Pure poetry

High schoolers shine, face fears in recitation contest
Dec. 08, 2012 @ 05:01 AM

It could almost be described like a sporting event, with parents and dozens of classmates cheering on Lee County High School students, not to mention a halftime break for the audience to get snacks and for the competitors to steel themselves for a second round.

But it wasn't sports — it was poetry.

Lee County High School held its second annual poetry recitation contest, a local version of the national Poetry Out Loud competition, Friday afternoon in the media center. The school's winner will go to the statewide competition in Greensboro, the winner of which will compete for a $20,000 grand prize at the national competition in Washington, D.C.

Creative writing teacher Carolyn York organized the contest last year with help from her husband, Guy, an 11th- and 12th-grade English teacher also at the school.

York, who said this year's contest reminded her of any other spectator sport held at the school, couldn't stop praising the 10 students who competed in front of a crowd of about 50 people after winning their classroom contests.

"The whole idea of getting up in front of a group is scary, plus it's a lot of the shy ones up there, which is great," she said. "Plus, they read a ton of poetry in preparation for it, which I think is great."

Each competitor recited two poems chosen from a list of 600, ranging from famous writers such as Frost and Tennyson to lesser-known modern poets such as Naomi Shihab Nye and David Baker. Despite the 600 choices, two students recited the same poem, "Zoom!" by Simon Armitage.

The judging lasted late into the afternoon Friday, so the students couldn't be reached for comment, having already left school. But the winner was Joshua Rafael Escalante Gutierrez, who will receive a trophy, $25 and the chance to compete for statewide honors in Greensboro next semester.

The poetry recitations themselves — done entirely from memory — had moments of awkward silence as well as mile-a-minute speech as the students battled their nerves. But most of them found their composure, and all of them finished with little to no help from the judges.

"It's terrifying, first, because you know the poem, but once you step up to the mic, you forget everything," said Jennifer Ruiz.

Said fellow competitor Charles Hill, "I feel kind of nervous, but once you start talking, it goes away." Hill, who won $15 Friday for his second-place finish, said he was one of those shy people York praised for getting involved and that he appreciated the chance to become a better speaker — and to get a shot at the $20,000 scholarship, which many of the competitors listed as one of their primary motivations.

Some did list other goals, like Cheyenne Sanders and Joshua Arnold, who said they wanted to know they could give a speech or important presentation before heading off to the next stage of their lives.

"I really thought it would prove to myself that I could do it, and prove to colleges I could do it," Arnold said.

The competitors were:

- Amber Weaver

- Jennifer Ruiz

- Joshua Rafael Escalante Gutierrez

- Zenia del Castillo

- Robert Haines

- Charles Hill

- Joshua Arnold

- Kimberly Robison

- Cheyenne Sanders

- Kentrell French

- Marco Leivanos (didn't compete, but listed as a class winner)