by Danielle Brown, Arts Education Special Projects Coordinator and Ann Talbott Brown, Director of Arts Education –
Poetry is not always accessible. It can be difficult to understand, challenging to write, and for those of us who were required to memorize a poem with its archaic words in school, anxiety inducing. But Poetry Out Loud breaks down these barriers. As a National Recitation Contest organized by the Tennessee Arts Commission in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, the program helps students access literary history and contemporary life through poetry memorization and recitation. Poems are transformed from page to stage, and students are transformed as well by mastering public-speaking skills and building self- confidence along the way.
This year 2,094 students and 100 teachers participated in the state program by implementing schoolwide contests. We had 18 school finalists who competed at the state level, at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum last month. Our partnership with the Country Music Hall of Fame gave students access to the iconic stage at the CMA Theatre and to the breadth of artistic talent in Tennessee. Victoria Shaw was our emcee, performing music and improvising with her own poetry composed on the spot. Victoria is a hit songwriter whose songs have been a staple on the charts with recordings by Garth Brooks, John Michael Montgomery, and Trisha Yearwood among others. Ivy Phillips, Grand Master Fiddler Youth Champion from Chapmansboro, Tennessee, provided the musical entertainment.
We cannot thank the Country Music Hall of Fame staff enough for the quality of program offerings they made possible. Before the competition, the school finalists went on a private tour of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, learned about the history and artistic process of Hatch Show Print—even creating their own prints —and explored the connections between poetry and songwriting in the Taylor Swift Education Center. Educators, if you want your students to discover the fluidity between poems, songs, lyrics, lyric poetry, art songs, song-poems, storytelling, and more, check out the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Words & Music program, which is available in the Center and through accessible distance learning videoconferencing.
Making the Poetry Out Loud program more accessible this year, one student was able to join us by way of video submission. Another student from the Tennessee School for the Blind also competed. We have been working closely with the NEA and Poetry Foundation to even the playing field for all students statewide and nationally. The Arts Commission requested a copy of the online anthology of over 900 poems to be translated into braille along with an electronic version for low-vision students. Because of our conversations with the Tennessee School for the Blind, we were also able to advocate for the removal of eye contact from the Physical Presence section of the judging criteria. This has provided greater accessibility to this year’s competitor with hopes for continued inclusive practices to encourage all Tennessee students.
Finally, you don’t have to travel to Washington, D.C., to access the National Recitation Contest on April 25–26. You can cheer on the 2017 Poetry Out Loud Tennessee Champion, Marquavious Moore from Memphis, by visiting poetryoutloud.org for live viewing of the competition. His recitations will transform you, too!
This article originally appeared in Nashville Arts magazine, April 2017