Tamia McGregor won Martha’s Vineyard’s first Poetry Out Loud Contest with a soulful, jazzy recitation of Al Young’s poem “The Blues Don’t Change” on Monday evening, December 16, at the subterranean, nightclub-like performance space at Alex’s Place, the YMCA’s teen center on the Vineyard Haven-Edgartown Road. Mariah Campbell took second reciting Dana Gioia’s “Becoming a Redwood” and Lucas Thors’s recitation of the Edgar Allen Poe poem “To Helen” came in third.
Ms. McGregor received a Billy Collins book of poems and a Mocha Mott’s gift certificate for her efforts. The second and third place finishers received gift certificates. The win, over 12 other juniors and seniors Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), qualifies the 17-year-old Vineyard Haven senior for the March state recitation championship in Boston. If she wins the statewide competition she will qualify for the nationals and a chance to win $20,000.
The Poetry Out Loud Contest, sponsored by the MVRHS English department, is part of a collaborative project between The National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation and various state arts agencies to encourage the nation’s youth to learn about great poetry through memorization and recitation, according to the program’s website poetryoutloud.org.
The program is designed to help students master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about their literary heritage. Poetry Out Loud was launched in high schools nationwide in the spring of 2006 and has grown to involve millions of students across the country.
Each student was introduced, one at a time to the stage, by MVRHS English teacher Christine Ferrone, who organized the event. Walking into the spotlight, they each recited a poem chosen from a list of poems by almost 300 established poets.
While every contestant exhibited a spirited determination not all came fully prepared. Several had to ask “line” when their memories failed them and one with a big entertaining smile finally gave up, “I’m throwing in the towel,” he said, not a line into his poem.
Ms. McGregor moved to the Vineyard from Chicago this past summer. She is a first year student at the MVRHS. She said she is technically a junior and is taking a double load of classes so she can graduate this year. She plans to pursue acting in college after high school. She worked on mastering the poem for about a week and a half prior to the competition and was her own director. “I listened to a recording I made on my cellphone and changed things I didn’t like,” she said after her performance.
The competition was judged by current West Tisbury poet laureate Justin Ahren, Fan Ogilvie, former West Tisbury poet laureate, and MVRHS drama teacher Betsy Hauck. The contestants were graded according to a list of seven criteria, including accuracy, physical presence, articulation, and overall performance. The judges were unanimous in their choices.
The contestants are students in the English classes of teachers Adrienne Forgette, Emma Mushnick, and Ms. Ferrone at the high school and were required to commit a poem to memory as a part of their classwork.
Ms. Ferrone said she uses poems to help teach her students to recognize tone maps, and the modes and techniques used to create emotion. Her goal is to have her students write their own poetry. She would like to reintroduce poetry slams similar to the slams several years ago at the defunct Che’s Lounge in Vineyard Haven and at the former nightclub Outerland, where fledgling poets read their own work in public. Ms. Ferrone said she hopes to make the contest an annual event.
Each winner at the state level receives $200 and an all-expenses-paid trip with an adult chaperone to Washington to compete for the national championship. The state winner’s school receives a $500 stipend for the purchase of poetry books. The first runner-up in each state receives $100, with $200 for his or her school library. A total of $50,000 in awards and school stipends is awarded annually at the National Finals.