HARTINGTON, Neb. — For Cambelle Nieman, the state Poetry Out Loud contest meant connecting with her audience — even when they were spread out across Nebraska.
The Hartington Cedar Catholic student, who recently completed her sophomore year, advanced to the state semifinals for the first time. She received an honorable mention award as one of the Husker State’s top five finishers.
Nieman’s experience was unique for her in another way, as it marked the first virtual performances in the national program’s 16-year history. Organizers chose the format because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“All of the contestants recorded themselves and sent in their videos,” she said.
Poetry Out Loud is a national arts education program for high school students across the country, conducted in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. The program encourages students to learn about great poetry — both classic and contemporary — through memorization and recitation.
“There have been a few (Cedar Catholic) students before me to make it to state,” Nieman said. “Gretchen Kleinschmit, who (was) a senior, made it last year.”
Despite the challenges of a virtual contest, Nieman came away excited about her performance and finding others who share a similar passion.
“The overall experience was absolutely amazing, and it really gave me a boost of confidence,” she said. “I’m very proud of everyone who participated in the program because it’s really cool to see people share their talents.”
The 2020 event was held at the local and state levels, but the national finals were cancelled because of the pandemic. This year, Poetry Out Loud was resurrected by performers at virtually every level.
For Nieman, it meant no travel, no competition site or even a live, real-time audience.
The virtual task made it literally impossible to look her judges in the eye. Yet, she needed to show emotion for an audience that didn’t exist in front of her.
“This came with some pros and cons. It was nice because I was able to record multiple times and choose my best performance to send in,” she said. “However, since there was no audience, it was a bit difficult to know where to look when performing, and it was kind of awkward talking into a camera.”
For the competition, Nieman performed “A Song in the Front Yard” by Gwendolyn Brooks, “I Remember, I Remember” by Thomas Hood and “Candles’ by Carl Dennis.
“We got to choose our own poems, but they do have to fit into certain categories,” she said. “One poem must be 20 lines or fewer, one poem must be pre-20th century and the other poem is a free choice.”
While virtual, the 2021 competition carried the same rules and format as previous years. The students must select their poems from the Poetry Out Loud website, and the competition consists of various rounds.
The contest doesn’t allow reading from a script, Nieman noted.
“When performing, the poems must be memorized,” she said. “You are judged on different categories such as presentation, understanding and accuracy. Our school does it every year to get students interested and involved in the arts.”
At Cedar Catholic, the English classes choose a poem from the Poetry Out Loud website and memorize it over a few weeks, Nieman said. The top two entries from each class advance to perform before the entire school.
“The winner from the school then gets to go to a state semifinal, and the top (finishers) from that competition get to go to state,” she said. “The state winner then (competes) in the national competition.”
Students recited works selected from an anthology of more than 900 classic and contemporary poems. This year’s competition includes works by Thomas Hood, Elizabeth Hands and Maya Angelou.
At the state level, Nieman competed against one of the nation’s best contestants. The Nebraska winner, Alexandra Rose Zaleski of Skutt Catholic High School in Omaha, advanced as one of the nine national finalists.
The state championship was streamed, with Nebraska State Poet Matt Mason serving as Master of Ceremonies for the competition. Nebraskans for the Arts partnered with the state program and provided trophies for the top three contestants.
The South Dakota champion, Rahele Megosha of Sioux Falls Washington High School, won the national competition and the $20,000 cash prize.
The national finals were shown on a one-time broadcast. During the program, the contestants learned the final results.
The Poetry Out Loud competition has allowed Nieman to pursue her passion through another outlet. She also enjoys creating her poems.
“For the competition, we are not allowed to write our own poetry. However, I do write some poetry here and there,” she said. “I sometimes have to write poetry for my English class, and I actually enjoy it a lot. I enjoy it because I can literally write down whatever comes to my mind and make it into a form of art.”
She also enjoys the way poetry provides her with new forms of expressing herself. “I also love finding new words to use, and writing poetry, especially rhyming poetry, you can find a lot of new vocabulary to use,” she said.
Nieman doesn’t necessarily have a favorite poet or poem.
“I enjoy Robert Frost, but I look more towards the contents of the poem rather than the author of it,” she said. “I enjoy poems that tell a good story. I like to look for poems that have a kind of whimsical aspect to them, because every time you read it, it seems different.”
Nieman doesn’t really have any particular path she takes in writing or performing poems.
“I don’t really think there is any one ‘secret to success,’ because each poem and performer is different,” she said. “I would say that, as long as you really connect with the poem and choose one that you like, you should do pretty well.”
Nieman believes she has gained a great deal from the Poetry Out Loud experience.
“Being in the Poetry Out Loud competition has really taught me to be confident in myself,” she said. “I enjoyed being able to share my talents and exploring different kinds of poetry.”
The Cedar Catholic student had already planned to enter next year’s Poetry Out Loud competition. However, she may have received an additional incentive to aspire for an even higher finish in the 2022 contest.
“This year, after I performed at the state competition, I was mailed a Robert Frost poetry book as a prize from the Nebraska Arts Council,” she said.
“I really love that book, and it’s a great way to remember the whole experience. I plan to compete again next year and I’m very excited to see what next year holds for me.”
For more information about Poetry Out Loud and how to participate in the 2021-2022 program, visit poetryoutloud.org.
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