Shakira Warren is reserved and shy as three teachers and two other adults in the classroom talk with her about the upcoming Poetry Out Loud state competition. Eventually she stands and launches into the first of three poems she'll interpret March 16 in Greensboro: “The Blues Don't Change,” by Al Young.
Suddenly, there's no one else in Room 134 at Independence High School.
Shakira isn't just reciting a poem. She's not just performing. She's becoming the voice and persona of the poet – alternately cool, passionate, amused, irreverent. Her intonations are natural exclamation points, her facial expressions and body language free-form accents.
When she's finished, her small audience is so transfixed that their applause is delayed. It's the kind of powerful reinforcement she needs.
“The biggest thing for me to remember when I'm practicing is to be confident,” Shakira says. “I'm not really a strong person who's confident in front of a lot of people, so my main thing is to focus on being relaxed and not get so nervous.”
She shows the same humility about becoming the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools district champion in this year's Poetry Out Loud competition, which started with 17 competitors. “It was exciting, but I was nervous at the same time ... because other people might be better than me at it,” she says.
Marie Worsley-Matthews and other Independence teachers have seen Shakira's self-doubt diminish while she practiced her poems dozens of times since November. Part of that comes with gaining a fuller understanding of the works.
Although Shakira liked the feel of her blues selection, “when she started, she didn't have enough knowledge and appreciation for the poem,” Worsley-Matthews says. “As she started to memorize it and we talked about what it really meant – and who the writer was and what he was trying to say about the duality of black people, how they can feel down and out but still have the blues as a release – everything improved.”
Worsley-Matthews, theater teacher Paula Baldwin and teachers Elizabeth and Matthew Rutkowski have worked with Shakira's intonation, pacing, body movements, ability to interpret the lines and how she delivers them.
Other subtle additions are Shakira's. In the blues selection, for example, “There's a part about a demon, so I thought of something that would be hurtful and balled up my fist to kind of convey the anger in that. ... In another part I wanted to capture something that was romantic, so I kind of do my fingers in an uprising motion.”
“Her presentation,” Worsley-Matthews says, “has seen a huge change.”
Worsley-Matthews has long been devoted to POL – a national recitation contest created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation – and its role in helping students develop skills ranging from public speaking to artistic pursuits. She says she and West Mecklenburg High teacher Ebone Lockett, now co-district coordinators for POL, learned about the program from the Arts & Science Council and helped get it started in CMS during the 2007-08 school year.
In 2010, West Mecklenburg student Zamiya Felton won the state finals and advanced to the national finals in Washington, D.C. State winners get an all-expenses-paid trip to the Washington competition with a chance at a $20,000 scholarship for the national champion, plus a $500 stipend for his or her school for the purchase of poetry books. The runner-up gets $10,000 in scholarship money, the third-place finisher $5,000.
Shakira has chosen “Richard Cory,” by Edwin Arlington Robinson, and “American Smooth,” by Rita Dove, as the other poems she'll interpret during semifinals. Nine students will advance to the finals with a chance to reach the nationals April 29-30.
It's already been a learning journey, originally sparked by some idle Web surfing two years ago. “I was on YouTube and was looking up poems and came across some spoken word poetry, which is kind of freestyle, and saw how much emotion the reciter put into a poem,” she says.
“I got really excited about it. It was like, ‘Wow, you can take a poem and make it into something else.'.”
For the recent CMS Martin Luther King Jr. Arts and Writing contest, Shakira submitted a poem about the slain civil rights leader and finished third in her age category. She says her focus on King's fight is proof that poetry isn't just about beauty and tranquility; it can be powerful.
“That's what I love about poetry,” she says. “You can take it and make it into something else different than what other people might think it would be.”
When Shakira's mother is asked whether she's heard her daughter's poetry interpretations, her reaction is: “Oh, my God. It's amazing.
“I thought she was always shy,” Monica Crossland says. “When we'd be out in public, in church or whatever, she won't say anything. But when she gets home, she's like a whole different person. Sometimes I can't get her to stop talking.”
She says Shakira showed some public speaking aptitude as a child: “When she was in elementary school, her teacher told me that she has a good speaking voice. ... I asked Shakira, ‘When did you learn to talk like this?' She said that she used to listen to and watch her teachers read to them. She would read their lips and listen to the way they spoke to them.”
In the next few weeks, Shakira will take her practices to a bigger venue – the school auditorium – in order to be better prepared for the state competition at the Greensboro Public Library. “I need to get used to being on a bigger stage,” she says.
Shakira wants to build on her public speaking this fall when she attends N.C. Central University, where she has already been admitted.
“I want to be a news anchor for CNN,” she says, “so this is great practice for just getting comfortable in front of people and getting ready to talk and things like that. I like how it's gone so far.”
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