By Madeline Orton
Kavita Oza, a junior at the Peddie School in Hightstown, stands alone onstage at Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium and recites: “I used to think, if I could only concentrate hard enough, I could be the one person to feel what no one else could.”
After an audience reception befitting of local rock stars, eight high school students waited backstage for their shot at the Poetry Out Loud national championship. “Our winner today will be representing New Jersey in Washington, D.C. next month,” explained Nick Paleologos, Executive Director of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.
Reciting works by poets past and present, students are judged on criteria like voice and articulation, understanding of the material, and overall performance. Nearly 20,000 students from 124 schools competed for eight spots in these state finals.
Assistant Secretary of State Carol Cronheim is pleased with students’ enthusiasm about the program. “It’s taken off in so many schools that there’s really a good competitive spirit about it.”
Hannah Anderson, a senior at Mainland Regional High School in Linwood, is equally excited about the program’s popularity. “You see the football players up there with the book club members doing poems and it’s really cool that everyone comes out and actually enjoys it.”
The prize consists of scholarship money for the winner and his or her school, an all-expenses paid trip to the national finals in Washington, D.C., and a variety of poetry books, but students generally felt they had already won by participating.
“I’ve always had such awful stage fright,” Oza shared. “I think that Poetry Out Loud has given me that confidence to just walk on stage and share with people what you have.”
Kavita’s teacher, Chris Mixon, agrees. “Poetry is often taught in a very stale way and so, for kids, I think it’s refreshing … And getting onstage, being able to present and interact with an audience, that’s… something that’s a valuable, teachable thing.”
This year, for the first time, Poetry Out Loud State Finals kicked off the Biennial Princeton Poetry Festival — a marriage greatly supported by Pulitzer Prize-winner and festival coordinator Paul Muldoon, a professor at Princeton University. “If we don’t have poets who are interested in exploring the world of poetry in secondary school or in primary or grade school, they’re simply not going to be coming to us for the education that we’re going to offer them.”
And at the festival, there seemed to be no lack for interest in poetry. The day concluded with New Jersey’s eight state finalists anxiously awaiting the announcement of who would represent the state in the national championship. After three rounds of recitations, and months of hard work, a surprised Oza was excited to hear: “Our 2013 New Jersey Poetry Out Loud State Champion is … Kavita Oza.”
Major funding for NJ Arts is provided by The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the F.M. Kirby Foundation.