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One poem at a time: Poetry Out Loud runner-up moves to statewide competition

Selah+Johnson+receives+her+award+for+second+place+in+Los+Angeles+Countys+annual+Poetry+Out+Loud+competition.+Johnson+performed+American+Smooth+by+Rita+Dove+and+Black+Matter+by+Keith+S.+Wilson.+Photo+provided+by+Selah+Johnson.+
Selah Johnson receives her award for second place in Los Angeles County’s annual Poetry Out Loud competition. Johnson performed “American Smooth” by Rita Dove and “Black Matter” by Keith S. Wilson. Photo provided by Selah Johnson.

Piece by piece, line by line, Selah Johnson (’26) prepared for California’s statewide Poetry Out Loud contest, memorizing poems to prepare and present live in front of a panel of judges.

Johnson placed first in Archer’s schoolwide Poetry Out Loud competition Friday, Jan. 5, and became the runner-up in the Los Angeles County competition. Later that weekend, Poetry Out Loud Coordinator Kathleen Keelty informed Johnson that the countywide first-place winner had a scheduling conflict and asked if she wanted to take his spot. Johnson said she was happy her Poetry Out Loud journey is not over yet.

The statewide competition will take place March 17 and 18 in Sacramento. Johnson said she has never been to Sacramento before and is excited about the new experience.

“I am honestly feeling really excited. I was completely proud of myself getting runner-up for the first place,” Johnson said. “I was the only sophomore in the competition, so I was like, ‘Hey, if I place, I’ll be happy, and I did, which made me really happy.”

Keelty said students start preparing for the competition in October. They perform in classroom competitions and then move to a schoolwide competition.

Keelty first came to Archer in 2018, and she said she tried to bring Poetry Out Loud to the school but was initially denied because there were many other preforming art extracurriculars. When the pandemic hit, Keelty was asked to bring the program to Archer. She said the competition has allowed more students to get involved in performing arts.

“I’ve seen a lot of students who aren’t involved in the performing arts, kind of getting out there and doing that. For instance, Allie Yang — who was absolutely phenomenal — she’s not somebody who was into that before,” Keelty said. “Sometimes, it uncovers a talent that somebody didn’t know they had … I’ve seen expansion in kids from just different areas of interest.”

Johnson has already competed with two of her poems: “American Smooth” by Rita Dove and “Black Matter” by Keith S. Wilson. She has been memorizing a new poem, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” to meet the state requirement of three poems. She chose “American Smooth” because she said she wanted a story poem and to create a character for the story. Johnson said she picked “Black Matter” because was a vastly different style than her first, and she said she wanted to showcase her range.

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Selah Johnson

“Then, this last one I picked, it’s ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I just found this poem; I really wanted to do a poem about love from my last one for some reason,” Johnson said. “I had to pick one from before the 20th century. And  I was like, if I’m doing an old, classic poem, let me find one that’s about love because I love old, romantic poems.”

All three of the poems have to be performed live, and they are judged on physical presence, voice and articulation, interpretation, evidence and understanding and overall performance. Johnson described her memorization process.

“The first thing I do is write down all of the lines. I’ll read a little chunk, and then I’ll write it from memory, so my hand gets used to knowing what words comes next. Then, I’ll break it up into chunks, and sometimes I’ll start with the last chunk, and then I’ll add the chunk before,” Johnson said. “I tend to forget the end of poems rather than the beginning of poems, [so] I choose to start backwards and learn. It’s kind of easiest that way to memorize, but also because you can follow the arc of the story that the poems telling. Once you have the arc of the story, then you know what’s coming next.”

Anaiya Asomugha (’24) was Archer’s 2023 Poetry Out Loud winner and also went to the county and state competition, and Johnson said she is looking forward to learning from Asomugha.

“I know Anaiya made it to state last year, so she can give me the tips and tricks on reciting my poems live. For LA County, I just recited one of them live, but they judge both of my videos,” Johnson said. “But this time, I have to do three poems, and I have to do all three of them live. So it’ll be a little bit different, but I’m ready.”

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About the Contributor
Sydney Tilles, Senior Reporter
Sydney Tilles joined the Oracle as a staff reporter in 2022 and became a senior reporter in 2023. She is on the Archer tennis team and dance company. She loves learning about current events, participating in service learning and activism. She has a passion for government, politics, and social justice.

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    ViviMar 7, 2024 at 9:18 pm

    Great article Sydney, and so proud of you Selah!!!!

    Reply