By Travis Gulbrandson
When people think of school-related competitions, poetry may not be the first thing that springs to mind.
However, it is poetry that has landed Vermillion High School senior Samuel Pearson a chance to compete in a national contest on April 28-30.
That’s because Pearson won the state Poetry Out Loud competition last month in Sioux Falls.
“I’m very excited,” Pearson said of his upcoming trip to the nation’s capital. “It’s going to be a great time.”
In addition to the opportunity to compete at a national level, Pearson also won a $200 cash award, and Vermillion High School will receive $500 to be used for poetry books.
Poetry Out Loud is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, and on a state level by South Dakotans for the Arts, the South Dakota Arts Council and South Dakota Public Television.
“The whole program is meant to get poetry into as many kids’ mouths and minds as possible,” said Vermillion High School teacher and Poetry Out Loud coach Mary Begley. “They really encourage you to integrate it into the curriculum. The books and materials that we get every year give different ideas and lesson plans.
“I always have it as part of my speech class curriculum, so I do a little drama unit in which they have to search and find a poem and memorize it, and then present it,” she said.
Two or three people from each class are then selected to compete in a local contest. A videotaped performance of the winner is then sent to a panel of judges at the state level.
“They watch the videos, and from those videos they select nine to 10 people to actually go to Sioux Falls and compete at the state contest,” Begley said.
At the local and state levels, Pearson recited three poems: “Thoughtless Cruelty” by Charles Lamb, “Larkinesque” by Michael Ryan and “I Find No Peace” by Thomas Wyatt.
After the state competition, students have the opportunity to switch they poems they recite, so Pearson has opted to drop the Wyatt selection in favor of “Every Single Day” by John Straley.
“We’re continuing to work on the poems and get the best as I can so I can have a chance at nationals,” he said.
Poetry Out Loud offers specific regulations as to which poems a student can recite during the competitions.
“They have a Web site … that offers hundreds and hundreds of poems, and they’re all by established poets,” Begley said. “They say you have to pick your poems from their Web site, and one of the poems that you choose has to be pre-1900. One of them has to be 25 lines or less. The other can be basically of your choosing.”
Pearson said he enjoyed watching the competitors at state.
“It was really interesting seeing everybody share a poem with people, because obviously poems mean different things to different people,” he said. “Even if the writer meant something else, the writer could take the poem and put a whole new spin on it.”
When Pearson arrives at nationals, he will be competing against students from the other 49 states, as well as Washington, DC, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
The students will be vying for a total of $50,000 in various awards.
“At nationals, they section everyone off into three groups,” Pearson said. “Each group will perform, and then three finalists are selected from each of those three groups, so nine people will advance to the finals. Then after that, they’ll pick three from the finalists.”
The overall winner will be chosen from those final three.
Begley said she encourages many students to take part in the program.
In addition to gaining confidence with public speaking, she said, “They start thinking more deeply critically about literature and the meaning behind the words. Poetry is so dense, and there’s so much meaning packed into so few words that the challenge and the enjoyment in it is to dig into it and find that core of the poem. What is that poet trying to say through these very few words?
“I think it’s a great challenge, and it’s a great way to let your cognitive functions really kick in,” she said.
Pearson also went to the state competition when he was a sophomore, although he did not compete last year.
“Before I had really gotten into it,” he said “I wasn’t a big fan of poetry. But once I started reading poems and deciphering them, and thinking really critically about them, I really started to find an interest in it.”
He said he hopes others will, too.
For local residents who are interested in seeing Pearson perform, he will be at the regular USD Poetry Slam, which will take place at 7 p.m. in the Pit Lounge at the Muenster University Center on April 25.
For more information about Poetry Out Loud, visit http://www.poetryoutloud.org/.