This winter El Dorado County high school students are among thousands across the state interpreting, memorizing and performing classical poetry for Poetry Out Loud, a competition run by the California Arts Council and launched by the Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
At stake are hundreds of dollars at the state competition level and thousands at the national finals to be held April 28 to 30 in Washington, D.C.
Now in its eighth year, Poetry Out Loud seeks to foster the next generation of literary readers by building on the resurgence of poetry as an oral art form.
The program — similar in structure to a spelling bee — enables students to master public speaking skills, build self-confidence and learn about their literary heritage.
At the local level, Poetry Out Loud has been sponsored by the El Dorado Arts Council for the past three years, touching the lives of hundreds of high school students, their teachers, and community members who’ve been trained as contest judges.
This year, much of the program’s funding was generated through Apassionato, the El Dorado Arts Council’s benefit event for arts education held this past fall in El Dorado Hills.
According to Moira Magneson, program administrator for the El Dorado Arts Council, the beauty of Poetry Out Loud lies in its ability to dismantle old stereotypes and fears about the art form.
“In the past 75 years or so, the United States has had a somewhat prickly relationship with poetry, probably because so many of us were forced to do a dry analysis of poetry in English textbooks. We didn’t get to hear its music,” said Magneson.
“The aim of Poetry Out Loud is to breathe the music back into poetry. When students get to speak the poem, the poem becomes alive, it has a heartbeat. Ideally, that’s what our county’s high school students and teachers are discovering,” she said.
In 2012, Oak Ridge High School senior Corbin Gomez went the distance with Poetry Out Loud. Having placed as the first runner-up at his high school in 2011, Gomez returned to the competition determined to win the county finals. He did, and went on to take first place honors in the state Poetry Out Loud contest held in the California State Senate Chamber in Sacramento.
Competing against 32 other county champions, Gomez won $200 from the National Endowment for the Arts, a $500 stipend for the purchase of poetry books for his high school, and an all-expenses paid trip for two to the national finals in May.
At the national finals, out of a field of 53 high school champions, Gomez placed among the top 12 finalists, winning honorable mention and $1,000, the highest ranking a California contestant has ever received.
Poetry Out Loud has opened several doors for Gomez. In June 2012, Gomez emceed the prestigious Squaw Valley Community of Writers Poetry Benefit at the Crocker Art Museum.
In early August, he performed at Applause, an El Dorado Arts Council event held at Madroña Vineyards in Camino. Later that month, Gomez dazzled members of the California State Assembly with a recitation of “What Work Is,” a poem by U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine.
Gomez has high praise for the program and his involvement in it.
“Poetry Out Loud facilitates the ability of an ordinary person like me to experience something truly extraordinary through the art of poetry recitation,” Gomez said.
Returning as a member of the El Dorado County Poetry Out Loud team is northern California poet and coach Shawn Pittard.
Hired by California Poets in the Schools, Pittard has been pivotal to the program’s success and mission, helping students with their performances and getting them to connect to the heart and heat of a poem.
Pittard affirmed Poetry Out Loud’s transformative power.
“I’ve seen poetry matter in the lives of the many high school students I’ve had the privilege to coach. I’ve been a witness to the intimate relationship that develops between a person and a poem,” Pittard said.
The El Dorado County Poetry Out Loud finals will be held on Thursday, Feb. 7 at 7 to 9 p.m. at Imagination Theater on the El Dorado County Fairgrounds, 100 Placerville Drive in Placerville.
The event is free and open to the public, with doors opening at 6:30 p.m. To RSVP contact Deb Jensen, executive director of the El Dorado Arts Council at EDAC@eldoradoartsouncil.org or 530-295-3496.
General Poetry Out Loud information can be found at cac.ca.gov (click on the programs tab) or go to poetryoutloud.org.