Fountain Valley School student Will Edelson, of Colorado Springs, is no stranger to the stage—he’s been acting in community theater and musicals since age eight. Last spring, during his junior year of high school, his English teacher encouraged him to try the Poetry Out Loud competition, supported by his school.
This time, 17-year-old Edelson’s usual comfort with the stage felt a little different. With no costumes, props, or elaborate sets, Poetry Out Loud participants stand on an empty stage with a microphone reciting poems they”ve memorized, using only their voice inflection, facial expressions, and body language.
“It might sound pretty simple, but it was hard for me as an actor,” Edelson remembers. “I was pretty nervous. I’m not used to competing and having just one chance.”
Nerves aside, Edelson’s performance impressed the judges. After competing at his school, he moved on to the state finals held in Lakewood, where he recited “To Be of Use” by Marge Piercy, “Israfel” by Edgar Allan Poe, and “Sparklers” by Barbara Crooker.
His favorite of the poems he selected was “To Be of Use,” by Piercy. It begins:
“The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shadows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.”
“I hadn’t heard of it before, but I really liked the sentiment of getting your hands dirty and putting in purposeful work,” Edelson says. “That idea resonated with me.”
There, competing against students from 25 other high schools, Edelson was named 2017 Poetry Out Loud Colorado State Champion. As state champion, Edelson received $200, and his school received a $500 stipend to purchase poetry books. The first runner-up was Tressa Wilson, from the Classical Academy in Colorado Springs.
In April 2017, Edelson traveled to Washington, D.C. for the national championship, where he competed for up to $20,000 in scholarships. To prepare for the national competition, Edelson was advised by local poet David Rothman.
“(Rothman) asked me ‘why are you doing this?” and ‘why is it important?” He taught me that to perform well, you have to understand well,” Edelson says. “In doing that, I started to realize how genius (the poems) are. As a performer, I learned to get out of the way and let the words do the work.”
Though Edelson was not awarded a scholarship at the national competition, he was grateful for the experience. “It was super exciting, they paid for everything and I got my own hotel room,” Edelson says. “It takes an interesting group of kids to do well at something like this, and I got to meet a lot of really talented and passionate people.”
The national competition was streamed live. “After I got off stage, I immediately had all these texts and emails from friends and teachers back home who had seen it,” Edelson says. His mom was able to see him perform in person.
Offered to Colorado high schools by Colorado Creative Industries and Lighthouse Writers Workshop, Poetry Out Loud is a national program designed to encourage the study of great poetry, improve public speaking, build self-confidence, and learn about literary heritage. In 2017, about 1,900 students across Colorado participated.
For younger students who might like to try Poetry Out Loud, Edelson says to start with a poem they connect to and that speaks to them. “Then do your best to understand every word and punctuation mark, and understand what (the author) was trying to say. Then, the performance will follow.”
Any high school student can participate in Poetry Out Loud through a program sponsored at his or her school. For more information, visit poetryoutloud.org. To be notified when the 2018 program opens, sign up for Colorado Creative Industries” enewsletter at coloradocreativeindustries.org.