OAKHURST – They walked onstage in various degrees of readiness, braver than most who fear public speaking above all else.
Eleven students from five Madera County schools gathered at Yosemite High on Saturday, Feb. 8, for the regional final competition of Poetry Out Loud National Recitation Contest, and I was honored to be asked to serve as a judge.
Poetry Out Loud is an annual national recitation competition that began in 2006 through the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. The regional competition is also supported by the California Arts Council, California Poets in the Schools, Madera County Arts Council, Senior Creek Living, Oakhurst Sierra Rotary, Sierra Tel and Yosemite Bank.
Poet Ann Molin served as the Poetry Out Loud coach for Madera County.
Area schools included in the competition were Glacier, Minarets and Yosemite High. Also competing were students from Chowchilla and Liberty High. Round One consisted of poems of the contestants’ choice in the pre-20th century category. Round Two was all contestants’ choice.
Yosemite High School (YHS) junior Jocelyn Boe kicked off the competition with a spirited recitation of “Old Ironsides” by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Minarets senior Megann Hilliard offered up a poem by Thomas Hardy, titled “Hap.” Yosemite junior Paizley Jackson recited an Ann Sexton piece, “Her Kind,” with great flair. The poem “Grief,” by Elizabeth Barret Browning, was spoken by Sanvannah Luce, a freshman at Minarets.
Two other judges and I sat at a table in front of the stage, closely following the action as each student came out to speak. This was like a Homecoming football game for people who love words.
We were ranking each student’s poem based on categories including physical presence, voice/articulation, dramatic appropriateness, level of difficulty, evidence of understanding and overall performance. The critiques for each recitation were judged on a scale of 1 – 5, except the overall, which could go up to 9. Also present were a Scorer, an Accuracy Judge and Prompter.
As Round One continued, Glacier High junior Jacquie McCourt perfectly recited the first two stanzas of “Israfel,” a long and difficult piece by Edgar Allen Poe. McCourt then stunned those watching when she stopped short of her goal and quietly walked off the stage, looking a little shell-shocked. Later, McCourt would explain that her departure was simple: the trained actress and singer suffered a serious bout of stage fright and anxiety, which can happen to the very best performer.
Leaving the stage without completing the exercise diminished her score, but not her determination, as McCourt would come back in Round Two.
Meanwhile, we were all reminded of the serious degree of complexity and concentration this competition required, and the poems that followed were weighted with a bit of extra gravitas.
Still in Round One, Jesse Parr from Minarets gave a charming rendition of Shakespeare’s well-known “Sonnet XVIII: Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” He was followed by Minarets senior Dominique Pearce reciting “Echo” by Christina Rossetti.
Students from Chowchilla included freshman Jacob Garcia, and sophomore Sergei Dias, each of whom impressed the audience with “A Red, Red Rose” and “Alone,” respectively. Liberty sophomore Carlie Dickens and Daniel Palamino gave renditions of the ironic “Richard Cory,” and compelling “Self Portrait.”
Round Two began with Jesse Parr reciting “Alone,” a revealing poem written by Edgar Allen Poe about his own childhood. Megann Hilliard memorized the tongue-twisting, “Aria,” and later explained that, unlike the previous round’s pre-20th century requirement, “Aria” is “a baby poem, almost a year old.”
Paizley Jackson came back with George Moses Horton’s “Early Affection,” followed by Dominique Pearce with “The Kiss” by Robert Graves.
Students continued their pattern of making interesting choices, as Jocelyn Boe recited “The Mower,” a poem about a small animal’s untimely demise, written by Philip Larkin. Sanvannah Luce recited the well-loved “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost.
The last mountain area student to come up for Round Two was Jaquie McCourt, who convincingly brought life to a poem about death entitled, “Time Does Not Bring Relief: You All Have Lied,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. After her premature departure from the stage in Round One, it was inspiring to see McCourt return with composure and conviction to deliver a heartbreaking poem on the evolution of grief. The act was nothing short of triumphant.
It was widely agreed that every student who participated gained enrichment from being involved in Poetry Out Loud, as organizers tallied up the scores.
The look on Glacier High student Jacqui McCourt’s face when it was announced she won 3rd Place in the regional competition, despite an early setback, was truly priceless. Jesse Parr took home 2nd Place for Minarets. Taking 1st Place was Yosemite High student Jocelyn Boe, who will go on to compete in Sacramento March 23-24. The California state champ will then compete for the national title in Washington, D.C.
The structure of Poetry Out Loud is similar to a spelling bee. Students compete first in their classrooms, then vie for the school title. County winners are treated to two days at the California Poetry Out Loud State Finals in Sacramento. At the state level, everyone is a champion, and one winner will be selected to represent California in the national competition. The National champ receives a $20,000 scholarship. Nationwide, Poetry Out Loud has grown every year. More than 365,000 students participated in 2013.
Congratulations to all for participating and providing the audience of parents, poets and educators an enchanting and exciting afternoon of poetry.
Good luck to first place County winner Jocelyn Boe!
Special appreciation to: Patti Cline, Dan Williams, Theresa Slaughter, Donna Rodrigues, Elaine Blake, Madera Arts Council (MCAC), Kelly Solomon, Dr. Dianne Rich, Dr. Martha Mossman, Anthony Blake, and MCAC Arts Education Programs Manager Sherril Royce. The organizers also wish to thank the administrators, counselors, parents and teachers at the participating schools who helped recruit, advise, and mentor the contestants.