Some schools have football teams, cheerleading squads, crowded half-time bleachers; at The Gregory School, we have Poetry Out Loud. For over a decade now, The Gregory School has celebrated “poetry month” in the upper school, a season which culminates in a highly anticipated school-wide poetry recitation competition.
Poetry Out Loud is a national poetry recitation competition funded by a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. Since its 2005 inception, more than 3 million students have competed in all 50 states.
Students compete in their English classes, and winners advance to the school competition. The lucky school champion then has the opportunity to take on the regional competition. Three winners from the regional competition go on to states, where the champion receives an all expense paid trip to nationals in Washington, DC. It is, suffice to say, a very big deal.
The Gregory School’s embrace of the program has paid off, too: historically, TGS has performed exceedingly well. The Gregory School consistently sends students to the state competition, and has in the past even sent them to nationals.
At 1 pm on January 27, the winners from each class came together to perform in front of the entire school in front of three judges. The all-school performers were Lily Sklar, Karina Schmit, Wyatt Weisel, Nina Armstrong, Sedona Naifeh, Elly Nolen, James Bauman, Sarah Wang, Noah Sharma, Eric Johnson, and Ben Siemens.
In many ways, the competition differed slightly from those of the past. Both Poetry Out Loud advocates Elizabeth Young and former emcee and English teacher Robert Mossman were notably absent, leaving the event’s opening speech and emceeing position to middle school English teacher Mike Mann. Furthermore, many first-place class winners were not the ones competing on the day of, having instead passed on their title to the runner-up: some forfeited voluntarily for various reasons, others would not be present due to athletic conflicts, while many international students elected to not participate due to the inability to advance beyond the school competition because of Poetry Out Loud policies. Finally, the competition occurred after lunch rather than, customarily, in the morning.
Despite these setback and changes, the competition proved indisputably strong. Poem topics were diverse – from American exceptionalism to boredom to mathematics to lost love, in both contemporary and pre-20th century styles, with tones ranging from devastated to elated. Ultimately, new junior Lily Sklar took home the title as first place Gregory School champion.
Sklar performed “The Fair Singer” by Andrew Marvell for her first poem, and “Friendship After Love” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox for her second. The selection of Poetry Out Loud poems can be an intimate process. Sklar specifically chose her poems due to their “sophisticated writing and first-person, deeply personal outlook.” Although Poetry Out Loud only requires one pre-20th century poem, Sklar favored older works, saying “the language itself was so rich with their word choice, whereas some of the modern poems seemed to be lacking in personal insight.”
Sklar is a self-professed “theater kid,” and remarked the Poetry Out Loud experience was not so different from dramatic monologues she had done in the past. Yet, it did further her understanding of poetry, as she noted. “Obviously poetry isn’t heavily taught in most English programs so this exposure is really nice. As you begin to recite your poem repeatedly, you do interpret it. It certainly gave me a deeper appreciation of poetry beyond the surface level.”
She continued, “I also think any experience that involves stepping onto a stage is very valuable.”
Sklar brought this theater background not only into her lush, expressive poetry performance, but also to her memorization process. “This is such a theater-y way to do it, but I would use a different accent on each line of the poem, which is an odd way to approach it. I’d go like, British, Irish, loud, soft, it was very obnoxious and unconventional but very effective for me,” she laughed. For those who have consistent trouble with the memorization aspect of Poetry Out Loud, Sklar reflected, “I think anytime you put a little spin on it, it can affect your memory. I also wrote it out, I listened to other people reciting it – I tried to hit all the senses.”
Sklar will perform at the regional competition on February 17 at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. Moving forward, she feels “fairly solid.”
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