Spotlight on Poetry Out Loud
“When I can feel the hair on my arms raise up, I know that person has become the poem…” – Margaret Belisle on Poetry Out Loud
Helena High School English teacher Margaret Belisle may have just retired, but as it turns out, you can take the teacher out of the classroom, but you can't make her give up working with Poetry Out Loud (POL)! Based in Montana, Belisle is the state's POL coordinator (a position she held along with a full-time teaching schedule!) shepherding the competition from the classroom level to the state competitions, and helping to recruit new schools across the state to adopt the program. In just a few days, Belisle will head to Washington, DC--along with her fellow teachers and program coordinators from across the country--to cheer on the 53 state champions as they "bring it on" in hopes of claiming the 2014 national title. We have a feeling Belisle will be rooting especially hard for Montana State Champ Sowmaya Sudhakar of Butte High School. Earlier this week, we spoke with the energetic Belisle by phone about how she became involved with the program, why she believes the program benefits teachers as well as students, and her own personal connection to the art of recitation.
NEA: How did you get involved with Poetry Out Loud?
MARGARET BELISLE: Well, I was friends with the Montana Arts Council education person, and she knew that I was involved with poetry at the high school. We did all kinds of different activities with poetry, and so when this came up, she called me and asked me if I'd be interested. At first I thought, "Nah, I don't want to take on another project." And then of course it's been my thing [ever since].
NEA: Can you talk a little bit about how you initially rolled out the program at the school level?
BELISLE: We’d been doing [poetry] recitation stuff… so it was a natural fit. I pointed out [the program] to all the English teachers at my school--there's about 20--and then the ones that wanted to do it did it. And they embraced it, and are still doing it. You know, it's a positive program.
NEA: Do all the English teacher participate?
BELISLE: No, not all of them, just the ones that want to. It's not mandatory, of course.
NEA: Can you talk a little bit about what you see as the benefits of participating in Poetry Out Loud for the students, and also if you see any particular benefits for the teachers?
BELISLE: The students get a chance to speak publicly. I think that the art of memorizing [was] kind of lost along the way. Everybody can do it, but if you're not raised to it, then you lose that ability. So that's one [benefit]--the memorization. And then getting up and speaking in front of people is a great skill to learn. They also learn about the history, they learn about culture, they learn about [both of those] from the poem. . . The kids choose two poems and then they really study [them]. They study the author, they study the time, they study what that poem's about, and so then they get a deeper understanding of it. So [if they choose] Whitman’s poem, for example, about the Civil War, about Abraham Lincoln, they really begin to understand Abraham Lincoln. It’s a very deep learning experience, more than just the surface of memorizing a poem.
A senior I had one year, she wanted to compete, and she wasn't very good, and she knew it. [She] said, "I know I'm not very good, I just want to do it." She said, "I've gone through high school, and I've never had to stand up in front of a class, and recite a poem, or do anything." So she competed in the school competition, and had that experience, and so that's the public speaking part of it. For the teachers, it's a natural fit for the same reasons. In our curriculum, we have public speaking, we have memorization, and it just fits into it nicely. So it's a natural fit.
NEA: I know you said poetry’s always been part of your curriculum, but I’m curious if/how working on Poetry Out Loud has deepened or changed your own relationship to poetry.
BELISLE: I get really emotional about it, because when I was a kid, when I was growing up, we had to memorize poems. I have this repertoire of poems I have memorized from my childhood. And when kids start to memorize and they become the poem, it really changes their life, and they begin to understand. What I love about Poetry Out Loud is they get to pick the poems, they pick poems from [the hundreds in the anthology] that say something to them. And all the teachers that I work with around the state and the ones in my school… they all say to the kids, "Pick the poem that speaks to you. Don't pick a poem because it's difficult, and you get more points, and all that stuff. But pick the poem that speaks to you." And so they do, and then that poem becomes part of their life.
NEA: Do you have a favorite poem and can you talk about how it has informed or impacted your life?
BELISLE: “The Raven” [by Edgar Allan Poe]-- I'm famous for my “Raven” quotations! I won't recite it to you now, but . . . I guess, looking back on my life, what the influence was for poetry was those rhymes that are so beautiful, and the words that are placed in just the right order, as Coleridge said, like the raven, and the silken fan and the rustling purple curtain. That line is just rich with everything about poetry. And I think we begin to understand as we get older--when you give kids this experience, they might not really understand the depth of it right now--but as they get older, and continue to revisit that, I think they get a deeper understanding of what the poem's about.
NEA: What is one thing that you want people to know about or take away from the Poetry Out Loud program?
BELISLE: That it's kind of like a game of pinochle. Or maybe chess, or something…. You can learn the surface of a game, you know, you can do all right with it, but the deeper you get into it, the more complex it is. So it's an easy program to implement, but it's a complex program to embrace. I've done it since the beginning so this was my ninth year of doing it. I just see more and more of the impact of it. And I love coaching kids, I just love coaching kids on how to do it, the meaning of the poem, and all that stuff.
NEA: What are your three top tips for kids when you coach them?
BELISLE: Understand the author--what time the author was writing. Look at every single word; every single word in a poem has meaning. And understand how that word impacts the rest of the poem. And then become the poem. Be the poem. It’s not a performance. When I can feel the hair on my arms raise up, I know that person has become the poem, and the hair on the back of my neck.
NEA: As you know one of the prizes for the winners is that their school gets funding to buy poetry books for the school library. What poetry book do you think every high school library should have?
BELISLE: Well, I'm prejudiced [in favor of] Montana, because we have a poet that was part of the University of Montana-- Richard Hugo. He has a poem--I think he has two of them--in the anthology for Poetry Out Loud, [and I like his collection] The Triggering Town. There's so many, there's so much stuff. But you know, also Billy Collins’ [anthology of] 180 Poems. But definitely Triggering Town.
NEA: Do you have anything else you want to add, or something you think I didn't get at that you'd really like to say about the program?
BELISLE: It’s just a great program. It never fails to amaze me.
Did you know you can tune into the Poetry Out Loud National Finals via live webcast from Washington, DC on April 29 and 30? Click through to our News Room for details on you can join us to cheer on your own state's champ!