Poetry Out Loud, which began in 2005, is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts, administered statewide by the California Arts Council, and locally by the Sierra County Arts Council. Through the memorization and recitation of poetry, high school students compete at the county, state, and national levels. In their efforts, participants master speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about literary history and contemporary life.
This year marks the third time that Sierra County has participated in the program, beginning with the 2018-2019 school year. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, participation this year was limited to virtual submissions of recitations. And, also due to the pandemic, participation was down from what it had been in previous years, with only four Downieville High School students participating, and none from Loyalton High School.
Competing at the county level, students were required to submit recitation videos of two poems, selected from an anthology of more than 1,100 poems on the poetryoutloud.org website. The videos were individually viewed by four criteria judges and an accuracy judge, whose scores were then tabulated to determine the county champion. Criteria used for judging include physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, evidence of understanding, overall performance, and accuracy. The Sierra County Arts Council usually presents cash awards to the first three place finishers. This year, in recognition of the extraordinary efforts required of the participants in the face of most unusual challenges, it was decided to present awards to all four: $250 for first place; $150 for second place; $100 for third place; and, $50 for fourth place.
First place went to Greg Ziegler (who was also the 2019-2020 champion), who recited “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and “Awaking in New York,” by Maya Angelou. Finishing in second place, for the second year in a row, was Isabel Long-McGie, who recited “Learning to Swim,”,by Bob Hicok, and “Israfel,” by Edgar Allan Poe. The third-place finisher was Esmeralda Nevarez-Reyes (who finished second in the 2018-2019 competition, and is the only student to participate all three years), who recited “Experience,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and “Peligro,” by Stuart Dybek. In fourth place was Katie Epps (who finished third in 2019-2020), who recited “The Daring One,” by Edwin Markham, and “Silence,” by Thomas Hood.
As Sierra County Champion, Greg will now represent the county in the state competition, which, for the second consecutive year, will be held virtually. In addition to the two poems he recited at the county level, he will also need to submit a third poem, and is facing a deadline of March 5 for his virtual submissions. Announcement of state-level winners will be on March 12, and the state champion will then compete virtually in the national competition, later in the spring. In addition, Greg, as county champion, is invited to submit a poem of his own creation, through the Poetry Ourselves program. This poem would be judged solely on its written submission, not as a recitation.
This year’s Poetry Out Loud competition did present some unusual challenges, and would not have been possible without the efforts of several people. The Sierra County Arts Council, under the executive directorship of B.J. Jordan, serves as the partnership link to the California Arts Council, and provided the cash awards. Lynn Fillo, Downieville High School English teacher, was the driving force behind interesting students in poetry, encouraging their participation, guiding them through the requirements, and handling the video duties — all while maintaining a grueling schedule made more difficult due to the pandemic. Niecea Wilson, lead teacher at Downieville School, came up with the solution that enabled the videos to be viewed by the judges. Tessa Jackson, Ann Mendez, and Nicole Stannard were this year’s Criteria Judges, and Mindy Strine served as Accuracy Judge; their willingness and ability to do their judging remotely made the competition possible. Sheriff Mike Fisher arranged for a judging packet to be delivered from one side of the county to the other, and Deputy Malcom Fadden made the delivery. To each and all of these, without whom this year’s competition would not have happened, goes a heart-felt and sincere “Thank You!”. (If you see any of them, you might say a word of thanks, as well).
In conclusion, the words on the certificate presented to each of our four student participants sums up this year’s experience: “This certificate is presented…for demonstrating the power of the poet in a difficult time through the memorization and recitation of poetry…”.