Notre Dame High School Senior is a National Finalist for Poetry Aloud
Most of us learn poetry in the form of words on a page. But to high school students competing at the national level Poetry out loud program, the poets’ words literally come to life through oral performances and interpretations. Ben Long, senior from Notre Dame High School in Clarksburg, is one of nine national finalists. Eric Douglas sat down with Long to find out more about the program – and how an unusual year of prerecorded performances and hidden audiences made things different.
This interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
Douglas: Tell me what it’s like to recite poetry. What should you do? I mean, there are no props, it’s just you on stage – you and your voice.
Long: In my particular case, we do word exchanges, we really go in and do the work of finding the right speed to present the poem. What is the emotional depth of the poem? Where should I bend? It really is like making a roadmap. And you do this to really, really familiarize yourself with the poem.
When you go up there and you are ready to present, it goes through you, it happens naturally. But it is certainly a lot of work. For Poetry Out Loud, it’s you, it’s your body, it’s your movements, your physicality. This is how you bring the poem to life.
Douglas: When you are on stage, when you play, do you imagine yourself as the poet, as a character in the poem?
Long: I’m trying to figure out who’s talking. I ask who did the poet write the intended narrator to? But also, in my interpretation of the poem, who do I imagine the speaker? In the only poem I did “A Blessing” by James Wright, it begins with “Right off the freeway in Rochester, Minnesota …” It’s like he’s telling a story, so to be able to Going into that perspective, I kind of imagined I was telling the story to a group of friends.
I think my most successful strategy has just been to try and create the character of the narrator and figure out what his motives are. And then, while speaking the poem, just step into that role.
Douglas: Are you a poet yourself? Or were you interested in this more like a performance?
Long: When I started doing poetry out loud, I didn’t really write poetry, it was just a school function at the Conservatory of Performing Arts. And I got into a recitation contest. But in this last year of poetry aloud, I’ve written more original poetry than I’ve ever written.
I think my involvement in Poetry Out Loud and the resources surrounding it have definitely influenced my interest in writing on my own. At the national level, in the semi-finals, there is an original poetry competition that I participated in, which is a very nice opportunity, because it gives artists the opportunity to present their own work.
Douglas: You make a contemporary poem, but you also make an older poem from the 19th century. What is the biggest challenge for you in this?
Long: I would say that some of the 19th century poetry can be quite difficult. I do Shakespeare, so I have experience with trading line by line with words that I don’t understand and figuring out what things mean. But I think there is a difficult aspect to understanding what the emotional run of a poem is meant to be.
It really is a game to try and find where do I speak quietly? Where do I get intense? It’s intimidating when you write a 40 line poem, trying to figure it out and remember everything. It can be quite difficult.
To note: This year’s Poetry Out Loud finale will feature tape recitations of the poems instead of being in front of a live audience.
Douglas: I’m sure you feed off the audience to some extent. I wonder if doing a pre-recorded conference makes things different or more difficult for you?
Long: It’s really different and in this year of COVID I’ve learned so much about the importance of an audience’s energy. And even with masks, what value there is in a face. I think as an artist it was definitely a difficult year. Not being able to have a large audience, not being able to see the faces of other artists. I am fortunate to work with a school and a program that have gone out of their way to keep us on stage.
Douglas: Where are you going from here? Where is all this taking you?
Long: The national winner gets a place in the magazine of the National Poetry Foundation, where he puts original works. Their school gets $ 10,000, they get $ 20,000. For me, it’s just an honor to represent the state at this level and to experience the competition. It is obvious that all of these children are exceptionally gifted. And I always thought it was an honor to meet other kids my age, who had done all of this work.
The Poetry Out Loud National Finals will be available via a single webcast at arts.gov/poetry-out-loud.