'The disturbing and the wonder'
When Alexa Heald came across the poem “Under the Vulture Tree” by David Bottoms, it took her breath away.
“It spoke to me immediately,” she said. “It disturbed me. It really connected to me.”
The Eagle River High senior and two-time defending champion recited the poem in this year’s ninth annual Poetry Out Loud School Final on Jan. 16.
Her passionate rendition earned her first-place honors plus the chance to compete in the Alaska Regional competition Feb. 7 at Loussac Library.
Winners of the regionals move on to the state final March 11 in Juneau, and the state winner competes in the national championship April 28-30.
Tong Thao of Colony High was last year’s state winner.
Poetry Out Loud is a national high school competition that offers students the chance to dive down inside the world of poetry and bring the words to life through memorization and recitation.
Students are judged on such criteria as voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, level of complexity and evidence of understanding.
This year’s judges included Marc Balnius, Kaylene Johnson, Mary Jo Iagulli and Michael Hammond.
“I was looking for clean communications and expressions that matched with words, and students who expressed themselves in a meaningful way,” Hammond said.
According to Eagle River High language arts teacher Clinton Holloway, one of the goals of the event is to teach students to read and appreciate poetry.
“I want them to find a poem that resonates with them, that creates a response,” he said. “I want them to become intimately familiar with the poem.”
And it works both ways, too, he said.
“Their observations and insights often open something up inside of me,” he said. “It makes the top of my head blow off.”
Runner-up and past winner Mason Bennett spent hours standing in front of a mirror reciting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Children’s Hour.”
He concentrated on his tone and inflection. He altered his facial expression.
Then, he recited it over and over again.
“I chose poems that were lighthearted and fun,” he said.
Bennett, who has a theater background, is also a voracious reader.
“All the cool people read,” he said, “In this technological age, it’s always exciting to meet people who read.”
Heald also reads — and a lot.
“I’m a writer, and I also love reading poetry,” she said.
She admits that she was nervous at the beginning of the competition.
“I paused for a second, took a deep breath and began,” she said.
Her goal was to do her absolute best to convey the poem’s meaning.
“I want people to realize that poetry matters,” she said.
She admitted that her poetry choices were more intense than many of the other selections.
“Most of the poems in the competition speak of lighter messages,” she said. “I tried to balance the disturbing with the wonder.”
Five other students competed in the event: Hayley Cavitt, Renee Banks, Erick Vanderhoofven, Alyssa Thern and Gabriella Mora.
Contact Star reporter Cinthia Ritchie at 694-2727 or firstname.lastname@example.org.