Michael Beadle, a poet and teacher from Canton, stood before nine high school finalists in North Carolina’s Poetry Out Loud contest in the front rows of the auditorium at the Greensboro Historical Museum on a recent Saturday.
They came from Stokes, Gaston and Catawba counties, from a charter school in Raleigh, a school of the arts in Durham and an early college in Johnston County, from Carrboro, Wilmington and Lincolnton. They included eight girls and one boy.
At Beadle’s prompting they took three deep breaths. “Beyond everything else, just go out and have fun,” Beadle told them.
“Enjoy the time here. Remember, the hard work is done. You’ve done all the rehearsing and practicing. Now, go out and shine.”
And then it was on. To get here the finalists had survived semi-finals earlier in the day at the nearby downtown library and the Greensboro Cultural Arts Center. Out of 31 contestants representing their school districts, they had been winnowed down to these nine. Now, reciting poems by Billy Collins, Lewis Carroll, Gwendolyn Brooks and others, they were giving their best shot at bragging rights for the entire state of North Carolina, the spoils of which included $200 in personal prize money, $500 to buy poetry books for their school and the chance to compete in the National Poetry Out Loud competition.
One after another they took the stage, looking poised and confident.
They enunciated, deployed theatrical voicings to embody their subjects and endowed their poems with physicality through hand movement. Not one of them had to turn to the prompter who sat in the front row ready to mouth the word if they hit a wall. The spirit of the day was celebration of their collective talents to take the emphasis off of individual competition, but when the students returned to their seats they cast anxious sidelong glances at their parents, betraying their desire to win.
“Alone” by Edgar Allen Poe (“From childhood’s hour I have not been as others were”) and “Ego” by Denise Duhamel (“… even now I wouldn’t mind being god, the force who spins the planets the way I spin a globe, a basketball, a yoyo”) were popular selections.
In commentaries after each recitation, Beadle reiterated that poetry promotes virtue, humility and compassion. The primary skill exercised in this competition was oration. These were not the misfits who skip class and scribble poetry in battered composition books. They were members of their senior prom-planning committees, athletes who compete in volleyball and track and field, aspiring novelists and Navy JAG lawyers, a co-president of his school’s Doctors Without Borders chapter and a founder of a club to raise awareness about human trafficking. They were leaders.
They ranged from Hailey Grace Hazard, a senior at Ashley High School in Wilmington, who brought indignation and compassion to her treatment of Martin Espada’s “The Meaning of the Shovel,” to Carrboro High School student Aron Rimanyi, who invested an authoritative, saltof-the-earth dignity in “I am the People, the Mob” by Carl Sandburg.
After three rounds, Beadle congratulated them. “Everybody was really good,” he said. “You brought your A-game.” As the judge’s scores were being tallied, Beadle remarked on the closeness of the competition, predicting that the winner would be a surprise.
“It’s almost like the Olympics, where fractions of seconds separate the gold from the silver medalists,” he said.
Raleigh Charter High School senior Jessica Karlisa told her supporters she had thought she might take third place. Karlisa, who started a club called Voices for Minorities at her school, won after reciting “The Children of the Poor” by Gwendolyn Brooks. Karlisa said she’s participated in the contest every year since she was a freshman, and over time has developed confidence in getting up in front of large groups of people.
“It’s definitely made me a better public speaker,” she said. “I’ve conquered that demon. I haven’t decided what career path to take, but I know that whatever I choose to do, I can do it.”