By Aly De Angelus
A cluster of high schoolers congregated by the edge of the stage, frantically reciting lines and making last-minute banter with their friends before taking their seats. It was 6:30 p.m. Jan. 29 and a crowd of teachers, friends, family members and judges turned silent in an instant, as Skagway English teacher Kent Fielding shook a bucket emptied of its coffee grinds.
Only now, the bucket contained a handful of paper slips, each with a student’s name begging to be picked by his grasp.
“Loren (Garduque), you are up,” Fielding said.
The sixth-annual Poetry Out Loud at Skagway School had begun. Fielding placed the bucket down in the corner of the stage and backed down the stairs. Three judges – Aaron Schmidt, Dominic Rotier and Dr. Joshua Coughran – sat patiently in the back of the room, ready to score rubrics during the performance. Rotier was a substitute judge for Jeff Brady who was absent due to ice on Dyea Road.
22 students participated in the event. 4 absences were due to winter weather conditions that prevented the school’s basketball team from leaving Juneau.
“This has been a strange year since we’ve got students traveling for weeks,” Fielding said. “I saw a number of the basketball players actually come into the DDF (drama, debate and forensics) room in between rounds and perform for me and the DDF team,” he said, referring to the basketball team’s travel delay at Ketchikan the last week of January. Fielding said the basketball coaches were also focused on academic excellence, making sure the students ran their poems every day after practice.
Poems of the night included topics such as love and peace, technology, war, perception of beauty and sports. Although the kids were nervous, many laughs and smiles took the stage.
“I forgot everything the moment I got up there,” said Tessa Murphy.
“This is why you don’t switch your poem,” Fielding said, as Murphy shared a smile and laugh returning to her seat.
The crowd waxed and waned with the tension in the room, stiffening when a student motioned toward the judges for a rescue line and beaming with joy when a student performed their poem with charades and vocal tone.
“The number one song in America was ‘In the Year 2525,’” Maisha Rahman sang, emphasizing the poet’s word choice. She completed the line in question, “because who has ever lived in the present when there’s so much of the future to continue without us?”
Rahman was the 2020 Skagway winner of Poetry Out Loud for her performance of Alex Demitrov’s “1969.”
Rahman’s artistic direction and mannerisms on stage landed her a spot in the regional Poetry Out Loud competition and a $50 gift certificate to Glacial Coffeehouse. She will participate in a regional video adjudication, where she will compete for a spot at the March 12 state finals.
The Poetry Out Loud recitation contest was created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation in 2006. Students are allowed to pick from 900 poems on the Poetry Out Loud website and are judged on criteria such as physical presence, dramatic appropriateness, evidence of understanding, voice and articulation and overall performance.
Only ninth through 12th grade students are eligible, with the exception of advanced eighth grade English students.
Skagway School first participated in Poetry Out Loud in 2014, the year winner Zoe Wassman performed Ai’s “Conversation,” the same year Fielding became a high school English teacher at the school.
“I think they have all become better speakers and I have seen each student grow every year, Connor Lawrence, barely got through his poem (last year), he wanted to hide in the corner,” Fielding said. “This year I saw his piece down in Ketchikan and he was very articulate, confident and vocal.”
Fielding said he begins prepping for Poetry Out Loud around two weeks before the competition, though some years his class begins as early as December. He focuses on poetry explication with the students so “that way when they start to memorize it … it helps them internalize meaning.”
The night ended with a dramatic poetry reading from Iraida Hisman during the judges’ deliberation. Though her poem didn’t make the approval cut, she shared a second, more modern poem from “22 Jump Street” to entertain her peers.
“Slam poetry. Yelling. Angry. Waving my hands a lot,” Hisman said, as the crowd erupted into laughter.
Hisman ended with a fake mic drop and bowed before the crowd.
“I know this is a sacrifice in a lot of cases, Schmidt said to the students in reference to reciting poems to this large audience, “but gosh, I saw a lot of honest to goodness joy too and some real purpose. Thank you, just thank you.”