In 2018-2019, ASP made its debut in the Poetry by Heart recitation competition. Junior Flavie de Germay was the school’s first representative in the Paris inter-school final in March 2018. With much work and perseverance, Flavie was able to live a unique and meaningful experience. Here are her thoughts.
The Poetry by Heart Experience
When I lived in Manhattan for a couple of years, I often resorted to Washington Square Park to watch public SLAM Poetry performances. There, performances from all sorts of individuals - youngsters, elders, parents, immigrants, Americans, etc, never failed to sweep the audience away. Poets’ own words and ability to morph their tones or facial expressions to get their messages across was incredibly fascinating and mesmerizing. It was the connection to this expressive art, playing with tones and voices, that traveled with me across seas. Last year, as a sophomore at ASP, my attachment to spoken poetry started to slip between my fingers. Online videos of poetry recitals were undoubtedly just as expressive to those in New York, but the genuine feeling behind such poems could no traverse my computer screen.
One morning in PAC in mid-September, when I was now feeling detached from the vibrant poetry connection I had once experienced in New York, Mr.Chioini surprisingly brought up this poetry recital opportunity for pupils from 9th to 12th grade. I attended the introductory meeting on the Poetry by Heart competition without any expectations nor presumption; it was a complete new concept to me. Mr.Chioini explained that is was basically a poetry recital competition where contestants had to choose two poems to recite: one post-1914 and one pre-1914. Asking to find a poem before 1914, was certainly cumbersome, but the rule ordering students to avoid theatrical performances was the most unexpected. There’s no supra-waving, props-supported thespian extravaganza, but simply the outward and audible manifestation of an inwardly-understood and enjoyed poem. I pondered for a couple of days, wondering how on earth could one steer away from a theatrical performance when reciting a poem? One morning I took the decision to strengthen the connection I once had with poetry and accept a twist to the relationship. It no longer consisted of New York’s contemporary SLAM, but more traditional pieces. Furthermore, this time I wouldn’t be simply watching the deliverance but reciting the poems myself. I contacted the lively Mr Chioini about my interest and moments later he had taken me under his “mentoring” wings.
Accepting to coach me with open arms, Mr. Chioini and his, what I like to call Mr. Chioini’s, “partner in crime”, Daniela Bruneau, constantly checked-in with me throughout the fall and winter. From helping me to choose both poems, to analyzing them and then rehearsing them, these two mentors gave up their precious time to make the preparation for the competition both fascinating and rigorous. Ms. Bruneau would often helped me unpack the meaning behind the two poems I had chosen. Sometimes, we would find ourselves disagreeing with the meaning of a stanza, but her keen analysis and open-minded perspective always left some room for a consensus. The two then met with me sometimes once or twice a week in the morning to rehearse before school. The goal was to make me recite the poem without having to think about delivering it; the poems had to be like that mother’s cell-phone number you can say on the spot, no matter where and using little effort to remember it. I used flashcards, visualization techniques and scheduled rehearsal session with my mentors as my main techniques to memorize the poems.
