A Poetry Out Loud Interview with Elizabeth Seydel Morgan
With the state finals of the 2010 Poetry Out Loud National Recitation Competition under way around the country, Poetry Daily has been following the competition in Virginia. Last week, in Part I of a three-part series, we talked with poet and teacher Ron Smith about poetry recitation at St. Christopher’s School, in Richmond, Virginia, a tradtion that predates Poetry Out Loud. This week we asked poet Elizabeth Seydel Morgan about her experience judging the St. Christopher's competition for the first time.
Elizabeth Seydel Morgan has published four books of poetry with Louisiana State University Press, most recently, Without a Philosophy, winner of the L.E. Philabaum Poetry Award. Her poetry has appeared in many anthologies, including Poetry Daily and Billy Collins' Poetry 180, as well as periodicals such as Poetry, Southern Review, Georgia Review, Iowa Review and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Online, her work has appeared in Cortland Review, Blackbird and Poetry Daily. Morgan initiated the creative writing courses at St. Catherine's and St. Christopher's school, in Richmond, Virginia, which she taught for twenty years. She has also taught poetry writing at University of Richmond, Washington and Lee University, Randolph Macon Women's College, Virginia Correctional Center for Women and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Studio School. Morgan was Louis D. Rubin Writer-in-Residence at Hollins University in 2007, and in 2008 she will teach in France and at Virginia Commonwealth University. She was an Inaugural Winner of the $10,000 Carole Weinstein Prize in Poetry and is now one of the Curators of that prize.
We talked with Elizabeth Seydel Morgan via e-mail:
Poetry Daily: Was this the first time you judged a Poetry Out Loud competition?
Elizabeth Seydel Morgan : Yes, my first. I hope it won’t be my last. My good friend Ron Smith asked me to be a judge of his school’s 2010 final, along with fellow Richmond poets Susan Heroy and David Wojahn.
PD: Did you read our interview with Ron about poetry recitation at St. Christopher’s?
ESM: It was great. I heard that St. Christopher’s was known around here for getting football players to memorize poems, but I didn’t know just how long this boy’s school had been at it. Or to what extent, or how the practice morphed into winning competitions in POL up to the national level.
PD: What challenges do judges face? What was the experience like for you?
ESM: Ron gave us an evaluation sheet ahead of time. I was surprised at the list of points we would have to be watching and listening for to grade each competitor. In fact, I was kind of nervous about doing my job. The criteria are physical presence, voice and articulation, appropriateness of dramatization, level of difficulty of the chosen poem and evidence of understanding. Then finally a number grade for overall performance. Can you imagine yourself as a teenager trying out? The experience was more difficult than the criteria led me to expect. The judges had to score each of the grades immediately after hearing each contestant and hand in that sheet.
PD: Which of these criteria presented the biggest challenge to you as you judged the event? Which do you think was the biggest challenge to the performers?
ESM: Overall performance was difficult—trying in a minute to average out weaknesses and excellences. I imagine each contestant had his own “biggest challenge”—I remember separate problems with nervousness, over-dramatization, and so forth. The confidence to do well at all categories seems, in retrospect, to do with experience. Maybe for a high school student the biggest thing is the sheer nerve it takes to stand up in front of peers, faculty, and poets and recite a poem.
PD: The anthology of poems from which POL competitors make their selections is extremely diverse, covering centuries of poetry and just about every style imaginable. Was it a worry for you that you might find yourself judging the recitation of a poem that you might have hoped never to have bumped into again in your life? Or, on the other hand, one of your personal favorites?
ESM: Well, yes! That is just what happened. When the competition began, Ron handed out the seven finalists’ names and selected poems. I was chagrined to see “If”, but also to see “To My Coy Mistress.” I just couldn’t imagine what I was in for. It turned out that the conviction of the young man reciting “If” and the understanding and subtlety of the senior’s interpretation of Marvell led to our highest points.
PD: How did you find the level of performance overall?
ESM: I was so impressed, I think I gave every one a high overall grade. But the ultimate winner was a knockout and I gave him a perfect score. My fellow judges must have agreed. I’m very interested now in following the competition to the final.
PD: Do you feel that poetry as an oral art form has experienced a resurgence quite apart from the Poetry Out Loud National Recitation Competition?
ESM: Oh, yes. You mentioned in your interview last week with Ron Smith such evidence as Pinsky’s “Favorite Poem Project,” slams and spoken word movements, hiphop, YouTube recitations. As Ron says, hearing these poems spoken does something miraculous to the poem. “By heart” takes on a deeper meaning.
PD: If you found yourself coaching an aspiring Poetry Out Loud competitor one day, what three tips would you start with?
ESM: Choose a poem you love, choose a poem that you understand more fully the more you read it, discuss your understanding of it with your teachers. That’s what I would start with. After that, practice, practice, practice.
PD: Do you ever recite poetry out loud yourself—apart from the readings you do of your own poems and books? To whom do you declaim when you declaim?
ESM: Memorization is hard for me. That’s why I admire these competitors so much. I do have a few favorites I know entire. One is “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” the ultimate get-away-from-pavement poem. I have a place for nine bean rows, too. I also, to myself, declaim pieces of Shakespeare that pop into my head at needed times.
PD: What was the first poem you can remember memorizing? The most recent?
ESM: “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”—also my first brush with simile, and with philosophical question. Recently, I memorized “A Major Work,” by William Meredith:
Poems are hard to read
Pictures are hard to see
Music is hard to hear
And people are hard to love
But whether from brute need
Or divine energy
At last mind eye and ear
And the great sloth heart will move
PD: What values are added by POL to the experience and study of poetry for students who choose to participate? What do you see them taking away from the competition?
ESM: Any high school student who goes through this competition, at any level, will know how to read a poem for meaning and construction. Much more so than just by “studying” poetry. As for what he or she will take away from the experience aside from enjoying the art of poetry, I would think self-confidence is number one. It is a valuable talent to be able to speak before an audience—a jury, a class, a congregation, a legislature, a meeting—without notes, with a strong voice, with eye contact, and with the full understanding of what you are trying to convey.