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The spoken word: Three-time NM Poetry Out Loud champion readies for national competition

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Zoe Sloan Callan is no stranger to winning state championships when it comes to poetry.

The Native American Community Academy senior from Albuquerque beat out five other finalists in the virtually-held 16th Annual New Mexico State Finals of Poetry Out Loud on March 14. Callan will represent New Mexico in the national finals of Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest in May.

 Zoe Sloan Callan, New Mexico's 2021 Poetry Out Loud State Champion. (Courtesy of Zoe Sloan Callan)

Zoe Sloan Callan, New Mexico’s 2021 Poetry Out Loud State Champion. (Courtesy of Zoe Sloan Callan)

This is the fourth time Callan has participated in the state finals, and the third time as state champion. She received $200 for her win and her school received a $500 stipend from the national sponsors to purchase poetry books for its library.

Each of the students’ performances were evaluated based on certain criteria including physical presence, dramatic appropriateness, voice and articulation, evidence of understanding and accuracy. Poetry Out Loud – which was created by a National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation – encourages high school students to learn about poetry through memorization and performance. About 365,000 students nationwide took part this year at the classroom level, according to a Department of Cultural Affairs news release.

The student recitations were video submissions judged by New Mexico Poet Laureate Levi Romero, Eastern New Mexico University assistant professor Lindsay Tigue, University of New Mexico associate professor of creative writing Lisa D. Chavez, and poet Debbi Brody. The state finals are sponsored by New Mexico Arts, the state arts agency and a division of the Department of Cultural Affairs, according to the news release.

Callan chose to recite the poems “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation” by Natalie Diaz, “To be of Use” by Marge Piercy and ” ‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers – (314)” by Emily Dickinson.

At least one of the selected poems has to have been written prior to the 20th century, and at least one of the poems must be fewer than 25 lines.

“The ‘Abecedarian’ poem, I’ve recited that poem, three out of four years,” Callan said. “I did not recite it, my sophomore year, which might be why I didn’t win, but we read it in my class actually, completely unrelated to Poetry Out Loud. We were reading Natalie Diaz’s poetry. We had her book ‘When My Brother Was An Aztec’ and we read it. So I needed to recite a poem from a Native American poet, so I looked up Natalie Diaz because we had been studying her in class, and I found her poem, the ‘Abecedarian’ poem.”

Scrolling through the Poetry Foundation anthology, Callan stumbled upon her second poem, “To Be of Use” by Marge Piercy.

“I fell in love with that poem,” she explained. “I read it the first time, I think, possibly my sophomore year, but I definitely read it last year. And it’s just such a beautiful poem and it really embodies a lot of my own personal values. And so I really felt a connection with it.”

For her final poem Callan chose ” ‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers – (314)” by Emily Dickinson.

“Emily Dickinson is one of my mom’s favorite poets of all time,” Callan said. “And I recently got interested in learning a little bit more about her. So I thought I’d look for some Emily Dickinson poems because she’s pretty famous. … ‘ “Hope” is the Thing with Feathers’ is the one that I liked the most out the (Poetry Foundation anthology) selection they had.”

Memorization is key as well as presentation when it comes to the competition. She credits drama instructor Reed Bobroff for helping her delivery.

“I often have someone helped me with the memorization,” Callan said. “I’ll read them a lot. I’ll recite them to myself, but what really helps me memorize them is to have somebody else to hold the poem. And they’ll look at it, they won’t let me see it, and I’ll recite as much as I can from memory. And every time I make a mistake, they stop me and make me restart the poem. And oftentimes, I’ll have them clarify, you know, what mistake I made, and then I’ll go from there. And that really helps me with the memorization of it.

“There’s also a lot of like having to really understand the poem and get to know the poem, to really think about what it means and what it means to recite it. And you have to think also about the movement of your body during the poem. Physical presence is definitely part of it.”

New Mexico PBS’s show ¡COLORES! will rebroadcast the New Mexico Poetry Out Loud episode at 8 p.m. Friday, March 26. More information on ¡COLORES! can be found at newmexicopbs.org/productions/colores.

The national semifinals will air on May 2, and the national finals will air on May 27. The top prize in the national competition is $20,000. A total of $50,000 will be awarded to the semi-finalists and finalists. The public can follow the competitions at facebook.com/newmexicopoetryoutloud and instagram.com/newmexicoarts.

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