Jenna Clift recited her way to a win at the San Luis Obispo Poetry Out Loud regional competition earlier this month, but the 15-year-old wasn’t thinking of winning when she stood before the judges.
“All I could think was, ‘Gosh, I hope my dress isn’t wrinkled or caught on anything,’ ” the Nipomo High School sophomore said. “That was pretty much the only thing I was thinking up there: ‘I hope I’m not embarrassing myself.’ ”
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Fortunately for Jenna, her recitation of “Hysteria” by Dionisio D. Martinez and “I am the People, the Mob” by Carl Sandburg was good enough to beat seven other student competitors from high schools around the county.
“I was pretty stunned, actually,” Jenna said of her reaction upon winning. “It was all so fast, you know. They congratulated me and then there were pictures. And I was just in awe, like, did I really win this?”
Before the regional event, ARTS Obispo helped Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, Mission College Prep, Morro Bay, Nipomo, Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo high schools, as well as North County Christian School, organize individual competitions at each of the schools. The winners from these went on to the county competition, which took place at the San Luis Obispo Coastal Adult School on Feb. 6.
ARTS Obispo director and event organizer Jenna Hartzell said she was very proud of all the hard work the participants put in this year, and the results were amazing.
“This is the fourth year I’ve done this,” she said. “The caliber of performances was the best I’ve ever seen. The judges really had a hard time deciding.”
Eventually they decided on Jenna, who, besides the worries about her appearance, was also battling a sore throat. This can be a major detriment because scoring is based partly upon quality of voice.
Other factors include level of difficulty and depth of understanding of the work.
“I just told myself, ‘You know what? Shake it off, you’ll be fine. Just focus and do your best,’ “ she said. “And it worked, thank God.”
Now Jenna’s worries include more than just the need to have her tonsils removed; as regional winner, she will go on to represent San Luis Obispo County in the state Poetry Out Loud competition in Sacramento March 24 and 25.
There, she will compete against more than 30 other regional winners from across the state, all of whom are hoping for the chance to go to the Poetry Out Loud Nationals in Washington, D.C. Winners at the state level also receive $200, plus a $500 donation to the winner’s school for poetry books.
In the competition, Jenna will participate in three elimination rounds. She must pass each to move on to the next part of competition. This means she could perform three different poetic works.
Jenna already has two poems under her belt (she will once again recite her winning poems), but she recently selected a third work with the help of the Nipomo High School English department: “A Letter to her Husband, absent upon Publick (sic) employment” by Anne Bradstreet.
“We were looking for something that is a bit contrasting to my other poems that I had,” she said of the choice. “I had a funny one, and a really intense one, so we thought, ‘Let’s go for something with a little more emotion in it.’ “
The poem’s emotional content (about a woman who misses her husband while he is away) will play to Jenna’s dramatic strengths; she is a longtime theater student with performance experience.
But scheduling time to practice can be difficult when balancing school, theater practice and the competition, noted Jenna’s mom, Lisa.
“She’s very fortunate she can memorize things extremely easily,” her mother said. “I’m very proud of her.”
Jenna wasn’t supposed to compete at the school competition. She was picked as a “wild card” by her Pre-AP English 10 teacher, Colleen Jenssen, after the classroom elimination rounds. So all the attention she’s now receiving is a little disconcerting.
“I was honored, but at the same time I was thinking, this is so strange,” she said. “I’m not used to this kind of stuff. … It’s just nice to know that I have people supporting me, so when I go, they are hoping I do well.”