High-Stakes Poetry Competition Brings Students to the Stage

By Lisa Stark — May 12, 2017 2 min read
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Backstage at the Poetry Out Loud finals held here this month, nerves were on edge. After two days of competition, 53 state-winners had been whittled down to just three finalists. As the judges tallied up the scores, the three high school students paced and hugged each other. This was the culmination of hours and sometimes years of work. The students had each memorized three poems and recited them on stage. They were judged on everything from overall performance to accuracy to their interpretation of the poet’s words.

The competition, now in its 12th year, begins in classrooms around the country. Students memorize and recite poems, choosing from a list of over 900 options. Classroom winners compete at their schools, then regionally, and eventually at their state finals. This year, over 300,000 students from 2,300 high schools took part.

“Poetry is important because it gives people the opportunity to talk about things that are incredibly difficult to talk about and that are universal,” said Eleanor Billington, of the National Endowment for the Arts, which helped create the competition. “It gives students the chance to find themselves in the work and words of another person and to identify with those stories,” said Billington, who is the program manager for Poetry Out Loud.

The Poetry Foundation, which publishes Poetry magazine and promotes an appreciation of poetry, worked with the NEA to develop this program. “We wanted to give teachers a new way to teach poetry. Instead of asking students to read a poem and then write a paper about it, this contest emphasizes the pleasures and the sounds of poetry,” said Stephen Young, the foundation’s program director. “It requires no less analytical skill than writing a paper to decide how you’re going to recite a particular line or what intonation is called-for here, what emphasis do you want there.”

The Georgia state champion, Samara Elán Huggins, a senior from Whitefield Academy in Mableton, Ga., began competing as a freshman. This was her first year in the national finals. Huggins said she strives to make sure the audience understands the poem the way the poet intended. “It’s a different language. It’s different from prose or spoken word. The poet has to use the least amount of words possible and follow a structure,” she said in an interview. “That makes every word even more important, every piece of punctuation that more necessary. It communicates an emotion. It communicates an idea, a thought process, a feeling, and those are all really important for us to understand in poetry.”

With the judges having finished their scoring, the three finalists waited backstage. The drum roll began as the winners were announced. Third place went to Iree Mann, a junior at Syosset High School from Jericho, N.Y. The second-place finisher was Nicholas Amador, a junior at Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii. And this year’s champion—Samara Elán Huggins, who recited “The Farmer” by W.D. Erhart as her final poem. Huggins received a shower of confetti, and $20,000 in prize money. Huggins told Education Week, “I really do love this competition, it’s opened so many doors for me. It’s made me able to talk to my peers better, made me able to write essays better, write my own poetry better.”

Next year, Huggins will head to Pratt Institute in the Brooklyn borough of New York, where she hopes to major in fashion design and minor in English. And she says she plans to use her poetry skills there as well by performing at cafes and festivals.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.