High school senior Trayshun Holmes-Gournaris spent the first seven years of his life in silence. Born deaf, he didn’t have any formal way of communicating with his peers.
“I would have classes and I would fail my classes because I have no way of understanding what was going on,” he says, through his interpreter Edwin Cancel. “People would say, ‘Are you a dummy or something?’ And I didn’t know what they were saying!”
Then in the second grade, he moved to Oregon, his adoptive parents taught him American Sign Language, and he enrolled in the Oregon School for the Deaf.
“I would be kind of shy, wanted to stay behind my mom, and they would encourage me. And then after 11 years, I’ve picked up the dexterity and the fluidity that I’ve picked up in sign,” he says.
Now, he’s a statewide champion and will compete for a larger audience at Poetry Out Loud.
Poetry Out Loud is a national competition where high school students are judged based on how well they recite selected poems.
Gayle Robertson is a teacher at OSD and has been active in Poetry Out Loud since 2009. She’s been encouraging Trayshun to compete since his freshman year.
“He’s student body government president, he wears a tie to school because he wants to look good,” she laughs. “He’s just one of those kids that you can see standing on a national stage and doing really well there.”
At first, Trayshun wasn’t sure if he would even like poetry. He was more interested in telling funny stories and jokes.
But with Robertson’s coaching, Trayshun competed in 2021 as a junior. He came in third. Even so, the experience gave him the confidence to try again.
“I said, OK, I owe this to myself my senior year to come in here guns blazing,” he says.
As he heads into the homestretch of his senior year, Trayshun has picked three powerful and challenging poems, “The Song of the Smoke” by W.E.B. Du Bois, “Silence” by Thomas Hood and “Caged Bird,” by Maya Angelou.
All three works reflect Trayshun’s feelings about being a young black man in America.
“It’s a hard life being a young black person. And so I started looking for authors who were black and who knew the black experience and I wanted to be able to convey a serious subject like this yet in my way of a performance.”
Of the three poems, “Caged Bird” is his favorite.
“A cage bird has no movement, the wings are clipped and it feels like the black experience. We’re not free to do whatever. It feels like we are in a cage.”
But how do you translate a poem meant to be read aloud into a visual language, let alone memorize it?
“I look up the information on the internet,” he explains. “And I start translating summaries of the different stanzas. Instead of going word for word, I take the meaning of each stanza. And then I start getting into the process of memorizing it.”
He also needed to make sure that he accurately adapted the poems’ message in ASL without overdramatizing the meaning.
“I have to have facial expressions that match what is happening in the poem,” he says.
Trayshun was one of 11 students who made it to the final round of the statewide competition. The Oregon Arts Commission announced the winner on March 1.
Normally, the students must recite their poems in front of a live audience. But because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Trayshun had to pre-record his performances.
In his taped performance of “Caged Bird,” Trayshun stands alone in his classroom, dressed in a long sleeve shirt and wool vest. The only sound heard at the beginning is a voiceover, introducing the poem. Then he starts signing. The room remains silent, but his hand movements and facial expressions speak volumes.
Once all three poems were recorded and sent off for judging, it was time to wait for the live zoom meeting that announced the winner.
Trayshun was completely shocked when he heard his name.
“My heart was beating really fast too. I don’t know if that could be seen visibly, but inside I was very excited!”
Competition judge and Oregon Arts commissioner Subashini Ganesan-Forbes was immediately impressed with his poise and authenticity.
“Trayshun was very good at really cutting through expectations and saying, this is my presentation. This is how I’m grounded, view the poem through me,” she says.
Trayshun is only the second deaf student to win Oregon’s Poetry Out Loud contest. Tiffany Hinano Hill, who was also coached by Gale Robertson, won in 2009.
Trayshun competes Sunday, May 1, in the national semifinal round. If he succeeds, he’ll advance to the final round in June.
“I can be a winner. From being a deaf baby, with no ability to communicate, to being a state champion now. So if I can do it, people can do it too.”