With the October 30 deadline for schools to register to participate in Arizona Poetry Out Loud fast approaching, we’ve asked some past participants and long-time supporters of the program to share their thoughts and experiences. Today, we hear from someone with a very unique perspective on the national poetry recitation competition.

Each year, nine students advance to Arizona’s state finals competition. In 2013, one of Arizona’s state finalists felt the pressure a little more acutely than the others. Adriana Hurtado of Prescott Valley found herself reciting “The Cities Inside Us” not only for the panel of judges, but for the poet himself–Arizona’s Poet Laureate, Alberto Álvaro Ríos.

Beyond having his work featured in the Poetry Out Loud anthology, Ríos has contributed to Arizona’s Poetry Out Loud program in a number of ways over the years. He has acted as a host, a judge, and a guest of honor. Recently, Ríos shared his thoughts on the program, its benefits, and the difference between performing a poem and living a poem.

azpl1What have you found to be the most rewarding aspect of your participation in Poetry Out Loud?

I don’t come to this discussion as a performer or participant, but as an observer, judge, and poet whose work is often used in the competition. From my perspective, hearing my work being read—being lit on fire—by someone else, this moment gives me meaning, personally. Hearing someone read the work aloud and with enthusiasm helps me to understand why I write.

Poetry Out Loud is a program that has national reach, What do you think it offers to Arizona high school students in particular?

To start with: a dictionary is efficient, but a poem is effective. That is, you can learn all the words in the world, all the mathematical formulas, all the musical notes, all the elements on the periodic table—but, until you do something with them, nothing much happens. The humanities in particular, and poetry especially, boils down to this: Say it, and I will understand it; say it well, and I will feel it. We can go to high school to learn, or we can go to high school and not simply learn, but know why learning matters, and be inspired to do something because of it. Arizona is a place of many cultures and many languages.  Our dictionary is very big, our hearts even bigger, regardless of what we might hear in the news.  Reading poetry out loud, finding the best in a poem and making it come alive, this is a model for everything you will go forward to do, not simply in school but in life.

What advice would you give students who may be unsure, nervous, or completely frightened by the thought of performing poetry?

You aren’t going out to perform poetry. The best poetry is lived, not performed, at least on some level. That’s why the poet wrote it, even if it is imaginative. What you’re going out to do is simply let the poem speak for itself, without you getting in the way. Say the life in the poem. Give it voice, give it moment, give it reason.

alberto1Can you describe what happens to you when you read poetry?

Poetry is often sparse, unsettling, evocative, suggestive of more—it very often doesn’t do the whole job of the moment. Instead, it starts a moment, like a key in the ignition starts a car. But where I go and what I do in and with that car, that’s up to me, the reader. Dr. Seuss started this off for me, suggesting that one small fishing hole might be the way to a whole parade of whales in the ocean. It is a leap into the imagination, into connection, into possibility. When I open a book of poems, when I start a single poem, I know I am at the edge of something.

As Poet Laureate, you have often spoken of being a “poet of public purpose.” How would say performing poetry, or presenting any art form in a public way, benefits the broader community?

Public art moves you from where you’re standing to what you’re thinking.  In other words, public art makes you think. At its best, public art in all its forms engages the viewer, the listener, instead of simply being performative. When someone experiences public art as something personally meaningful, then the connection is made—the ancient connection—of one voice, one hand, one use of color, one soaring high note, one metaphor reaching out to, and for, you, whoever you are.  And communities listening to the best in themselves, this is inherently valuable and vital.  Listening is what will change us.

Registration is now open for 2016 Arizona Poetry Out Loud. Teachers who would like to participate, register themselves for the program. Participating teachers receive free multimedia curriculum materials–a poetry anthology, audio guide, teachers’ guide, posters and comprehensive website (www.poetryoutloud.org) all aligned to national standards–augmenting their regular poetry curriculum with poetry recitation and a classroom-level competition. Click here to register.

To learn more about the program, visit our Poetry Out Loud page or www.poetryoutloud.org.

To learn more about Alberto Álvaro Ríos and the Arizona Poet Laureate program, visit our Poet Laureate page.

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