The power of the poem

For these high school orators, Florida’s Poetry Out Loud competition offers a time to shine.

By Colette Bancroft

One young woman sashayed up to the microphone and introduced the poem she would perform by Emily Dickinson, “the original literary emo girl” — a playful reference to the punk-rock genre that emphasizes emotional subjects.

Another stood somberly and gave a stark performance of Randall Mann’s “The Mortician in San Francisco,” about the assassination of gay activist Harvey Milk.

A tall young man raised the mic and recited William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” with stirring confidence: “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.”

They were among the 39 high school students from around Florida who competed in the state’s Poetry Out Loud finals on February 29 in St. Petersburg.

Zhaedyn Hodge Sigars, the returning champion, finished in the top spot. He performed William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” Carl Sandburg’s “The People, Yes,” and Calvin Forbes’ “Mama Said.”
He says he couldn’t choose a favorite:
“They all speak to me.”

Poetry Out Loud, now in its 15th year, is a national poetry performance competition for high school students, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation.

This was the fifth year for Poetry Out Loud in Florida, whose sponsors also include Florida Humanities, the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and the state’s Division of Cultural Affairs.

The early stages of the competition included about 9,000-plus students in grades 9 through 12 in schools all over Florida. For the finals, the numbers were winnowed down to 39 contestants who gathered in the ballroom of the Student Center at USFSP for a day of performances.

An audience of families, friends and teachers filled the room for three rounds of competition. All contestants performed during the first two rounds, then 10 finalists were chosen to compete in the third round for first, second and third place prizes.

Each student had prepared to perform three poems, chosen from among the hundreds of approved poems in the Poetry Out Loud anthology. Poems must be memorized; no notes, props or costumes are allowed.

The panel of five judges included Helen Pruitt Wallace, the poet laureate of St. Petersburg. She’s been a judge all five years, she says. “It’s such an exciting event, seeing young people who are passionate about poetry.”

The other judges were Tampa Bay area poets Silvia Curbelo, Gloria Muñoz and Dennis Rodney, and retired Florida Humanities staffer and teacher Ann Schoenacher.

Many of the competitors knew each other; students often compete in Poetry Out Loud for several years. They were a diverse group except in one respect: Girls outnumbered boys by about three to one.

The competitors supported each other, listening attentively to the performances and congratulating each other afterward. When one girl froze on stage, unable to finish her first poem, she got a round of warm applause anyway. When she returned in round two and made it through that performance, she got a bigger hand.

Popular poems often received multiple performances. Dorothy Parker’s sassy “Love Song,” Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre “The Conqueror Worm” and Nick Flynn’s witty “Cartoon Physics” each had three or four readings. At one point, two students in a row performed Deborah Miranda’s “Advice From La Llorona,” each putting a distinctive spin on the moving poem.

Letting their voices ring out: Zhaedyn Hodge Sigars
Letting their voices ring out: Zhaedyn Hodge Sigars
Kinsey Campbell
Kinsey Campbell
Ava Johnson 
Ava Johnson 
A panel of five judges, including Dennis Rodney, left, and Gloria Muñoz,  determined winners from 39 contestants. The early stages of the competition included more than 9,000 high school students statewide.
A panel of five judges, including Dennis Rodney, left, and Gloria Muñoz,  determined winners from 39 contestants. The early stages of the competition included more than 9,000 high school students statewide.

The contrasts between readings of the same poem can be surprising, says judge Muñoz.  “It can be anything, a breath, a word.  It’s so hard not to compare”  them rather than judge each on its own merits.

Between the first and second rounds, while judges were scoring, Peter Meinke, Florida’s poet laureate, read one of his own poems, the poignant “Elegy for a Diver.”

“I imagine I’m the oldest poet here, and I want to tell you you’re doing the right thing,”  Meinke told the students.

“Poetry’s going to stick with you for the rest of your life. It will give you enjoyment. It will give you solace.”

