Poetry Out Loud's new blood
By Lou Fancher
At a Poetry Out Loud competition, a world of hurt, betrayal, loss, love, glory and majesty can be embodied in a single word like "honour."
Uttered by 17-year-old Kara Lenci, a home-school student in the Concord/Walnut Creek-based TruthTrackers Co-op, "The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson sprang to life.
The eighth annual county finals competition at Las Lomas High School on Feb. 7 featured 13 students from county high schools vying for a chance to compete at the state level in Sacramento March 15-16. The National Endowment for the Arts and National Poetry Foundation program is supported locally by the Arts & Culture Commission of Contra Costa County, also known as "AC5," an organization formed to support arts activities in the county.
"This year we achieved a long-sought goal," program coordinator Robin Moore said. "I've been working to break into the home-school population, and we did it."
Not only did Moore's perseverance "break in" to a new school market, Kara Lenci used her lifelong love of poetry and feisty determination to organize four of her fellow home-schoolers into a Poetry Out Loud team.
"It was amazing to watch her blossom, make choices I wouldn't have made, to use the recitation that's so important to our program to serve a greater purpose," her mother, Cary Lenci, said after watching her daughter perform.
"She took a thought and a website and excited her teacher and other students to participate," said her father, Christian Lenci. "When we're up in front of people, we have a tendency to pull in. She stood in her own truth today."
Kara Lenci's performance earned her the $100 second place prize, but primarily, it showcased her talent and offered a surprise.
"I found out there are a lot of people interested in poetry, just like I am," Lenci said.
Lenci said the emotion behind Tennyson's well-known poem was "loud and dramatic" and required that she contain the tone to convey pride, not melodrama or mourning. Reflecting on the poem's 600 members of the Light Brigade who rode into the valley of Death with the echoing mission, "Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die," she said the idea she had of reciting sacrifice as if it was remembered, not immediate, came from listening to an old recording of Tennyson himself reading the poem out loud.
Arielle Herman, a senior from Danville's Monte Vista High School won the $200 first place prize, with Alexis Takaki, a junior at El Cerrito High School, taking third place. All of the county finalists received a $25 gift certificate from Barnes and Noble.
In another "first" for the competition, a former competitor was one of six judges for the competition. Tajiri Mason is a student at Mt. Diablo High School in Concord, where he competed in the school level competition, but didn't place. As a high-powered academic youth who's the school's ROTC Battalion Commander and enrolled in the school's Medical Bio-Technology Academy, Mason wasn't pleased with his results.
"To be a student who wants to do well, it wasn't clear to me what was required. I just went into it blind," he said.
Instead of resentment or resignation, Mason asked questions about judging criteria. Learning about the rubric for scoring based on physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness and other elements, he was fascinated. Moore was impressed by his curiosity and told him that if he learned the protocol and practiced at a competition in Brentwood, he could serve as a judge for the county competition.
"Being a competitor is more challenging because if you make a mistake, you're out," Mason said. "Judging is a process with clear rules. If you maintain consistent standards for each person -- do they understand the poem beyond the words, do they speak dramatically, but not too dramatically -- all those things matter."
Mason said serving as a judge would definitely improve his odds of winning, should he choose to compete again. But even if he doesn't, he said "My potential for doing well in any kind of public speaking is much higher."
Program coordinator Moore said she attended an awards ceremony at a fledgling, second-year program at Delta Vista High School, the court school at the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility in Byron.
Although the 30 students there aren't quite prepared to attend the county competition (which would mark another first), she's hopeful her goal to expand Poetry Out Loud to more school communities will continue to flourish.