Featured photo: Savannah Dowtin recites a poem during the Poetry Out Loud competition at UNCG. (photo by Autumn Karen)

“It was not Death, for I stood up, and all the Dead lie down.” 

Gabriella Garcia Bou’s hands move like little birds as she recites Emily Dickinson, her voice up and down, lilting, breaking. Her long dark hair shifts while she speaks, eyes behind glasses roving the audience during her earnest recitation.

“We catch the scent of burning wood,” Savannah Dowtin recites, taking a deep breath through her nostrils before continuing the words of Ofelia Zepeda. “We are brought home.” Dowtin, a senior at Weaver Academy for the Performing Arts, wears sneakers that make a sharp contrast to her flowing red dress and bouncy curls. 

“My heart is like a rainbow shell that paddles in a halcyon sea.” 

Alyssa Melvin is animated, her voice pushing out against the sides of the room. Her hands move, one palm to the sky, then both to her hips as she recites Christina Rosetti. A freshman at Weaver Academy, her high turtleneck and sharp heels under slacks evoke beat poets in smoky rooms. 

Alyssa Melvin recites a poem during the Poetry Out Loud competition at UNCG. (photo by Autumn Karen)

“Oh know your own heart, that heart’s not wholly evil,” Yazid Bonilla’s voice is full, heartfelt while he crescendos through a poem by Steve Smith. His close-cropped hair and black jeans scream Gen Z, but his choice of verses harkens back to the time of Shakespeare. A Grimsley freshman, Bonilla looks up towards the invisible sky as he gestures through his poems.

The microphone stand is there to help contestants focus and practice, but this Poetry Out Loud event on the first of February is low-key and comfortable. 

“That mic is decorative,” host Keith Taylor chuckles from the front of a small auditorium in the bottom of UNCG’s Ferguson Building. “You ready? You feel good?”

A couple dozen educators, parents and siblings are scattered in the seats throughout the room. Several elementary-aged kids scribble in coloring books. A proud father of one of the contestants has a large camera at the ready. In the front row, four confident-looking high school students wait patiently to walk up and recite their memorized poems over two rounds. 

Yazid Bonilla recites a poem during the Poetry Out Loud competition at UNCG. (photo by Autumn Karen)

This is the local competition for Poetry Out Loud, a national arts education program that’s funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. Its mission is to engender a love of poetry and performance, to help young people connect with personal expression through words. Students choose each poem for its personal resonance from a list of hundreds provided by the organization.  

Contestants are scored on their performance, but also their accuracy. They’ll get an 8-point bump for a perfect recitation, with a special judge onboard specifically for that purpose. MFA in Poetry students Kay Zeiss, Justin Nash and James Daniels are on hand as volunteer judges, along with UNCG theater professor Rachel Briley. 

The two students here who get the top scores from the panel of judges will move on to the regional contest in Charlotte at the end of this month. The winner there will compete in the national Poetry Out Loud competition in Washington DC later this spring. Last year, Weaver Academy senior Abby Sullivan made it all the way to the finals in the national competition after winning the state tournament. 

Taylor is a longtime teacher in the drama department at Weaver. He brought Poetry Out Loud to the Triad several years ago after learning about it through fellow theater educators. He requires all 72 of his drama students to participate, with two advancing to this level. 

Gabriella Garcia Bou recites a poem during the Poetry Out Loud competition at UNCG. (photo by Autumn Karen)

For the program, teachers organize school-level and then local competitions. Over the years, the level of participation from local high schools has ebbed and flowed, with up to eight schools participating at one point. Prior to its closing, Triad Stage served as the host for local events. The Pointe High School in High Point has also served as host. Last year it was virtual, with students reciting their poems over Zoom. But this year, Taylor wanted to bring it back to an in-person event on neutral ground. He reached out to Professors Kim Cuny and Chip Haas at UNCG, partnering with their programs for both space and judges. 

Once the students have recited their poems, there’s nothing to do but wait until the results are rung up by the score tabulator. 

“Maybe some of our judges have a poem while we wait?” Taylor asks. During the state and national competitions, prominent beat poets and guest speakers take the stage during tabulation. 

Judge Daniels, a longtime local teacher who came to the MFA in poetry at UNCG to enrich his own creative chops, jumps up to volunteer with a piece he wrote while teaching called “Resistance.” 

“Oh I’ll make USA great again, grab this dad hat …” Daniels gestures while he speaks the poem rhythmically, his short dreads bouncing. “Enemies probably gone come for the kids but we resist…,” he grins. “And that’s all I remember.”

Judge Briley hops up next with the “Renascence” by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

“All I could see from where I stood,” she recites vocally while also expressing the words through her hands in American Sign Language, “was three long mountains and a wood.” Briley spent time teaching at a school for the deaf, and shares that sometimes it just comes back when she’s reciting poetry. 

It’s finally time for the scores, and Taylor calls all four contestants back up front. There’s not a sense of competition here, more a shared love of the art. 

Dowtin and Melvin make it to the next step and are headed to Charlotte, where they’ll each perform three poems for a much larger audience.

Savannah Dowtin recites a poem during the Poetry Out Loud competition at UNCG. (photo by Autumn Karen)

“I put all my time and effort into it,” says Melvin excitedly of her dedication after her win. “I wanted to recite something I relate to, something that meant something to me.”

Dowtin, beaming with excitement as she hugs her parents, shares a similar sentiment.

“It took me a while to find something I could relate to,” she says. “I wanted to authentically portray what the author was trying to communicate.” 

Grimsley teacher Christina Purgason hugs her students, a look of pride and congratulations as she speaks lovingly of their dedication to poetry. While he’s not headed to Charlotte this year, that doesn’t seem to deter the love of poetry in contestant Bonilla. 

“Poetry was able to connect with how I felt inside,” Bonilla says.  

To learn more about Poetry Out Loud, check out their website.

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