Poetry Out Loud contest comes to Fairmont

When most teenagers hear the word “poetry” in their English classes, they probably groan and roll their eyes. However, a competition called Poetry Out Loud has been causing high school students across the country to gain a newfound interest in poetry. And as of 2010, Fairmont has joined the ranks of participating schools.

After being rescheduled due to snow, Fairmont held its first Poetry Out Loud competition after school on Feb. 17. Nine students took part in the competition, and four Fairmont teachers acted as judges. English teacher Darren McGarvey organized the competition after seeing a segment about the contest on CBS News Sunday Morning, and the Fairmont event was held in his classroom. McGarvey said he hopes the event will become an annual tradition at Fairmont.

The first national Poetry Out Loud contest was held in 2006. The competition was created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, and its creators hoped to raise interest in poetry and performing the art form verbally. Prizes were established for individual competitors as well as their schools.

A contestant must browse through Poetry Out Loud’s online poem collection, home to more than 600 poems by the likes of Robert Frost, Edgar Allen Poe, e.e. cummings and many more, and select three poems. Only two poems were required for Fairmont’s competition, and only one was recited; but for the state and national levels, three poems are needed. Contestants then memorize their poems and recite them in front of the judges and the rest of the crowd.

Contestants are judged on seven categories: physical presence, voice and articulation, appropriateness of dramatization, level of difficulty, evidence of understanding, overall performance, and accuracy.

Facing the competition’s challenges

Senior Katherine Ygbuhay won second place in the competition with her performance of “Time Does Not Bring Relief: You All Have Lied,” written by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Ygbuhay said the most difficult aspect of the competition was trying to avoid being overly dramatic or false. “We usually use words to communicate, so they can sound very strange and awkward when used for artistic purposes,” she said.

The challenge of verbally expressing the author’s written intentions proved to weigh heavily on some contestants. “I think the most difficult part was truly conveying the emotion that the writer put into the poem,” said junior Anne Marie Cardilino, who performed “A Black Man Talks of Reaping” by Arna Bontemps. “I chose ‘A Black Man Talks of Reaping’ because it just had such a powerful memory to convey,” said Cardilino. “It moved me when I first read it, and it just gained more meaning every time I read it.”

Freshman Indigo MonBeck recited Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” one of the most famous poems in the English language to feature nonsense words. “It’s my favorite poem ever,” he said. “I love the wacky words and phrases that Carroll made up.”

For MonBeck, much like the other competitors, the hardest part wasn’t memorization, but rather presentation. “Delivering the poem effectively was difficult, and I think that my trouble with delivery was what lost me the competition,” said MonBeck.

Finding the motivation to compete

Contestants’ motivations for partaking in Poetry Out Loud varied. “My decision to compete was mostly influenced by my recent performing in Harvey,” said junior Patrick Taylor, who performed “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley. Taylor also won a recent Shakespeare recitation contest at Fairmont.

“I think that the extra credit in English class was really the motivator of it, but I really got into it when I started reading the poems from the website,” said Cardilino.

Ygbuhay was motivated by the opportunity to practice public dramatic performance – “and the cash awards,” she said.

But material prizes weren’t the only rewards of the competition. Cardilino said she gained a better sense of self-confidence through participating in Poetry Out Loud.  “When I was younger, I was petrified of doing anything like this. I had huge stage fright,” she said. “I’m usually a very vocal person, very personable, but when I get on a stage, I just lose it all. This competition has showed me that I can be confident in myself.”

Ygbuhay felt the same way. “I gained some confidence from performing directly in front of an audience – it’s much easier to be separated by a stage,” she said. “And I might have learned a little about poetry, which I usually struggle to understand, by browsing the database for one to perform.”

Females sweep the top three

At the end of the day, prizes were awarded for the top three contestants. Junior Mary Kate O’Neill won first place with her performance of “Dirge without Music” by Edna St. Vincent Millay; Ygbuhay won second place; and senior Allie Dyer won third place, reciting “Altruism” by Molly Peacock.

O’Neill will compete in the State Finals on March 13 at Ohio Dominican University in Columbus. The winner of Ohio’s state competition will win $200 and will be flown to Washington, D.C., to partake in the National Finals on April 27. Also, the state winner’s school will be given $500 toward the purchase of poetry books. A grand total of $50,000 will be awarded to winners and their schools at the National Finals.