This past weekend, I acted as a prompter for the state finals of a poetry recitation contest for high schoolers called Poetry Out Loud. Contestants select poems from an approved list, representing different lengths, eras, and themes, and recite them from memory. Simple, right? I struggled with memorizing a single Shakespeare sonnet in high school, so every performer at these contests is a champion in my eyes. As prompter, my job is to follow along with print copies of each poem in case anyone needs a reminder of their following line. In the best-case scenarios, I just sit back and enjoy the show.
What do you “hear” when you read? I can’t imagine anyone sitting through a Poetry Out Loud competition without having their inner “reading voice” irrevocably tweaked for the better. The prompter role makes me one of the only people in addition to the judges who can directly compare the spoken poem to its text version during the performance. Each performer adds their own unique style to the poetry, using rhythm and pitch, and body language to elevate choice phrases. This could be the case for making a poem more relaxing, tragic, exciting, or just easier to understand. Two competitors can share a poem in common and sound completely different.
Let’s change topics somewhat to an ongoing manga series, Akane-banashi, written by Yuki Suenaga and illustrated by Takamasa Moue. It runs in Shonen Jump*, a magazine known for heated, blow-by-blow battles and training montages. Here, the showdowns center on the storytelling art form known as rakugo. The protagonist, Akane, follows in her disgraced father’s footsteps and tries to become an accomplished rakugo storyteller. In rakugo, the storyteller must embody characters from a seated position on stage with only a fan or cloth as props.
Transforming into convincing characters through charisma and wits alone makes each story something of a magic act. Each performance in the manga represents a challenge for Akane in terms of making a story her own or learning a new technique to make an impact. The cast all have their own special talents and perspectives on rakugo. Lots of details converge in each performance, from the posture and delivery of the storyteller to the audience’s mood and expectations toward the well-known stories. Inventive oral tradition meets high-stakes competition. One might call it “Rakugo Out Loud.”
Without spoiling any of the big moments of the manga (read the series here), Akane’s triumphs map directly onto those of Poetry Out Loud. Young performer is putting a new spin on a classic favorite? Check! Two performers are using the same routine? Check! A performer’s placement in the schedule adds extra opportunity for impact? Check! Inhabiting the narrator through emotion and movement? Big check! For example, I witnessed an interpretation of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Time does not bring relief; you all have lied” that was so full of hurt I felt a need to either comfort or apologize to the performer. If that sentiment doesn’t seem to make sense, then I recommend you get floored by poetry sometime. Similarly, there is an all-timer moment** in Akane-banashi when she so embodies her character that I mistook an imagined on-stage prop for actually being there. How great does that make a manga, when it successfully emulates the effect of an entire other art form?
How does this all add up? It’s one transcendent storytelling moment reminding me of another. It’s a blog post on a fandom website signaling to look out for these experiences in your own downtime, your own communities, to find similar connections and similarities and tell people the resulting combinations. Poetry Out Loud has chapters in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Guam, District of Columbia, and American Samoa, after all, with several contests on the way to the national finale. You may also enjoy listening to some of the best storytellers the internet has to offer, including The Rakugo Association of America (YouTube).
The best part? Rakugo, manga, and poetry will leave a different mark on you than they have on me. I hope you show it off and spread the word.
*The manga has some high-profile fans: One Piece’s Eiichiro Oda, Evangelion’s Hideaki Anno, and Re: Zero’s Tappei Nagatsuki, for starters
**A friend who read the chapter ahead of me even told me about the trick and it still worked on me! Maybe that makes me an easy mark, or maybe you will also be amused at how easily you fall under Akane’s spell.
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