Notre Dame High School Senior Is National Poetry Out Loud Finalist
Most of us learn about poetry as words on a page. But to high school students competing in the national Poetry Out Loud program, the words of poets literally come to life through spoken performance and interpretation. Notre Dame High School senior Ben Long from Clarksburg is one of nine national finalists. Eric Douglas spoke with Long to learn more about the program -- and how an unusual year of pre-recorded performances and masked audiences has made things different.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: Tell me what it's like to recite poetry. What do you have to do? I mean, there's no props, there's just you on stage -- you and your voice.
Long: In my particular case we do word swapping, we really go in and do the work to find out the right speed to present the poem. What is the emotional depth of the poem? Where do I inflect? It's really like making a roadmap. And you do that so that you can get really, really familiar with the poem.
When you get up there and you're ready to present, it happens through you, it happens naturally. But it definitely is a lot of work. For Poetry Out Loud, it's you, it's your body, it's your movements, your physicality. That is how you bring the poem to life.
Douglas: When you're on stage, when you're performing, are you envisioning yourself as the poet, as a character in the poem?
Long: I try to figure out who is speaking. I ask who did the poet write the intended narrator to be? But also, in my interpretation of the poem, who do I imagine the speaker to be? In the one poem that I did “A Blessing” by James Wright, it starts off “Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota...” It’s as if he's telling a story, so in order to be able to get into that perspective, I sort of imagined that I'm telling the story to a group of friends.
I think my most successful strategy has been just trying to create the character of the narrator and figure out what their motivations are. And then, through speaking the poem, just step into that role.
Douglas: Are you a poet yourself? Or were you interested in this more as a performance?
Long: When I started doing Poetry Out Loud, I wasn't really writing poetry, it was just a school function through the Performing Arts Conservatory. And I got into it as a recitation competition. But in this past year of doing Poetry Out Loud, I've written more original poetry than I've ever written before.
I think being involved in Poetry Out Loud, and the resources that surround that, definitely has influenced my interest in writing on my own. At the national level, in the semifinals, there's an original poetry competition, which I took part in, which is a really cool opportunity, because that gives artists an opportunity to present their own work.
Douglas: You do a contemporary poem, but you also do an older 19th century poem. What's the greatest challenge for you in that?
Long: I would say that some of the 19th century poetry can be pretty challenging. I do Shakespeare, so I have experience with going in and line by line swapping out words that I don't understand and figuring out what things mean. But I think there is a challenging aspect to figuring out what the emotional ride of a poem is supposed to be.
It's really a game to try and find where do I speak softly? Where do I get intense? It's daunting when you're doing a poem that's 40 lines long, trying to figure it out and remember everything. It can be pretty challenging.
Note: This year’s Poetry Out Loud finals will include tape recitations of the poems instead of being in front of a live audience.
Douglas: I'm sure you feed off of the audience to a certain degree. I wonder if doing a pre-recorded talk makes it any different or any more challenging for you?
Long: It's definitely different and in this year of COVID, I've learned so much about how important the energy of an audience is. And even just with the masks how much value there is in a face. I think as a performer it has definitely been a challenging year. Not being able to have big audiences not being able to see the faces of other performers. I'm lucky enough to work with a school and a program who has been willing to do everything they can to keep us on stage.
Douglas: Where do you go from here? Where does this all take you?
Long: For me it's just an honor to represent the state at this level and to experience the competition. It's obvious that all of these kids are exceptionally gifted. And so I've always thought it was an honor to experience other kids my age, who had put in all this work.
The Poetry Out Loud National Finals will be available through a one-time-only webcast at arts.gov/poetry-out-loud.