With Recital Overm Monument Mountain Junior Caroline Sprague, wins Poetry Out Loud state championship
April 6, 2015
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Monument – This past December at the school wide Poetry Out Loud competition, junior Caroline Sprague, placed fourth, and believed that for the third year running she would not be moving on in the competition. Today she is preparing to go to the national finals, following a win at the state finals. How has she made it so far in a competition she was never supposed to be in? Sprague takes a moment out of her busy junior year to share her story with the Maroon Tribune.
Poetry Out Loud is an annual national competition funded by the Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts where high school students memorize and recite famous poems. Monument Mountain has a thriving Poetry Out Loud program – over 300 students participated this year – thanks to the passion of English and World Languages teacher, Lisken Van Pelt Dus. In an interview with the Berkshire Edge Dus said, “The program as a whole is so exciting to me. To see significant numbers of our students engaging deeply with poetry and its sharing, and to see so many of our other students giving them attention and support in that endeavor.”
Sprague has undertaken that endeavor every year, making it to the school finals but never winning. Sprague is a strong academic student, a vivid personality, and is both the female lead and stage manager of this year’s musical, Little Shop of Horrors. She especially credits her background in theatre for helping her to both understand the poetry well and develop a strong stage presence.
I managed to pull her away from preparations for the musical, schoolwork, and her boyfriend, Jasper Cole Kink, to hear her inside perspective on Poetry Out Loud and her hopes for nationals.
Quinn: Let’s start with the basics, how did you come to be competing at state level?
Caroline: I have been participating in Poetry Out Loud since my freshman year, and every year since my freshman year I have made it to the school finals – not the school super finals – and never won. And then this year I didn’t place. Catherine Baum came in first but she had to go to Colorado on a program that she had chosen to do long before. Emma Adler came in second but she turned down the opportunity to go because she had won the previous year and wanted someone else to have a chance. Natalia Whalen graduated early so she couldn’t represent the school, as she was no longer a member of the school. And so then I found that I had placed fourth so I went to regionals.
Q: Can you describe regionals for me?
C: They’re not really called regionals; they call them state semifinals but I call them regionals. At the regionals there are between 15 and 19 schools and every person represents their school. […] The top six from every region goes to the state finals. There are 24 students there. […]
I felt confident on my second, and wobbly on my first poem. Regionals reinforced the fact that the judging is – not arbitrary – but very subjective. Certain judges are really looking for certain things. I was surprised by some of the cuts that were made at the regional level.
Q: Can you give me an example of a time that you feel the judges were overly subjective?
C: There was one girl. Her name was Dvorah Gitlitz. She goes to Pittsfield High School. And she was just absolutely incredible. She was amazing. But I think she might have made an accuracy error. So I don’t know exactly whether it was accuracy or judging that didn’t let her through. It’s interesting because I think I have seen that at the school level as well. Freshman year, Maia Vlcek was in my opinion absolutely amazing. And then sophomore year again but she didn’t place. I was shocked. So I think it’s interesting to see people who are really talented who don’t technically succeed in the competition.
Q: How did you feel coming out of regionals and heading towards states? Did you have goals or expectations or fears?
C: I was really happy to have made it on from regionals. I had talked a lot with Ms. Dus and we had both agreed that it was going to be a good experience no matter what. I really had no expectations, especially since I hadn’t even really placed at the school. Not having placed at the school was very much to my advantage because I really had no goal other than to succeed at what I wanted to do and fulfill my personal goals of having a good recitation. I didn’t really have the ulterior motive of winning.
Q: Can you set the scene at the state competition?
C: The audience at Monument was actually the biggest audience out of any of the venues and also probably the most stressful because you’re competing against your peers – to complete strangers. So it was actually fairly relaxed in the beginning at least. There was a small stage and the sound system was pretty bad. There was a guy playing piano and his name was Mwalim and he was the MC. He was playing piano and doing stand up comedy. They had the state champion from 2007 and 2008 come and talk to us before we performed. They kind of try to make it seem as little like a competition as possible. Everyone there was either there for the sole purpose of either judging or supporting those who were reciting so it was a very supportive environment.
At the state level I really loved seeing kids from different schools and I think that may have helped me. For example we all had little plastic water bottles and I took the little plastic ring. I took it off and made it into a little motivational heart for all of us while we were all going into our second poem. I propped it up on the pew and made sure it stayed there. And we were passing around the motivational heart.
Q: After that last round, how did you find out you won and what was your reaction?
C: They called everyone up on stage and then they called the top six forward. Then they called the second runner up and then the first runner up. I kind of felt like I was either going to win or not place at all. I thought that it was one or the other in my head for some reason. And when they announced my name I was like, “Cool.” Jasper and Megan and Tyler and Lily and Wilson and my parents and Susan Lacombe – they were all in a pew in the way back – they were standing up and cheering. They were voicing the way I felt inside because I was kind of numb. I was happy for sure but it didn’t sink in for a while. It was also a shocker for me because I had never won in this competition before. I had never won at the school level before.
Q: Now going forward to nationals, how are you preparing?
C: Right now I am putting it out of my head because I have to be focusing on the musical but then once that’s over I’m going to start working with Ms. Dus again. I’m staying with the three poems that I had at states so I think that I’m going to try to enrich my understanding and keep them fresh in my head. I’ll try not overthink them because with the month left it would be very easy to overthink them and lose the magic. So I’m going to prepare by not over preparing.
Q: Do you have any words for next year’s participants at Monument?
C: Teachers always say this and I think for a lot of students it has just become background noise because Poetry Out Loud has become so universally recognized at Monument – but I can’t stress it enough – pick poems that you love. Especially if there is something that you can’t seem to let go of in a poem. Monument students shouldn’t shy away from a poem just because it’s hard or they don’t really understand it or it’s weird, especially because we have so few opportunities in class to spend time puzzling over works of art. So embrace the opportunity even if you aren’t a poetry person.
Sprague will be competing at the national finals on April 28-29th in Washington DC at George Washington University. The entire event will be livestreamed via the following link.