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Student finds poetry ‘sweet spot’ at recitation competition

NC Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson and Helen Glazunov at the Poetry Out Loud finals.
NC Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson and Helen Glazunov at the Poetry Out Loud finals. Lynn H. Donovan Photography/N.C. Arts Council

Helen Glazunov practices the craft of poetry recitation in her car and in quiet classrooms at Enloe High School.

She recites poems over and over, hoping to find the sweet spot between memorization and monologue.

“There’s reading it, reading it like a poem, which is a baby step, and interpreting it and understanding it,” she said.

Helen, 17, won first place in the regional division of the Poetry Out Loud competition, a recitation competition for students in public and private schools. She advanced to the state competition March 7, where she had a semifinal finish.

Helen said she plays with tone and inflection to convey the meaning of poems. She wants the emotion underlying the words to be clear but without tipping into dramatization.

Each time she recites a poem, she gets closer to her desired results.

“As you start to get a hold of keeping the poem in your head, you start to play around with the meaning and the tone,” she said. “Each time I read it, it’s a little different. I just try what I want.”

Helen carefully selected her poems – “Baudelaire” by Delmore Schwartz, “Dirge Without Music” by Edna St. Vincent Millay and “Revenge” by Letitia Elizabeth Landon – from the list provided by contest organizers. Students must pick at least one poem from before the 20th century and one with 25 lines or fewer.

She said part of the key to poetry recitation is knowing yourself and the emotions and ideas you’re best able to deliver, and most willing to practice hundreds of times. She tends to pick poems with an edge – a bite of sarcasm and deeply felt emotion.

Grace Jackson, an English teacher at Enloe who organized a school-level poetry recitation contest, said recitation is one more way to get a student hooked on reading and writing, especially those with a love of performance.

“I’m always trying to find a way to get them to do something they enjoy, to get them engaged,” she said.

Jackson said Helen has a knack for both understanding a poem’s themes and presenting them with nothing more than her voice.

“She’s an intellectual, but she has a real appreciation for emotional expression,” Jackson said. “That has helped her stand out.”

Poetry Out Loud is in its 10th year in North Carolina. Both Helen and Jackson said they would like to see more students involved in the competition. The statewide contest drew 27 students this year.

Helen said the challenge of finding poems that work and learning to convey their themes is well worth it.

“You have to put the work in, but you surprise yourself with how well you convey yourself or don’t,” she said.

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