Kendall Grimes, a junior at Battle Ground Academy, has reached the finals of Poetry Out Loud, a national poetry recitation contest attracting students from across the country.
After making it through her school and state competitions and then the 2021 national semifinals, the two-time Tennessee State champion will face eight others for the national title.
“My freshman year, I also had a chance to win the Tennessee State Championship and represent Tennessee in the Finals, so I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to do that again,” Grimes said.
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Students who compete in Poetry Out Loud choose material from a shortlisted anthology of more than 1,100 poems, ranging from contemporary works to those dating back centuries. They then work with coaches who prepare them to be judged in several areas including physical presence, voice and articulation, and overall performance.
Grimes selected three poems to compete this year, each of which she came close to in the time of COVID-19. The pandemic canceled Poetry Out Loud last year, giving him more time to hone his craft.
“I kind of sat on these poems and developed them for an entire year, which was completely different from what I had before,” Grimes said. “It really allowed me to develop a good, genuine connection with these poems, like, in each of them, I see a different part of myself. And I think a lot of people could see that as well.”
BGA teacher Leah Handelsman said she and Grimes worked together almost every day to perfect the performance.
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The ultimate goal is to recite in a way that helps the audience understand the poetry. To do this, Grimes and Handelsman looked at details such as where to place the breaths, reciting different words or phrases at different volumes, and speaking where the typical speaker might not.
“It can get very picky, but I think it’s really important to express in the most appropriate way the meaning of the poem for the audience that doesn’t have it in front of them and may never have heard the poem before,” Grimes said.
What started out as stylistic choices have become second nature.
Handelsman said memorization is one of Grimes’ strongest abilities.
“Once she memorizes, it’s there,” the professor said.
Handelsman said she was thrilled to see Grimes compete and represent BGA.
“It’s a tribute to his hard work,” she said. “It was very exciting to see his hard work pay off and to see other people recognize his talent.”
This year’s Poetry Out Loud National Final will air virtually on ThursdayMay 27 at 7 p.m. on arts.gov/initiatives/poetry-out-loud. The champion will receive $20,000 and each finalist’s school or organization will receive $500 to purchase poetry materials.
Poetry Out Loud is an arts education partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and state arts agencies.
The program began in 2005 with the goal of inspiring students to appreciate poetry and literary history while developing their skills and confidence in public speaking.
“We’re hearing from students and teachers that poetry can really foster connection and empathy and also the opportunity to learn more about the world, its past and contemporary issues,” said Lauren Miller, who runs Poetry. Out Loud for the National Endowment for the Arts.
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“Sometimes I think poetry can get pushed aside a bit, but once students are exposed to it, not only does it increase their analytical skills, it’s also a great way to digest the literature with which they can find a link.” she added.
Since its launch, the program has attracted more than 4.1 million students nationwide.
Anika Exum is a reporter covering Williamson County for The Tennessean. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @aniexum. To stay up to date on Williamson County news, sign up for our newsletter.