Hopewell student representing Virginia in first virtual Poetry Out Loud national competition

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Azhane Pollard competing in national Poetry Out Loud program from Hopewell High School

Hopewell High School senior Azhane Pollard is one of 55 semifinalists competing on a national stage in the first-ever virtual Poetry Out Loud program. (Photo: Olivia Jaquith)

HOPEWELL, Va. (WRIC) — Hopewell High School senior Azhane Pollard is representing Virginia on a national stage at the first virtual Poetry Out Loud semifinals.

She’ll be competing for the chance to win $20,000, selected as one of 55 finalists among an average of 250,000 annual participants.

“I’ve been writing poetry for a long time now,” Pollard said. “In high school, we didn’t have a spoken word club at first. But my freshman year, Roscoe Burnems, the host of the Poetry Out Loud state finals came to our school and held a writing workshop.”

After earning the runner-up spot at the regional competition, Pollard was shocked to learn that she won states. (Photo: Olivia Jaquith)

That’s when Pollard said she knew she wanted to get involved in spoken-word poetry.

She entered her first Poetry Out Loud competition as a junior.

“I was so close-minded about the fact that I really didn’t want to perform other people’s poetry, so I don’t think I applied myself as much as I could,” Pollard said. “When I got to regionals last year, I realized, ‘Wow, a lot of these kids are really here, taking it seriously and really performing to the best of their ability,’ and that compelled me to want to do better next year.”

Each year, high school students nationwide take part in the program, memorizing and reciting classic and contemporary poetry and participating in local, regional and state competitions. Poetry Out Loud is a partnership of the National Endowment for the Arts, Poetry Foundation and the state and jurisdictional arts agencies, working to encourage the study of poetry.

Returning to Poetry Out Loud for a second attempt, Pollard said that the new virtual format, instituted as a precaution during the COVID-19 pandemic, gave her more time to practice.

“It has been easier for me to really fine-tune my work,” she said. “You really have to practice conveying, digging deep and finding an emotion that really triggers and connects to the piece that you chose or the piece that you wrote.”

With the help of coaches and teachers, Pollard selected three poems out of hundreds of options for the competition: ‘Enough’ by Suzanne Buffam, ‘Black Boys Play the Classics’ by Toi Derricotte and ‘Grief’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

“It was a process, I will have to say, meeting with my coaches and my teachers,” Pollard said. “We chose a few and then had to narrow it down to the ones that I felt most comfortable with or the ones that I felt like I most identified with.”

Pollard performed ‘Grief’ to win the state Poetry Out Loud competition.

“One of my best friends just recently lost her dad,” she said. “I could really take this poem and use it and really dedicate it to my best friend in her time of need.”

That performance helped Pollard move on to the national competition, something she never anticipated would happen.

“It was frightening because I didn’t expect it. I also was in disbelief because I really got here, I really made it,” Pollard said. “It’s taught me a lot of things — that I shouldn’t be afraid to apply myself and I shouldn’t be afraid to compete in something that may be scary.”

On Sunday, May 2, beginning at 12 p.m., the Poetry Out Loud national semifinals will be broadcast through a webcast. Each of the 55 champions, including Pollard, submitted video recordings of their poetry recitations in advance, which will be reviewed and scored by judges.

“This year, competing in nationals, I was able to continuously record and record and record to see if I got the best outcome and the best product to send off for them to judge, and that put me at a great advantage because I was able to really find the best shot that was good for me and which one I really resonated with,” Pollard said. “But I will say it also put me at a disadvantage because I also like performing live in front of the judges. There’s a bit of that personal connection missing when it’s through a screen.”

Pollard’s performance will be broadcast in the East Central and Northeast semifinal, followed by the Midwest and South Central and Upper Northwest and West semifinals. From there, the top nine students — three from each region — will advance to the finals for a chance to win $20,000.

“That would be spectacular,” Pollard said. “I think I would be in disbelief again.”

Pollard said that, no matter the outcome, she’s just grateful to have the support of her peers, coaches and teachers.

“It taught me a different love of poetry, like I appreciate poetry as a craft way more than I did before,” she said. “It’s been great.”

Pollard, who took advantage of dual enrollment at Hopewell High School, will graduate this year with her Associate degree. She’s heading to the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Nursing in the fall, and plans to continue studying creative writing.

On Thursday, May 27 at 7 p.m., just before Pollard’s birthday, the Poetry Out Loud national finals will be streamed online, featuring pre-recorded recitations, interviews with the top nine finalists and the live announcement of the 2021 Poetry Out Loud National Champion.

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