2011 POL National Champion from Auburn, Alabama
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Photo by James Kegley
A native of Auburn, Alabama, Youssef Biaz has twice won his state's Poetry Out Loud title and was named POL National Champion in 2011. After graduating from high school last spring, Biaz made the cross-country move to sunny Southern California where he is currently a freshman at the University of Southern California majoring in film production. His favorite class so far? A cinematography course he in taking this spring, which he described as "really exciting! We're spending the second half of the semester recreating scenes from our favorite movies in the studio."
NEA: What lessons have you learned from your experience with Poetry Out Loud?
YOUSSEF BIAZ: For me, Poetry Out Loud really confirmed how much I loved communicating with an audience, especially in a live setting. Throughout high school, I really enjoyed theater, dance, and the performing arts. But POL has its own atmosphere entirely—it's very personal, very restrained, with no distractions except the one performer on stage. My most memorable and enjoyable performances have been some of the most intimate, where I can see and sense the emotional response that my recitation is eliciting from the audience. It confirmed that I wanted to commit my future career to entertaining and communicating to audiences, and may be one of the reasons why I finally decided to pursue my passion in film.
NEA: What was the highlight of your experience?
BIAZ: My best, most thrilling memory was going to visit the White House two weeks after Poetry Out Loud Nationals. Reciting for the President and the First Lady was an amazing, exhilarating experience—I had to constantly pinch myself to remember that it was actually happening. Performing alongside such talents as Billy Collins, Steve Martin, and Aimee Mann was quite overwhelming, but so much fun! I was especially happy I got to go with my parents and my coach [and English teacher] Davis Thompson. I was never a big fan of poetry before my junior year in high school. What changed my mind was the influence of Davis Thompson. He was also responsible for bringing Poetry Out Loud to my school my junior year and encouraging me to participate. Discussing, reciting, and reading such a variety of poetry opened me up to how diverse of an art form it is. It frames language in an interesting and evocative way, and it deals with so much more than just sentimentality and love.
NEA: What advice would you give future participants?
BIAZ: I would stress that poem choice is key. Remember to choose poems that fit you personally and adapt well to your voice, your presence, and your personality. If you can see yourself saying and experiencing the story of the poem, you"ve found something really worth reciting. The key is not to get caught up in finding "difficult" or "high-scoring" poems; judges look for the same thing audiences do—sincerity and spontaneity. They want to see a fresh, original, and natural recitation of a poem that communicates something and evokes an emotional response. And, of course, consistent practice and rehearsal are essential to finding the best recitation of a poem. Work with a coach or a parent who is well-versed in poetry and performance, and find a fresh set of eyes and ears to judge your work.
Recitations are always a work in progress. You should become so comfortable with your poems that you can immediately make a slight change to an intonation, a pause, and see if it works. Good luck! For those who are hesitating and don't know yet whether or not to participate in the competition, I would tell them to go for it! it's a great experience, and one unlike any other competition I've been a part of. Besides being a fun and great way to meet new people and experience poetry, it's a great exercise in public speaking, and it's a valuable asset you'll carry for the rest of your life.
NEA: Do you still remember your poems?
BIAZ: I do, of course, remember which poems I recited both years. My junior year I recited "Mrs. Krikorian" by Sharon Olds, "When I have Fears that I May Cease to Be" by John Keats, and "Playing Dead" by Andrew Hudgins. My senior year I recited "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold, "Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden, and "Filling Station" by Elizabeth Bishop. It's harder to remember the poems themselves though, but every now and then I find myself reciting bits and pieces from each, especially "Mrs. Krikorian" and "Filling Station." Even some of my friends who have enjoyed seeing recordings of my recitations also like to recite little bits of the poems.