SALEM - The lights were dim and the stage was bare, except for the teenagers who took their places behind a microphone one at a time to recite the poetry of those who lived long before them.
About 20 high-school students participated in last night's Poetry Out Loud competition at Salem High School. The national competition is in its third year, but this was the first time Salem High students have had the opportunity to be judged on how well they recite a poem of their choice.
Students used their free time to memorize poems with nonsense words by Lewis Carroll and the moral debates behind the words of W.H. Auden.
Humanities Director Jim Slobig said a group of English teachers met after school earlier this year with the hope of getting students involved in poetry outside the classroom.
"This idea started off small and absolutely snowballed," he said.
Earlier this year, students from about six classrooms had to read a poem in front of their English classes. Teachers chose the best of those students to compete last night.
Some practiced after school with their teachers; others recited the poems in their heads during classes. But each student participated and practiced for the competition at their own free will.
For Kyrsis Graham, 15, the night was equally scary and enjoyable.
"There's so many seniors," she said. "There's only one other freshman (finalist) and I've never been on a stage like that before."
Kyrsis earned her spot by being one of the top performers in her class.
Sophomore Amy Burzak, who chose to recite Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee," had a different hurdle to clear.
"I'm good at memorizing because I'm in the (school's) Actors Guild," she said.
Amy, 15, said it was planning the choreography that proved to be tricky. She chose to stick with simple hand gestures because the romantic poem did not leave much room for acting.
Some students took more liberty with acting out the expressions in their poems than others.
When senior Patrick Finn, 17, took the stage, he tried to bring the audience to the South.
His voice rose with emotion as he switched between two voices in "The Cremation of Sam McGee."
The poem by Robert Service has special meaning for him and may have given him a bit of an advantage over his peers. He said he learned the poem on family camping trips and had heard it many times before practices for the competition began.
Patrick said none of his favorite poets, including James Kavanaugh, were on the list of approved poems to choose from, so he chose Service's poem because it was among the more modern selections and often isn't discussed in school.
"I despise the fact that they overanalyze (poetry) in school and we read Shakespeare and older stuff," he said. "There's modern stuff, stuff that's only 50 or 100 years old, but still good."
English teacher Amanda Brouse helped several students gear up for last night's competition. She said the event helped reinforce reading comprehension and effective communication skills.
"It's a way to assuage the fear that many students have of poetry by allowing them to connect with a poem," she said. "It allows them to see that (poetry) is accessible to them and they can see their peers doing the same."
And while it wasn't quite slam poetry, it was still fun. If nothing more, it was a learning experience for some, including Kyrsis, who will likely be back on the stage next year.
Salem is one of 15 school districts in the state participating in the contest. Timberlane Regional High School is signed up to participate, but hasn't set a date for its competition.
The winner of the state competition receives a $200 scholarship, $500 for poetry books for the student's high school, and a trip to the national competition in Washington, D.C., in April. The runner-up receives a $100 scholarship and $200 for poetry books for the high school.
What does it take to win?
Students were judged on the following criteria:
* Physical presence: posture, body language and eye contact
* Voice and articulation: volume, speed, pronunciation
* Appropriateness of dramatization: level of theatrics used
* Level of difficulty: poem's length, content and language
* Evidence of understanding: comprehension of words being recited
* Accuracy: words aren't misspoken or forgotten
Poets who are moving on
Winner: Sarah Cotton
Runner-up: Patrick Finn
Third place: Shea Molloy
The state competition will take place at Keene State College on March 2.