To set the atmosphere for reciting poetry, English and theater instructor Honore Schiro transformed Brookfield Central High School's black-box theater into an artsy coffeehouse.
Small, artificial lights flickered like candles on top of tables as coffee brewed in the back of the theater. Blue streetlamps illuminated the stage where four students would recite poems for the school's Poetry Out Loud competition.
And as the nervous students struggled to find their voices in front of peers, classic verses from famous poets poured forth.
"When I recited my first poem, I couldn't stop shaking," said Chisom Obasih, one of the competitors, "but I didn't let it stop me and successfully finished with no hesitation. I was more confident with the second poem, and I was glad to have my classmates see me deliver the poems with an air of seriousness. They were all really supportive, too, for which I'm thankful."
Obasih, who recited James Wright's "Beginning" and William Blake's "A Poison Tree," ultimately won first place in the school level of the Poetry Out Loud competition.
POL is a national recitation contest that begins at the classroom level and ends with the national finals in Washington, D.C., in April. Students select multiple poems from a roster of eligible works and must recite them in front of multiple audiences. They are judged based on several criteria, including physical presence, level of complexity and dramatic appropriateness.
Monetary prizes are given to winners at the state level and higher, and $50,000 in cash and school stipends will be awarded at the national finals, where the Poetry Out Loud National Champion will take home $20,000.
This was the sixth year the school has competed in Poetry Out Loud, Schiro said.
"We generally send someone to state every year," she said.
Schiro enlisted the help of fellow faculty to serve as judges for the school event.
"When Honore started the Poetry Out Loud competition here at Central, I was thrilled," said Patrick Perez, Brookfield Central English teacher and one of the POL judges. "It was just a natural and logical extension for me of what I already was doing in the classroom. So five or six years ago, when she started Poetry Out Loud here, I was on board immediately.
"Judging the competition is a great experience, mostly because I get to see the kids independently wrestling with the language and I get to see the growth that comes from that. That's the kind of thing that teachers love to watch."
In addition to the POL contestants, other high school students offered musical performances and poetry readings throughout the evening program.
"You never know, from year to year, what the interest will be (in POL), so we wanted a little bit of a mix (in talent)," Schiro said.
Obasih progressed to the regional competition, hosted in Waukesha on Monday, where she competed with Central's second-place winner, Cassidy Mazurek.
"I'm really excited to move on to the next round where I'm sure I'll meet more talented reciters," Obasih said, days before the event.
However, neither Obasih nor Mazurek progressed to the state competition.
"They are both underclassmen and will have the chance to compete for the next couple of years," Schiro said. "(Next year will be) a rebuilding year for BC."
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