National poetry contest fills arts void at small schools with tight budgets

Big Lake High School junior Stephanie Abfalter recites a poem
Junior Stephanie Abfalter recites "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost on Jan. 17 at Big Lake High School’s Poetry Out Loud competition. She won an Honorable Mention.
Photo By: Simon Lancaster
The winners of Big Lake High School’s Poetry Out Loud competition
From left to right: Fabian Brenes, who won the school’s Poetry Out Loud competition last year and came in third at state, Mae Poffenberger, Lamont Agyekum, and Olivia Crocker.
Photo By: Simon Lancaster
The winners of Big Lake High School’s Poetry Out Loud competition
From left to right: Ashley Busse, Stephanie Abfalter, Donny Johnson and Betiana Romero.
Photo By: Simon Lancaster
“I knew of great poets, but I didn’t understand why they were great. I now understand why it’s an art.” -- Gabby Frenstad, a senior at Northfield School of Arts and Technology

When Laura Meyer, an English teacher at Big Lake High School, heard about the national Poetry Out Loud competition, she jumped on the opportunity to offer students an artistic activity. Budget cuts had ended extracurricular activities like speech, debate, and theater at her school northwest of the Twin Cities.

“Everyone can benefit from Poetry Out Loud. I’ve seen kids you would never expect on stage blossom in this experience,” Meyer said after watching 67 Big Lake students perform Jan. 17 in this year’s competition at the school, the largest in four years.

Poetry Out Loud is a national poetry recitation contest for students in grades 9-12 enrolled in high schools in all 50 states, as well as Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands. There are 52 participating schools in Minnesota. Regional winners will compete in the state final is March 19.

The contest’s goal is to help students “master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about their literary heritage,” according to its website, www.poetryoutloud.org. It’s free for students.

Local schools hold the first round of competition, in which students choose and memorize three poems out of an anthology of famous poems provided by Poetry Out Loud. One poem must have been written before the 20th century.

Gabby Frenstad placed third in a regional Poetry Out Loud competition last year, and is hoping to make it to the national competition this year.

“Memorization is key,” the Northfield School of Arts and Technology senior said. “Really work on your facial expressions and body movement. Practice in front of a mirror, family, friends, or a teacher.”

Frenstad is an aspiring actress and was looking for a way to improve her performance skills when she discovered the national poetry recitation contest last year.

“In a school of about 120 kids, there isn’t always a play or something going on,” she said.

She recited her favorite poem “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe. “I would recite it every day for two to three weeks trying different inflections, pace, and presenting it like I was up there in front of the judges,” Frenstad said. “I really got to know the thoughts and emotions of the author while he was writing this poem.”

Frenstad was nervous in front of the judges. “But I was ready,” she said. “Those countless hours in front of the mirror finally paid off!”

Frenstad said participating in the contest gave her a new appreciation for poetry. “I knew of great poets, but I didn’t understand why they were great. I now understand why it’s an art.”

Leah Carlson, a senior at Fosston High School who placed sixth in the state competition last year, has a tip when it comes to choosing your poem. “Make sure you like the poems you choose and you’re actually interested in it, because you’re going to be saying it a lot.”

Students compete in front of a panel of three judges, who are volunteers and can range from a retired teacher to a local author to a school secretary, as was the case at Big Lake.

Students are awarded up to nine points in six categories: physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, level of difficulty, evidence of understanding, and overall performance.

There is an accuracy judge who marks missed or incorrect words during the recitation.

“It’s pretty intense once you get up there, knowing that they are just waiting for you to mess up,” Carlson said. “You’re going to be nervous, but you can’t let that ruin your composure.”

Eleanor Leonard, the Poetry Out Loud director for Minnesota, recommends choosing poems from the online anthology, which offers a greater variety. “Sometimes, as a judge, I can get really sick of hearing ‘Jabberwocky,’ ” she quipped about the nonsense verse by Lewis Carroll.

“The thing about having students recite poetry is that it teaches them how to find the difference between the okay word, and the perfect word when writing,” Leonard said.

The two students with the highest scores from each of the 52 schools move on to one of nine regional competitions in February. Two winners from each region then go on to the state final, which will be held March 19 at the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul.

Only one student from each state moves on to the national competition, which will be held in Washington D.C. at the Harman Center for the Arts May 13-15.

Students don’t just earn an appreciation for poetry, though. Winners of school competitions are awarded cash prizes: $50 for first place; $40 for second place; $30 for third place; and $20 for an honorable mention.
State winners receive $200 and an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C. for themselves and one adult chaperone. Their school also receives a $500 stipend for the purchase of poetry books. National winners receive $20,000 in college scholarships, according to the Poetry Out Loud website.

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