Above insolence and triviality

In retrospect, it was brave for Elk Grove High School senior Kristi Avila to quote Marianne Moore to the hundred and some odd poetry appreciators gathered before her in the Secretary of State Building auditorium last Saturday. Avila had chosen to recite Moore’s poem “Poetry,” which takes stock of the medium and its social usefulness, and counsels not to “discriminate against ‘business documents and / school-books’: all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction / however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry.”

Considering the occasion—the state finals of Poetry Out Loud, a national recitation contest for high schoolers supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council—one couldn’t help but figure them’s fightin’ words.

Otherwise, the event proved congenial. It consisted of multiple rounds of recitations by students from nine participating California counties. It was scored, musically, by vibraphonist Rob Lautz and guitarist Doug Pauley, who supplied tasteful arrangements of pop tunes and standards, and by the audience, which supplied proud, often overzealous applause.

The material varied, from one Browning to the other, from Langston Hughes to Billy Collins, from Sylvia Plath to Carl Sandburg. (These being teenagers, there were two recitations of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.”) Performances varied, too, but seemed to improve as the day progressed. By round two, rapports had been established—not just between the students and the audience but also between the audience and the poets. The reciters let themselves be their literature’s vessels, with affecting results.

A natural, and apparently practiced, performer, Avila delivered the goods. One of the preliminary judges confided before the contest began that Avila’s reading of Sharon Olds’ “I Go Back to May 1937” had made him so emotional it nearly distracted him from monitoring her accuracy (which, fortunately, also was good.)

She won’t be advancing to the national finals in Washington, D.C., on April 30 (that’ll be Santa Rosa’s Karen Hong), but, for distinguishing herself from an afternoon’s worth of what Moore would call “high-sounding interpretations,” Avila took the runner-up prize. That’s $100 for her and $200 for her school to stock up on poetry books (or perhaps a single science book).

Early on, Ken Huffman, an Elk Grove High School alumnus, last year’s Poetry Out Loud state champion, and one of this year’s judges, introduced the proceedings. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be here,” he said. “It’s not as if the California Arts Council put a gun to my head and said, ‘You’ve got to enjoy this poetry.’” Huffman had a nice-young-man air and a shining grin. “This isn’t about competition,” he said. “There’s a trophy up here but it doesn’t matter. I put it in my closet. I have poems.” A spiel? Well, to borrow from Avila, who borrowed from Moore, one discovered that there was in it after all a place for the genuine.