Bristol teen taking poetry performance to state final

BRISTOL — Mount Abraham Union High School senior Hannah Funk stepped onto the stage at the Barre Opera House this past Wednesday and recited one poem about a “flesh-eating wintry demon” and another about a Latina witch-healer. Actually, it was more than the typical classroom recitation; it was a performance in which Funk’s delivery became more and more animated as she worked her way through the pieces.
She was one of 36 high schoolers taking part in the 11th annual semifinal of the state Poetry Out Loud competition. And the judges chose Funk as one of the 10 finalists who will perform this Thursday in the state competition, the winner of which will go on to the nationals.
“It’s exciting for sure,” Funk said.
Otter Valley Union High School senior Jonna Keith also took part in the Barre performance, and she made history by being in the first ever runoff for a finalist spot. Keith and Oxbow High School’s Eliza Goodell tied in their scoring and each had to re-perform a poem. The finalist spot went to Goodell, but Keith’s coach, OV English teacher Michael Dwyer, told her simply, “You were that good that they asked you to recite a second time.”
So it was a great day all round for poetry and for local high schools.
“It was an inspiring day to see so many young people deeply committed to the performance of poetry,” Dwyer said.
Poetry Out Loud was created 11 years ago by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, as a way to engage high school students deeply with poetry, while building skills in performance and public speaking. Students choose two poems from the hundreds in the official Poetry Out Loud anthology, analyze the heck out of them, memorize them, and then stand and deliver — in a way that makes the poem come alive.
A given school might integrate Poetry Out Loud into the curriculum or offer it as an after-school activity. State finalists must prepare a third poem, and at least one of the poems must be from the 19th century or earlier. This year more than 300,000 high school students nationwide participated in the program, including 5,400 students across Vermont.
To reach the Barre semifinals, students had to win the Poetry Out Loud competition at their own schools. Students are judged on overall performance, physical presence, accuracy of memorization, how well they interpret a poem dramatically, and how well they use their voice to articulate and convey things like a poem’s pace and rhythm.
This year, 36 Vermont high schools sent performers to the semifinals in Barre.
State finals will be held March 17 at the Vermont PBS studio in Colchester. The Vermont champion will then go on to the national competition, which takes place May 2-4 in Washington, D.C.
At Mount Abe, English teacher Colleen Kiley has facilitated the Poetry Out Loud program as an afterschool activity for the past five years. This year, Kiley had five students participating in the program: 10th-graders Casey Ober and Chloe Lyons (of Lincoln and New Haven, respectively), 11th-graders Katherine Moody and Ashley Turner (both of Monkton), and, of course, Funk (Bristol).
“It’s great for self-confidence and public speaking, and I love introducing students to all types of poetry,” said Kiley. “But what I find really exciting is just watching them practice and interact with their peers after school — just a couple of us sitting around reading poetry and slowly becoming more confident.”
One of the highlights this year, said Kiley, was tapping into the Vermont Arts Council’s free POL guest artist program. Burlington poet Lizzie Fox spent an afternoon working with the students, helping them deepen their understanding of their poems and find more effective ways to perform them. She also answered questions about becoming a writer.
Kiley’s tight-knit group had such a good time with the activity that even after the school competition on Feb. 12, what the students most wanted to do was continue their after-school gatherings.
“So we went to the bakery and had a snack and some tea and sat around chatting and reading poems,” said Kiley. “What more can you ask for as an English teacher?”
The group’s cohesiveness, Funk said, is also what gave her the confidence to do her best, blinking into the bright lights and facing a jam-packed audience of peers, teachers and poetry lovers in the 645-seat Barre Opera House.
“Before it started, I looked out and saw Katherine, Casey, Chloe and Ms. Kiley in the audience,” Funk said. “And then, even when the lights were really bright, I remembered where they were and I was thinking about them being out there. It was so nice to have that school poetry family … After my first poem went well I realized that ‘Oh, this isn’t as scary as I thought’ and I just had a lot of fun with the second one.”
In Barre, Funk recited Louise Erdrich’s “Windigo” (the one about the demon) and Pat Mora’s “Curandera” (the witch) poem — both published in the 1980s. For Thursday’s finals she will have a third poem to perform, 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson’s “How many times these low feet staggered (238).”
Funk, who had made it to the state semifinals two years ago, said that she’s delighted to be going to the finals, especially now that she’s a senior.
Otter Valley has participated in Poetry Out Loud since its inception. Dwyer incorporates the program into his AP English class, which this year involves 40 students. A strong theater program at OVUHS helps set the bar high, he said, and over the years OVUHS has had two students compete in the state finals.SEVEN OTTER VALLEY students participated in the Brandon high school’s Poetry Out Loud competition in front of an audience of about 100. Participants were, from left, Row 1: Lennon Philo (2nd place), Emma Cijka and Haley Gearwar; Row 2: Alexis Lape (3rd place) and Jonna Keith (1st place); Row 3: Nate Doty and Hannah Williams.
This year’s Otter Valley champion, class salutatorian Jonna Keith of Pittsford, chose to perform Linda Gregg’s “The Lamb,” Victoria Chang’s “Mr. Darcy” and 19th-century poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s “Friendship after Love.” The school competition played to an audience of around 100 students and teachers.
Dwyer will bring the Barre semifinals back into the classroom this week and stream some of last Wednesday’s four and a half hours of competition.
For Dwyer, a teacher for more than three decades, Poetry Out Loud not only builds self-confidence and public speaking skills, it gives kids who are passionate about poetry and the arts a place to find camaraderie and also builds their ability to focus deeply — something many educators have noted as under assault for teen brains raised on tweets and cell phones.
“They gain many things,” said Dwyer, speaking of the multiple benefits Poetry Out Loud brings to today’s students. “They gain self-confidence, they gain poise in public speaking, and they gain an appreciation of the written word and just the inspiration of the human voice through performance. It also connects them to an ancient art, realizing that people back to ancient Greece through the present have indulged in this.”
Dwyer continued, “It’s also a triumph of ‘the brain can still do this’ because as a long-time teacher myself … what’s happening to the brain today because of technology and kids being bombarded with so much information all at once — sometimes they can be like Etch A Sketches; they shake and it all goes away — this is an opportunity for kids to really internalize something and own it and make it their own.”
Editor’s note: Watch a live stream of the Poetry Out Loud state final online at http://vermontpbs.org/poetryoutloud this Thursday, March 17, starting at 7 p.m.
Click the video link below, to watch the semifinals. Competition begins 47 minutes into the archived stream. Hannah Funk’s performance of “Windigo” is at 4:58:52.

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