By Rachael Jennings
Mary Oliver writes these instructions for living a life:
“Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
Two weeks ago, Dublin School’s five in-house finalists, who were chosen from a pool of twenty-five, did just that. And they told: beautifully, courageously, softly, triumphantly. These finalists spoke the words of Sherman Alexie, George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, and more, but other voices emerged, other voices were paying attention.
Destiny Goncalves, Owen Mortner, Mia Brady, Faith Lewis, and James Speaks were in conversation with their poet’s words, listening, considering, filling in spaces with their own stories. The result was mesmerizing.
Poetry Out Loud is a national recitation contest that holds competitions in every state. As the organization advertises, since 2005, Poetry Out Loud has grown to reach more than 3 million students and 50,000 teachers across America. Poetry Out Loud uses a pyramid structure that starts at the classroom audition level. Winners advance to a school-wide competition, then to a regional and/or state competition, and ultimately to the National Finals. Contestants are evaluated for their voice and articulation, physical presence, dramatic appropriateness, evidence of understanding, and overall performance.
When our five finalists performed in a special Morning Meeting, we were caught in their stories. However, the performances we saw were final products, but they were, at the same time, only moments in longer journeys that have involved extreme care, perseverance, and passion.
When we applauded, when we snapped, we were celebrating countless moments: moments of each student getting close to their poems, finding stories that intersected, holding and stretching syllables, letting their voices meet new words and investigate literary devices with both openness and sharp focus.
Destiny Goncalves, Dublin’s finalist, who will journey on to New England College for state-wide Semi-Finals with runner-up Owen Mortner, found the journey transformative, intense, surprising, and empowering.
“The classroom competition was busy with so many other school work responsibilities that I got as far as knowing that I really loved these two poems,” says Goncalves, referencing her two final poems, Anne Bradstreet’s “To My Dear and Loving Husband” and Sherman Alexie’s “The Powwow at the End of the World.”
Goncalves appreciated the support from her peers and English Teacher, Ms. Rabb, throughout the early stages of the competition. A long-time lover and writer of poetry and someone who has always been fascinated with Slam Poetry, in particular, Goncalves gravitated toward her poems with verve.
However, because of her involvement with the Play and competing academic deadlines, she didn’t begin with the wholehearted devotion that made her final performance stunning.
“At the beginning, I knew that it was not my best work at all,” Goncalves admits. But after pacing in the Fountain Arts hallway, auditioning with gusto, and hearing the results—that she was one of the five finalists, she threw herself into a committed, intense memorization, analytic, and performative process.
“My classmates must have been surprised when they saw me in class versus at Morning Meeting because, after auditions, I put so much into it. I gave it all the time I had [previously] wanted to. And it was quite a change from what they first saw,” she says.
Early into the process, and even up to the Dress Rehearsal, she used one of her coping mechanisms: laughter.
“My coping mechanism was to laugh if I was nervous or flustered, but Ms. Rabb really coached me through that, to work through it,” she explains. “That coping process helped me prepare for the competition.”
Goncalves appreciates the ever-present support of Ms. Rabb, who spent after school and early morning sessions working with her on pacing, memorization, and, simply, repetitive practice, but Goncalves also credits her success to the energy and experience that has come with her theatrical pursuits.
“From theatre, I have learned to put all my passion into it,” she says. “In theatre, you become a character and show what you are thinking and feeling, but you are meeting it with your stories and who you are. You bring the author’s story to yourself and learn to express it in your own way.”
What stories held Destiny’s focus? What stories helped her infuse her poems with power, radiance, and authentic connection? Her first poem, Bradstreet’s “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” struck her “hopeless romantic side.”
“If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me ye women if you can.”
“I’ve always been kind of a hopeless romantic,” she smiles. “I have had this idea of how love is supposed to be. In our generation, the idea of love has been degraded, diminished. This poem shows the way I hope love can be in a marriage: undying. When I’m in love with someone, I want that love. It’s strong. It has conviction. It’s there.”
Sherman Alexie’s “The Powwow at the End of the World” was especially meaningful to Goncalves. For one, cultural studies fascinate her. As a Cape Verdean American, she cares deeply about her family’s stories and learning about her ancestry.
"I am told
by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after we Indians have gathered around the fire with that salmon
who has three stories it must tell before sunrise: one story will teach us
how to pray; another story will make us laugh for hours;
the third story will give us reason to dance. I am told by many
of you that I must forgive and so I shall when I am dancing
with my tribe during the powwow at the end of the world.”
Otherwise, her connection to Alexie’s poem is simple: she is a historian.
“I chose this because I’m a historian,” she explains. “I love history. Eighth grade history, especially, focused on Native American Rights. I have connected so much with Sherman Alexie; I’ve read his stories and books and listened to his interviews. It was my homage to him to recite his poetry in the way that I think he wants it to be seen and delivered. He wanted people to understand so much, and I tried to honor what I have learned from him.”
Her delivery of “The Powwow at the End of the World” held contemporary significance, too.
“The poem shows that no one has to be forced to forgive,” she says. “We don’t know what this person or this culture has gone through. Native Americans are in this situation where they are still not being respected equally as humans. Look at the Pipeline. If we think of a traditional American Cemetery, of course we would never build a pipeline. What about Native Americans? This is precious to them. They are protecting where they’ve come from. People have died for this. And it isn’t being respected.”
When Goncalves recited these poems, she transformed on stage, she transcended herself without ever leaving herself. She delivered each line as if she were creating the poem right there, right under the lights, searching for, declaring, and passionately delivering each word.
“I forgot who I was,” she says, quickly and with conviction. “I pretended that I was the narrator. I studied that narrator. I knew that narrator. I studied Sherman Alexie, and I thought of him. So, I just put myself in the shoes of the narrator. For Anne Bradstreet, I put myself in the shoes of someone who knows that love is fun but who is madly in love at the same time.”
She held the audience in stilled wonder, in stilled belief.
Goncalves hopes to keep developing her performances for the next leg of the journey, which will come in late February. For her next performance, she must add a third poem. After careful deliberation, she chose “Sugar Dada,” a modern villanelle by J. Allyn Rosser.
“Go home. It's never what you think it is,
The kiss, the diamond, the slamdance pulse in the wrist.
Nothing is true, my dear, not even this
Rumor of passion you'll doubtless insist
On perceiving in my glance. Please just
Go. Home is never what you think it is.”
On Tuesday, February 21st, Goncalves will compete against the following schools in a three-round Semi-Final Competition, wherein she will recite, first, “Sugar Dada,” then “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” and end with “The Powwow at the End of the World:”
- Bishop Brady High School
- John Stark Regional High School
- Bow High School
- Kearsarge Regional High School
- ConVal High School
- Monadnock Waldorf High School
- Parker Academy
- Hopkinton Middle High School
- Trinity Christian School
When she reflects on her Poetry Out Loud journey, she says: “I hope that the audience was touched by the poems and felt inspired to push themselves toward a passion or a dream. I didn’t think that I would get this far, and I definitely was terrified of reciting in front of the whole school, but I pushed myself, and I am proud of what I’ve learned and what I’ve done.”
Congratulations to Destiny Goncalves and to all finalists for pushing themselves, for exploring poetry, and for “pay[ing] attention,” “be[ing] astonished,” and “tell[ing] about it.”