It was less than two weeks until Contra Costa’s Poetry Out Loud recitation contest and 9th grader Allyson Gayoso, a 14-year-old from Richmond’s Salesian High School, was reciting a poem from memory with the confidence of a seasoned orator.
Inside a small, quiet office, Gayoso practiced the words of “On an Unsociable Family,” an 18th century poem by English poet Elizabeth Hands. Her audience consisted of her mother, who had arrived a moment before to take her home. Gayoso read each line of the poem with confidence. She stood tall, looked straight ahead and used hand gestures as if she was viewing a larger audience. As she progressed in the poem, the tone of her voice sounded wise as she pronounced complex words.
“When I read poetry, I feel a sense of awareness. The words I’m speaking aren’t my own, but the feelings in the poem are my emotions. I think through that, it makes my poem an extension of myself,” said the student.
Gayoso is one of the nine high school students competing in Poetry Out Loud this year. The national recitation contest, created by The National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, supports high school students in memorizing and reciting poetry. The Arts and Culture Commission of Contra Costa County is the local agency organizing Poetry Out Loud, in cooperation with the Contra Costa County Office of Education. The main goal of the program is to help students master public speaking skills, build self-confidence and learn about their literary heritage.
To participate in the contest, each student must choose two poems from a selection available on the contest’s web site. They then memorize the poems and recite each one during the contest, where they are judged on their physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic presentation and overall performance. Each school sends one student to the countywide competition. Allyson Gayoso will be representing Salesian High School and, if she succeeds in the county level competition, she will then represent Contra Costa in California’s Poetry Out Loud program.
“I think I’m a little nervous,” said Gayoso on a recent afternoon. She was wearing a Salesian High sweatshirt and a pair of loose fitting black pants. At times, her glasses perched on the tip of her nose as she spoke. “Hopefully, when the time comes, I won’t stumble,” she said.
To make sure she won’t “stumble” at the county’s competition, Gayoso practices at least 30 minutes every day. Her techniques include writing the poems on a piece of paper and reading them aloud multiple times in front of a mirror.
When reciting in front of the mirror, she uses hand gestures as she speaks, knowing this practice will score points in the contest. To challenge herself, sometimes Gayoso wears headphones and listens to music while reciting her poems. “I put it this way: If I can recite well with distraction, then I will do it pretty good in front of a lot of people,” she said.
Gayoso chose two poems that she will recite at the contest, the one by Elizabeth Hands and “Self-Inquiry Before the Job Interview,” by a modern American poet, Gary Soto.
“Soto’s poem is about a person trying to fit in a new world,” said Gayoso, who is the daughter of Filipino immigrants. “When you first enter high school, you don’t know what you are doing there, but four years of your life will be spent there. So you have to make the most of it and try to do your best.”
Gayoso’s mother, Angie Gayoso, who is a registered nurse, could not be more proud of her daughter. “She reads a lot of books and always gets straight A’s. I have no reason to complain,” she said as she observed her daughter organizing her class materials.
“She is an excellent student,” agreed Sarah Trott, Gayoso’s English teacher. “Her writing and her analysis of literature are both sophisticated and thoughtful.”
“Allyson’s performance of the poem [at the school’s contest] was confident and showed she really understood the poem’s message and the speaker’s tone,” she continued.
Gayoso’s interest in poetry began last year during a class assignment. She and her classmates were required to memorize a poem and recite it in front of the class as part of the students’ preparation for this year’s Poetry Out Loud contest.
“There were a lot of friends watching me, so it made me very nervous. My hands were shaking while I recited the poem, but I guess I was able to perform it well,” said Gayoso. Her recitation was voted the best by her peers. After this experience, she competed against students from other classes at Salesian High School and once again, she won. “I really didn’t take a real interest in poems until then,” she said.
Gayoso considers “individual interpretation” the finest part in poetry, she said. “Everybody will read a poem, and more often than not they will experience the poem differently,” she said. She enjoys poems that “reveal vulnerability and emotional depth,” although humorous poems will always be her favorite kind, Gayoso said.
“For example, in Gary Soto’s ‘Self-Inquiry Before the Job Interview,’ there are weird phrases that are funny and happy. And suddenly, there’s a single line that catches your attention—‘This I saw for myself as I rode the elevator, empty because everyone had a job but me’—that speaks of loneliness. It’s that kind of vulnerability that I like to see within poems,” Gayoso said. She is also drawn to poems from the 1900’s and admires the American poets T.S. Eliot and Walt Whitman.
For Gayoso, practicing poetry is an excellent form of self-improvement. “This helped me to get out of my shell, speak louder and stand up for myself,” she said.
On February 9, Gayoso will have to stand up for herself on the stage of Walnut Creek’s Las Lomas High School theater, to win the county level Poetry Out Loud competition. Her competitors will be eight county finalists, including two other Richmond students: Chimdike Chimezie, a 9th grader from Making Waves Academy and Jamey Williams, a 10th grader representing Richmond High.
A panel of seven judges—poets, librarians and educators—will be scoring the students’ performances. One student will be chosen to represent Contra Costa County during the state finals in Sacramento on March 24 and 25. The state winner will attend the national competition in Washington DC in April. The grand prize at the national level is a $20,000 scholarship.
“It’s important to know, though, that behind this one winner, there are hundreds of other students who participated in Poetry Out Loud in their classrooms,” said Robin Moore, Poetry Out Loud coordinator for the Arts & Culture Commission of Contra Costa County. According to Moore, approximately 1,800 Richmond students memorized a poem for Poetry Out Loud this year. Nationally, over 365,000 students competed in the 2011-2012 edition, she said.
“I’ve seen students who don’t normally participate in school events step up to Poetry Out Loud because of the connection they feel to the poetry,” said Moore. “Learning something ‘by heart’ literally means to bring it into one’s heart, and that’s exactly what I see students doing each year with Poetry Out Loud.”
For more information about the Poetry Out Loud program, visit www.PoetryOutLoud.org.