Caitlin McCormick performs at school Poetry Out Loud competition.

Caitlin McCormick performs at school Poetry Out Loud competition.

This year marks the second time I’ve been able to participate in the annual Poetry Out Loud competition. I was fortunate enough to win first place in my class competition and school-wide competition on January 30.

On February 14, in a most magical form of Valentine’s Day serendipity, I won third place in the Southern Arizona regional competition at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, meaning that on March 12 I moved on to the state competition in Phoenix.

Even though at its essence Poetry Out Loud really is just poetry recitation, it manifests itself in school spirit, public speaking, and the unique emotional communication conveyed by literature.

The fact that most of the other Poetry Out Loud participants at regionals and states hardly (if at all) recognized The Gregory School was reason enough to want to win. Basically, that’s a lot to try to represent on a tiny little stage in front of a dozen other hugely talented competitors.

Even after winning runner-up last year, I didn’t actually select my first two poems with the intention of competing. In fact, I’d like to say that I chose some very sophisticated objective and then chose ones that adhered to it, but really I just tried to find poems I genuinely liked.

My favorite performances at the school level, regionals, and states all made me fall in love with the poems these people selected; poems I wouldn’t have previously found interesting.

They made the poems something special, because they liked them to begin with. So that’s really my only piece of advice: try and let the audience know why a poem means something to you.

At this point I’m inclined to say luck plays a large part in who wins, too. There were of course judging choices I disagreed with – performers the judges loved that I wasn’t as impressed by, and ones I loved that they didn’t choose.

Some contestants performed poems beautifully that were surely several pages long, while others performed equally well-done poems that were hardly a couple stanzas, and progressed further.

Every judge clearly values different criteria more than others, and as a contestant sometimes all you can hope for is that your performance values going into the competition align with those of the judges, especially when everyone is already so talented.

The state competition was held on March 12, at the Herberger Theater in Phoenix, Arizona. There were nine state finalists, but the show still lasted several hours, with state poet laureate Alberto Rios as well as a state representative both giving speeches.

Unfortunately, I didn’t qualify in the second round, but I was hardly disappointed. The competition was unbelievable – there really wasn’t one person who didn’t deserve to be there, and I was just honored to be counted among them.

In fact, we were informed by a Poetry Out Loud coordinator of the National Commission for the Arts at the state competition that more than 11,000 students participated in POL this year in Arizona alone, giving Arizona the fourth highest participation rate in the country. That is amazing. So to be named one of the nine best was certainly good enough for me.

In fact, Poetry Out Loud ended up being a lot more than just repeating old poetry. John Straley, author of one of my poems, sent me a handwritten letter expressing his gratitude for my choosing his work.

Alberto Rios, state poet laureate, wished me luck and then told me I did wonderfully afterwards. One of the performers I lost to at regionals ended up winning states, and she was simply marvelous. In these ways, my entire Poetry Out Loud experience was a humbling one.

When I interviewed the guest poet Steve Kowit, who visited in January, he had remarked that poetry means far less to young people than it used to. I’d really like to think that Poetry Out Loud is part of the antidote to this; so often we close ourselves off to poetry because it’s too abstract, or too archaic, or doesn’t seem to be made for us: doesn’t seem likely to give us something we can understand, or come to appreciate.

Poetry Out Loud, for me, and 11,000 other people in Arizona, gave me a voice in poetry and the opportunity to try to make it accessible for other people.

That’s an unspeakable gift, and not  one I took lightly.