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Poem is where the heart is: The life and times of a Poetry Out Loud judge 

In the third grade, my teacher at Sunnyside Elementary (now defunct and existing largely as a bird waste repository) required each of us students to memorize and recite a poem. At the ripe age of 8, the choices were limited. You could go the obvious route—a nursery rhyme or something light-hearted by Sylvia Plath. You could go the easy route—a Dr. Seuss classic. Or you could do what 90 percent of my class did—grab the closest Shel Silverstein book and pick the poem with the best picture.

My choice? “The Mummy.” It’s an eight-line stunner about a young kid and his misguided attempt to look like a mummy by wrapping himself in toilet paper. How embarrassing!

click to enlarge SPEAK, HANDS FOR ME:  Nipomo High School freshman Graciela Maldonado garnered second place at Poetry Out Loud for her renditions of Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “El Olvido” and Brenda Cardenas’ “Zacuanpapalotls.” - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • SPEAK, HANDS FOR ME: Nipomo High School freshman Graciela Maldonado garnered second place at Poetry Out Loud for her renditions of Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “El Olvido” and Brenda Cardenas’ “Zacuanpapalotls.”

To no one’s surprise, I totally killed it at the class presentation. I mean, it was killed-it-mummified-it-in-toilet-paper-and-buried-it-in-the-Egyptian-desert good. So good, people began to talk about it outside of class; word spread beyond the town, beyond the county limits, and into the outer limits of the universe. Two thousand years from now, when we’re watching Ken Burns’ documentary about how aliens came to Earth, my poetry recitation will be among the reasons they voyaged to this decrepit dirt ball—that and the first season of The O.C.

OK, none of that is true. Well, everything except the quality of The O.C. That’s gospel. But on that day, in front of that third grade class, I was a nervous, sweaty-palmed, and stumbling wreck. I confess all of this because last Thursday night, I was a judge for the county’s annual poetry recitation contest 
Poetry Out Loud.

If you don’t know Poetry Out Loud, it’s a national poetry recitation contest sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. Each year, high schools ask students to choose and memorize a poem from the hundreds offered on Poetry Out Loud’s website. Then, the schools send the best of the best to the countywide competition. They’re judged on their physical presence, articulation, dramatic appropriateness, evidence of understanding, the poem’s complexity, and overall performance. It’s a 
daunting task.

At the Monday Club, on that Thursday night, I was possibly more nervous than the teenagers on stage. Alongside Steve Bland, SLO County Poet Laureate Marguerite Costigan, and Cal Poly English professor Kevin Clark, I had to sit down and judge these kids for something I probably couldn’t do myself.

click to enlarge THE LION’S ROAR:  Ethan McSwain, a senior at San Luis Obispo High School, took home first place and a place at the state competition in Sacramento for two stirring recitations of Philip Levine’s - “They Feed They Lion” and David Bottoms’ “Under the Vulture-Tree.” - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • THE LION’S ROAR: Ethan McSwain, a senior at San Luis Obispo High School, took home first place and a place at the state competition in Sacramento for two stirring recitations of Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion” and David Bottoms’ “Under the Vulture-Tree.”

Cake eating? Sure. Talk about Abraham Lincoln’s chest hair? All day. But recite more than 30 lines of Victorian poetry in front of a hundred people? Eh, maybe after a few drinks.

It was an impressive showing. Ethan McSwain, SLO High’s contestant and the eventual winner of the night, wowed the crowd with Philip Levine’s incendiary anthem, “They Feed They Lion.” Graciela Maldonado, a freshman from Nipomo High School, dazzled with two stirring Hispanic poems, “El Olvido” and “Zacuanpapalotls.” I wasn’t the least bit surprised when she took home the second place spot.

But it was a tough competition. Each student brought something unique to the table at what has become a central event for ARTS Obispo over the last nine years.

I myself remember the first Poetry Out Loud on the Central Coast. The word “fun” isn’t normally thrown around poetry recitation contests, but I remember having a pretty great time there. Then, there was more heckling. Now, it’s a little more subdued, giving the audience the space to really hear each student make meaning of these words that have endured over decades and centuries.

To quote the great Shel Silverstein, “Anything is possible. Anything can be.” At Poetry Out Loud, everyone involved is committed to this notion and to be a part of that was a privilege.

 

Jessica Peña’s looking for a 
rhyme for Jessica. Send her 
suggestions at jpena@newtimesslo.com.

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