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January 18, 2008

Salem High poetry pros take center stage

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.

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