We at ISC are always looking to push the boundaries of our art form. One way in which we’ve been able to explore new modes of storytelling is by inviting the national Poetry Out Loud champion to perform at the National Storytelling Festival each year since 2014. This year we were honored to host Samara Huggins, who took a break from studying fashion design as a freshman at the Pratt Institute in New York City to take the stage in our Family Tent on Friday afternoon.
Giving these young performers the opportunity to share the stage with some of the world’s finest storytellers is one outcome of the International Storytelling Center’s commitment to putting youth at the center of culture, rather than letting them linger on the fringes. For the Poetry Out Loud champion, too, it provides the chance to perform in front of a welcoming audience and a receptive crowd. The innovative partnership springs from not just an institutional connection, but also a personal one: ISC President Kiran Singh Sirah performed in a similar poetry competition in the UK at the age of 15, and remains a practitioner of spoken-word poetry to this day.
Samara, who’s from Marietta, Georgia, was still a high school senior when she won the Poetry Out Loud championship last April. (She earned top honors over hundreds of thousands of her peers from across the country!) If you haven’t heard of it yet, Poetry Out Loud is a national initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in conjunction with the Poetry Foundation and U.S. state arts agencies. Its mission is simple: get high school kids excited about poetry, while developing their public speaking skills.
After a quick interview with storyteller Sue O’Halloran in which she talked about the importance of poetry and her experience with Poetry Out Loud, Samara performed the three poems with which she won this year’s competition: “Novel” by Arthur Rimbaud, “Dream Song 14” by John Berryman, and “The Farmer” by W.D. Ehrhart. You can read along on the Poetry Foundation’s website as you watch Samara’s performance—and the standing ovation she received—right here.
Samara first performed “Dream Song 14” as a freshman competitor. (She participated in Poetry Out Loud for all four years of high school.) Watching her perform, you can probably tell it’s one of her favorites—but we bet you wouldn’t have guessed that the poem was written back in 1969. With Samara’s spot-on delivery, the poem’s hilarious opening line (“Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.”) earned a laugh from the audience.
The Poetry Out Loud champions have been a cherished part of the National Storytelling Festival for the last four years, but the initiative itself has been going since 2005. Millions of students have participated so far. It’s a delight to showcase these talented young performers, and to have had Samara, her mother, and her English teacher with us at the National Storytelling Festival this year. Samara reports that she and her mother hope to make a tradition out of returning to Jonesborough each Fall to revisit what she describes as “awe-inspiring scenery and awe-inspiring souls.”
Stories in Motion is a regular feature in which ISC examines the fresh ways we see the power of storytelling at work in the world. You can read about Maeva Ordaz, who was our Poetry Out Loud guest in 2015, here, and watch our 2016 guest, Ahkei Togun, perform here.