Stanford’s Poetry Out Loud competition showcased a diversity of forms and delivery

Abisola Kusimo, the winner of the 2016 Stanford Poetry Out Loud competition, performs Margaret Walker's poem "For My People." (Photo credit: Justin Tackett)
Abisola Kusimo, the winner of the 2016 Stanford Poetry Out Loud competition, performs Margaret Walker’s poem ”For My People.” (Photo credit: Justin Tackett)

Stanford’s fifth annual Poetry Out Loud competition showcased poetry’s incredible diversity of forms in spoken delivery.

Last month, 10 student performers took center stage at the Stanford Humanities Center to demonstrate how poetry voices feelings and experiences both marginalized and central to the heart of human life.

The participants included graduate and undergraduate students from a wide variety of backgrounds, including mechanical engineering, African American studies and international relations. As co-organizer ARMEN DAVOUDIAN, a graduate student in English, said, “Poetry truly knows no disciplinary boundaries.”

Stanford English Professor GAVIN JONES and theater and performance studies Professor JANICE ROSS served as judges and decided who would be awarded the $450, $350 and $250 cash prizes sponsored by the Stanford English Department and the Creative Writing Program. Both agreed that picking winners was a tricky job.

The winners of the night, ABISOLA KUSIMO, a master’s student in mechanical engineering; EDAN ARMAS, a freshman majoring in English and psychology; and DAVIS LEONARD, a freshman theater and performance studies major, collected their cash prizes with huge smiles. First-place winner Kusimo, who performed Margaret Walker’s “For My People,” spoke about performing poetry for its own sake.

“In the context of the Black Lives Matter and the Black Girls/Women Matter movements, it is a poem with a message about a need for upliftment,” Kusimo said.

While acknowledging the success of the winners, Jones also admired how all of the contenders came across as “people who really enjoy poetry. It lives for them as part of their lives.”

“There was a very wide range of works, so it was really hard to measure one against the other,” Ross said.

Both professors agreed that while accuracy in recitation was an important factor, so was the sense of passion, risk and complexity the speakers brought to their readings.

Founded in 2012 by doctoral students in the English Department, the Stanford Poetry Out Loud competition aims to return to poetry’s roots based on an event that emphasizes the listening, recitation and performance of poetry. True to this spirit, anthropology undergraduate JUSTINE BEED’s riotous telling of ROALD DAHL’s “Cinderella” drew a chorus of laughs, while AUDREY HSU, an undergraduate majoring in English and history, took listeners back to the age of knights and jousts with her take on ALFRED TENNYSON’s “Idylls of the King.”

At the same time, AMANDA LICATO, a graduate student in English and another co-organizer, made note of the important “poetic and political diversity of voices” present in this year’s recitations. Many of the poems this year questioned existing forms of community. These poems spoke out about the privilege of inclusion and explored the difficulties of understanding and compassion in the face of inequality.

African and African American studies (AAAS) major MYSIA ANDERSON’s nuanced rendition of “Gwendolyn Brooks” by poet HAKI R. MADHUBUTI captured the crushing ironies of being a black woman poet. GINA MCGUIRE, a junior in international relations, gave a solemn delivery of PETER BLUE CLOUD’s “Bear: A Totem Dance as Seen by Raven,” which forced listeners to consider their own relation to the genocide of indigenous people.

ALICE WALKER’s impassioned “Each One, Pull One,” performed by psychology and AAAS major ADORIE HOWARD, was quickly followed by mechanical engineering PhD candidate DUSTIN GERRARD’s fast-talking rendition of ERNEST THAYER’s “Casey at the Bat.” Gathered together in Levinthal Hall, the audience listened with equally rapt attention as undergraduate RACHEL JORGENSEN joyfully claimed “Poetry makes nothing happen” and Kusimo wearily commanded, “Let another world be born.”

After the performance, Ross admitted, “My memory of poetry being recited was the sing-song of high school, which just killed it. But one good performance can change everything.”