Excelling in Poetry: An Advanced Guide

During a poetry round, each competitor must read a poem or a collection of poems while holding a (usually black, 10-inch) binder. Sounds simple, but there are a few things to keep in mind if you’re hoping to make it to Finals.

Generally, poetry and prose recitation are categorized under one event, Oral Interpretation. All competitors are asked to start with their poetry pieces (or prose, depending on the host school’s preference) in the first round and then alternate during subsequent rounds. This guide focuses on poetry interpretation.

- Write a great introduction. An intro should be about one minute long. Your intro should match your piece’s tone, but you should make changes in your posture, the pitch of your voice, and your facial expression. Because you hold a binder in poetry, you must close it to indicate that you are saying your introduction. You may either begin your performance by saying your introduction with a closed binder, or you may begin by opening your binder, saying a few lines of your piece, and then closing your binder to say your introduction. The latter is called a “Teaser.” If you’re doing a teaser, you need to remember two things: one, hold your place in your piece with your finger so that you don’t lose your place when you open your binder, and two, memorize whatever line comes after your intro so that you can jump right back into the piece.

- As always, choose a good piece (or pieces). You can either find a poem that can last about eight or nine minutes, or you can put together a collection of shorter poems and title them according to what subject, author or word links them. It’s important to try to choose something original, interesting, and either hilarious or moving. Performing an O.I. piece that stands out will set you apart from others.

- Avoid patterns. One of the rules of O.I. is that in poetry rounds, you are supposed to take your poem out of rhyme and rhythm. But this is not something that most judges will really take off for unless you’re really making it hard to listen because your lines are starting to sound like a broken record. Poems written in iambic pentameter are particularly susceptible to causing a repetitive speech pattern. You just have to try not to think of it as a poem. If a thought runs over into the next line, keep talking. Some people get around this rule by sticking to poems that are free verse (no rhyme, no set rhythm). However, you don’t want to confuse your judge by performing something that they can barely identify as poetry.

- Memorize as much as you can. Try to maintain a fair balance between looking at your script and looking up at your audience. It probably says 50/50 on your ballot, buit for this event, it should really be more like 60 percent looking up and 40 percent looking down. In poetry, many competitors get into the habit of looking down after every couplet, or after every stanza. Try not to slip into a pattern, as this can become very boring for your audience.

- Use an accent (or accents, for multiple poems or dialogue in one poem) if you can. Again, this sets you apart from other competitors, which is very important in poetry.

- Use published work. Try to get the names of each author if you can, and always include the author’s name when you say the titles. If you are doing a collection of poems, you should begin each poem by stating the name of the piece, followed by the author of the piece. If you do not know the author’s name, you can say “author unknown,” but you should really try to avoid it whenever possible. Also, unless you have received significant awards or recognition for your work, do not perform your own work in a poetry round. Your English teacher or best friend telling you that your poems are great is nice, but it doesn’t qualify you to perform them in a round, especially if they are not published.

- Respond to feedback. If your scores in poetry rounds are coming back consistently negative, you have to consider that your selections are not working for you. Examine your piece and try to evaluate it as if you’re the judge. What is missing? What kind of comments have you been getting from judges and your coach? You should also consider that if your scores for O.I. are varied – meaning you get great scores in prose and awful scores in poetry – it means you should look for another poetry piece. Ask your friends and teammates to watch you perform your pieces and ask them for their honest, constructive criticism.