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City Lights: Student poetry readers impress this judge

February 26, 2014|By Michael Miller
  • Manucher Buicki, a student at Irvine High School, recites a play during the 2014 Poetry Out Loud recitation contest at the Orange County Department of Education on Feb. 18.
Manucher Buicki, a student at Irvine High School, recites… (SCOTT SMELTZER,…)

I don't have a recording of the first poetry feature I ever gave, but part of me is glad I don't. As I recall, I was dreadful.

Like any nervous undergraduate facing a big-time venue — well, Alta Coffee in Newport Beach, although it might as well have been Carnegie Hall — I overprepared the poems and under-enjoyed the occasion.

Rather than treat a coffeehouse reading like the jovial get-together it was, I thought of it as a one-man show to be delivered with intense precision. Before the reading, I rehearsed my set down to the transitions between pieces — which proved difficult, since I was paired on the bill with a guitarist who had a decidedly looser approach. At one point, he forgot to strike the dissonant chord I had requested at the end of a verse, and I fumbled through the rest of the poem.

Years later, I came to realize that the best performance poets are the warmest, that it's OK to say hello to the audience and share loopy anecdotes before delving into Pushcart-nominated work. (To watch a master poet-comedian at work, visit the Ugly Mug in Orange on a Wednesday night and see Ben Trigg riff his way through hosting duties.) After all, as the organizer of that long-ago Alta show assured me as I paced outside with my hands in my pockets: "Michael, these are your friends."

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But what if the majority of a poetry audience isn't made up of friends, and what if there really is something riding on technical perfection? Such are the circumstances in Poetry Out Loud, the annual recital contest at the Orange County Department of Education's headquarters in Costa Mesa. Every year, high school students from across the county present poems from memory before judges, with the winner moving on to the state level.

Last Tuesday, for the fourth time, I sat on the judging panel, along with poet John Brantingham, radio host Myrenna Ogbu and UC Irvine creative writing instructor Susan Davis. The four of us ranked quality of performance; Allison Granger, the language arts coordinator for the department of education, served as accuracy judge, checking the poems' text to make sure contestants didn't miss or change any words.

The format of Poetry Out Loud is simple and, potentially, nerve-wracking. Students choose two poems by other authors to recite from memory and deliver them both with no banter whatsoever — no "How's everyone tonight?" or "My grandmother taught me this poem."

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