The task to memorize really became a priority mid-December, before the 1st school recital, and after winter break. The hardest part regarding memorization was definitely just finding time to rehearse. As students, we constantly prioritize school work or exams, so much so that time for personal exploration tends to be neglected. Unfortunately, I lost some partners from ASP who’d originally signed up to join me in the poetry recital competition, but their scheduling clashed with rehearsal time and workload inhibited them to move any further. Soon, I would be the only ASP candidate enrolled in the final. Mr. Chioini and Ms. Bruneau cooperated so wonderfully since they were both so understanding of the IB junior workload. I wholeheartedly appreciate their benevolence and patience, since I don't believe I would have kept up with the competition if it weren’t for their flexibility. It was a bit worrisome when I had forgotten some phrases from the second poem: What is Worth Knowing by Sujata Bhatt, 2 weeks prior to the March Finals taking place at the Bilingual International school. The poem takes a form of a list, so remembering the order of each stanza preoccupied me a lot; sometimes during class too…
I rehearsed in front of bigger crowds, bigger than the two-mentor crowd I was usually facing. These instances were a bit nerve wracking, especially when I was still in the memorization phase and some sections in the poems had not been cemented in my mind enough. My recitations would be recorded in the morning PAC or classrooms, but hearing my own voice is definitely something I had to get used to at first. I would often find myself asking “Is that really what I sound like!?” The PAC presentations were undoubtedly a huge help and prepared me quite well for the actual competition, but standing alone on stage is a state I also had a hard time getting used to. To me at least, it’s like opening yourself completely or revealing your bare self to the entire public; it’s paradoxically both frightening and exciting. My Poetry by Heart mentors kindly asked that the ASP PAC recitals be evaluated and commented on by a panel of judges. The constructive criticism really pointed out the skills I had mastered for the recital and the weakness I really needed to work on. If I remember correctly, I believe I scored quite low in the criteria measuring my understanding and connection to the poems when I presented in early January. At this point, I was still in the memorizing phase so anything technical regarding subtle micro-expression or tone change was still on the back-burner; not ready to be tested out or practiced. Through this experience, I understood that one must comfortably know the material inside and out, before really playing with it.
Overall, I believe the hardest aspect of the preparation for the Poetry by Heart competition, was one that tested the individual connection to the pieces. For A Mother to her Waking Infant, for instance, I originally told myself to impose the identity of being a mother on myself. This, however, was incredibly difficult, since according to the poem, one must experience being a mother to have unconditional love for their infant. It was forging an identity to understand the message, which actually hindered my understanding of the poem. What I ended up doing instead, was simply spending more time with the poem and defining the words like “love” and “family” with my own perception of what those are and mean. I wouldn’t necessarily visualize a child when reciting the poem, but more so my three sisters, best friends and parents who mean the world to me. In a Mother to Her Waking Infant, the mother supposedly reveals her unconditional love for her child, but I substituted that childly figure with the people I know and love personally. It was this method to personally connect with the poem that helped me figure out how I wanted to express such feeling through my tone of voice. For example, my voice would go up if it was a proclamation of love and down if it was a more subtle, yet genuine comment on the child. Replacing the words with my own experiences was also applicable to my second poem, What is Worth Knowing. Moments where knowledge was described or explained in the poem, I did my best to link the word “knowledge” with my personal knowledge as a teenager. It was more authentic and organic to tie my own emotions than forge a feeling linked to the poem’s abstract circumstances.
Although sick in bed for the whole week prior to the competition, I refused to give-up on my mentors and the work I devoted to the preparation, so I went ahead and attended the final. Many beautiful poems were presented including Ode to A Nightingale John Keats, which was recited by a student from a Bilingual school in Brittany. It’s a lovely poem, revealing the complex compatibility between love and sorrow. I encourage you to read it at least once! The competition was tough, since many students were incredibly talented. Ironically, those who qualified for a place showed little physical movements or tone change. Their subtle, emotional connection to their poems and monotone voices, presumably touched the judges the most. Losing was the least of my troubles, however, since the relationships I had build with both people and poetry toppled over the win or lose aspect of the competition.
Memorizing and reciting poetry was a significant exercise during the preparation time - often a burdensome one. However, once the nostalgia is awakened, this golden period of poetry memorization is too rosy-colored for it to be solely abhorred. The common lament goes that it was a time when I really cared to learn and appreciate great works of poetry. I gradually developed an intimate relation with fine works and tapped into powerful, human emotions. I’ve pushed passed the fear of public speaking or the association of poetry recitation with drudgery. Today I realize the significance of these small, yet emotionally-packed projects, which I wouldn’t have experienced if it weren’t for Mr. Chioini and Ms. Bruneau. I truly encourage students to join and stick to the very end of this adventure. I look forward to enrolling into the final competition with other ASP students next year ;) For now, as summer approaches, I intend to leave some time devoted to poetry, whether it be listening, reading or even writing it, that way this poetic relationship I am deeply attached to stays intact and deepens.
FLAVIE DE GERMAY