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High School "Poetry Out Loud" Competition Held in Spokane

Keelin Elizabeth Photography

  Many high schoolers compete in sports, and others square off in debate or knowledge bowl. But each year, the Downtown Spokane Public Library and Spokane Arts host a more unusual competition for high school students.

Host Aileen Keown Vaux explained the event from the stage on the library’s third floor.

“Poetry Out Loud is a national recitation competition organized by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. More than 250,00 students across the country are expected to participate in Poetry Out Loud this year.”

That’s right, it’s a poetry competition. Students representing six Eastern Washington high schools had each memorized two poems to perform on stage in front of the audience and a panel of judges, including spokane’s Poet Laureate Chris Cook.

“We’ve got judging criteria on our scoresheets here, including physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, evidence of understanding, and an overall performance score. It’s run a bit like a poetry slam which is part of my history with poetry.” 

Among the evening’s competitors was Madeline Luther from Okanogan High School, who last year won not only the Eastern Washington Final, but went on to win the Washington state final and received an all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C. for the national competition. Madeline’s coach, Thome George, said that experience has already had an impact on this year’s competition.

“I noticed that all of their performances were much better. Just like, ‘Oh, she went to nationals. We can go to nationals. We could do that.”

After an overview of the rules, the competition got underway. Students recited poems ranging from early 20th century rhyming verse . . .

When fishes flew and forests walked

   And figs grew upon thorn,

Some moment when the moon was blood

   Then surely I was born. 

[From “The Donkey” by G. H. Chesterton, read by Sam McEachran]


. . . to humorous critiques of modern language and social media. 

. . .“I’m like,

So OVER him,” I overhear. “But, like,

He doesn’t get it. Like, you know? 

[“Sestina: Like” by A. E. Stallings, read by Nicole Ostile]


After two rounds - a total of twelve poems recited from memory on stage - the judges tallied the scores, announcing that the winners were Jordan Mattox from Mead High School, and reigning state champion Madeline Luther. After the cheering subsided, Jordan Mattox told me the key to her success is a love of each poem she learns. 

“When sometimes you feel like you aren’t understood by other people, sometimes you can find a poem that truly speaks to you and feel understood. One of the poems I performed tonight was my favorite poem. So, that made it so much easier to go up and to perform something that I had that connection with.” 

For last year’s state champion, Madeline Luther, the thought process was a bit more strategic. 

“I looked for a little bit more range because I’m really good at doing anger and I’m really good at doing sad, but I don’t do a lot of happy or wholesome poems. I’m definitely trying to find softer poems to do. Just something that makes people smile rather than just sit there and think about their life and all the mistakes they’ve made.”

Only Madeline and Jordan will go on to compete at the state level in March, but poetry coach Thome George says the real winners are all the students who participate. 

“They think it’s just about reciting, but it’s actually about learning to love poetry. By going all the way in on a poem, they go, ‘Oh poetry is kind of cool.’ So that’s where we win.”


Chris Maccini previously worked at SPR as Morning Edition host and producing arts and special programming such as The Bookshelf, Poetry Moment, Northwest Arts Review, special features and more.
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