Inside Poetry Out Loud: An Interview with Vermont State Champion Irén Hangen Vázquez

Jill Perry Balzano

How does Poetry Out Loud work at Burr and Burton?

A lot of BBA English classes have students participate by preparing and reciting a poem, but students get to choose if they want to compete in the school’s Poetry Out Loud competition. I had Ms. Frank my freshman year; she had everyone prepare and recite a poem, and those that wanted to went on to the school competition in February.

I thought that [the competition] sounded like a cool opportunity. I really liked the poem that I picked. I’m also a classical cellist, and that year I was realizing that I had to start preparing for conservatory auditions.  I thought that competing in Poetry Out Loud would help me with performance jitters, memorization, and stage presence.  I saw the connections between poetry recitation and music performance, and I wanted to see if I could make some improvements there.

What is the most challenging aspect of Poetry Out Loud for you?

I thought that memorization would be the hardest part, but I’ve discovered with relief that I’m pretty good at memorizing words.  

One thing that I’ve had trouble with both in music performance and in Poetry Out Loud is physicality and stage presence.  In Poetry Out Loud, I tend to score lower in dramatic appropriateness--the physical presence. I have fidgety hands sometimes, and that had to go, so I spent time working through it.  I had to figure out how to feel grounded, because it can be so nerve-racking.  My first year, I went to states, and it was very challenging to be on stage with the lights in the auditorium and to stay calm physically as well as mentally.  I’ve worked on feeling confident both mentally and physically.

What is the most important part of the recitation?

I think the poem choice is so important. Being able to connect deeply with your poem and to feel the emotions of the poem within yourself; to let it resonate with you, and to really understand the poem entirely.  You can’t perform something convincingly if you don’t know it so well that you dream about. It has to be so ingrained in your consciousness that you can't’ stop thinking about it.  

I just had a coaching session with someone from the Vermont Arts Council, and she was saying that gestures will be great if they feel natural. I think that in order for them to feel natural you have to make them unconsciously: it has to be something that’s coming out of you because you feel the words that you’re saying . Understanding the poem on a really deep level is the most important thing to keep in mind.

Of the three poems you selected this year, was there one that spoke to you the most?

To put some more context to my poem choices, I’m biracial--I’m Latina. Spanish is my first language, and English is my second language, and one thing that’s really important to me is choosing a poem that’s bilingual.  My first year I chose Harina de Castilla by Sandra M. Castillo--that was a very long one. Last year for the school competition, I chose Two Guitars, by Victor Hernandez Cruz, and this year I chose Two Guitars again and also Caminitos by Carmen Tafolla; she’s a Mexican-American author and poet, and I think that Cruz de is Puerto Rican, like me.  

It has been really important to me to choose poems that are symbolic of my heritage--poems that I can relate to on an even deeper level because they are talking about experiences that I can relate to as a Latina.  So, I’m not really sure which one to pick; they all speak to me in different ways.  Caminitos is the most bilingual of them, and nature focused, and I can appreciate that, of course; I live in Vermont--I love the outdoors. 

Irén has now recorded and submitted three recitations to the national Poetry Out Loud competition.  Check out her incredible recitation of Two Guitars by Victor Hernandez Cruz.

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