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On Tucson, Poetry Out Loud, & Class Scheduling

The Poetry Out Loud Semi-Finals are almost here: Saturday, March 2nd at 1 p.m. at the Poetry Center. The event is free and open to the public. Poetry Center intern and Poetry Out Loud coach, Laura I. Miller, reflects on what she learned from coaching students for the Semi-Finals this year.

When I first moved to Tucson in June of last year, I didn’t find much to celebrate. Coming from Dallas, I missed the culture, the food, the dedication to the arts, and even the shopping. Tucson felt claustrophobic, underfunded, and—above all—unbearably hot. I still have scars on my chest where my jewelry, exposed briefly to desert sun, burned crescent moons into my skin. 

Poetry Out Loud has steadily chipped away at my curmudgeonly attitude and opened my eyes to all the wonderful people and organizations in this desert town. It’s still true that Tucson is claustrophobic, underfunded, and hot, but the people here don’t give a damn. They’re fighters, they’re lovers, and they’re devoted to making Tucson a place where artists feel comfortable living and thriving.

The students I’ve coached through Poetry Out Loud give so much of themselves. Their teachers and even their principles (Villa Oasis shout out!) have shown genuine support and interest in the program and are profoundly aware of its value to the students’ personal and professional development. I’ve been awe-struck by the level of dedication from all parties involved.

Because this work ain’t easy, because there are so many elements involved with poetry and performance, I’d like to share a comprehensive evaluation of the mistakes and successes I’ve had over the last six months of coaching with the hope that we can continue to build a strong presence in Poetry Out Loud over the years.

Poetry Out Loud Comprehensive Class Schedule & Lesson Plan

First Week: Poem Selection

I underestimated the importance of poem selection in the Poetry Out Loud competition. Students pick three poems, two for performing, and one as a tie-breaker. Judges frown on short poems with end rhymes and shallow content. Students should pick poems that resonate emotionally, but they also need to be aware of the judging criteria and choose a poem whose difficulty level won’t put them at an immediate disadvantage.

Second Week: In-Class Memorization  

Good grief, I cannot stress this enough. It’s impossible to begin coaching students on their performances if they don’t have their poems memorized. IMPOSSIBLE. I took it on faith that students practiced memorization techniques at home, to the detriment of us all. Class time needs to be allotted to students to work on memorization. There’s not much progress to be made prior to this crucial step.

Third Week: Tone & Interpretation

I’ve had quite a bit of success with the Tone Map Lesson from the Poetry Out Loud Teacher’s guide, which you can download in its entirety here.

Here’s a variation of the lesson:

I. Distribute Tone Sheet

--Discuss assuming a persona/narrator vs. author vs. self

--Listen to three versions of “To Be or Not to Be” from the POL soundtrack

--Listen again, and write tones from each performance on the board

--Which version do they prefer? Why?

II. Distribute copies of “The World Is Too Much With Us”

--Have students create tone map (write a tone or two next to each line)

--Discuss/write tones on board

--Listen to “The World Is Too Much With Us” from POL soundtrack

--Where does Lansbury differ? Which tone do they prefer?

III. Have students create a tone map of their own poems

--How does the tone shift from line to line?

--Are there any major shifts in tone?

--Which tone dominates the poem, overall?

Fourth Week: Physical Presence

Teaching Artist Matthew Conley has a great video on physical presence here. For this aspect of performance, I like to have students focus on the breath and bringing their awareness back to the body. We do an exercise called “audible breathing” in which I have the students take deep breaths, from the base of their lungs, imagining their chests filling up with air like balloons. Then we perform the first line of the poem regularly, and again after taking a deep inhale and exhale. Students typically find they gain centeredness, calm, and a greater awareness of the body. This exercise helps channel nervous energy.

Fifth Week: Eye Contact

I’ve found that students at all levels of performance need help with eye contact. They tend to scan the room, their pupils skittering wildly from person to person. Through focused and prolonged eye contact, they can create dramatic emphasis with their poems. I like to show the video of Youssef Biaz performing “Those Winter Sundays” for this lesson and have students choose words or lines in their poems to practice performing with concentrated eye contact.

Sixth Week: Performances & Judging

You can never have too many in-class performances prior to the competition. This far along, it can be helpful to hold small workshops in which students act as judges and fill out the same scoring sheets used by judges at the performance. This familiarizes students with the judging criteria, while allowing them to verbalize aspects of performance they and their peers can improve upon.

With all the emotional fervor and hard work I’ve seen from students this season, we’re sure to have a heart-wrenching day of performances on our hands. I look forward to having my mind blown. 

Laura I. Miller is a fiction writer in the MFA program at UA, an intern for Poetry Out Loud and Fairy Tale Review, and managing editor of Sonora Review.

Created on: 
Thursday, February 28, 2013
Arizona Board of Regents