About a decade ago, The Poetry Foundation announced it planned to do something on a national scale with an exceptionally generous donation. Many poets hoped that it would be something new, perhaps a program to bring the next generation of poets along. So when the new program turned out to be a program to recite older poems, there was some disappointment.
Perhaps one of the forces that shaped Poetry Out Loud (POL) was Reading at Risk, a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) study that identified an accelerating decline in the reading of literature. Perhaps one of the benefits of a national poem recitation contest with a 20,000 prize was that it would reward students who demonstrated a deep level of understanding about three poems respected as literature (by literature I mean a collection of words that holds significance for a group of people) . Here, for example, is Ocil Herrejon reciting “On Virtue” by Phyllis Wheatley.
The good news is that many of the POL participants are passionate about performing their own work. For several years at the California State Finals, students have performed their original poems for each other. Here is Herrejon’s original poem she recited at the dinner before the 2010 California POL finals:
The Women’s role
My mother once told me that a mujer debe
Trabajar en la cocina,
Que debe cuidar de los hijos
Que debe servir al hombre,
De niña me decían
As I got older
They taught me
& not talk back
To stay quiet
, and do as your told.
When time went on I learned new ways
I learned the power that a mujer has
How blessed we are to be Cihuatl
To be able to create another life
In our own body.
One that grows for nine months
en la vientre de uno.
I learned that we are not less than a man
We are also not more.
we as males and females are equal
and need of each other
To create duality
Now I’m becoming a mujer
I am a Xicana una Mexicana
In search of my identity
I am gaining knowledge and speaking the truths
Now my mother says . To fight
for what I believe is right
To become independent and not dependent of any man.
To be a mujer & a strong one
Because now she as well as I has learned the blessing and strength
We have as mujers.
Perhaps it’s because March is National Women’s History Month that I see a similarity between the two poems. If the poems in POL can inspire new writing, continue the conversation between creative writers across history, then it goes beyond its original conception and accomplishes what many hoped it would.
It should also be noted that Herrejon uses code-switching—using words from two or more languages. Like the “duality” of male and female, code-switching can reflect the thoughts and feelings of people who live in more than one culture. For one of her poems in POL, Herrejon recited the code-switching classic “Bilingual/Bilingue” by Rhina P. Espaillat:
One of the areas of evaluation in the POL competition is “Level of Understanding.” Although there is no category for “Application of Understanding,” it is marvelous to see students making use of the poetry they’ve recited to write their own.
This week in Sacramento (March 20 & 21), high school students from all over California will