Kinsey Campbell, representing the First Academy in Orlando, placed third in the 2020 Poetry Out Loud, earning a $100 award. She says she felt “waves of nerves and excitement and exhaustion” during the competition. Her favorite among the poems she performed was Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird.” “I’ve been working on this poem for two years because of the way it speaks to me.”

Ava Johnson from Pembroke Pines Charter High School came in second place (a $300 prize plus $200 to her school for poetry materials). “I don’t think I’ve ever connected to recitation as much as I did to ‘The Mortician in San Francisco,’ ” she says. “Even if it’s just a hundred or so people in this room who hear it, we can’t forget these stories. If we forget it, it can happen again.”

Zhaedyn Hodge Sigars, the returning champion from Howard W. Blake Fine Arts High School in Tampa, finished in the top spot.

The 17-year-old performed Henley’s “Invictus,” Carl Sandburg’s “The People, Yes,” and Calvin Forbes’ “Mama Said.” Three very different poems, but he says he couldn’t choose a favorite: “They all speak to me.”

Zhaedyn was studying dance at Blake when Kendrick Lamar’s  album “To Pimp a Butterfly” led him to an interest in writing poetry himself. He’s also been inspired, he says, by Sandburg, Langston Hughes and Paul Dunbar.

His mother, Kendra Hodge, who is a writer, wasn’t sure about his new passion at first, but after reading some of his poems she told him, “Okay, you might be good.” He started performing in poetry competitions as a way to develop his writing skills. This was his third time at Poetry Out Loud. He also took first place in 2019.

Zhaedyn has written a collection of poems, “A Martyr Manifested,” that he plans to publish this year. After graduating from Blake, he says, he will attend Bethune-Cookman University to major in English “on the way to an MFA.”

The first place prize is $500, plus $500 for the winner’s school. Usually, the state champions (and their chaperones) also receive travel costs to compete in the national Poetry Out Loud finals, held in Washington, D.C., in April.

This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was cancelled, but the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation will be awarding each state champion an additional $1,000 prize, and have invited each winner to submit a video reciting the poem they would have recited in the capital.

Legacy (Rene): Elegy to Lyles

By Zhaedyn Hodge Sigars

I wanted to use this chance to honor my late grandfather who passed away (in April) due to a battle with cancer he had been fighting for four years. His name was Lyles Rene Armour and he was a factor in my success.

Let the gentle night soothe you
A covenant between families
Hard to be alienated
When love has
Bonded our humanity
Glad to be a part of the dynasty
Mistake the law for blood
Your guidance and perseverance showed me a testimony
A testament to the times we represent
With the greatest action and intent
Another example of an angel from above
I love you
Learned to
Strive through
Anything the devil puts me through
No illness can strip your spirit
Trekking the stars
If they war, you pivot
A nonexistent limit to what you endure
Pure as Colorado snow
Contributions to D.C. like a superhero
Watch a black man, humble and strong willed take the sky
Soothed by the gentle night
No matter the condition, you still prosper and fly
Love you wholeheartedly
Dear to me
Like I came from your legacy
Angel on my left
So I must maintain a right path
Always and forever be with me

Colette Bancroft has been on the staff of The Tampa Bay Times since 1997 and its book editor since 2007. She directs the annual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading, and is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. Before joining the Times, she was a writer and editor at the Arizona Daily Star. She earned degrees in English from the University of South Florida and the University of Florida and taught at universities in Florida and Arizona. Bancroft grew up in Tampa and lives in St. Petersburg.

Colette Bancroft has been on the staff of The Tampa Bay Times since 1997 and its book editor since 2007. She directs the annual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading, and is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. Before joining the Times, she was a writer and editor at the Arizona Daily Star. She earned degrees in English from the University of South Florida and the University of Florida and taught at universities in Florida and Arizona. Bancroft grew up in Tampa and lives in St. Petersburg.

FORUM Magazine Summer No 2

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.