Poetry Out Loud Triumphs and Continues at BFA

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Owen Biniecki (’21) competes in the 2021 BFA POL virtual competition. Photo credit: Larissa Hebert

Emily Parent, Writer

For the past 11 years, Poetry Out Loud has become a staple at at Bellows Free Academy, St. Albans, Vt. Students and teachers alike have grown accustomed to the recitation competition rolling around each winter.  Even with COVID-19 restrictions, POL still found a way to make its 2021 debut at BFA.

“Poetry Out Loud is a national poetry recitation competition, which is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. … It’s been around 10-15 years now and, in its infancy, what it was trying to do was make poetry that we would not necessarily consider as spoken word poetry relevant to young people and relevant for young people in a way that they were sharing [poems] through spoken word,” said Nate Archambault (’98), the coordinator for Poetry Out Loud at BFA, and one of its biggest advocates. 

Archambault has been incorporating POL into his curriculum for the last 11 years. “For me, what I think [Poetry Out Loud] then encompasses is really an opportunity to put yourself out there, but also an opportunity to really engage with poetry in a way that is really beyond just reading it on the page,” Archambault said.

When asked to share what POL looked like pre-COVID, 2019, two-time school competitor Lindsay Bernard (’22) said, “Typically, some English classes at BFA would require students to memorize and compete with one poem, choosing a few winners to memorize a second poem as well and compete in the school competition. From there, one winner would be chosen to enter the state competition.”

This year, with classes being half their normal size, many BFA English teachers made the decision to cut Poetry Out Loud out of their lesson plans. This, however, didn’t stop BFA’s POL school competition from being held. 

Bernard described this year’s competition:  “Due to COVID-19, BFA did not host any classroom competitions, and we instead had one school competition with open entry. The school competition was completely virtual, our poems were recorded in an online meeting and sent to the judges for review.”

Bernard, along with Emily Parent (’22) and Owen Biniecki (’21) all competed by reciting their poems to be scored for accuracy and overall understanding by a select judges panel, made out of BFA staff members. Senior Biniecki secured the win for the school competition and will now be moving on to compete in the virtual state competition. 

When asked why he participated in POL at BFA, Biniecki said, “I really enjoy reading poetry, so POL at BFA is an outlet for me to talk about poetry with people who are passionate about it as well.” 

Regarding what Poetry Out Loud means to him as an educator, Archambault said, “It’s something I’m really proud of, quite honestly. I am really proud of Poetry Out Loud because I’ve seen the benefits over the years. That included some folks who would not have had an opportunity to be on the stage; people who do drama, they’re on the stage anyway. We have had a ton of folks who do drama do POL, but we have also had a ton of folks who have never done drama or anything like that before to find themselves in these positions that are really engaging and beneficial.”

Reflecting on her own time in competing in Poetry Out Loud, the 2019 state finalist and 2020 state semi-finalist Adsel Sparrow (’20) said,  “It was a chance for me to perform in a completely different way. I love being on stage, and I have done dance and theater before. POL is completely different than anything else. It’s very unique to itself. There’s not much else like it, and that makes it so special. Also, it was something fun to do that I really couldn’t mess up on. I got to push myself and not worry about the consequences because I couldn’t really fail. Especially once I got past the school competition, it was just a matter of seeing how hard I could push.”

As for the future of Poetry Out Loud, Sparrow said, “I really hope BFA keeps doing it; it’s a fun and unique opportunity. I also hope that BFA sends another person to nationals. I never got to go, but I hear it is pretty amazing.”