Calaveras County has its first-ever Poetry Out Loud winner, and Sandra Meza took a sports injury to wrench emotions from two poems to earn the title.
“I was shocked and happy,” Meza said after being declared the winner Jan. 30 at the Calaveras Performing Arts Center in San Andreas. “I honestly couldn’t believe it!”
The Calaveras High School senior beat 20 competitors in grades nine through 12 from Bret Harte and Calaveras high schools, where preliminary schoolwide Poetry Out Loud events were staged before the holidays.
Since 2005, Poetry Out Loud contests have been held at schools, counties, states and at the national level. The National Endowment for the Arts presents the event at the national level and arts councils both locally and at the state levels present preliminary competitions. The national finals are April 30 and May 1 this year in Washington, D.C., and the winners of the statewide contests receive $200 and all-expense-paid trips with an adult to the finals. The national champion receives a $20,000 cash prize.
In 2015 and 2017, Sonora High School student Levi Lowe won the Tuolumne County and California state contests.
“This is the first year that Calaveras County high school students have had the opportunity to participate in Poetry Out Loud, a national recitation contest made possible, in part, by the support of the California Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts,” said Kathy Mazzaferro, executive director of the Calaveras County Arts Council. “Truth to tell, we weren’t quite sure what to expect by way of student response. You can imagine our delight when over 50 students attended our informational meetings. They were so excited and so grateful. As one young man told me, ‘Thank you for bringing this to Calaveras County. Our schedules are so impacted that if we don’t have time to take (advance placement) literature, we have no exposure to poetry.’”
Competitors recite two poems they select from a list of more than 900 titles, and are judged on their delivery. Meza recited “The Chimney Sweeper: When My Mother Died I was Very Young,” by William Blake, and “Sanctuary,” by Jean Valentine.
A soccer player at Calaveras High, Meza says that an injury on Dec. 14 not only ended her athletics for her final year of high school, but helped her focus on her Poetry Out Loud presentations.
“We had two games that day and at our second game, another girl and I went up for a header and, while still in the air, she pushed me,” Meza said. “I came down on my ankle and then the girl stepped on my ankle. This is what my teammates told me. I don’t remember it; I just remember seeing my foot off to a side (a position no one should see their foot in!). I was rushed to the hospital where they told me that I broke my fibula, broke my ankle and destroyed one side of it, tore a ton of ligaments in the foot, and dislocated my foot on top of everything. They put my foot back in place … I had to have surgery for my ankle and leg to basically put everything back together. I have one screw going across the ankle and another holding the ankle together. I also have a big metal plate up my leg holding the fibula together.
“This was a huge impact on me,” she continued. “I had done sports my whole life (especially soccer) and it really sucked that I wouldn’t be able to do sports my senior year. This did play into my performance a lot. Especially in the second poem I did, where I talked about not being able to be other people and keeping to yourself, and in the very end of the poem where it talks about the difficulties of bringing yourself back to reality.”
She said that when an assignment to prepare and recite two poems was given in class and she performed, classmates “suggested I do the competition. I was hesitant, but I did it because I thought it might be fun.”
“I have always liked the poem ‘The Chimney Sweeper,’” Meza said. “I first heard it when we analyzed it in my English class last year. ‘Sanctuary,’ however, was the first poem I ever performed. I read it and although I couldn’t completely understand it at the moment, I could really relate to it.”
While she could relate to the disparate works, she wasn’t exactly sure how she would convey what the authors wanted to share in the pieces.
“I read them through to make sure I understood every word and the emotion the author was trying to convey.”
“I rehearsed a lot to my parents and younger sister. My mom helped me out the most with telling me what facial expressions I had to give to which emotions.”
“Sanctuary” was the more difficult poem to decipher and deliver.
“I took it stanza by stanza; I analyzed it myself,” Meza said. “I then looked up the analysis online to make sure I had it right. After that, I gave each individual line the emotion I thought it was supposed to give. Then I connected it and made sure it flowed the way I wanted it to.”
Backstage at the Calaveras Performing Arts Center during the county finals, Meza said the other contestants were a supportive bunch.
“Everyone was really nice to each other and there were people – including myself – preforming in front of mirrors mostly. Everyone was being super supportive and congratulated those who came back smiling and comforted those who did not.”
The contest was split in two, with students performing one of their poems during the first half and their second selections after an intermission. Poet and vice president of the Manzanita Writers Press, Susan Murphy, poet and retired Calaveras Unified School District teacher Linda Toren, and Sierra Lodestar Editor Mike Taylor served as judges.
“I was very nervous, but I kept practicing backstage, and I took a deep breath before performing,” Meza said. “I thought I nailed the first poem. The second, I was feeling a little insecure about.”
Mazzaferro announced at the end of the contest that hotel expenses for both Meza and runner-up Sage Miller, a freshman at Calaveras High School, to attend the California Finals on March 10 and 11 will be paid by the arts council.
Meza’s parents, Leno and Teresa Meza, brother, Noe, 29, and sister, Daniela, 12, were on hand to congratulate Sandra (sisters Cecilia, 25, and Rosalva, 23 couldn’t make the event). Leno proudly presented a bouquet of flowers to his winning daughter when she was named the winner.
Meza encouraged all eligible students to perform during future Poetry Out Loud events. She even hopes to be a high school history or biology teacher after college.
“If a student has a very unique opportunity to learn about a different art form, they should embrace it,” she said. “Doing Poetry Out Loud has given me the opportunity to learn about poetry and develop my own style of performing. I don’t think anyone would regret doing it because you have everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
She hopes the trip to Sacramento for the state finals from her Burson home is successful, but Meza also wants to watch other contestants.
“I’m looking forward to competing and listening to the other performers,” she said. “I’m also thrilled to see how everything works. I’m honestly just really excited to go and represent my county to the best of my abilities.”
“We are looking forward to attending the state finals and supporting our Poetry Out Loud champion,” Mazzaferro said. “And, we can’t wait to bring Poetry Out Loud back to Calaveras schools next year.”