Poetry Out Loud wasn’t an easy sell. When Dana Gioia, then chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, first suggested a national high school poetry recitation competition a decade ago, state arts education departments dug in their heels. Kids hate poetry, he was told – besides, it’s too intellectual for the average students. Memorizing poetry? That’s repressive and “not creative” enough. (One rather wonders at the thinking – teenagers love performing, and all high-school plays involve memorization.) It’s since become perhaps the most successful and enduring legacy of Dana’s tenure at the NEA.
He finally persuaded all the states to give it a try, at least for a year. To perhaps everyone’s surprise except Dana, Poetry Out Loud was a stunning success, right from the outset. It soon had hundreds of thousands of American teenagers memorizing and reciting poems. The competition has now involved about two and a half million students. I can’t think of anything else on this scale in the U.S. to build a new audience for poetry. (Dan Stone, now editing Radio Silence, did much of the ground work in making the program national.)
Poetry Out Loud celebrated it’s tenth anniversary in Sacramento last month. Dana gave a talk at the state finals. The national finals take place next month in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, a few photos from the Sacramento event.
Top photo below: Dana Gioia, founder of Poetry Out Loud, speaking in Sacramento last month. On the second photo below, you can see state winner Levi Lowe gettin’ into it, as he recites Al Young‘s “The Blues Don’t Change.” Below that, Steve Hansen, recipient of the 2015 California Poetry Out Loud “Hero” Award, as best poetry teacher. And rounding out the picture: Shelly Gilbride, Arts Program Specialist; Dana Gioia, poet, critic, former NEA chair; Al Young, judge, poet, and former California poet laureate; state champion Levi Lowe; Craig Watson, director of the California Arts Council; and Jason Jong, arts program specialist. All photos by Jay R. Hart.