POETRY OUT LOUD: Yesterday afternoon I had the pleasure of leading one of the Poetry Out Loud classes for the poetry club at the New Schools at Carver here in Atlanta. There were six students in attendance, accompanied by their faculty advisor Ms. Weaver. The students had picked poems from the POL anthology to recite in the upcoming school competition -- the prelude to the state and, finally, national recitation competition in Washington DC this spring.

I was hoping the students would have already memorized their poem, but that was not the case, and it was probably for the best. They had all picked easy, rhyming poems that everyone in the country will probably choose. I challenged them to pick longer free verse poems, and rather than just rote memorization, to find a poem that has resonance with them. I had brought a few poems to read, including Sharon Olds' I Go Back to May 1937, the haunting poem about her wish to stop her parents from meeting. As I read the poem, I saw poetry club president Tia's eyes light up. I pushed the poem across the table and asked her to read it. With a little work, she'll nail it.

A student named Shae picked Li-Young Lee's The Gift about a man pulling a splinter from his wife's finger, and the memory it evokes of his father doing the same when he was a boy. Although it was the first time she'd read the poem aloud, Shae's voice was strong and nuances were already there. She'll do well.

Derrek, who's on his way to being school valedictorian, was going to do Frances Harper's The Slave Auction or Maya Angelou's chestnut Still I Rise, which will be one of those poems every student picks just because it's so well known. Instead, I found Marilyn Nelson's How I Discovered Poetry and asked him to read it. Like Tia, I saw his eyes light up when he read those first lines: "It was like soul-kissing, the way the words filled my mouth as Mrs. Purdy read from her desk." It's a short poem about how a teacher empowers a young black student in a classroom of white students. It's powerful. I hope he learns this one and makes it his own.

The Poetry Out Loud judges in Washington will be looking for level of difficulty, understanding, presentation and enunciation. The students can't get too theatrical; the poem and their delivery has to carry the weight. I hope I'll get to go back and be a judge to see how the Carver students work it out. I'll be visiting Westlake High next week. Despite my lack of interest in teaching as a profession, I do get a kick out of seeing these kids connect with poetry.


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