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The Poetry Out Loud Semi-Finals are just around the corner this Saturday, March 2nd at 1 p.m. at the Poetry Center. The event is free and open to the public. In anticipation of the big event, Poetry Center intern and Poetry Out Loud coach, Hilary Gan, shares her insight about how students can prep for performance.
On the Poetry Out Loud evaluation scorecard, there is this very nebulous category called “Overall Performance.” This is further elaborated in their tips section as: “the degree to which the performance becomes more than the sum of its parts.” As a Poetry Out Loud coach, I didn’t even touch this category until recently—until after the school competitions, as the two students from each school prepare for semifinals. And suddenly, when the most talented performers at each school realize that they are up against the most talented performers from each school, it becomes the most important. What I think “overall performance” truly boils down to is the performer’s emotional connection with the poem, that je ne sais quoi that is the artist’s love for the art.
So how do you bring it out?
The easiest place to start is also the first place I ever start: body language. The whole category called physical presence. This is the part you can fake. This is the part you can practice in the hallway every day at school and pull off in competition even if you don’t feel it: standing with good posture, creating a kind of energy around you that makes people notice you, breathing properly, looking like you want to be where you are and nowhere else. Stand square, point your toes where you want to go, don’t hunch over, make eye contact with everyone you can (or at least look at things that are eye-level), and breathe with your diaphragm instead of your shoulders. Even small things like having your feet too close together, or, in one student’s case, pointing her toes slightly towards each other, can make you look nervous. An overall sense of not only comfort but desire to be there can be faked using the body, and this gives you points in “overall performance” while perfecting the “physical presence” category.
But even if your body language is good, there is another element that is harder to pin down but which makes your audience pay even closer attention, and that is: enthusiasm. You need to love your poem out loud and on stage, in front of everyone. I say in front of every single class or group I coach, “Think of your very favorite teachers. Do they teach your favorite subjects?” and invariably the students will shake their heads “no.” Then I ask, “Or do they make you care about a subject you didn’t really care about because they love it so much?” They nod. Then I show them what it looks like to do a bad performance: I wreck my physical presence by crossing my legs, staring at the floor, slouching, and fidgeting, and I recite my poem as if I am terrified. I don't even make it to the second line before they are squirming. So then I stop and say, “Do you see how I made you uncomfortable, how I made you want to leave by looking like I wanted to leave?” And then I see that lightbulb moment. Enthusiasm about yourself, about what you are saying, brings out enthusiasm in others.
But after the first competition, a new problem pops up: boredom. Recently, I began to see performers who were, in short, sick of their poems. They had said it too many times; the excitement of winning had worn off, and in general they were stuck, emotionally, and it showed. Their recitations were too fast, flat, and had that sing-song quality of memorized things from so long ago that it couldn't possibly be emotionally relevant anymore. They had lost that “overall performance” completely.
This is where it gets really fun for me.
I had a group of three students who were all very dedicated and all very, very bored with their poems: “Battle-Hymn of the Republic,” already a difficult poem to recite because everybody knows the song, “Caged Bird,” and “Ode to Solitude.” I asked for the students to give me their interpretations of the poems, and they rattled off, respectively: “How the suffering of war can bring you closer to God,” “That someone who has suffered can actually appreciate freedom better because they’ve lived without it,” and, “A man looking for his place in the world.”
I asked them, “Are you still wrestling with the same questions in your own life that you were when you chose the poem?” And they all said no. All that it takes at this moment is a simple question to open up the meaning of the poem to new issues, new questions, and so I asked, again respectively: “Are the soldiers in ‘Battle-Hymn’ necessarily men? Or could they be women fighting a different war?” And, “Do you think that the free bird is happy?” And finally, “Is the man in ‘Ode to Solitude’ still looking for his place, or has he found it?” I saw the lightbulb go on.
The last thing I want to warn about in terms of performance is the bad habit of memorizing a performance instead of a poem. This is really hard to break once it’s happened. Performers who do this tend to be almost incapable of changing emphasis on words in a line, and I have to make them repeat after me (“Try ‘mine eyes HAVE seen the glory OF…’”) and often they still just can’t make their voices do it. Memorizing your emphases and emotional peaks and valleys will get you through the first performance, but not the second. Not through the boredom crisis.
The only thing that will get you through the boredom crisis is a constant struggle with a poem. Just last week, I asked two students to recite the poems they like to avoid, and one girl got up and recited “Dirge Without Music.” There were five or six other people in the room at the time, mildly chatting; by the time she got to the second line, all of them had shut up and were listening. She had that “overall performance” down. When she was done, I asked her why she avoids that poem. She said, “I love this poem, but I hate it, too.” I asked her to underline the lines she hates; they were all the points in the poem where Millay refuses to accept death because of what is lost afterwards. I asked, “Are you religious?” and she said, “Yes.” And I told her not to change it, not to recite it too much, and not to resolve her conflicts with it. It was the struggle with the words, having to give voice to a viewpoint she sincerely disagreed with and wanted to change—the artist’s attempt to understand and take in an art form that went against her deepest beliefs. It was emotional resonance taking over a room. It was overall performance at its finest. She had not yet decided how she felt about this poem, and it showed, painful and raw.
So choose a poem you don’t understand; or one that you don’t wholly agree with. Choose one you have never seen before and have to work hard at. This is how you master “overall performance”: you choose a poem that never lets you conquer it, not fully. Poetry seems to be all in the climb and not in the victory; it is growth in action.
Hilary Gan is an MFA candidate in Fiction at the University of Arizona, and the Field Trip Intern for the UofA Poetry Center.