The Power of the Spoken Word
Poetry Out Loud…
We all know that high school students date, play sports and video games, and connect on social media. But here’s something unusual: Every year in California and across the country, a few outliers, a small number of brave high school students, get up on stage and recite poetry they’ve memorized.
It’s called Poetry Out Loud, a nationwide event that aims to give young people a chance to hone their speaking skills and cultivate an appreciation for the beauty and expressive power of poetry. There are contests in every county in California near the beginning of the year, and the winners go to the statewide competition in Sacramento. From there, one talented winner goes to the national competition in Washington, D. C. in May.
Shasta County held its first Poetry Out Loud competition five years ago, in the back of a restaurant in Redding, with a total of three contestants. By this year, the competition had expanded to 16. The winner was Amana Simantha, a Shasta High School senior who’s not shy about performing in front of people – she calls her drama class her “comfort zone” – and who recited “Propositions” by Stephen Dunn, a poem that begins with this provocative line: “Anyone who begins a sentence with ‘In all honesty . . . ‘ is about to tell a lie.”
Simantha’s polar opposite is Julie Vela, a senior at Alps View Continuation High School in Weaverville. Vela says she has “really bad anxiety” about getting up onstage, but with encouragement from her teacher, Keith Sprague, she decided to use Poetry Out Loud as a chance to confront and overcome her stage fright. At the Trinity County competition last February, she did just that, treating her audience to a haunting poem by William Blake, “Mad Song,” that conjures up wild winds, a cold night and birds awaiting the dawn. Sprague watched Vela’s performance, and although she wasn’t one of the top finishers, “it was still a huge win for her, getting onstage and conquering her fears.”
For Drew Eastlick, a Siskiyou County contestant back in 2015, Poetry Out Loud “changed the course of my life in some ways.” She was a junior at Etna High, living in a small town that afforded relatively little exposure to the fine arts. Poetry Out Loud, she says, opened a door for her to “the creative, emotional side of life” – especially to the emotional power of the spoken word. Eastlick has since moved to Mountain View, where she has a job helping UC Santa Cruz students find housing, and (no big surprise) writes poetry on the side.
Crystal Marquez, a senior at Corning Union High School, already had a well-developed love of poetry when she entered this year’s contest. Like Simantha, she has no problem performing in front of people: She’s a folklorico dancer and a member of her church and school choirs. Marquez speaks rapturously about poetry as “an art form that can be beautiful or grim, where worlds can be created in just a few phrases.” She chose a “dreamlike and flowy” poem, Lewis Carroll’s “A Boat Beneath A Sunny Sky” as one of the poems she recited. (Each contestant must recite two poems.)
Marquez took first place in the Tehama County contest.
For one contestant this year, it was a lesson in the ups and downs of life. Shasta High School’s Aria Del Rosario-Sabet entered the contest last year as a sophomore and placed third. This year, she would have tied for first, but for one little glitch: She said “there’s” when she should have said “there is.” A small error, but it knocked her down to second place. But she feels good about the experience. She notes that her poetry recitations have helped her hone her skills in public speaking, and made her aware how her voice and even body movement can influence the audience’s interpretation of a poem.
Teagan Wirth, a freshman at Golden Eagle Charter School, was the only entrant in Siskiyou County this year, so he was guaranteed to win, even though he stumbled a bit in reciting his poem “The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls” by Longfellow. He got this wise advice from one of the judges: If you stumble, keep going as if nothing had happened – which is good advice for a lot of things in life. A key factor in the success or failure of each county’s Poetry Out Loud competition is whether teachers actively encourage their students to enter. Then it comes down to how many students, with support from dedicated teachers like Keith Sprague, take up the challenge. •