Poetry Out Loud finals were conducted in Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties over the past few weeks, despite weather that delayed two of the contests. Three county winners all move on now to the California Finals on March 10 and 11 in Sacramento.
Founded in 2005 by the National Endowment for the Arts, Poetry Out Loud features high school students reciting poems from a lengthy list of works. The contests help students master public speaking skills, build self-confidence and better understand literary history and contemporary life. The endowment presents the contest at the national level and arts councils locally and at the state levels present preliminary competitions. The national finals are April 30 and May 1 this year in Washington, D.C., where $50,000 in student and school awards await the winners. State winners receive $200 and all-expense-paid trips with an adult to the finals. The national champion receives a $20,000 cash prize.
Seven students went to the finals in Amador County. The event was delayed because of bad weather, but the students faced off at the Amador County Library in Jackson. Noah Bunting, who lives in Sutter Creek and attends Amador High School, is the Amador County Poetry Out Loud winner.
This year’s Amador contestants received weeks of tutoring from professional artists in the poetry and performance fields, including Amador Poet Laureate Kat Everitt and Christina Morris.
“Poetry Out Loud is an extraordinary opportunity for high school students to learn great poetry, perform it and win prizes,” said an AmadorArts release. “This is the third year that Amador County has participated in Poetry Out Loud, organized by AmadorArts because of its importance in arts education. Nearly every county in the state participates and receives funding from the California Arts Council, a state agency, and the National Endowment for the Arts to facilitate the program.”
Calaveras County’s first-ever Poetry Out Loud winner is Sandra Meza of Burson, who beat 20 students from Bret Harte and Calaveras high schools in the finals held at the Calaveras Performing Arts Center in San Andreas on Jan. 30.
“I was shocked and happy,” Meza said. “I honestly couldn’t believe it!”
The Calaveras High School senior beat competitors from Bret Harte and Calaveras high schools, where preliminary schoolwide Poetry Out Loud events were staged before the holidays.
“This is the first year that Calaveras County high school students have had the opportunity to participate in Poetry Out Loud,” said Calaveras County Arts Council Executive Director Kathy Mazzaferro. “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.’”
Meza recited “The Chimney Sweeper: When My Mother Died I was Very Young,” by William Blake, and “Sanctuary,” by Jean Valentine.
A soccer player, Meza said that an injury on Dec. 14 that ended her athletics for her final year of high school actually proved inspirational.
“This was a huge impact on me,” she said. “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.”
While she said she could relate to the disparate works she performed, 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, Meza said. “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.”
She said “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.”
She also said that her fellow competitors were supportive.
“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.”
In Tuolumne County, Eric Brookfield, a senior at Sonora High School, is the 2019 Poetry Out Loud champion. He presented “Life Cycle of the Common Man,” by Howard Nemerov, and “The Conqueror Worm,” by Edgar Allan Poe, at the finals held on Feb. 9. There were eight competitors at the Tuolumne County finals.
In 2015 and 2017, Sonora High School student Levi Lowe won the Tuolumne County and California contests.
After her win in Calaveras, Meza encouraged any student with even a passing interest in poetry to participate in future Poetry Out Loud events.
“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.”