A powerhouse of Maryland poets presented recitations, readings and spoken word poetry, as well as a lively discussion on their art, at the recent Baltimore Book Festival. The panel discussion, moderated by Baltimore poet Em Sea Water, included; Stanley Plumly, Poet Laureate of Maryland; Blessed Sheriff, Maryland's Poetry Out Loud state champion, and second place winner of the National Poetry Out Loud contest. Also on the panel was Johana Gourdin, who placed second in the Maryland State Poetry Out Loud contest; Chris Steward, Maryland State Arts Council, Arts in Education Program Director for Maryland Poetry Out Loud; and Davina T. Smith, Montgomery County teacher.
The presentation of poetry, whether recitation, which is an oral interpretation spoken from memory, or a reading, which is reading from a printed page, brought interesting responses from the various panel members. Maryland’s Poet Laureate, Stanley Plumly, stated “it is easier to memorize someone else’s poem as opposed to your own” referring to his preference to reading rather than recitation. “Poetry is written for the page” he said, adding that “a poem has to perform, but on the page.” He elaborated on why he preferred readings by stating “W.B. Yeats, a famous Irish poet, who once said that poetry is wasted breath, I thought that was a wonderful ironic statement in the sense that the reader has to bring something to the page as well, a kind of intelligence and attention, and you can’t read a poem just once.
Johana Gourdin, a poet and recitation artist, had a different point of view stating “there is a difference between reading out loud and reciting poetry, recitation is kind of like a cast iron pot, you have to oil it and season it before it becomes good enough to cook with.” “Similarly with poetry you have to let it simmer..with moments from your own life.” Citing the poem she did for the Maryland State contest, “The Blues Don’t Change”, by Al Young, she said she has to find a moment in her life where she can identify with the voice of the poem, in this example being abandoned by someone. Once she has internalized the voice she said “it creates for the audience this, almost acting monologue, it becomes more than poetry, more than words on a page, it becomes life, and that’s the difference between reading and recitating, reading is pulling from paper, reciting is pulling from life.”
Following discussions on the poet’s viewpoints on reading versus recitation, Chris Stewart gave some background on the National Poetry Out Loud competition and the requirements the students must follow. Poetry Out Loud is a creation of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, administered in partnerships with state arts agencies in 50 states, the District of Columbia, U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. More than 375,00 students competed in the 2013 competition. The winner of the competition receives $20,000.
In addition to Gourdin’s presentation of “The Blues Don't Change", Blessed Sheriff presented "The Lamb" by Linda Gregg, and her winning recitation “Heaven” by Cathy Song. Stanley Plumly read from his poem “400 Mourners”. Em Sea Waters remembered what his mom used to tell him “it’s not what you say, but how you say it” that matters. Before reciting his spoken word poem about Baltimore he stated how every time he presents one of his poems it’s never the same, it’s “how you inflect your voice or how you put that pause, same words, different place, different time, different interpretation.
The panel discussion and poetry was extraordinary and complemented the entire weekend of book presentations, performances, tours and author discussions at the Baltimore Book Festival.