Poetry provides a payoff

After placing second nationwide in a poetry performance competition for high school students last April, Sophia Soberon has some advice for her peers.

"Don't be afraid to get outside your comfort zone to discover talent that's hidden inside you," says this soon-to-be freshman at Southern Oregon University. Soberon graduated from Brookings-Harbor High School this past spring.

The competition, called Poetry Out Loud, encourages high school students to learn about great poems through memorization and performance. It is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, in cooperation with state arts agencies, such as the Oregon Arts Commission.

Students choose poems from the official Poetry Out Loud anthology, memorize them, and then bring them alive in front of an audience. Soberon credits her background in student theater, as well as her experience as a member of her school's speech and debate club, for allowing her to do so well in the competition.

Though comfortable with public performance, Soberon knew little about poetry when the competition was first announced at her school.

"I didn't truly appreciate poetry until Poetry Out Loud," she admits, adding that she was drawn to poems merely because they "sounded pretty," such as Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," when she first perused the anthology.

After being crowned school champ, she revised her selections for the state competition in Salem, settling on one classic, "To Autumn" by John Keats, and two contemporary poems that spoke strongly to her as a person of color: "Bilingual/Bilingue" by Rhina Espaillat and "The Meaning of the Shovel" by Martin Espada.

She says that the Espada piece, told from the point of view of a Nicaraguan latrine digger, was her strongest performance.

Yet, in a risky move that she would use again at the national competition, she decided to save this poem for last — meaning that she would get to present it only if she advanced to the final round.

"I was nervous the whole way up to Salem," Soberon recalls. "It really helped that my teacher and coach, Art Dingle, believed in me. He kept telling me that I had a good shot at winning."

In the end, Soberon's ability to live inside the poems — to interpret them and to embody them — was what persuaded the judges to declare her state champion, she says.

Clancy Rone, who attended the state finals, agrees that Soberon deserved the award.

"Sophia is such an amazing performer," says this South Medford High School English teacher, who has become a spokesperson for Poetry Out Loud. She volunteered her time this summer to meet with teachers at workshops and talk to them about this opportunity for students. Out of all the high schools in Oregon, only 14 sent contestants to the state finals, she notes.

"I tell teachers about Poetry Out Loud, and they are excited by the idea, but hesitant because they are overworked as it is," says Rone.

Schools must register for the 2008-09 program by Nov. 3. After that, it's up to the teachers to decide how to organize the competition in their school. Rone and her fellow sophomore English teachers at South Medford made it a class requirement. Last year, the winner from each class competed in a school-wide contest with local poets serving as judges.

"I adore poetry, but finding ways to bring it alive for students is difficult," she says. "Poetry Out Loud provides a way. The 500 poems in the anthology play to students' interests, allowing them to find poetry that they like."

Implementing the competition was hassle-free, says Rone. There was no ordering of books, because the anthology is available online at www.poetryoutloud.org. Rone was even reimbursed for the cost of taking her school's champion, Danielle Mayberry, to the state finals.

Soberon, for one, is glad that her teachers learned about Poetry Out Loud and decided to do it. Thanks to them, she was able to use her talent to win a $10,000 scholarship.

"I remember thinking, 'What an opportunity. I wonder how far I can go,' " says Soberon, who plans to major in theater at SOU.

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at talenthouse@charter.net.

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