Recently, I had the pleasure of being the first person in the world to interview Corbin Gomez. I have a feeling I won’t be the last.
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Last month, Corbin won the Poetry Out Loud contest in El Dorado County. In order to do so, he had to compete against first-place finishers from eight other high schools. Coming up soon will be the state competition where he competes against winners from 30 counties.
I saw one of his earliest performances when he took first place at his school, Oak Ridge High. I sat in the audience as a judge.
Corbin and the other students recited two poems each, chosen from a national list of hundreds of poems by famous poets. Some poems are long, some short. Some rhyme, some don’t. Some use sophisticated vocabulary; others do not.
Students score higher for choosing hard poems, but they also need to score well in poise, accuracy and, above all, ability to convey the meaning of the poem. Corbin stood out from the moment he walked to the front of the room.
He paused longer than the other students and looked at the audience members slowly in the eye. While he did that, I took him in, his smile, his tall stature, and his hair that rises from his head in straight black spikes.
In a warm, low voice, he then recited a long, unrhymed poem called “The Pomegranate and the Big Crowd” by Alberto Ríos, a delightful poem with an imaginative sweep that takes a young couple from their first kiss to the children and grandchildren who will follow.
Corbin recited slowly, with feeling. He made the audience laugh when they were supposed to, and at two tender moments his hand moved to his heart in a movement that felt completely genuine. It was a marvelous recitation. I thought, “I’m lucky to be here.”
A few minutes later, in the second round, he recited Philip Levine’s “What Work Is.”
As is often the case, Corbin has been encouraged by parents and teachers. His mother, a former singer and actress, urged him to put his all into performance of any kind. When he lost the poetry contest last year as a junior, teachers suggested he make a few changes and enter again.
Corbin was thrilled this year to receive help from a local poet, Sean Pittard, to improve his understanding of the poems, and with that, his ability to convey their meaning to the audience. He also enjoys seeing other students compete. “Winning,” he says, “is just the icing on the cake.”
Next up for Corbin are the Poetry Out Loud finals (www.cac.ca.gov/poetryoutloud/) in Sacramento on March 25-26, where contestants will complete to represent our state in Washington, D.C.
“I wonder if he gets nervous,” I said to my husband before I went to interview Corbin.
“Don’t ask him that!” said my husband.
“He might get nervous.”
But I did ask.
“I get nervous like everyone does before the competition,” Corbin explained to me. “But when I get up there it’s just kind of like, ‘I’m going to tell you guys this great story right now. And I’m going to do it with passion and gusto.’ The story is so cool, I just can’t keep it to myself. And all the nervousness just goes. And I just kind of like do it. It’s very weird.”
Later, he added another thought.
“When you do something you really care about, something you really cherish and are passionate about, like I’m passionate about poetry, like I’m passionate about sports, when it’s 100 percent natural and it’s not force-fed to you by someone else…I just think that’s cool.”
So do I.
The hard part, Corbin told me, was having to choose a third poem for the state finals.
“They [the poems you choose] kind of take on a life of their own and they become a part of you. You find yourself saying the words when you’re doing laundry and it’s like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ They become really internal.
“Clearly, it’s the author’s, right? Alberto Ríos and Philip Levine wrote these. It’s theirs. But when you understand something so much, these become like your friends, they become like your brothers and sisters. That’s why it was kind of weird to choose a third one. I was just thinking to myself like, ‘Who’s going to be the third brother who gets me through this?’”
In the end, Corbin chose “The American Soldier” by Philip Freneau. It was written in the early 1800s and looks pretty hard to me.
Corbin doesn’t dwell on that. At the state contest he intends to room with his older sister, enjoy the banquet, have fun. “I’m just a regular guy,” he reminds me, “A regular guy who doesn’t understand his calculus homework, has girl problems, has lots of friends, does sports.”
A regular guy who has been swept up by poetry and who can take us with him.
Marion Franck is a columnist for the Davis Enterprise. She is a part-time resident of El Dorado County.