By Meg Upton
Quincy High School junior Paloma Garcia-Couoh took first place for her recitation of Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” and will represent Plumas County in the statewide Poetry Out Loud competition March 11 and 12. Chester High School sophomore Cat McHugh took second place for her recitation of Emily Dickinson’s “I felt a funeral in my brain,” and Long Valley Charter senior Sarah Pfingston took third place for her recitation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm.” All three students had competed in previous years and have performed in plays during their high school years. They are no strangers to public speaking.
Garcia-Couoh came in third in 2019, and Pfingston came in third in 2020. Last year’s first-place winner, Colette Tilford, was also a Quincy High School student.
A record 26 Plumas County students signed up to recite a poem for the fifth annual Poetry Out Loud competition, with 17 showing up on the final day of the competition to compete at Plumas Arts Gallery on Sunday, Feb. 7.
Along with Quincy High, Chester High and Long Valley Charter, other area schools that participated were Indian Valley Academy and Plumas Charter School.
The winners of the event receive $500 for a first-place win, $300 for a second-place win, and $200 for a third-place win.
This year’s event took place under COVID protocol following purple tier restrictions. The judges (Feather River College professor Dr. Will Lombardi, director emeritus Roxanne Valladao, and Girls Rite director Jennifer Ready), sat 6 feet apart and masked up for the event, with new Plumas Arts Director Kara Rockett-Arsenault recording and livestreaming the event on the Plumas Arts Facebook page so that family and friends could watch their students perform. Only one student was allowed in the gallery at a time to recite their poem and they were given time slots ahead of time to show up to perform. Upon completion, each student was ushered back outside. Given the connectivity disparity of the Internet in the county, coordinators felt that videoing each student in one long stream was the best option rather than students sending in their own videos with mixed success. Immune compromised students were given the option to Zoom in.
Judges took their time ranking the three girls as their scores were nearly identical and each possessed qualities that would make a good representative to the state competition.
Students are judged on their accuracy of memorization, their understanding of the poem, and their delivery.
The event is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council and locally administered by Plumas Arts.
In addition to her winning recitation of the “Caged Bird” poem, Garcia-Couoh will have to memorize and perform two additional poems—one of which has to be from before the 20th century. The state event is virtual this year so she will send in videos through Plumas Arts to the state competition. The winner of the state competition represents California at the national competition in April. All 50 states, plus Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico send state champions.
The event occurs each year in January (though delayed this year for COVID), and is designed to promote an understanding and appreciation of the need for poetry in our lives. Garcia-Couoh chose “Caged Bird” because “It is really a poem for our times,” she said.
Plumas Arts hopes to have more local high schools and home-schooled students participate each year. Information about the program goes out to all high school programs in the county every year. Quincy High School fielded the most students in the contest this year, in part because of English teacher Jason Hawkins incorporating the Poetry Out Loud curriculum into his classes.
Plumas Arts was excited to see so many different students involved—from athletes to drama students and everyone in between. It made the idea of poetry for everyone hit home.
Garcia-Couoh is currently taking English at Feather River College as part of the dual enrollment program.
The livestream event has been edited and will be re-broadcast on the Plumas Arts Facebook page as this Thursday’s Words and Music program at 7 p.m.