Inside a stuffy fifth-period creative writing classroom at San
Luis Obispo High School, Gregg Haueter paces each side of the room as he recites the poem, "Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100," raising and lowering his voice for emphasis.
The long-haired senior spent hours memorizing the 435-word poem about 43 restaurant workers who died during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. He even bought a CD of author Martín Espada reciting the poem so he could learn while he slept.
After finishing to classroom applause, Haueter couldn’t help but smile as he leaned back in relief at his desk.
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"It’s kind of a rush to stand up there and read it," he said later. "You get a little nervous, but it definitely feels good."
Haueter is one of hundreds of local high school students participating in "Poetry Out Loud," a national competition that encourages youth to memorize and perform great poems. Teachers have noticed the pilot program in San Luis Obispo has helped their students view poetry in a new way.
"It’s really nice to see something come along that’s not a test, that isn’t an assessment," said Bob Huttle, who has taught history and English at San Luis Obispo High for 29 years. "This is a nice, creative thing that we haven’t seen much of in public schools."
Before reciting "On the Lawn at the Villa" by Louis Simpson in Huttle’s class, sophomore Leah Moskovic had never read a poem out loud.
"It’s completely different when you speak it out loud," she said. "You get more meaning."
Morro Bay High School and Lopez High School in Arroyo Grande are also participating in "Poetry Out Loud." Each school will select one winner to compete in a county competition Thursday at Cal Poly’s Chumash Auditorium. The winner will compete in a state competition in Sacramento a few weeks later with a chance to move on to the national finals in Washington, D.C.
"The competition aspect is good because it kind of makes students want to beat the other guy," said Debbie Zolnoski, one of six English teachers participating in "Poetry Out Loud" at Morro Bay High School. "It inspires them to try a little harder."
Funded through the National Endowment for the Arts, "Poetry Out Loud" has progressively spread in high schools nationwide since beginning in Washington, D.C., and Chicago in 2005. Local art advocacy group ARTS Obispo received funding to administer the program this year.
Students were allowed to select from nearly 500 poems for the contest, ranging from Romantic Era pieces like Edgar Allen Poe’s "Alone" to more contemporary ones like Billy Collins’ "Snowy Day." Time spent memorizing and performing the poems was mostly done outside of class.
"I’ve been really excited about my students’ willingness to pick up poetry books and not complain about them," said Cathy Dahl-Kunkel, "Poetry Out Loud" coordinator for Lopez High School. "They’ll pick up a poetry book for like an hour. It’s just been very exciting."
Lopez High senior Drew Kithcart said he chose to recite Robert Frost’s "Fire and Ice" because he could relate to it.
"The poem had kind of a dark tone to it," he said. "At the time I was a little down and not so happy about what was going on in my life. This poem had sort of the same feelings as what I was going through."
Whether "Poetry Out Loud" continues in San Luis Obispo next year depends on funding, said ARTS Obispo’s Erin Hanley, who administered this year’s program. The program’s budget was only $1,000, far less than was needed to supply and train teachers and organize a countywide competition.
"To hear teachers say that they appreciate this program speaks a lot to its value," Hanley said. "If teachers are willing to introduce new curriculum into an already packed schedule, that’s a good litmus test for keeping a program like this around."
Poetry Out Loud
Where: Chumash Auditorium, Cal Poly
When: Thursday, 8 p.m.
From 8 to 9 p.m., Poetry Out Loud winners will alternate performances with Cal Poly’s "Another Type of Groove" featured poet and national poetry champion Sekou.