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Poetry Out Loud: County’s best to face off

jjohnston@thetribunenew.com

Seventeen-year-old Marissa Ribeiro has spent so much time studying, memorizing and reciting Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman” that it’s starting to affect her reputation.

“A lot of people around school and in my family know me as the ‘Phenomenal Woman’ speaker,’ ” the Nipomo High School senior said with a laugh.

Ribeiro will perform “Phenomenal Woman” tonight at the county’s annual Poetry Out Loud competition, competing against students from six San Luis Obispo County high schools.

A nationwide program that teaches teenagers poise, public speaking and literary appreciation, Poetry Out Loud encourages high schoolers to memorize and perform works by the likes of Matthew Arnold and Langston Hughes.

“Poetry can be a difficult thing for students to latch onto,” said Barbara Radovich, Arts in Education coordinator for ARTS Obispo, the San Luis Obispo County Arts Council. “When (students) put this much effort into a poem, it becomes their friend. They really become attached to it. That’s enriching in a huge way.”

Created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation in 2005, Poetry Out Loud combines centuries of oral and written tradition with the energy of slam poetry.

Last year, more than 300,000 high school students from more than 1,500 schools participated at the classroom, school, district, county and state levels — culminating in the national finals in Washington, D.C.

San Luis Obispo County joined Poetry Out Loud four years ago, said Radovich, an Atascadero High School art teacher. The 2009 competition involved 1,600 students in seven local high schools.

According to Radovich, winners receive more than bragging rights — as much as $50,000 in scholarships and school stipends are offered at the national level.

Although there are no cash prizes at the county level, she said, the winner receives an all-expenses-paid trip to the state finals in Sacramento.

That proved motivation enough for Sean Peters, who placed third in the California state finals in March 2009.

Before Poetry Out Loud, Peters — then a senior at San Luis Obispo High — didn’t consider himself a “poetry person,” he said.

“To be honest, I really didn’t follow it,” Peters said. “If we read in class, I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t going out of my way to look at it.”

Then English teacher Mike Godsey introduced his class to Poetry Out Loud.

“I thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do a good job,’ so I picked poems I liked,” Peters said, such as “Switchblade” by Michael Ryan and “Confessions” by Robert Browning.

He said his theater background helped him perform well under pressure.

“It was just a solid reminder that if I put enough energy into (something), I excel in that area,” said Peters, now an acting student at PCPA Theaterfest in Santa Maria. “It was a nice kind of confidence booster.”

Cathy Dahl-Kunkel, who teaches communication skills and reading at Lopez Continuation High School in Arroyo Grande, agreed that Poetry Out Loud helps students build self-confidence and master public speaking.

Every winter, about 30 students sign up for the program, she said. That’s a sixth of the 180-member student body.

Dahl-Kunkel said it’s thrilling to watch students who may struggle in other subjects excel at poetry. “What I love is their willingness to read really classic poems written 100 or 200 years ago,” she said. “It’s been phenomenal.”

Hear young poets

The Poetry Out Loud competition takes place at 7 p.m. today at the San Luis Coastal Adult School, Room J2, 1500 Lizzie St., San Luis Obispo. For more on the free event, call 544-9251 or visit www.artsobispo.org.

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