Poetry speaks to Madison Harris and allows her to personalize each work she encounters.

Those feelings were on display Wednesday night when the Indian Creek Upper School freshman took home third place in the national Poetry Out Loud final competition in Washington, D.C.
Poetry Out Loud is a national arts education program that encourages the study of poetry. It offers students the opportunity to learn about their literary heritage, build self-confidence and improve their public speaking skills.

Harris represented Maryland in the national competition by besting 25 students who competed in the March statewide competition.

Harris never imagined competing in this type of contest when she entered high school. She loved the art of acting, but she said she didn’t pursue it for fear of being stereotyped as a theater kid.

Instead, she moved behind the curtain as the sound manager; however, she still missed performing.
Before the poetry competition, the Bowie resident did not think poetry was something she would grow to like or that she would master the skill of recitation. After reading the works found in modern poetry books like Rupi Kapar’s “Milk & Honey” and Alaska Lane’s “Words I’ll Never Say,” her mindset started to change.
“I [had] never gotten into authors like Edgar Allan Poe or Shakespeare, so I thought ‘No, maybe I can find something in that I will like,’ ” she said.

Though not having any personal connections to her chosen poems for each round of the competition — “Stomp” by Nikki Grimes; “No, I wasn’t meant to love and be loved” by Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib; and “Nocturne” by Louise Glück — Harris said she liked the way these works allowed her to explore intense emotions like anger through her recitation.

During the semifinals and finals, which took place Tuesday and Wednesday on the campus of George Washington University, Harris said she received an influx of messages from friends wishing her luck as they watched the livestream of the event.

Eliza McLaren, Indian Creek’s upper school principal, said students watched the competition from the school’s auditorium. McLaren was amazed by the turnout for the finals, which was larger than attendance for the school-wide competition.

“[Madison] is an awesome student. Her interests span a lot of different topics, but her understanding of the poems that she recites are shown in her performance,” she said. “She has found her voice, and she uses it in a way that impacts you when you listen to it.”

At every stage of the competition, contestants perform two poems after which judges’ scores dictate who advances.

After Harris moved on to the national semifinals, she said she felt a bit disconnected from the poem “Nocturne” because it was too calm.

“It was definitely a different vibe than the [other] two poems. The first few were definitely very [intense] while ‘Nocturne’ was more calm and subtle,” she said. “For the state finals, I kind of realized that it was probably my least strong poem because it was such a different vibe. Most likely judges weren’t expecting me to do this entire energy shift, as well as I just don’t work well with happy poems. I felt like it just dropped my score.”

She shifted and changed her reading at the last minute to “We Are Not Responsible” by Harryette Mullen. The poem is a commentary on public attitudes and treatment of people of color.

This poem allowed her to play with tone changes and the different point of views presented in the poem, Harris said.

The first two lines of the poem say: “We are not responsible for your lost or stolen relatives. We cannot guarantee your safety if you disobey our instructions.”

Harris thought that increasing the pitch of her voice to resemble that of an automated customer service robot would be perfect to illustrate her characterization of the public-facing perception of figurative law enforcement in the poem. She did this for the first four lines of the poem.

When she moved on to the second stanza, she activated her diaphragm to deepen her voice to represent the voices of those speaking to people of color.

“I portray anger and more so the negative emotions better in poetry in my opinion,” Harris said. “I think it’s because I’m generally more of a happy person. A lot of times people won’t see me angry maybe not as often.”

McLaren said she and the school were proud of Harris’ performance.

“We talk a lot about kindness and educational excellence at Indian Creek School, and Madison is an outstanding example of this,” McLaren said. “She is just one student but has the whole school behind her.”
Harris said that she plans to return to the competition next year.

“Poetry has definitely spoken to me,” she said. “It’s like you’re just given what to say but you aren’t told how to say it. You decide how to move within it and how to make it yours. That’s what is so special about poetry in my opinion. It’s those words that speak to you, instead of quotes from a TV show or movie.”

The original article was published in the Capital Gazette on May 12, 2023.