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Interview with 2013 Poetry Out Loud State Champion: Cassandra Valadez

The Poetry Out Loud season is right around the corner! Poetry Out Loud is a national program for high school teachers and students, which seeks to foster the next generation of literary readers by capitalizing on the latest trends in poetry – recitation and performance. The deadline for teachers to register their schools is October 18, 2013. With this in mind, Wordplay asked Matthew J. Conley--poet and teacher--to interview last Spring's 2013 Arizona Poetry Out Loud State Champion. A recent graduate of Sunnyside High School, after winning state, Cassandra represented Arizona at the Poetry Out Loud National Competition in Washington, D.C. Matthew J. Conley worked closely with Cassandra, coaching her from the school competition all the way to Nationals. Check out Matthew’s inspiring interview with Cassandra below. Enjoy!

MC: What was it like representing the state of Arizona at a national poetry competition?

CV: It was a complete pleasure. On the bus headed to the auditorium, I kept thinking about all the Arizona competitors, the time that they spent and passion they gave, and it was so awesome to be representing them. In Washington D.C., I received many text messages from my family, as well as random texts from people who were watching back home. I had just seen the article in the Arizona Daily Star, and I felt VERY connected to everyone. It was an honor, but a bittersweet one too, now that I’m moving to Oregon to go to college. If I could have one more year in Arizona Poetry Out Loud, I’d take it!

MC: You went to the state finals in Phoenix last year too, but didn’t win until this year. Other than the obvious (state championship), was there any difference between the two AZ State Finals events you attended?

CV: Well, last year I was really nervous, and of course I didn’t know what to expect. This year, knowing I was a senior and it would be my last time, I just wanted to have fun…and that helped me be less nervous, even though there was more pressure. But the event itself was much bigger and more exciting. It seemed like they did a great job of promoting the event and getting the word out about it; a lot of people were excited and the crowd was really large. It was a nice venue too, and there were these really nice cameras with one on a tripod facing the performers…I even had fun watching the cameraperson working hard to capture the poems. It was a really awesome event.

MC: What was most impressive about Poetry Out Loud at the national level?

CV: How amazing everyone was! EVERYONE was impressive and the time commitment the competitors had put in was incredible. I met a girl who had been to three nationals in a row! Many of them were repeat winners, and it was great talking about the work involved and overcoming frustrations. Meeting everyone and connecting as students, bonding through Poetry Out Loud…I’m still talking to some of the people I met. At the opening banquet, we were seated by region, and I thought I would be nervous talking to the performers I was competing against, but everyone was very friendly and passionate. We got to meet last year’s champion and even attended a congressional breakfast…it was a whirlwind.

MC: What advice would you give to the 2014 AZ POL State Champion?

CV: Keep working! You can ALWAYS put in more work. Practice a lot, and practice with crowds, as many and as diverse as you can, because it will help you gauge reactions and learn about the poem. And it’s important to have fun, but you SHOULD stress a little too, because you can turn worry into work and stay motivated. Soak up every moment; the time in between competitions isn’t as long as it seems, and the national competition goes soooo fast; make sure you’re ready for anything and everything!

MC: What will you take with you, to Oregon and beyond, from this experience?

CV: All the memories. I’ve met so many amazing people through this program, from coaches like Hilary (Gan), Allie Leach the assistant coordinator, and of course my English teacher Mr. Fischer…the Poetry Out Loud experience is something I will never forget. Flying back home, I was thinking of the lessons I’ve learned about time management and preparation, and I will apply that to my college activities for sure. I’ve also got a renewed drive to meet people and be open to new experiences. I feel very motivated.

MC: Will you perform (poetry) in the future?

CV: You know, even though I’ve always written and loved poetry, I never thought it would play this big of a role in my life. But writing helps me think and dream, and though I’m not seeking a degree in poetry, it will always be a part of me. When I get to Oregon, I plan to connect to the local scene and stay connected with Poetry Out Loud. I’d like to be a part of the community there and share my experiences with them.


Matthew Conley is the Executive Director of the Tucson Poetry Festival. His 20+ years of publication and performance accomplishments include an International Head-to-Head Haiku Championship (2005), the creation of Drive-by Poetry (1993), and work appearing in Poetry Motel, spiral orb, The Mas Tequila Review, and (sic).

Created on: 
Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Arizona Board of Regents