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Stanford poetry competition aims to revive a performance tradition

At the second annual Poetry Out Loud competition, students practice the timeless art of performing poetry, for cash prizes.

Poetry is often thought of as silent text confined to the page, but the words of some of the most famous poets in the English language were given new life at Stanford's second annual Poetry Out Loud (POL) competition.

Jackie RobinsonSophomore Mia Diawara delivers Shane Koyczan's poem 'Beethoven.'

Sophomore Mia Diawara delivers Shane Koyczan's poem 'Beethoven.'

In a room packed with spectators, the works of Walt Whitman, Lewis Carroll and Edgar Allan Poe, among others, were heard rather than read, with an emphasis on vocal rather than dramatic performance.

The competition was held May 23 in the English Department, where both undergraduate and graduate students from across campus performed selections of their choosing. They were given three to five minutes to recite either an entire work or an excerpt; all of the poems had to have been previously published in a major publication.

Two English faculty members judged the 10 finalists on vocal interpretation skills such as enunciation, emphasis and projection, skills that demonstrate an understanding of the poem and poet.

Sponsored by the Department of English, courtesy of chair Gavin Jones, and organized by a committee of graduate students, POL demonstrated "how poetry is very much a living art that touches the lives of students from all disciplines," as Jones put it.

Centuries-old tradition

In order to highlight the oral tradition of English poetry, which extends all the way back to the first-millennium Old English bards, the competition rules instructed competitors to focus on vocal delivery while keeping body gestures and movements to a minimum.

Three English Department PhDs, Justin Tackett, Mary Kim and Jesse Nathan, founded the competition last year in an effort to recapture poetry's performance-based roots. As scholars of 19th- and 20th-century poetry, they were keen to rejuvenate the poems they studied and taught in classrooms by re-creating an experience that was more familiar before literacy was widespread.

"We [the committee members] believed that having to memorize a poem and perform it vocally creates an intimacy between poem, poet and performer that is sometimes missing in silent, solitary reading," Kim said. "And it creates a communal atmosphere when an audience is involved. Poetry performance brings people together."

All 10 performers gave insightful deliveries, but ultimately there could be only three prizewinners. First place ($350) went to English PhD Annie Atura for her spellbinding performance of Sylvia Plath's "Daddy," second place ($250) to English senior Alicia Triana for her haunting delivery of Wallace Stevens' "The Idea of Order at Key West," and third place ($150) to biology PhD Paul Leary for his sauntering rendition of Robert Service's "Song of the Mouth-Organ." The applause for these and all the finalists was enthusiastic.

While the competitors' reasons for trying out varied, they revolved around a basic love of poetic performance.

Jackie RobinsonJeremy Jimenez, a doctoral student in International Education, performs excerpts from 'The Raven' by Edgar Allan Poe.

Jeremy Jimenez, a doctoral student in International Education, performs excerpts from 'The Raven' by Edgar Allan Poe.

"I've loved narrative poetry for a long time," said Leary, who had entered the qualifying round via Skype from Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. "Having a real venue for it was a first for me. Interrupting my friends with, 'Hey you guys want to hear a poem?' isn't quite the same."

Triana shared a similar motivation. "Reciting poetry is such a great opportunity for appreciating the craft of putting words and sounds together to make something that moves," she said. "I'm happy for the chance to meet the poem in a new way, appreciate it for its language and hopefully hold it in my mind to digest for long after."

And for International Education PhD Jeremy Jimenez, POL simply presented a "wonderfully cathartic opportunity to cross another project off the bucket list!"

English Professor Roland Greene and English lecturer Phoebe Putnam, who was an avid listener last year, served as judges.

"The first event completely blew me away," Putnam said. "The performers go all out. There's an element of risk involved in live performance that's very powerful. I found it thrilling last time."

While Greene and Putnam deliberated, audience members were invited to discuss poetry and debate their favorite performances over refreshments.

The event was thus a "great way to meet other people interested in poetry," said finalist and English junior Blake Montgomery, as well as being an exercise in revivifying poetry, discovering contemporary poets and experiencing the literal embodiment of the poetic craft.

"To recite a poem is more than just reading it out loud," Jones said. "It is to live with a poem, to inhabit it, and to let the poet's voice speak through you."

Bringing poetry to life

Poetry Out Loud was inspired by a successful competition held annually at Oxford University in Great Britain, in which students performed canonical works.

The committee's belief, as Kim described it, was that "a good poem will say something that [we] always knew to be true, but could never quite put into words." The committee wanted to encourage people to learn more about poetry, so POL was partly envisioned as "a good yearly reminder to do just that," she said.

Jackie RobinsonBlake Montgomery, a junior majoring in English, delivers 'The Idea of Order at Key West' by Wallace Stevens.

Blake Montgomery, a junior majoring in English, delivers 'The Walrus and the Carpenter' by Lewis Carroll.

Interest in the first competition last year was substantial and surprised many of the organizers. The entrants represented every undergraduate class, as well as doctoral students and a Stegner Fellow, and disciplines ranged from English to bioengineering, earth systems and architectural design.

On all counts, this year's competition lived up to – and in many ways exceeded – expectations.

The POL committee expanded to include English PhD Abigail Droge and English junior Sarah Weston. The range of entrants extended further to disciplines such as economics, public policy, and civil engineering, and their numbers increased, making the job of choosing the finalists even more difficult.

This year's finalists were chosen in late April during a qualifying round, judged by the POL committee. Droge noted that the qualifying round was every bit as electrifying as the final one. "I was extremely impressed by the quality and enthusiasm of the contestants," she said.

The final event achieved record attendance, with 80-100 listeners, including faculty, staff, undergrads and grads, who filled the Terrace Room's seats, hauled folding chairs from the closets, squeezed into the adjacent kitchen and piled in at the doors to hear their friends' and colleagues' deliveries.

The event also drew listeners from off campus, in one case, far off campus. Emma Bowman, a student at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., who is researching poetry performances in California, came to interview attendees and make an audio recording of the performances. "There's something special about such events," she said. "The more I listen, the more I want to listen. I hope that all of the participants continue to get involved in events like this."

When the competition was over, Atura remarked that it "was wonderful to see how people chose poems that fit their voices and really embodied the work," bringing new understandings to canonical works, which are sometimes taken for granted.

The committee and the English Department assured the audience and competitors, all of whom remain eligible whether they won a prize or not, that the competition would be back again next year in May, but with one significant difference, according to Jones: "We're going to need a bigger room."  

The 10 finalists

Ryan Heuser (MA, English) performing excerpts from "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman; Alizeh Iqbal (sophomore, English with creative writing emphasis) performing "Persimmons" by Li-Young Lee; Blake Montgomery (junior, English) performing "The Walrus and the Carpenter" by Lewis Carroll; Alicia Triana (senior, English) performing "The Idea of Order at Key West" by Wallace Stevens; Jeremy Jimenez (PhD, international education) performing excerpts from "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe; Victoria Sienczewski (sophomore, economics) performing excerpts from Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare; Mia Diawara (sophomore, undeclared) performing "Beethoven" by Shane Koyczan; Paul Leary (PhD, biology) performing "Song of the Mouth-Organ" by Robert Service; Greeshma Somashekar (freshman, undeclared) performing "You Can't Have It All" by Barbara Ras; and Annie Atura (PhD, English) performing "Daddy" by Sylvia Plath.

Justin Tackett is a doctoral candidate in English at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.