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Meet Orange County’s 2021 Poetry Out Loud champion

Elora Sparnicht won the county's champion title for Poetry Out Loud.
Elora Sparnicht, a sophomore at Orange County School of Arts, won the county’s champion title for Poetry Out Loud.
(Courtesy of Elora Sparnicht)

Elora Sparnicht, an Orange County School of Arts sophomore, said she likes to do it all when it comes to creative writing. This year she performed poetry to camera and won the O.C. Poetry Out Loud champion title from the confines of her bedroom.

When participating in Poetry Out Loud became an option through one of her classes at the arts-focused charter school, she was happy to sign up.

“I’m not the typical introverted writer. I’m excited that there’s a competition like Poetry Out Loud out there,” Sparnicht said.

The program, which began in 2005 in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, offers free educational materials for high schools across the country.

The format of the competition comes in three rounds: classroom and schoolwide contest, regional and state level competition and national finals. Students choose poems by authors within the program’s anthology to recite from memory.

“You have to understand what the message and theme is but you also have to get every word right because it isn’t your work to alter or to mess up,” Sparnicht said. “A lot of times, authors have passed away, so you’re bringing it back to life for them, which is definitely an important task.”

Literary Orange, an annual festival hosted by O.C. Public Libraries, kicks off on April 7 with Harlan Coben in a moderated conversation.

Sparnicht chose to recite Margaret Atwood’s “Backdrop addresses cowboy” and Ted Kooser’s “Abandoned Farmhouse.” She won the Orange County title on Feb. 25 and moved to perform in the state finals in March, where Delali Bruce from Santa Clara County won first place. The national finals are set to take place in May.

The latest Poetry Out Loud turned virtual — a video submission-based competition scored on physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, evidence of understanding, overall performance and accuracy.

“There is something to be said about performing something, getting as many takes as you need and being in the comfort of your own home,” Sparnicht said. “But I definitely did miss the thrill of performing in front of a live audience.”

Marcus Omari, a poet and writer who teaches throughout O.C. public school districts and OCSA’s Creative Writing Conservatory, saw this year’s competition open up to the community in efforts to keep up the momentum during a difficult pandemic year.

Students typically have to participate through their respective schools. As a Poetry Out Loud coordinator, Omari was able to reach out to local organizations and libraries to spread the word.

Last year the program received about 12 to 15 final county competitors, and in 2021 the number dropped to six competitors coming from OSCA, Kianna Gonzalez of Cesar Chavez High School, Alyssa Johnson of Mater Dei High School, Stella Nguyen of La Quinta High School, Preston Veravanich of South Coast Repertory and Jennifer Phung of OC Public Libraries.

Part of Poetry Out Loud’s mission is to inspire students’ confidence, and Omari’s involvement in the county’s arts youth education is similar.

“There’s such a legacy of writers, performers and art [in O.C.],” Omari said. “What if those who are really digging in making waves and continue to leave to go to Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco — then what happens to the kids who are here? ... That’s part of why I chose to stay. I see an opportunity to dig in and give the youth something that I wish I had when I was back in Wisconsin. I wish I had a program like Poetry Out Loud. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so quiet about my poetry when I was younger.”

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