcee listed off the names, and mine was the last to be called. 

The third poem I recited was “The Idler” by Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson. The poem begins with a description of someone with no purpose or motivation, an idler, and follows his journey through life. With a cool tone, judging the idler for wasting his life away, I recited, “His mission? Well, there is but one, And if it is a mission he knows it, nay”. Yet there’s a shift in the poem in which I directly addressed the audience. “And yet, with all the pity that you feel / For this poor mothling of that flame, the world;  Are you the better for your desperate deal”? I cynically asked. “When you, like him, into infinitude are hurled?” I condemned the crowd for their naivety. Why work so hard if, at the end of the road, they’d end up in the same place as the idler?

After all of the finalists finished and we waited for the winning scores to be calculated, something told me I wouldn't win or even come in second this time, I wanted to be wrong but there was the stage was saturated with talent.

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At the end of the event, the accuracy judge tapped my arm and said, “I liked your performance the best” with a smile. Before I could leave the auditorium, two mothers stopped me to praise my performance, “I thought you should’ve won!” “ We were thinking the girl in the gold will win for sure!” Though the only tangible thing my Poetry Out Loud experience left me with was a certificate of participation, I gained indispensable self-confidence and an open-minded attitude.

Text by Amanda Gordon and Visual by Bianca Wilson

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