Poetry Out Loud crowns new winners

Ben Sears to move on in poetry competition
By Stina Sieg | Dec 11, 2012
Photo by: Donated photo Above, from left, are Poetry Out Loud participants: Hannah McLeod (second-place, THS), Jordyn Gardner (PHS), Kayla Olsen (PHS), Jacob Gray (PHS), Ananda Shuckstes (third-place, HEC), Hannah Medford (HEC), Bonnie Hamlett (PHS), Kaylyn Stephens (HEC), T. J. Putnam (HEC), Ben Sears (first-place, THS), Samuel Reppert (HEC), Johanna Cano (THS), Abigail Martin (THS), Taylor Galyean (PHS), Matthew Barrett (HEC), Nate Lee (PHS) and Ali Shelton (THS).

CLYDE — Every winter, teens from all over the county train tirelessly for one especially tense day of competition. Just like any athlete, they spend hours upon hours honing their skills, getting ready to show their peers all they've got.

But this isn't basketball, football or even golf. It's poetry, and Poetry Out Loud is its Super Bowl. The national program has district, regional and state poetry-reciting competitions all over the country, and when the Haywood County contest was held recently at Haywood Community College, the nerves and excitement in the air were palpable.

One by one, students from Pisgah and Tuscola high schools and Haywood Early College stepped up to deliver pieces written by famed poets. They didn't just recite. They performed, some almost becoming the piece for a few precious minutes.

As first-place winner Ben Sears put it, "you're the vessel for the poem."

Sears, a junior at Tuscola, won for his treatment of "Fairy-tale Logic" by A. E. Stallings and "A Fit of Rhyme against Rhyme" by Ben Jonson, while Tuscola's Hannah McLeod came in second and the Early College's Ananda Shuckstes took third. Sears will now move on to regionals and maybe even the state competition. From there, nationals are possible.

While Sears certainly dressed for the day (his suit was as crisp as his annunciation), he never saw any of this coming.

"I did not expect to win at all because everyone was so good and the competition was so fierce," he said.

It's true. While Sears' commanding performance turned the judges' heads, he wasn't the only one who shined. Every student who walked up to the mic had something unique to offer. Some, like Sears, came from a drama background and exuded self confidence. Others were more quiet and brooding, clearly fighting through fear as they stood before the crowd.

Regardless of their delivery, all of these students proved something that emcee and local writer Michael Beadle stressed more than once: Poetry is meant to be heard, not just read. Sears agrees.

"I think when you have a speaker, it takes on a whole new form and becomes something more," he said.

It certainly did for McLeod, who performed "The Bearer" by Hayden Carruth and "The Canonization" by John Donne. It's not that she didn't like poetry before this event, the senior explained. It's just that it means more now.

"Reciting it and performing it definitely made it more interesting, and you could connect with it," she said.

Something about hearing those words, not just reading them, made everything "clearer," she added, describing how the colorful language came alive for her. Another bonus was being able to best that common phobia of public speaking.

"I was definitely nervous, but I actually enjoyed it a lot," she said.

Shuckstes knows all about the fear and fun that accompanies talking in front of others. The senior, who recited "Kindness" by Yusef Komunyakaa and "Ecology" by Jack Collom, actually can't get enough of it — even though she joked that she's getting a little tired of being in third place. She has participated for three years now in Poetry Out Loud, and each time has taken third — not that this really dampens her spirit. As she described what it's like to compete, she couldn't stop smiling.

"Oh gosh, my heart is pounding, but I love it, I love being in front of crowds," she said. "It's just so exhilarating for me. I love it."

It's not just the rush performing that touches her, however, but the poems themselves. Poetry is sort of like a religion to her, she said, and it "defines the human experience." Whenever she reads it, she feels it gives her a bigger understanding of the world around her.

So, when asked if she'd be competing next winter, in her final year at Early College, there was no hesitation to her enthusiastic "yes."

"I can't wait to do this next year," she said.