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“Tell me, what are you planning to do with your only wild and precious life?”
Montana Poet Laureate Lowell Jaeger posed this question from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” to the competing students at the Poetry Out Loud State Finals held Saturday, March 3 at the Grandstreet Theater .
Anna Hedinger, a junior from Flathead High School in Kalispell, planned and managed to take top honors in Saturday’s competition, where 21 high school students from Montana vied for the state title. Hedinger’s victory also guaranteed him an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., to compete in the National Poetry Aloud Finals to be held April 23-25.
While this was Hedinger’s first year competing in Poetry Out Loud, she admitted to a lifelong love for poetry and literature.
The Poetry Out Loud competition was created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation and partners with US state arts agencies, including the Montana Arts Council. The competition encourages young people to discover poetry through memorization and recitation. In turn, the contest “helps students master their speaking skills, build their confidence, and learn more about their literary heritage.”
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After successful pilot programs in Washington, DC and Chicago, Poetry Out Loud launched in high schools nationwide in the spring of 2006. It has since grown to involve thousands of students across the country each year.
Poetry Out Loud uses a pyramid structure that begins at the class level. The winners move on to a school-wide competition, then to a regional and/or national competition, and finally to the national final.
According to Monica Grable, director of arts education for the Montana Arts Council and state POL coordinator, a total of 85 Montana schools participated at the classroom level this year. From there, students advanced to regional competitions held in Columbus, Butte, and Missoula. These regional competitions selected the 21 students who competed on Saturday.
“The class teacher has the merit of inspiring students to recite poetry, helping them to dissect poetry and navigate through it so that they can convey what the writer is trying to convey”, Grable said.
Hedinger credits her English teacher, Allison Kreiss, for helping her prepare for Saturday’s contest and selecting the three poems she recited. And Kreiss was sitting in the audience when Hedinger’s name was announced as the winner.
Saturday’s contest began with a semi-final from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. During this round, all students recited two poems of their choice. From there, Hedinger was among eight students who moved on to the final round from 12:45 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. to recite their third prepared poem.
In the national and state finals, students prepare three poems to recite. One must be 25 lines or less and one must be written before the 20th century. All poems are selected from Poetry Out Loud’s online or print anthology. Grable shared that over 900 poems are available through the online anthology.
For Hedinger’s first two recitations, she chose two more modern poems: “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation” by Natalie Diaz and “Backdrop Addresses Cowboy” by Margaret Atwood.
“These are two of the first poems I read on the online anthology,” Hedinger said. “I went through almost every poem in the anthology and these were the two I kept coming back to.”
It was Hedinger’s recitation of his third poem, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall,” however, that earned him the Poetry Out Loud win. Hedinger explained that she wanted to choose a poem by a more classical author for her third recitation.
According to Grable, Hedinger’s victory was determined by the evaluation of six judges. Four of them listened to the recitations and were judged on physical appearance, voice and articulation, dramatic relevance, evidence of understanding, and overall performance. There was also an accuracy judge who checked the recitation line by line and a performance consultant who provided written feedback.
“I was completely shocked to win,” Hedinger said. “I’ve never given a speech in front of a crowd larger than a classroom before.”
For her win, Hedinger received $200 as Montana State Champion, and Flathead High School will receive a $500 stipend for the purchase of poetry books.
At the National Finals in April, Hedinger will be among 53 state and territorial champions converging on Washington, DC, to compete for the championship and $20,000 in prize money. Although there is no Poetry Out Loud national winner from Montana yet, Grable said a handful of Montana students have already made the top five.
After competing in the Poetry Out Loud finale, Hedinger shared her future plans to study journalism and conversation, as well as become a published author.
“The maturity of these students is truly remarkable,” Grable said. “Any of these students could recite on public radio and do it on their own. They know how to bring words to life and convey the meaning of the writer.