Tell me what the poets are saying: Students raise their voices for national poetry competition

Poetry In Voice began in 2010 as a recitation contest. Now, it's a phenomenon and a pedagogical tool that has found a home in more than 1,000 learning institutions.

Poetry In Voice culminates this week in Vancouver

A finalist at the 2016 Poetry in Voice competition. (David Waldman)

It's that time of year when the promise of spring is almost tangible, but you might still have snow or sludge to claw through before the ground flowers into life. Likewise, across the country, high school students have been busy digging through literary devices to get at the germinal crux of poetry. This dedication to poetic detail will culminate in Poetry In Voice, in which the finalists will compete for cash prizes for both themselves and their school libraries.

The concept is relatively straightforward: students from grades 9-12 select poems from Poetry In Voice's online anthology. They memorize and recite their chosen texts. Competitions then take place in classrooms, schools, an online semi-final and then the finals in Vancouver. This year sees the addition of the separate regionals stream, which allows for teams of three classmates to represent their schools.

What began in 2010 as a recitation contest with a dozen schools in Ontario is now a phenomenon and a pedagogical tool that's found a home in more than 1,000 institutions of learning. Past advisory board members include Dionne Brand and Margaret Atwood; the roster of National Finals judges has included Anne Michaels and Dennis Lee. In addition to its competitions, Poetry In Voice also functions as an educational database that offers free bilingual resources, which include lesson plans for teachers who want their students to engage with poetry, in addition to the expansive anthology.

A finalist at the 2016 Poetry in Voice competition. (David Waldman)

While the anthology definitely contains pieces that one might consider classics in the Western canon of poetry — bards like Yeats, Dickinson and Frost — there's also a wealth of a material from contemporary writers such as Afua Cooper, Evelyn Lau, George Elliott Clarke, Lee Maracle and Sina Queyras.

"Recently, we've focused on adding work by contemporary poets from across Canada, with a special emphasis on Indigenous poets," says Poetry In Voice director David Smith of the anthology's growth. "Leanne Simpson's poem 'i am graffiti' was added last fall and has been one of the most popular poems in our anthology to date. We are also looking ahead to more international poems in translation."

This discussion intends to educate, impassion and leave the audience with a voice that can and will help spread positive change.- David Smith, Poetry In Voice director

This year, the competition will see an influx of CanCon. "We wanted to add a celebratory Canada 150 theme to this year's National Finals, so we changed our contest criteria to ensure students would recite at least one Canadian poem," Smith explains. "But we also wanted to create a space for students and teachers to explore issues of language and colonialism in Canada." This is why the National Finals will be preceded by an event entitled "Resisting, Surviving, and Embracing: Nationhood and Identity on #Canada150."

"This panel discussion will address the concepts of both Canadian and Indigenous nationhood, the ways in which those ideas are expressed through poetry and how Indigenous peoples navigate Canada's colonial history." Smith notes that this event with Jordan Abel, Joanne Arnott, Marie-André Gill and Jónína Kirton will be simultaneously interpreted in French and English. "This discussion intends to educate, impassion and leave the audience with a voice that can and will help to spread positive change."

A finalist at the 2016 Poetry in Voice competition. (David Waldman)

Finalists know that recitation goes well beyond just memorizing a piece of literature. Competitors are judged on their physical presence, voice and articulation, as well as how they interpret a selected work. Perhaps the most successful interpretations occur with adolescents who commit to poems that are difficult to unravel. "Sometimes we think we don't like a poem, when really, we just don't understand it," Smith says. "These can be curious, unnerving experiences, but also ones where the most learning occurs."

From testimonials online, it's evident that teachers love the way this contest inspires teenagers to get excited about poetry. One teacher comments that Poetry In Voice is a superior way of bringing poems into the class: because students choose texts based on their own interests and tastes, this provides educators more of an opportunity to connect with their pupils. Someone else describes the competition as a life-changing event.

On why this process is so powerful for young adults, Smith is reflective: "This kind of student-directed, differentiated curriculum enables students to have deeply personal experiences with language that they might not otherwise have. As a student learns the poem by heart and crafts their recitation, they make deliberate choices about how to use their voice and their bodies to let the poem speak. When a student finally recites their chosen poem for an audience, they share a visceral, three-dimensional experience of that poem — one that is unique to that student, to that audience, to that point in time."

Poetry In Voice. April 19-20. The Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, Vancouver. Watch the finals livestream here.

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