There can be only one. Maeva Ordaz of Anchorage, Alaska recently beat out more than 365,000 of her peers to become the national champion of Poetry Out Loud, a poetry recitation competition for high school students. That’s nearly half a million kids getting excited about poetry, in case you’re keeping count. It’s a vital program, especially as so many schools across our country continue to struggle with cuts in arts funding.
As part of ISC’s ongoing exploration of the connections between poetry and storytelling, this year, for the second year running, we’ve invited the Poetry Out Loud champ to perform as a special guest of the National Storytelling Festival. That means in just a few days, Maeva will take the stage with Donald Davis! Her performance is just one of several opportunities to explore the world of poetry—including political poet Will McInerney’s performance at Exchange Place on Friday and Jay O’Callahan’s storytelling theater piece, “Falling for Emily Dickinson,” on Saturday night—that we’ve folded into our programming this year.
We hope you have the chance to watch Maeva perform at the Festival this Friday. In the meantime, I talked shop with the 43rd annual National Storytelling Festival’s youngest performer.
Kiran Singh Sirah: Tell us about what led you to enter the Poetry Out Loud competition.
Maeva Ordaz: I’d been reading poetry for a while before I first competed in POL as a freshman in high school, and I liked that the program combined my love of reading and poetry with the opportunity to improve my public speaking abilities. My freshman English teacher required the whole class to participate, and after nearly winning my school competition during my sophomore year I became determined to practice harder so that I could win at the school level. I’ve had an amazing experience, and it’s led to my interest in writing and performing spoken word poems at my university as well.
How do you select the poems you want to recite? What do you like about the particular poems you chose for the competition?
For the past three years I’ve read through the entire online POL anthology. I selected several poems with subjects that I could relate to, and from there I narrowed my options to choose my final poems. Brenda Cardenas’ “Zacuanpapalotls” is the poem that I have recited for the past three years. The ideas in the poem focus on individual transformation and the influence that different cultures have on one another, blending to create a new, distinct culture. As a Mexican-American, that idea (as well as the mixing of Spanish and Nahuatl words) is what drew me to “Zacuanpapalotls.”
The other poem that I’ve recited in several POL competitions is C. K. Williams’ “The Nail.” Throughout the poem the speaker struggles to come to terms with horrifying acts carried out by a dictator, wondering if we all carry this ability to act and feel so inhumanely towards each other. I had just finished reading the newspaper, and I realized that in today’s world—full of violence, unrest and socioeconomic inequality—such a question remains very relevant.
How do you prepare for a performance?
First I analyze the poems. It’s so important to accurately convey the poet’s message. You have to figure out what it means and how you are going to present it to your audience. I practiced nearly every day: my friends or my sister would watch me and offer me advice about tone, fluctuation points and hand motions. In my case, I had been practicing “Zacuanpapalotls” every year, but I still made adjustments to my recitation style each time I recited this poem.
What would you tell someone who thinks that poetry is boring or unimportant?
There are so many different poets and styles of poetry that if you take the time to search for poems you will almost certainly find one that speaks to you. For example, you can google a poem about persistence or one relating to any subject that you wish, and you can read through the poems until you find one that you can relate to. Poetry allows us to connect with not only with the poet but with other people who might share the same emotion or experience.
Do you think that a poem tells a story?
It does! A poem carries with it a theme and message like a book, but the difference is that the message is packed into a small amount of figurative language. This is what makes reading poetry challenging for many people, but to decipher the complex meaning of a poem also creates a deep sense of appreciation.
Do you ever get stage fright?
When I first stood at the front of the classroom to recite during my freshman year, I was so nervous that I ended up skipping a whole stanza! But over the past few years I’ve become accustomed to speaking and performing before an audience, and POL certainly played an important role in helping me gain confidence in public speaking.
You’ll be performing at the National Storytelling Festival in October. What about that experience are you most looking forward to?
I’m so excited to meet and listen to all the performers! Everyone has their own story to tell, and by sharing our stories with one another we are able to better celebrate both our differences and similarities and grow as people.
Catch Maeva’s performance at the National Storytelling Festival on Friday, October 2, at 1:00 p.m. in the Library Tent.
Maeva’s appearance has been made possible through Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest – a partnership between The National Endowment for the Arts, The Poetry Foundation, and the U.S. State Arts Agencies.