Close to Home: NEA helps keep poetry, arts in schools

President Donald Trump's initial budget proposal allocated just enough money to the National Endowment for the Arts for the agency to terminate itself. Thankfully, Congress pushed back on this terrible idea but still proposes a reduction of $5 million from last year's funding level.

As schools and Congress return from summer recess, I want to tell you about my microcosmic experience with the NEA and why maintaining it matters.

About 15 years ago, in my capacity as a poet-teacher for California Poets in the Schools, I was asked to help judge a poetry recitation contest at Sonoma Country Day School. It was a pilot for what would come to be called Poetry Out Loud. It was the brainchild of Sonoma County's Dana Gioia, who then was head of the NEA, and also is supported by the Poetry Foundation.

Poetry Out Loud strives to revive the age-old practice of poetry contests (part of the ancient Olympics), while harnessing some recent energy around poetry slams. But unlike poetry slams, it asks that students memorize great poems from an established anthology.

Since it became established throughout the country, 11 years ago, all of the Santa Rosa high schools and others from Sonoma to Cloverdale to west county have been involved. Our county has the largest number of students and schools participating in the state.

When I teach CalPoets residencies, I survey kids at the end asking, “What surprised you about poetry?” They often say: “Not very many people know about poetry - but it's really good.” Poems, in a few lines, can move us to laughter or tears or enlightenment. This repository of human wisdom and experience is popular with young people when given a chance to write it as in CalPoets workshops, or to embody it as in Poetry Out Loud.

I have witnessed introverted students, second-language learners, students on the autism spectrum or overshadowed by athlete or actor siblings emerge with incredible poise and focus. I have seen athletes and actors express a more vulnerable side of themselves. Teachers tell me about reluctant students who felt they had nothing in common with poetry, who then became passionately involved, having found just the right poem. Students report a boost in self-confidence, in ability to voice who they are, in skill in budgeting time.

I saw two local champions present their poems outside, on one of the most blistering days of this summer, to a riveted audience. Afterward, they were interviewed by a reporter from BBC who was covering Gioia's travels as California poet laureate. These young women were strikingly articulate in a way I could never have dreamed of at their age.

Past champions from Sonoma County tell me that Poetry Out Loud stimulated curiosity and self-discovery, as well as deeper ways of looking at society. They learned more about their own passions and potential, discovered a new art form that suited them, and public speaking abilities. Many were already motivated but were dealing with other challenges like low income or new language. Now they have degrees from UCLA and UCSC and are launching careers.

Poetry Out Loud provides free anthologies and teachers' guides for schools nationally. It maintains an informative website with a rotating online anthology of 700 poems, poet biographies, videos of outstanding performances, and everything needed to put on a competition. It brings representatives from each state to Washington, D.C. to compete each year in the nationwide contest.

Please urge Congress to fully fund the National Endowment for the Arts. Ask friends and relatives around the country to do the same.

Phyllis Meshulam, the author of “Land of My Father's War,” is a poet-teacher for California Poets in the Schools and coordinator for Sonoma County's Poetry Out Loud program. She lives in Sebastopol.

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