Teenagers from across San Luis Obispo County will gather February 8 to celebrate their love of poetry. The high school students have been memorizing and reciting poems in their classrooms with the aim of performing them in front of their peers. It’s part of the nationwide Poetry Out Loud competition.
Paso Robles High School senior Karla Hernandez closes her eyes as she recites poetry outside a coffee shop.
"Ruben sput the van into an irrigation ditch,
spun the five-year-old me awake to immigration officers,
their batons already out,
already looking for the soft spots on the body,
to my mother being handcuffed and dragged to a van,
to my father trying to show them our green cards.”
The poem is “Bent to the Earth,” by Blas Manuel De Luna. It’s the story of Mexican workers stopped by immigration officials; some beaten, some deported, and the rest return to working in the fields.
“It shocks me and it makes me want to cry when I read it,” Hernandez said. "How can someone do all that violence in front of a five-year-old?”
Hernandez is the Paso Robles High School champion for Poetry Out Loud, a program aimed at helping students master public speaking skills and build self-confidence. They also learn about literary history and contemporary life.
“You recite poems of authors that have published it already.” Hernandez said. “You are supposed to recite it perfectly, and convey the emotions the author meant to.”
Winners will advance to regionals, then state. California’s winner will receive $200, and a trip to Washington, DC to perform at the national competition.
“I’m nervous, extremely nervous,” Hernandez said. “I’m not normally shy about it—about talking in public. “It’s just that I don’t want to make such an emotional poem come out really bad[ly].”
Nipomo High School senior Nathan Severance is also a little nervous.
The poem he is reciting is titled “Self-Inquiry before the Job Interview,” by Gary Soto.
“Did you sneeze? Yes, I rid myself of the imposter inside me.
Did you iron your shirt? Yes, I used the steam of mother's hate."
Severance was his school’s poetry champion last year and this year he won again, he's now headed to the countywide competition. He said it’s important to find poems with themes you can connect with. In his case, nerves.
“I found it very relatable and almost comical to a certain extent,” Severance said. “That somebody could take something as simple as that and make it into a beautiful poem.”
Like Hernandez, Severance closes his eyes and looks off in the distance while he recites, taking on a character as he performs.
“No matter how you do it, there’s no way it’s going to be like how someone else does,’ Severance said. “It’s you.”
For Hernandez, poetry has been a new discovery, thanks to her English teacher, she said. Hernandez is a dancer and recently applied to UC Davis for forensics and criminology; she said she’s going keep poetry as a hobby. She’s even started writing her own.
“Once in a while, especially when I feel a strong emotion," Hernandez said. "Whether I’m sad or happy, I kind of write it more.”
Severance just got into to Cal Poly, and is waiting to hear if he’s been accepted to the music program. He’s been writing his own poetry as well, and shared a few lines.
“I am no philosopher.
But I at least deserve an explanation.
I want to feast on knowledge as fruit.
But can’t, because I have braces.”
The 2019 San Luis Obispo County Poetry Out Loud competition takes place February 8, 2019 at the MindBody headquarters at 7 p.m. The master-of-ceremonies is San Luis Obispo Police Chief Deanna Cantrell, who is also a poet.
KCBX News will have more on Cantrell's story Monday on our weekly news magazine, Issues & Ideas.
The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible with funding from The Coastal Awakening Project, conserving a spirit of creative experimentation among Central Coast inhabitants.