Mastering a spoken art

A poetic performance and perspective from Blake’s POL contestants


Katya Tobak

POL contestants smiling at their success

Rachel Hertzberg, Staff Writer


“The spoken word brings a whole different dimension to discovery of levels of meaning in a poem,” says English teacher Patty Strandquist, describing the form of art known as Poetry Out Loud. On Tuesday March 10, two Blake students, Ruby McCallum ’17 and Cameron Downey ’17 advanced to the regional Poetry Out Loud (POL) competition held at the Open Book Center in downtown Minneapolis. Downey then proceeded to the state competition and will compete in Nationals at the end of April. Although the competition was “nerve-wracking,” she is excited to compete as one of fifty students in Washington DC.

Poetry Out Loud is a national organization in which high school students memorize and recite poetry. The value of POL is that it allows students to communicate their own interpretation of poems through their delivery, instead of just passively reading a poem and accepting someone else’s interpretation. Downey elaborates on this idea, saying that when one recites a poem, “[the speaker has] most likely already taken it apart for all its worth, then reassembled it to become a working unit that reflects [their] own understanding of that author’s words.” In preparation for the national competition, she wants to focus on finding new meaning in her poems in order to continue to hone her recitation. McCallum has another perspective on her own poem, saying that the poem’s obscurity “makes it interesting to recite and spend time with, trying to grasp it.” When reciting poetry, the speaker becomes an active participant in constructing meaning from the original literature. Downey says that being self-conscious can ruin a performance, and that one has to be willing to be vulnerable onstage. “You have to decide,” she says, “are you going to be the lame person who does really well, or are you going to be the person who’s not that into it and doesn’t do that well.”

Understanding a poem can help with memorization as well. “We don’t memorize by head,” Stranquist notes. “We memorize by heart. Committing a poem to memory, bringing it close to your heart…allows you to share that experience with a broader audience.” In this way, the audience too is able to understand the speaker’s unique perspective and interpretation of the poem. Downey comments, “I have one shot at trying to make the audience realize everything I did after dozens of reads. I feel like there’s a certain beauty in that struggle.”