In front of an attentive audience, three high school students were hailed victorious in the Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest for the central region of Mississippi in JSU’s Student Center on Wednesday.
For the eighth year running, Jackson State’s Margaret Walker Center partnered with the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation and the Mississippi Arts Commission to host Poetry Out Loud – a program that encourages high school students to learn about poetry through memorization, performance and competition.
Ken Bolinsky, state coordinator of Poetry Out Loud, described the long-standing collaboration as “fruitful” and said he is delighted to have an event on “such a gorgeous” campus. He also expressed his satisfaction with the students’ performances, saying, “The quality of work produced rises every year.”
“Just to hear this beautiful poetry presented in such a way that the audience gets it. It’s not about speaking beautifully. It’s not about being histrionic and dramatic. It’s about making sure the audience gets what the poet wants them to know,” Bolinsky said.
Of 13 competitors from high schools throughout the central region, Lawson Marchetti, a senior at Jackson Prep, received first place.
“I am very happy and honored every year this rolls around. It’s always nerve-wracking but very rewarding,” he said.
A former state champion, Marchetti recited “Confessions” by Robert Browning and “Every Single Day” by John Strayley.
“I spend hours on the Poetry Out Loud database looking for poems,” he said, detailing his selection process. “I make sure [the poems] fit my voice, and I make sure that I like them.”
Skylar Miller, a senior at Terry High School, took the second place slot with her oration of Henry Wadworth Longfellow’s “Mezzo Cammin” and “My Grandmother’s Love Letters” by Hart Crane.
Miller said she loved the experience. “I have always been soft-spoken and shy, so this has been a great opportunity to get into another mode where I can speak in front of people and lose that shyness.”
She agreed that the creative arts are a necessity in public schools, saying, “Without them, we lose creativity, and it gives us a chance to express ourselves as students. It’s a great outlet for me.”
Dr. Robert Luckett, director of the Margaret Walker Center, seemed to echo Miller’s feelings when he said, “To see high school students who clearly love poetry gives me hope for the future of the creative arts in Mississippi and this nation. Poetry Out Loud is an important cultural outlet for these young people.”
Desiree Roby, a freshman at Christian Home Educators Connection, took home the third, and final, spot in the competition. “It was a shock. I was really nervous the entire time, so I just prayed about it. I asked the Lord to calm me down, and he did,” she said.
Roby recited “Fishing on the Susquehanna in July” by Billy Collins and “The Pilgrim” by John Bunyan.
Robin Roby, Desiree’s mother, could barely contain her excitement over her daughter’s achievement as a newcomer to the event. Inhaling and exhaling several times before speaking, she said: “It’s just so fantastic to see how far she has come. This is her first time competing in something like this. Looking at her progress over the months and her learning these poems and taking them to heart, I am just super excited and give all the glory to God for the ability that he’s given her.”
Aside from the recitation contest, attendees were also treated to original poetry performances by JSU students Keleigh Williams and Tyler Harden, who are members of Jackson State’s creative arts collective – OutSpoken.
Harden, a junior marketing major, said, “It’s really an honor to be considered the go-to group on campus for events such as this. Lately, society and educators have really driven a STEM-focused education … but art is also a source of education, and it’s a stress reliever on top of that.”
The three winners will advance to the state finals in March, and the champion will attend the national finals in Washington, D.C., for an opportunity to win $20,000.