Stanford poetry competition inspires high school students

Today's Poetry Out Loud competition, created by Stanford graduate students, has prompted a nearby high school to give students the chance to experience the traditional communal performance roots of poetry.

Justin Tackett Daniel Conceicao, left, and CJ Tait

Hillsdale High School seniors Daniel Conceicao, left, and CJ Tait recite Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."

Only three years old, Stanford's poetry performance competition, Poetry Out Loud, has already inspired a San Mateo high school to create its own version.

The Stanford event– known as POL3 – will be held today (May 21) at 7 p.m. in the Terrace Room of Margaret Jacks Hall.  Open to the public, it is sponsored by the English Department and Creative Writing Program and will be judged by faculty members Terry Castle and Keith Ekiss.

The Hillsdale High School spin-off was held last month in the school's Little Theater. Fifteen students competed, giving heartfelt introductions to their poems and then performing them with verve.

The hour-long Stanford POL event, in which students compete for cash prizes by memorizing and performing poetry written by published poets, was created by Stanford doctoral candidates who wanted to emphasize the vocal and communal roots of poetry.

"Hearing poetry read out loud always helps the words come alive for me," said Linda Liu, a  member of the POL committee. "I love hearing other people's takes on poems that are familiar to me, since they make the familiar feel fresh and new again."

The first Stanford POL, held in 2012, was a success that crossed degree and disciplinary boundaries, drawing competitors from each undergraduate class, the graduate level and the Stegner Fellowship. The competition grew considerably with POL2 in 2013, packing the Terrace Room with spectators, many of whom came from the surrounding communities and from as far afield as New York.

Celebration of language

"It's always fun to be introduced to new poets or be reminded of old favorites," said Mary Kim, another POL committee member. "It's an event that fuzzies and techies can both get interested in."

Hillsdale's April 17 version of the competition presented several twists on Stanford's model by including a poetry quiz between performances, musical interludes and a spoken word performance by one of the judges. It also differed in that students were allowed to enter the competition in pairs. Two sets of prizes were given for individual and for group performances.

Hillsdale English teacher Laura Burtness – who received her BA in English from Stanford and an MA in Education through the Stanford Teachers Education Program (STEP) – read about POL in the Stanford English Department's newsletter. She immediately saw its pedagogical potential. "It sounded fun, and I thought it could be adapted for high school students," she said.

Burtness found two other Hillsdale English teachers interested in starting a poetry performance competition at Hillsdale: Christine Crockett, who had been a coordinating teacher for STEP, and Sarah Press, who had also been a coordinating teacher and, like Burtness, received her MA in Education from STEP. The three teachers met with Stanford's POL committee in January to find out how they could host their own version of the competition.

POL caught Crockett's eye because it "centered on recitation rather than original verse or spoken word," she explained. "It was designed to preserve poetry that has withstood the test of time, and it promotes the internal and external celebration of language."

Abigail Droge, a member of Stanford's POL committee, is thrilled that POL expanded to Hillsdale. "The teachers we met with had just the right blend of enthusiasm and pragmatism. Their energy and commitment were really inspiring," she said.

Poetry on stage

Hillsdale seniors Daniel Conceicao and CJ Tait won first place in the group category for performing "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost. Conceicao read a few lines, then Tait took over, before handing it back again to his partner. Ricocheting between the two students, the delivery took on a thought-provoking poly-vocal quality not usually associated with the lyric poem.

Conceicao and Tait, who have been friends since freshman year, said they had originally encountered Frost's poem in middle school before they knew each other.

"We each brought our own interpretation to the poem," Tait said. "We had trouble finding a way to recite it. Should we do it by rhyme scheme or tone?" By working with Press, they chose to emphasize sound and imagery. In this way, "we came to a better understanding of each other's interpretations," Conceicao added.

The competition also affected students already familiar with writing and performing poetry. Sophomore Roni Margalit and senior Sam Rosen write their own poetry and frequently perform at open-mic nights in the Hillsdale area.

Margalit took first place in the individual category for performing E.E. Cummings' poem, "if up's the word."

"I love poetry," Margalit said. "But taking somebody else's poetry and making it yours is not easy. It changes your perspective. It makes you think more about your own writing."

Rosen agreed. "I've never performed someone else's poetry before. Most of my poetry is written a day or two before I perform it, so it's very raw. But this was more like acting with a script, which was difficult."

Margalit added that the effort was well worth it. "Once I've memorized something, I've gotten to know it. Saying it over and over makes you see new things. Memorizing also took a lot of my favorite poets off their pedestals and made them more human."

Burtness, Crockett and Press agreed that POL took a surprising amount of time and energy to put together, but their team effort was well worth it. "If anything," said Burtness, "POL further solidified my belief that there is an interest in this sort of activity. If you advertise it, they will come. And they did!"

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