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The deadline for teachers to register their schools in the Poetry Out Loud Competition is November 2nd. Click here to register. With this in mind, we here at Wordplay would like to introduce you to Amanda Bressler, one of the Semi-Finalists from last year's Poetry Out Loud Regional Semi-Final Competition. Amanda is a sophomore at University High School. In addition to poetry, Amanda enjoys playing the flute and acting. She is an excellent student and is involved in the math club at her school. Amanda was kind enough to sit down with Wordplay and tell us about her experience with Poetry Out Loud, competitions, and more!
1) When/how did you first hear about the Poetry Out Loud program? Who were your teachers that got you involved in POL at University High?
I first heard about Poetry Out Loud in my English class at school. Everyone in the class was required to memorize and recite a poem in front of our class for a grade. We did not have to, but were given the option to be judged by our teacher to hopefully go on to the school competition. My English teacher was Mr. Herring, and I also spoke with Mrs. Balzer several times because she was in charge of the school competition and helped me with registering and preparing for the regional competition.
2) Do you have a history/background with performance? Does performance come naturally to you?
I do! I have been acting in plays ever since I was in first grade, and I am still involved with theatre at Live Theatre Workshop. I have also been playing the flute since I was in third grade, and I am still playing. I do several recitals per year. In addition, I was involved with dance when I was younger. I stopped after sixth grade, I think, but I started back up again just this past year by taking it in school. I'm going to continue taking it in school next year and probably take a class outside of school. So, yes, I do think performance comes naturally to me because I've been doing it for so long! I really do enjoy it and it's something I think I've always been drawn to. I think performance is fun and it definitely gets me out of my comfort zone. I think that it has made me more confident in everything I do. I especially see the getting out of my comfort zone through drama. We do so much silly, crazy, ridiculous stuff that there's no way you can feel self conscious about yourself because everyone looks just as strange as you do.
3) From the in-class competition, to the school competition, to the semi-finals—what kind of preparation did you have along the way for your Poetry Out Loud performances? Also, could you talk about the poems that you chose to recite for your Poetry Out Loud performance? What inspired you to pick these particular poems?
All the participating freshman English classes were given a list of probably around 60 poems to choose from. My teacher said he would post the list online the next day or so, but I couldn't wait to choose. Only two people per class could recite the same poem, and I did not want to find out that two people had already chosen the poem I really wanted. So I wrote down several poems in my planner that had titles that stood out to me. It was probably around 15, a pretty good amount. I went on the Poetry Out Loud website when I got home, anxious to pick my poem. As I was reading them, I couldn't find anything I really liked. As I came to the final poem I wrote down, I was feeling discouraged. But that last poem I absolutely loved. There was something different about it, that truly stood out amongst all the other poems I had read, and that poem, "Contraction" by Ravi Shankar, carried me all the way through the regional competition. I think if you really like a poem, it makes it that much easier to learn it. We were driving up to Phoenix one day, and I decided to bring my poem to start memorizing it, because, well, I had two hours! My sister helped me, and I quickly learned the poem in about 10 minutes. I can still recite the poem to this day perfectly, without even having to think too hard about it. I tied with another girl in my class and moved on to the semi-final school competition. I recited the same poem, and it took me to the school finals; I was so excited! I was told we could choose another poem so I learned "Blind Curse" by Simon J. Ortiz. I thought it was cool because the poet went to the U of A. But up until the actual competition, I still could not decide which poem to recite. The first one came so much easier to me, though, and I knew that was the right choice all along. And clearly it was, because I won second place and got to move on to the regional competition! I was really proud of myself and so excited to continue moving on in the competition. I had to choose a second poem to perform for the regional competition and I remember the first one I looked at was "Alone" by Edgar Allen Poe. I thought it was good but wasn't sure if it was the right one for me. So I continued to look at a ton of other poems, but still nothing struck me. I decided to look at "Alone" again and after reading it over several times, I knew that was the one for me. (It's kind of funny because the first poem I chose was the last one I looked at, and the second poem I chose was the first one!) To prepare, I googled the poem and tried to find out what its real meaning was. It clearly reflected Poe's life, which was very dark, just like the poem. Then I tried to get into character, and try to feel what pain he must have felt. We learned a memorization technique from a poet in class one day called "stacking." Basically, you read the title, say it without looking. Add on the author, say it without looking. Add on the first line, say that whole thing without looking. Keep going until the end of the poem and you're done! This helped a lot with memorizing it, although I have had lots of practice with memorizing lines over the years, which I think definitely helped as well. I re-learned "Blind Curse" for my tie-breaker poem, which I didn't end up using. I looked at the Poetry Out Loud website for tips on the performance and what the judges are looking for. Then I pretty much just practiced my poems a lot at home and in the car all the way up until the regional competition.
