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Students Make Art Real Through Poetry Out Loud

Jackie Hendry

Shakespeare isn’t boring to Kassondra Gooley. The West Central High School senior talks about poetry the way some students might talk about movies or music.

“I like that it’s feelings put into words, and that you can dive only as deep as you’re willing to go, and so it’s kind of like an endless view of the world and gives you so many perspectives.”

Gooley enjoys studying and analyzing poetry, but that’s not all. She’s one of the state finalists in a national competition that pushes students to engage with poetry a little differently than they might in most classrooms.

Poetry Out Loud is a live recitation of poems selected from a national anthology. Students are judged on how well they present the emotional content of the poem they’ve selected.

Cindy Schumaker is Gooley’s adviser and English teacher. She says this competition is different from theater or oral interpretation.

“Because interp is more, it’s larger. Like, you have to inhabit your space and this is all about the voice. This is all about that vocal intonation.”

One by one, students take the stage in front of a single microphone before a small audience. Each student presents three poems and brings a little something different to each recitation.

Phoebe Wallace is a freshman at Washington High School. She found an interest in poetry earlier in the school year, when she studied a poem called Cap’n Crunch and Two Percent Milk--which deals with the subject of school shootings. She appreciates the layered meanings in poetry.

“I lean towards political type of writing and stuff. And I just like it because it’s...with poetry, it’s kind of a soft way of getting across big meanings and big ideas.”

That’s true for a few participants. Gage Gramlick is a junior at Lincoln High School in Sioux Falls. The poem he recites in the first round is called The Mortician in San Francisco -- about the aftermath of the assassination of Harvey Milk, the first openly-gay elected official in California.

Gramlick says the poem not only taught him about a particular chapter of LGBTQ history and activism…

“...But I also was able to come out and talk about a poem that sometimes is a hard topic to talk about, but it’s also very important, you know?”

While poetry helps some connect to the past or to big ideas, it helps others connect to every-day life. Marie McLaughlin is a senior with the Sioux Falls Home School Association. She’s been involved with Poetry Out Loud all through high school, and this is her third year as a state finalist. Poems that speak to her can be as simple as thoughts over breakfast, like in her selection Meditation on a Grapefruit:

Through the years she’s been involved with Poetry Out Loud, McLaughlin says the biggest challenge is not just reciting, but connecting with the piece.

“In just trying to decide what it is that the poet’s trying to say, and if I was in the position the poet is, how would I be reacting and what to do with your face if you were telling the story.

While Marie McLaughlin practices in front of her family in the living room, Sisseton High School senior Olivia Heinecke says she practices in the shower. To her, the biggest challenge is using old English in a way that feels natural.

“There’s like, ‘thous’ and ‘arts’ and crazy weird words you don’t even use anymore, so that’s probably the hardest part. Is memorizing those ones.”

Once students have memorized their poems, that emotional connection they find drives their delivery. Gage Gramlick says his delivery changes just a little bit every time he recites a piece.

“It really has a lot to do with a feeling in the moment, and finding the places where you connect and then the places that you don’t necessarily connect right away with. Finding a way to interpret it in a way you do connect.”

After the three rounds of recitation, the judges tally the scores. Olivia Heinecke from Sisseton High School is the state runner-up. For that she wins a $100 prize and her school receives $200 to buy books of poetry.

Finally, the winner: Gage Gramlick from Lincoln High School.

Gramlick not only wins $200 dollars for himself and $500 for his school, but he moves on to represent South Dakota in the National Poetry Out Loud Contest in Washington D.C. There, he’ll compete for the Championship title and a $20,000 prize.

But of all the things these students appreciate about Poetry Out Loud, not one of  them mentioned the prize money. While it’s perhaps an extra encouragement, the true driving force behind the program is learning to create a connection with art.

DJ Steckelberg is the state coordinator for Poetry Out Loud in South Dakota. He says the program is important for some obvious reasons, like learning to memorize and speak publicly. But more than that, he says memorizing a poem and it’s meaning makes that poem real.

“That helps you then break through other art forms. You can look at movies and start to look at that a little differently. You see a painting and you see why that painting speaks to you, you can stop and think about it for a bit. Those are life skills that you learn in programs like this and that will then shape the rest of your life.”

Steckelberg says the way we experience art is the way we experience the world around us. It’s how we interact with others. And in the two year’s he’s worked as state coordinator with Poetry Out Loud, he says he’s struck by the way 15, 16, and 17-year-olds can bring new life to even old poems.

That’s what drives so many of these students’ passion for poetry--including West Central Senior Kassondra Gooley.

“And so I think getting to feel those emotions and connect with authors that maybe died a hundred years ago or people who are really recent. Like, you get to close that bridge that time leaves.”

All that through the power of written and spoken words.