February 25, 2014 at 1:44 am

Students across Michigan prepare to contest poetic skills

Alia Wood will be among the competitors in next month's Poetry Out Loud contest. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Warren— Alia Wood first heard poetry as an infant, listening from her crib as her grandmother recited her own poems.

“My grandmother helped instill my love of poetry, and I think it’s still relevant today, so kids should be open to learn more about it, because it’s a beautiful part of art in literature,” said Wood, 16, a 10th-grader at Cousino High School in the Warren Consolidated Schools.

Wood is among students from 38 Michigan schools headed to the annual Poetry Out Loud competition March 14 in East Lansing. Sarah Bem, 14, of Royal Oak High School, prepares by practicing in front of the mirror, family and friends. Matthew Webb, 18, of Detroit’s Cass Technical High School, is critiqued by theater classmates.

Bem and Webb say at a time when texting, tweeting and Instagram appear to be more popular among teens, poetry is still cool.

“I’ve always had an interest in reading poetry, and I’ll read it on my tablet, my phone or online,” said Webb.

Bem compared poetry to music.

“It has thousands of meanings, you just don’t sing it,” she said. “No matter how many times you read it, it has different meanings, even though it may not be popular with all young people.”

The state winner will have a shot at a $20,000 grand prize at the national competition April 29-30 in Washington, D.C. The contest is sponsored by the Michigan Humanities Council, the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation.

Along with the cash prize, the winner could aim for a spot at an Ivy League college.

“There is no formula for gaining admission to Harvard College, and each case is different,” said Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal. “Academic accomplishment in high school is important, but the admissions committee also considers many other criteria, such as community involvement, leadership and distinction in extracurricular activities — ranging from music and the visual arts, to athletics, poetry and beyond.”

Students who participate in Poetry Out Loud must select three poems to memorize and recite from hundreds of poets on the organization’s website.

Participation in the competition has increased the past few years, spokeswoman Kate Bartig said.

“We usually have the same number of schools sign up for the program — around 50, but it seems more schools have been sending a champion to compete at the state competition,” she said. “... It’s clear to us that appreciation for poetry and this program is growing within participating schools.”

Reading and reciting poetry seems to help students academically. “To recite the poetry, students must think analytically and use deep-reading skills to better understand the meaning of each word, which prepares them for college-level reading courses and comprehension,” said Bartig.

Sarah Bem, who plays flute in the school band, would like to become an author and actress.

One of the poems she selected to recite in the competition is “An Apology For Her Poetry,” by 17th century British poet Margaret Cavendish, also known as the Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. (The poem can be read at www.poetryoutloud.org/poem/244046.)

Bem recently recited it for her English class. “I was reading the list and I kept going back to this one because it spoke to me,” she said. “I also like to write, and this poet wrote about having critics, but that never stopped her.”

Her mom, Bonnie Bem, said her daughter worked hard to win the school contest. “We are very proud of the way she handled the competition, and very excited to go to Lansing with her to watch her compete at the state level,” she said.

Alia Wood, who plays clarinet in the band and takes honors chemistry, honors English and trigonometry, will recite “Ode” by Arthur O’Shaughnessy, a British poet of Irish descent who was born in 1844. (The poem can be read at www.poetryoutloud.org/poem/242554.)

She said she selected the 1874 poem because it still speaks to teens today.

“I want to say to the young people, we are too special to behave badly, and we’re so important, we can change the world and do better things because we are the light,” Wood said. “O’Shaughnessy’s poem is inspirational and I feel really connected to it.”

Band director Scott Fryer praised his student. “She is the most well-prepared and kind person, a fantastic clarinet player and a very valuable asset to the community of our band program,” he said.

Wood’s grandmother, Gwendolyn Wood-Tisdale, 81, said she’s honored to have inspired her.

“It’s always humbling to receive recognition, but I must say it’s extra special when it comes from someone that serves as your source of inspiration,” she said. “My granddaughter Alia Wood has a special gift that will serve as a source of inspiration for generations upon generations to come.”

Her dad, Willie Wood, said Alia’s talents were evident from an early age. “As a father, it is humbling to know that your child understands that she has a gift, a purpose, and a voice that she has dedicated herself to utilize to inspire all those within her circle of influence,” he said.

At Cass Tech, Matthew Webb selected modern poet Thomas Sayers Ellis, a Harvard- and Brown University-educated African-American who is an assistant professor of creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

Webb recently recited Ellis’ poem “Or” in his oral interpretation of literature class. (The poem can be read at www.poetryoutloud.org/poem/178676.)

“The poem spoke to me as a young black man,” said Webb, who takes physics, pre-calculus, AP English and AP speech. “It’s about recognizing and accepting who you are. Anybody can recite it, but reciting it and meaning it is a challenge.”

His oral interpretation of literature teacher, Marilyn McCormick, said working with Webb on the competition has been rewarding. “As he discovers new meanings in the lines, he shares his love for learning and that is simply satisfying,” she said. “He is rising to the challenge and entering a whole new world.”

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Bem (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Webb (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)