City Lights: Student poetry readers impress this judge

I don't have a recording of the first poetry feature I ever gave, but part of me is glad I don't. As I recall, I was dreadful.

Like any nervous undergraduate facing a big-time venue — well, Alta Coffee in Newport Beach, although it might as well have been Carnegie Hall — I overprepared the poems and under-enjoyed the occasion.

Rather than treat a coffeehouse reading like the jovial get-together it was, I thought of it as a one-man show to be delivered with intense precision. Before the reading, I rehearsed my set down to the transitions between pieces — which proved difficult, since I was paired on the bill with a guitarist who had a decidedly looser approach. At one point, he forgot to strike the dissonant chord I had requested at the end of a verse, and I fumbled through the rest of the poem.

Years later, I came to realize that the best performance poets are the warmest, that it's OK to say hello to the audience and share loopy anecdotes before delving into Pushcart-nominated work. (To watch a master poet-comedian at work, visit the Ugly Mug in Orange on a Wednesday night and see Ben Trigg riff his way through hosting duties.) After all, as the organizer of that long-ago Alta show assured me as I paced outside with my hands in my pockets: "Michael, these are your friends."

But what if the majority of a poetry audience isn't made up of friends, and what if there really is something riding on technical perfection? Such are the circumstances in Poetry Out Loud, the annual recital contest at the Orange County Department of Education's headquarters in Costa Mesa. Every year, high school students from across the county present poems from memory before judges, with the winner moving on to the state level.

Last Tuesday, for the fourth time, I sat on the judging panel, along with poet John Brantingham, radio host Myrenna Ogbu and UC Irvine creative writing instructor Susan Davis. The four of us ranked quality of performance; Allison Granger, the language arts coordinator for the department of education, served as accuracy judge, checking the poems' text to make sure contestants didn't miss or change any words.

The format of Poetry Out Loud is simple and, potentially, nerve-wracking. Students choose two poems by other authors to recite from memory and deliver them both with no banter whatsoever — no "How's everyone tonight?" or "My grandmother taught me this poem."

After stating their names and the titles of the poems, the contestants perform them dramatically, using body language and vocal inflections where appropriate, then sit down while the judges scribble scores.

Each of the 10 contenders was impressive in his or her own way — and, frankly, it was mostly her. Girls outnumbered boys seven to three. Perhaps that's endemic to adolescence; when the Huntington Beach Academy for the Performing Arts performed the Beatles' White Album last fall, nearly every song had a female lead vocalist. At Poetry Out Loud, I thought of awarding extra points to the males who entered the competition, but alas, there wasn't a category for bravery.

As it turned out, one of those bold anomalies took the top prize. But more on him in a moment.

One of the pleasures of Poetry Out Loud is finding out which poems the students pick to recite. Before last week's competition, I quipped to a friend that I had never attended a recital contest that didn't include at least one of three eternal choices: Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How Do I Love Thee?" and Allen Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California." This time, none of those came up.

There were a few classics on the program. Students touched on Percy Bysshe Shelley, E.E. Cummings, Maya Angelou and Walt Whitman. But the modern choices were often surprising. Second-place winner Sarah Salvatierra performed A.E. Stallings' "Sestina: Like," which appeared last year in Poetry magazine and has a decidedly modern theme: the pervasive use of the word "like" in our culture, both as a speech mannerism and, like, a Facebook endorsement.

Sarah, who is 17 and a junior at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, found Stallings' poem on a blog and, with an English teacher (and mirror at home) for support, broke the piece into fragments to coax the maximum feeling from every word. That can be a trying task for a 39-line poem, although at least "Sestina" has a rhythm to help memorization — the word "like," or a variant thereof, ends every line.

First-place winner Nima Ostoeari found a different use for social media in preparing Carl Sandburg's "I am the People, the Mob." The 17-year-old junior at Canyon High School in Anaheim studied YouTube videos of Sandburg reciting the poem, and his grave, oratorical style proved powerful enough to net our highest score. (For his second poem, he recited Whitman's equally flinty "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night.")

After the prizes were awarded, I corralled Sarah and Nima and asked if either of them wrote poetry. As it turns out, both do; Nima keeps a journal next to his bed and sometimes writes romantic verse late at night, while Sarah referred to the craft as her "little secret," since not many of her friends are into it.

If either of them stops by the Ugly Mug, I'd love to hear them read in a natural setting — off the cuff, informal, with text at hand and patter between poems. And if, someday, a student tries to perfectly recite his or her work at Poetry Out Loud, I'll remember the words of Robert Frost: "It takes all sorts of in- and outdoor schooling / To get adapted to my kind of fooling."

MICHAEL MILLER is the features editor for Times Community News in Orange County. He can be reached at or (714) 966-4617.

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