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Through Verse and Voice

Andrew Cusmano, Iowa’s Poetry Out Loud Champion.
Photo courtesy of Brittany Brooke Crow
Graphic (by Kaylynn Crawford) depicting Andrew Cusmano performing his poem at the Poetry Out Loud State competition.

Andrew Cusmano has been practically living his life on the stage. Since he was the age of ten, Cusmano has often found himself on many stages performing shows from Shakespeare all the way to elaborate poems written by various authors.

Poetry Out Loud, also known as POL, is a competition in which students will memorize and recite three poems of their choice and get judged. Depending on their score, the student might then advance to the next level.

Poetry is a way to express your feelings, as all writing is. I find that poetry is much more personal and deep than for example, just writing a story.

— Andrew Cusmano, 11

Recently, Cusmano got the opportunity to perform at the POL regional competition, where he went against students from local schools in Iowa. Here, he memorized and recited three poems, and won, allowing him to advance on to the state level, where he would perform yet again.

Cusmano, after a tense competition, won Iowa’s POL State competition, and now goes on to compete nationally on an all-expenses paid trip to Washington D.C from April 30 through May 3.

Cusmano performed a total of four poems, and when asked about his favorite one, he shared “Oh easily, Windigo by Louise Erdrich. That’s why I’ve kept it. I did it at regionals. I did it at state. I will do it at nationals because it’s such a fun poem.”

The poems Cusmano performed include “I Remember, I Remember” by Thomas Hood, “Blackberry-Picking” by Seamus Heaney, “Life in a Love” by Robert Browning, and “Windigo” by Louise Erdrich, which you can read below.

I Remember, I Remember | Thomas Hood
I remember, I remember,
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn;
He never came a wink too soon,
Nor brought too long a day,
But now, I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away!
I remember, I remember,
The roses, red and white,
The vi'lets, and the lily-cups,
Those flowers made of light!
The lilacs where the robin built,
And where my brother set
The laburnum on his birthday,—
The tree is living yet!
I remember, I remember,
Where I was used to swing,
And thought the air must rush as fresh
To swallows on the wing;
My spirit flew in feathers then,
That is so heavy now,
And summer pools could hardly cool
The fever on my brow!
I remember, I remember,
The fir trees dark and high;
I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky:
It was a childish ignorance,
But now 'tis little joy
To know I'm farther off from heav'n
Than when I was a boy.
Blackberry-Picking | Seamus Heaney

for Philip Hobsbaum

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.
Windigo | Louise Erdrich

For Angela

The Windigo is a flesh-eating, wintry demon with a man buried deep inside of it. In some Chippewa stories, a young girl vanquishes this monster by forcing boiling lard down its throat, thereby releasing the human at the core of ice.


You knew I was coming for you, little one,
when the kettle jumped into the fire.
Towels flapped on the hooks,
and the dog crept off, groaning,
to the deepest part of the woods.
In the hackles of dry brush a thin laughter started up.
Mother scolded the food warm and smooth in the pot
and called you to eat.
But I spoke in the cold trees:
New one, I have come for you, child hide and lie still.
The sumac pushed sour red cones through the air.
Copper burned in the raw wood.
You saw me drag toward you.
Oh touch me, I murmured, and licked the soles of your feet.
You dug your hands into my pale, melting fur.
I stole you off, a huge thing in my bristling armor.
Steam rolled from my wintry arms, each leaf shivered
from the bushes we passed
until they stood, naked, spread like the cleaned spines of fish.
Then your warm hands hummed over and shoveled themselves full
of the ice and the snow. I would darken and spill
all night running, until at last morning broke the cold earth
and I carried you home,
a river shaking in the sun.
Life in a Love | Robert Brown
Escape me?
While I am I, and you are you,
So long as the world contains us both,
Me the loving and you the loth,
While the one eludes, must the other pursue.
My life is a fault at last, I fear:
It seems too much like a fate, indeed!
Though I do my best I shall scarce succeed.
But what if I fail of my purpose here?
It is but to keep the nerves at strain,
To dry one's eyes and laugh at a fall,
And, baffled, get up and begin again,—
So the chase takes up one's life, that's all.
While, look but once from your farthest bound
At me so deep in the dust and dark,
No sooner the old hope goes to ground
Than a new one, straight to the self-same mark,
I shape me—

When asked about his favorite part of competing, Cusmano shares that it would be “getting to work.” He shares that “It’s a really fun experience to rehearse the poems to analyze them.” Cusmano also shares that attending competitions allowed him to make many new connections. “I also really like how you can make new friends and stuff with people that I saw at Poetry Out Loud and competed against. I’ve seen them since and they’ve been super nice!”

During an interview with Cusmano, he shares his excitement for his upcoming trip to Washington D.C. He shares that he is “incredibly excited.” When asked what he was most excited for, Cusmano shared “I’m really looking forward to getting to perform at the national level. But what’s most exciting to me is the fact that I have never been to Washington DC. I’ve never been to any of the states on that side in the US. I’ve also never been on a plane!”

As Cusmano heads off to Washington D.C for his all-expenses paid trip, the stakes are quite high. If he wins the national competition, he will receive a $20,000 scholarship to a college of his choice, and $500 for West High for the purchase of poetry materials.

On April 4, Cusmano and Hirdler got the amazing opportunity to be interviewed by KXEL, a Waterloo-based radio station.

Hirdler shares that the process leading up to competition is very meticulous. Hirdler states, “In our rehearsals, we worked on a lot of different things including memorization, accuracy, and more. Oftentimes, we would go line by line, stanza by stanza, multiple times to get each section to a place we felt good about.” He also shares that there are many aspects to the process of rehearsing, so much that he “could not list them all in this interview.” He continues to say “It really speaks to the dense and detailed nature of the form itself and how that translates into the choices we make for performance and the process we use to get there.”

There are many different challenges when reciting poetry. “In poetry, there is so much nuance and to translate that into performance of any kind requires meticulous attention to detail,” shares Hirdler. 

Every time we read it again, we discovered something new or had a new thought about the piece. The process, for me, is as exciting as the performance.

— Benjamin Hirdler

He continues to share about finding the balance between the poet’s intention and student interpretation. One of the complex obstacles of recitation is to honor the demands on the poem itself. Hirdler states “Above all that, performers need to feel comfortable and confident in the choices they end up making.”

When asked about his hopes for Cusmano, Hirdler says “My hope for him is that he finds three more pieces that are meaningful to him and he uses next year as an opportunity to grow as a performer, a reader, and as a human being. Andy possesses a rare combination of talent and determination to work. He LOVES to rehearse, which is what makes him so strong as a performer.

West High has such a strong history and even stronger traditions for the arts. The school’s work with the Poetry Out Loud Foundation is another addition to the already strong reputation.

The hope is that as more students hear about the success that Andrew has accomplished, they are inspired to do the same.

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About the Contributor
Kaylynn Crawford
Kaylynn Crawford, Opinion and Arts & Entertainment Editor
(she/her) Kaylynn Crawford is a junior at West High and this is her first year on Wahawk Insider. Outside of Wahawk Insider, you can always find Kaylynn on the West High stages performing Theater Arts and Music. When Kaylynn isn’t on the stage, reading, or writing, she loves to be around her friends playing games and relaxing.
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