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Taste of the Words

The Poetry Out Loud contest speaks volumes about verse.

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Jeremy Weiss just discovered poetry — and he loves it. “I love the taste of the words,” he says. “I like to tell the story of the poem.”

Weiss does such a good job interpreting the story of Edgar Allan Poe's “Annabel Lee” that he chews up the competition by taking first place at the regional Poetry Out Loud recitation contest at the Barksdale Theatre. Without this competition to spur him on, Weiss may never have been motivated to try poetry or have a chance at a scholarship that could make a significant difference in his ability to afford college.

Poetry Out Loud is the result of a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. The goal is to raise awareness of poetry in America.

“With the advent of slam and performance poetry, the time was ripe to reintroduce a program that helped this idea of memorizing great poetry that was written by others,” says Stephen Young, program director for the Poetry Foundation.

A 2005 pilot program was held in Chicago and Washington and then taken national in 2006 when it worked with state arts foundations such as the Virginia Commission for the Arts. “The first year there were about 40,000 students who participated,” Young says, “and last year there were 293,000 and some students that participated around the country.” State-level winners receive $200 and an all-expense paid trip to Washington for the national championship, plus $500 to broaden their school's poetry collection. A total of $50,000 in awards and school stipends is given at the national finals in the spring.

Last year's national champion, William Farley, from Arlington, won a $20,000 scholarship and recited his winning poems on Garrison Keillor's “A Prairie Home Companion” nationally syndicated radio show.

“Some of the ulterior goals of the program are to raise students' self confidence and comfort in public speaking, which of course are skills that will serve them throughout their lives,” Young says.

That's the case with Tia Robinson, a senior from Rappahannock High School. She went from reciting lyrics out loud on a whim at a school open-mic contest to participating in the national competition as a high-school sophomore. But many students in Virginia were restricted from participation because of geographic limitations, until this year when the Virginia Commission for the Arts cooperated with the Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV, which have established relationships with school districts statewide through touring.  

“We were able to increase the number of schools this year from 37 to 56 by adding a regional level of competition,” says Jeanie Rule, Theatre IV's arts in education manager.  Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV will hold the state competitions at the Empire Theatre on March 11. Rule says she's excited to be a part of the mechanism for inspiring young people to get involved with poetry. “It's a great opportunity for students who never imagined they would do such a thing as memorize a poem and then recite it in public,” she says, “and to reach a potential in themselves that they never knew was there.”

“I think this experience will make me more apt to challenge myself and try new things,” regional second-place winner Colleen Murphy says of the competition. Plus, she says she's made a newfound personal connection: “Poetry helps you make sense of the world.” S

The Poetry Out Loud national recitation contest for Virginia will be held at the Empire Theatre, 114 W. Broad St., on March 11, 1-5p.m. Free. Information at theatreivrichmond.org.

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