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Students giving voice to centuries’ old library of literary treasures

February 10, 2011

The Big Pine High School participants of the countywide Poetry Out Loud competition are Tyler Holt, Mary Rossi, Chynna Tash and Skye Holt. Photo submitted

High school students throughout Inyo County will be competing for the first year in the national Poetry Out Loud competition. Winners will go on to the nation’s capitol to compete for a chance at more than $20,000 in cash and prizes.
Poetry Out Loud challenges thousands of students in the U.S. to interpret, memorize and recite famous poetry. The class competitions have already been completed or are about to commence at high schools in Bishop, Independence, Lone Pine and Big Pine.
After the classroom contest, local champions will advance to a school-wide competition, then to a regional or state competition, and ultimately – it is hoped – to the National Finals in Washington, D.C.
The county contest will be held from 7-8:30 p.m. Friday at the Inyo Council for the Arts in Bishop.
According to local event organizer Liz McAteer, the competition is not just a chance for students to earn much-needed funding for college tuition; it’s an opportunity for teachers to bring invaluable works of art into the classroom where they’ll be greeted by a receptive audience.
“Poetry Out Loud is the best hands-on curriculum for teachers to introduce them to poetry,” McAteer said.
Students will memorize two poems from a list of more than 650 poems from a variety of poets and time periods.
McAteer said the trick is not just memorizing the poem, but understanding and interpreting the poem, and to find a poem that fits the reader.
With the help of local author and Resident Poet for Inyo County Schools Eva Poole-Gilson, students are being exposed to the artform and are learning what kind of poetry appeals to them, and why.
McAteer said Poole-Gilson is helping the students to first find a poem that speaks to them, and then memorize it, stand up and recite it.
McAteer said that one of the hardest parts of the contest for the readers is having to stand up in front of a crowd and recite what they’ve memorized.
Part of the judging will be on syntax, meter and poise, but also a sound interpretation of the meaning and tone of the poem.
The selection of poems the children have to choose from ranges from the free-jazz inspired, “Here Where Coltrane Is” by Michael S. Harper to the epic and highly rhythmic words of Lord Alfred Tennyson.
Readers will also be scored on difficulty, as a short poem may have difficult concepts and lack an easy meter, while a longer poem may contain simple ideas and a rhythm that’s easy to follow, and memorize.
Competitors will have to memorize two poems and the winner who will compete in Sacramento must memorize an additional third poem.
Each champion at the state level will receive $200 and an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., to compete at the National Finals. The state champion’s school will receive a $500 stipend for the purchase of poetry books. The first runner-up in each state will receive $100, and his or her school will receive $200 for the purchase of poetry books.
There will be a total of $50,000 in awards and school stipends at the National Finals, with a $20,000 award for the National Champion. The second-place winner will receive a $10,000 award; the third-place winner will receive $5,000; and the fourth- to ninth-place finalists will each receive $1,000. Their respective schools will also receive $500 for the purchase of poetry books.
The competition is being sponsored by the Inyo Council for the Arts, the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Foundation. The judges for the local competition will be Inyo Superintendent of Schools Terry McAteer, former Superintendent George Lozito, ICA Board member Julie Bear, Bishop Paiute Tribe WüNüt youth group coordinator Chris Hohag and teacher Devon Fredericksen.
Liz McAteer has worked with the 6-year-old national Poetry Out Loud in the past, but this will be a first for Inyo County.
She said she hopes the thrill of the competition and the big prizes will “ignite a love of poetry” in local youth. She said the community is encouraged to attend and show support for the hard-working readers.
The Poetry Out Loud website lists poems and poets that readers will choose from. There is also a quote from “Committed to Memory” by John Hollander: “In reciting a poem aloud, you are not like an actor, coming to understand, and then to feel yourself in a dramatic part, a fictional person. It’s rather that you come to understand, and then to be, the voice of the poem itself.”

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