Story by Portia Choi with Contributions by Martin Chang
There was a first time event in poetry for Kern County on January 18, 2017. It was the Poetry Out Loud competition in which high school students recited famous poems by memory. The event took place at the Access Center that houses the Arts Council of Kern. It was the Arts Council that announced the first Poet Laureate for Kern County in March 2016. The Poet Laureate is Don Thompson, who was at the current event as one of the judges.
Poetry Out Loud (POL) is a national contest, “a pyramid structure that starts at the classroom level. Winners advance to a school-wide competition, then to a regional and/or state competition, and ultimately to the National Finals” according to the POL website www.poetryoutloud.org. In the contest, high school students memorize and recite great poems that are provided on the POL website. Poetry Out Loud competition has taken place since 2005. It has “grown to reach more than 3 million students and 50,000 teachers from 10,000 school in every state, Washington, DC, the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.” The two partners of POL are the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Poetry Foundation. The Poetry Foundation publishes the Poetry magazine and is “an independent literary organization committed to a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture.”
This first time event was made possible, in Bakersfield, due to the effort of Andrew Chilton, an English teacher at Stockdale High School of Kern High School District. Chilton found out from the State’s POL, that the contest had to be sponsored and sanctioned by the arts council. In Kern County, the Arts Council of Kern was already involved in the literary arts and became an enthusiastic partner for the POL effort. Even further, Chilton worked with the students to prepare for the competition.
Chilton’s enthusiasm for the event was evident as he expressed that he enjoyed seeing “classic, good poems read and studied” by the students. He also shared that by memorizing and reciting the poems, the students “internalize the poems.” He further stated that for the parents, the event is a “special moment, special time.” In a follow-up e-mail with Chilton, he responded that he “was interested in getting Poetry Out Loud for Bakersfield because I had seen first-hand what it could do for students in North Carolina (where he had previously taught). I saw students who had no interest in poetry finally understand its power and impact on their lives when reading and reciting on their own. Students gain confidence, study skills, public speaking skills, and exposure to great works of literature that otherwise they might miss out on. I’m also simply a fan of reciting and memorizing poetry in my own life. I am often memorizing poetry on a weekly basis for my own enjoyment and intellectual stimulation, so I wanted students to see what it could do in their own lives.”
When Chilton was asked about how he became interested in poetry. He shared that it was “during college when I first read Billy Collins for the first time. His poetry spoke to me on an immensely personal level and I understood that poetry was not simply to be read in a textbook in school but it offered a different way of looking at the world.”
At the competition, the high school students came up and recited their memorized poems in front of parents, guests and judges. There were nine students who competed by reciting two poems. There were two rounds of competition, the students reciting one poem during each round. The students had selected the poems from hundreds of poems from the POL website. Chilton had a copy of the poems selected, and he followed along during the recitation for the accuracy of the memorization. There were three judges that scored electronically according to a grid. The results of the scores were available immediately.
The next step after the local competition, will be for the winner to compete in Sacramento.
The winner of the contest was Katie Collins. When asked about how it felt to be the winner, Collins said that she was surprised since any of the students could have been the winner. “I wasn’t really expecting it since everyone was so amazing. I was just shocked. They were all fantastic and everyone gave it their best,” she said.
Collins’ choice to perform “Beautiful Wreckage” was because of a personal connection to the poem. “It was dramatic to me. It was easier to connect with because I know Vietnamese people. So I know the history of it,” she said. Collins picked “April Love” as her second poem because she wanted a “light” and “airy” poem to balance the seriousness of “Beautiful Wreckage.”
We have walked in Love’s land a little way,
We have learnt his lesson a little while,
And shall we not part at the end of day,
With a sigh, a smile?
So shall we not part at the end of day,
Who have loved and lingered a little while,
Join lips for the last time, go our way,
With a sigh, a smile?
By W.D. Ehrhart
What if I didn’t shoot the old lady
running away from our patrol,
or the old man in the back of the head,
or the boy in the marketplace?
Or what if the boy—but he didn’t
have a grenade, and the woman in Hue
didn’t lie in the rain in a mortar pit
with seven Marines just for food,
Gaffney didn’t get hit in the knee,
Ames didn’t die in the river, Ski
didn’t die in a medevac chopper
between Con Thien and Da Nang.
In Vietnamese, Con Thien means
place of angels. What if it really was
instead of the place of rotting sandbags,
incoming heavy artillery, rats and mud.
What if the angels were Ames and Ski,
or the lady, the man, and the boy,
and they lifted Gaffney out of the mud
and healed his shattered knee?
What if none of it happened the way I said?
Would it all be a lie?
Would the wreckage be suddenly beautiful?
Would the dead rise up and walk?
The runner-up of the contest was Frances Eghre-Bello. She used her experience in acting to help prepare for the performance. “I’m in theater,” she said. “I’ve taken classes on memorization. I used the same process, just going over it in my room and asking others for feedback,” she said. The two poems that Eghre-Bello recited at the contest were “America” by Claude McKay and “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou. When deciding on what poems to perform, Eghre-Bello wanted to perform a poem by Angelou. “I read her book (in) freshman year and fell in love with her poetry. I felt it was very easy to understand. The first time I read through it I just got the metaphors. I felt I could do a good job reciting it.”
By Maya Angelou
A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky. . .
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
By Claude McKay
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.