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For the Ear, Not the Eye

Winner of first national poetry recitation contest lets the poem do the talking.
At the Lincoln Theater in Washington, D.C., Jackson Hille wins the First Annual Poetry Out Loud competition, and walks away with a $20,000 scholarship. Arthur Allen looks at what set him apart from the pack.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – On an eloquent night of hot spotlight and cool jazz in the historic Lincoln Theater, 51 high school students, including a North Dakota boy who performed a leprechaun dance while reciting “Jabberwocky” in brogue, exercised poetry in front of 300 enthusiastic teachers, parents, poets and other riffraff.

At the First Annual Poetry Out Loud contest this week, the best of tens of thousands of elocutionists from the 50 states and the District of Columbia displayed their talents in competition for a $20,000 college scholarship. At the end, the top prizes went, in ascending order, to a Louisiana girl who'd sought shelter in Hawaii from Hurricane Katrina, a New Hampshire poetry slammer, and a magnetic blue-eyed mop-top from the Midwest, who stole the scene with understated, wittily allusive readings of Jonathan Swift, Molly Peacock, and Billy Collins.

There was a pronounced Ohioan flavor to the evening. Two of the judges, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post critic Michael Dirda and novelist Curtis Sittenfeld, were born under the buckeye leaf. (Full disclosure: so was this writer). And it was Jackson Hille, a senior at Columbus Alternative High School, who took first prize.

“I like being the vessel,” said Hille, who is the son of a chemistry professor dad and a stay-at-home mom, and has three siblings. “I liked the reading being about the words and the audience and not about me. I got less and less dramatic as I went through the performances. Eventually I got down to the stripped-away words. It made it feel raw.”

Second place and a $10,000 college boost went to Teal Van Dyck, a long-haired blonde from Bow, New Hampshire; while Kellie Taulia Anae, of the Mid Pacific Institute in Hawaii Kai, by way of Louisiana, won the $5,000 third prize.

The setting was the magnificent, if slightly tattered Lincoln Theater, in the heart of historic black Washington, where Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and the great Duke Ellington once spiraled through their swinging, mind-bending arrangements. On Monday, the Joe McCarthy Quartet filled the space between readings with quips of jazz standards.

During a day of readings, the field of 51 had been whittled down to a fine-honed dozen. The students sobbed, screamed, shouted, gyrated and gestured, pouring their hearts into the delivery of poems spanning various human ages and emotions. Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California” was a popular choice, as were “Bitch” (Carolyn Kizer) and “Beauty” (Tony Hoagland).

Many of the finalists, including Hille, have their hearts set on acting careers. But a love for poetry and exposure to it in the formative years had trained their ears. Chris Estevez’ Dominican-born father, Pedro, has published his own poetry, and the young Estevez, who attends West Scranton High School in Pennsylvania, grew up in New York City listening to his father read Pablo Neruda and Edgar Allan Poe aloud. Estevez, a 10th grader who gave a sinuous interpretation of the poet Ai’s “Salome,” performed in a flashy pinstriped suit with red shirt and tie. He promised to be back for next year’s competition.

As for the winner: “My favorite poets are still Shel Silverstein and Ogden Nash,” said Hille, who hopes to be a professional entertainer. His fondness for poetry is sure to grow, Hille laughed, “now that I can make money from it.”

Ryan Berry, a 12th grader from Shanley High School in Fargo, N.D., who likes frisbee golf and Edgar Allan Poe, was a notably expressive reader, bringing a frenetic style not generally associated with his flat, frigid part of the country. Berry read “Casey at the Bat” with a faux North Carolina accent, and performed “Jabberwocky” in a way that moved host Scott Simon to say, “I kind of want to see him play frisbee golf.”

Simon, the National Public Radio Weekend Edition host, mastered the ceremonies with relaxed bonhomie and an ear for the good-natured cheap shot. He seized upon Teal Van Dyck’s biography, which attributed her vigor to being raised on organic squash and the “simple joys of life.” At intermission, Simon promised “organic squash for everyone” in the lobby. The bartender, however, offered only scotch and soft drinks.

Van Dyck, who has been writing poems from “when I was knee-high” and reading them with accompaniment from a rock band called “Teal and the Lickers” for the last few years, took it in stride. “I was OK with that,” she said on the sidewalk after the participants had shambled down the block to a tapas bar. “I can take it.”

The contest was organized with the support of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation (publisher of PoetryFoundation.org) as a “Greek way” of encouraging the teaching of poetry and the value of speaking in public with confidence and passion, NEA director Dana Gioia said. The Poetry Foundation's program director, Stephen Young, saw the contest not as part of a trend to classical education, but “a return to sensible education. For a long time we humored the creative spirit in people without teaching them basics. One of the neglected basics is memorization. Any poet worth his or her salt has a library in his head. You can't learn to write poetry without it.”

“Poetry’s effect is deeper when it is addressed to the ear rather than the eye,” said Poetry editor Christian Wiman. “Memorizing poems—even poems that aren’t necessarily ‘great’—is a great way to develop a love for the art.”

The students were a remarkably poised bunch. “I thought I’d feel very nervous for them but they were so professional they didn’t need my nervousness,” Sittenfeld remarked afterwards. A few critics at Tuesday night’s event felt that the students might not have grasped the distinction between theatrical and poetic soliloquy. In short, there was a bit too much scenery-chewing. Clintonesque hand gestures mysteriously filtered into many a performance.

Hille’s readings were exceptional—and purposefully so. He infused understanding and humor into Swift’s “A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General” and Molly Peacock’s “Altruism,” in which the narrator expresses the difficulty of subjective understanding, the not knowing if there
really were a you beyond me, not just
the waves off my own fire, like those waves off
the backyard grill you can see the next yard through,
though not well—just enough to know that off
to the right belongs to someone else, not you.
Hille concluded with “Forgetfulness,” by former poet laureate Billy Collins, a terrifically funny poem that may be about Alzheimer’s, or the multitasked brain, depending on the age of the person listening to it.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue
or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall.
An apt close to a night that was all about the power of memories captured in youth. As Scott Simon told the students: “At no other time will words sink into your bones as they do now. Poems will grow and change with you and stay with you the rest of your life.”

For the Ear, Not the Eye

Winner of first national poetry recitation contest lets the poem do the talking.

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