With all the confidence of someone who knows her material, Joplin High School sophomore Katherine Wartnaby approached the microphone and recited the opening line of her first poem: “There’s been a death, in the opposite house.”
The poem of the same title, by Emily Dickinson, helped Wartnaby earn first place Tuesday in Joplin High School’s first Poetry Out Loud recitation contest, the first level of a national program that encourages high school students to learn about poetry through memorization, performance and competition.
“It means the world to me that I won,” she said afterward. “I’m in show choir and I’ve been in plays, but this is on me, and this is my passion.”
Sophomore Melinche Roy was named the runner-up after reciting poems by Christina Rossetti and Robert Wrigley. Sophomore Elaina Kitch placed third with poems by Claude McKay and Robert Bridges.
The three students were selected for the contest based on recommendations from their teachers. They chose and recited two poems — one of 25 lines or fewer and one that was written before the 20th century — and had been practicing for about a month, according to Whitney Warren, arts and communications coordinator with Joplin schools.
Wartnaby said she frequently stayed after school to prepare her poems, memorizing them line by line and often rehearsing in front of a mirror. She said she chose the Dickinson poem and a second poem by Linda Pastan, “I Am Learning to Abandon the World,” because she could connect to them.
“Once I read through, I got to feel like I was the poet, and I was giving the audience a story,” she said.
Cleo Copeland, a community arts supporter who served as one of the contest judges, said she was impressed by the willingness of the students to recite poetry on stage in front of an audience.
“For (them) being young people, I was very happy that they wanted to participate, and that they’d been encouraged to do so,” she said.
In addition to scoring the students based on a rubric provided by Poetry Out Loud, Copeland said she wanted to be entertained by their performances.
“I love poetry, and I was looking for them to recite a poem that I could get lost in,” she said.
As Tuesday’s winner, Wartnaby will advance to the regional Poetry Out Loud contest in Springfield. The regional winner will advance to the state competition. The state champion will advance to the Poetry Out Loud national finals on April 28-29 in Washington, D.C., where $50,000 in awards and school prizes will be distributed.
THE COMPETITION was presented locally in partnership with Connect2Culture, the Missouri Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation.