Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo Isabelle Ansari, of Montpelier High School, recites "The Universe as Primal Scream" by Tracy Smith during the Poetry Out Loud state championship at the Barre Opera House on Wednesday.
BARRE — The cheers and applause can be heard outside the closed doors of the Barre Opera House. Every seat is packed with students, teachers and friends from around the state.
They’ve come to cheer on the 38 students who made it to Wednesday’s seventh annual state finals of Poetry Out Loud, the national poetry recitation contest that will send one eloquent Vermonter to Washington to compete against students representing the rest of the nation.
“This is amazing,” says Stefanie Ayers Cravedi, a Spaulding High School English teacher accompanying a group of students to support Barre finalist John Reese. “There have never been so many people here. But it’s becoming more and more popular. This year I had 25 Advanced Placement students and they all competed.”
Long before the days of television, let alone the 140-character tweet, memorizing and reciting poetry were part of a well-rounded education. It was common when friends and families gathered to offer up a bit of verse for the edification of all. In fact, poetry competition was an event in the first Olympic games.
These days students’ ears are often keyed to rhyme through the cadences of hip-hop music. The ability to have words flow off the tongue has become a recognizable skill. Poetry Out Loud challenges students to more than memorize a poem, but to inhabit it. Theatrical performance is every bit as important as the words themselves.
Early in the first round on Wednesday, Dylan Robinson, a junior from Northfield High School, garnered cheers from the crowd with his recitation of “Mechanism,” a poem by A.R. Ammons that in no way resembles Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” Instead, it is the modern language of currency and calculations, “Honor a going thing, goldfinch, corporation, tree, morality: any working order, animate or inanimate.”
“I saw the poem and just fell in love with its language and images,” Robinson said. “I used to think that all poetry was just about love. I had a real neutral feeling about it. But now I read it a lot.”
The students are judged on six criteria: physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic presentation, level of difficulty, evidence of understanding, and overall performance.
Each year, say veterans of the competition, they’ve seen an increase in the level of complexity in the poems the students choose.
“When you have this caliber of performance it feels as though you are splitting excellence,” said Stacy Raphael, a judge in the finals and associate director for school programs at Burlington’s Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. “You just have to really trust the process. The students picked really challenging poems this year.”
To make it to the state finals, students first had to win at their local level. More than 4,000 students, representing 38 schools, participated in the event, according to Ben Doyle, who coordinates the state program through the Vermont Arts Council. And students didn’t have to learn just one poem, but three: two for the semifinal rounds and a third, if they made it to the finals.
A small hesitation or stumble was enough to keep a student from making it to the final four. Yet despite a few slips of the tongue, the students all exuded confidence and poise at every phase of the competition.
“It really isn’t about winning,” said Spaulding’s Reese, sounding like a quarterback on a difficult Saturday afternoon.
The youngest in the competition, Montpelier High School freshman Isabelle Ansari, entered as a way to meet other students, having recently moved to Vermont from Oakland, Calif.
“I did it because I thought it would be a fun thing to do,” she said. “I didn’t even think that I would end up here.”
Like others, Ansari writes poetry. “I used to write a lot when I was younger. Then I became too much of a perfectionist. But now I am getting freer.” Ansari lists the poet and rock icon Patti Smith as a favorite wordsmith. And while she didn’t take home the gold Wednesday, she hopes to come back next year.
On hand to help orient the competing students, and lend them support, was Claude Mumbere, who twice won the Vermont championships and went on to place second in the nation in 2012. Mumbere, a freshman at St. Lawrence University, was born in the Congo and moved to Vermont when he was 10. “I spoke French, and Swahili, and Lingala,” he said. “No English.”
Mumbere’s rich baritone would sound good reading a laundry list. The poem that he took to the competition was Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago.” He took home $10,000 and has since done a voice-over for a movie for NASA.
Although he hasn’t yet declared a major, he’s still involved with poetry as both a writer and reader. “I’m taking a course right now on poetry as a healing power, and I’m involved in Poetry for Peace,” he said.
At the end of the day, St. Johnsbury Academy junior Christian Dekett was chosen to represent the state at the April finals in Washington, D.C., with Brattleboro Union High School junior Maia Gilmour as the runner-up.
“This is more than STEM,” said Vermont Arts Council Director Alex Aldrich, referring to the acronym for science, technology, engineering and matheducation that is continually bandied about as the most important thing in education. “When you add in the arts to STEM you’ve got STEAM.” And the audience and students were cooking.MORE IN Central Vermont
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