5) Over the course of the various competitions, how do you feel your performance/recitations improved? What kind of tips did you find most helpful?
I think I gave a really good in-class performance, but I was a little unsure of myself. Luckily for me, not many people tried for the school competition in my class. I recited my poem and after I was done, everyone immediately told me how great a job I did. They were so surprised and impressed, and during the recitation, I felt like I really captivated their attention. This gave me a huge confidence boost and made me feel great going into the semi-finals! That was probably my best performance, I would say, because of that great feeling. I heard from someone that I got first place in that competition, and I think there were 36 people, but I'm not sure because I had to leave early. That did give me confidence going into the finals, but somehow I got a little nervous. I realized that there were only two winners out of maybe 16 competitors. That was scary. And I certainly remember physically shaking a bit when I performed my poem. They may have noticed that and that probably is why I got second, not first, but it didn't matter, I made it to regionals! The regional competition was very scary because there were 18 kids competing for three spots, and they were all really great; they all won their school competitions too, and I assume many of them probably had coaches. One student actually recited "Alone" as well and his performance was incredibly different than mine. It was definitely intimidating, and I did have to wait a very long time before I got to perform, which gave me more time to be nervous. I had to adjust to the big crowd and standing up there with a microphone. But, in the end, I felt very confident with both poems I recited that night. I didn't end up going on to the state competition, but I was okay with it. I felt like I had matured. In the past, I may have gotten quite upset about it, but this time I didn't. I realized that I have three more chances at this! There was only one other freshman at that competition and a whole lot of juniors and seniors. So really, I am very lucky and it's best to look at the bright side of that situation. I already got so far for never having participated in Poetry Out Loud before, and it's definitely not over for me. The poet who taught us about stacking also gave us lots of tips that day about poetry recitation. I found all of that incredibly helpful and that is really what got me excited about the competition and made me want to compete. I also really think that looking on the website was a good idea. It gave me the chance to see exactly what the rubric they used looked like and what they tell the judges to look for. However, each judge does have their own thoughts on it, and you can never really know what they are personally looking for.
6) How has participating in Poetry Out Loud helped you in other areas of your life? For example, do you find that you have more confidence? Also, will you be participating in the competition again next year?
I do think that it has given me more confidence. It showed me that I am good at what I do, that people recognize the hard work I have put into performance my whole life. It felt to me like all that was worth it. And it is something that I love to do. It has shown me that if you work hard for something and you really want it, you can get it. You can do anything if you care enough about it and try hard enough. I will absolutely be participating in the competition again next year! Immediately after the regional competition, I started thinking of what I can do better for next year. One thing that I definitely think I need to do is choose a longer poem. Both of my poems were fairly short and the people who won did have longer poems. I also think I should go over the recitations with a teacher and get more opinions on it. My goal for this year is to make it to the state competition. I think that would be amazing!
7) What advice would you give a student who wants to participate in Poetry Out Loud, but doesn’t have much experience with performance?
Like I said before, if you really want something, you can go get it if you work hard enough. Yes, some people may be naturally very talented at something, but really anything is possible and it's never too late to start. I would tell them to ask a teacher about it. Maybe they will get to listen to advice from a poet, and if they do, really pay attention; they know what they're talking about! Go on the Poetry Out Loud website. There is so much to explore on there. Find out what the judges are looking for. They also have videos of students in the national competition performing. Watch those videos and take note of what they do that makes their performance so great. There's also a whole lot out there on YouTube. Definitely use the internet to your advantage.
8) Please elaborate on any other experiences about Poetry Out Loud that you would like to share…
I really did love participating in Poetry Out Loud this year, and I'm so glad that I had the chance to do so! I think that if you have an amazing opportunity, you should go for it! If you win, you could win $20,000! That's not too bad :). But really, any kind of chance at something great that is staring you right in the face, it is stupid not to go for it. Especially when there is nothing to lose.