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'Very Fine Balance': Vt. Poetry Out Loud Champ Uses Cello Experience To Perform Verse

A headshot of Irén Hangen Vázquez holding her cello.
Elizabeth Auclair
/
National Endowment for the Arts

A classical cellist and Burr and Burton Academy senior became Vermont's Poetry Out Loud state champion back in March. And now Irén Hangen Vázquez's verse will reach an even larger audience with a chance this week at winning a nationwide poetry recitation contest. VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Irén Hangen Vázquez, one of just nine finalists for the national Poetry Out Loud competition, which will be decided via a webcast on Thurs., May 27. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: I would think that being a classically trained cellist would take up enough of your time. How did you get involved in Poetry Out Loud as well?

Irén Hangen Vázquez: The two are very much connected in my [Poetry Out Loud] journey. So, the way that I first got into it was through school. All of the English teachers like to have their students prepare poems around the POL season. And then we're given the option to participate in the school competition if we would like to do so.

And so my freshman year, I had prepared my poem, and I was thinking that participating in the competition might help me with performance nerves that I was feeling with my cello performance. And so I thought that, you know, since those skills are very similar, my poetry recitation might help me be more comfortable on stage [and] with memorization. And I haven't looked back since.

Mitch Wertlieb How are these poems judged? What's the hardest part for you in performing them?

There are several criteria, which -- I don't think that I'm going to remember all of them. But there's "evidence of understanding," there is a "memorization" part, which I find is the the easiest point to get — just know your words — and there's also a "dramatic interpretation" section. And I find that the physicality can be difficult for me, in both music performance and for poetry recitation, so that was something that I've worked a lot on.

That's interesting to me: the physicality of reciting a poem. I can understand it with the cello, a little bit — big instrument and that sort of thing — what do you mean by the physicality of reciting poetry?

You know, there's a sort of poise that you have to have to really feel the poem physically and transmit, not just with your words, but with the way you present yourself to the audience. And of course: hand gestures. If you overdo them, it can be a little kitschy.

There's a very fine balance in-between -- a well-placed hand gesture, or if there's a very quiet part you might shrink your body a little bit, or if it's very exuberant, you might open your arms wide and let the audience feel the physical power coming through. So, it's similar in some respects to music performance, but you don't have your instrument in between you and the audience.

Irén, what about the poems that you read at the Vermont State Championship? I understand that your family's roots in Puerto Rico have found their way into your poetry?

Yes, so, my mother is Puerto Rican, and my father is white, although we call him adopted Puerto Rican. And so my heritage is extremely, extremely important to me. English is my second language; Spanish is my first, and I identify as Latina. And I find that bringing my identity to a wider audience through poetry is something that is just really important to me.

And so I try and choose poems that are either bilingual, or are by Latino authors. So two of the three poems that I have been reciting for this competition this year are by Latino authors. One of them, Caminitos, by Carmen Tafolla, is a little bit more bilingual. And my other one, Two Guitars by Victor Hernandez Cruz, [he's] Puerto Rican, so I feel a strong connection with him with my little island. So that's something that I'm really happy to be able to share with a wider audience.

Well, I wonder if you could share just a little bit of Two Guitars with us; just a portion of that poem, if you wouldn't mind reading some of that.

There's a few lines right sort of in the middle of it that speak to me a lot because of their connection to music. To give a little bit of context, the poem is about these two guitars. And they have very distinct personas.

So this is an excerpt from the first part, of the first guitar, who feels very, very deeply:

Because a song is a mountain put into Words and landscape is the feeling that Enters something so big in the harmony We are always in danger of blowing up With passion ...

And I ... I find that those lines just capture the immensity of expression needed to play with feeling. The audience can tell, you know, when you really, really feel deeply, and then they're able to feel it more deeply as well.

All of this is going to culminate on Thursday when there's a webcast of these performances. I mean, I don't want to make you more nervous, but how are you feeling about this heading into it? How your folks feeling? I mean, this is such a big deal.

I'm feeling a little bit less nervous than I think I would be if it was live, because all of the poems are pre-recorded [this year due to the coronavirus pandemic]. But it is very, very exciting.

It also happens to be on my last day of school, so there's a lot of exciting things happening there. My parents are very, very excited. And I'll have family coming up soon for my graduation. So I'm sure that whatever happens, they're going to be there to celebrate with me.

That's wonderful. I have to ask you one more thing. I heard that you actually have a name for your cello. Can you share that with us?

Yes, that is true. So my cello's name is Brückner, after his maker, Ewald Brückner, and my cello was made in 1938 in Germany. And somehow [it] survived World War II, made it over to the states, and into my hands. So I call him Bruckie for short.

Editor's note: Irén Hangen Vázquez is Vermont’s Poetry Out Loud state champion and one of nine finalists in the national competition webcasting this Thursday, May 27. In the fall she’ll be attending conservatory as she pursues a bachelors of music in performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music and a BA in physics from Case Western Reserve University.

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