Veronika Escaja-Heiss

Escaja-Heiss Wins State Poetry Out Loud Competition

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Thursday March 22, 2018

Veronika Escaja-Heiss, or Vera as she is known, will soon be on her way the nation’s capital to represent Vermont at the National Finals for the Poetry Out Loud Competition. The junior at South Burlington High School sealed the deal March 15 at the state finals held at Vermont Public Television in Colchester. “After taking the state championship title for poetry in the competition this February, I was thrilled to find out that I would be representing South Burlington at Poetry Out Loud,” says the Escaja-Heiss.

This year in Vermont, 40 high schools and more than 5,200 students participated in classroom contests, with winners proceeding to school competitions. The Poetry Out Loud program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation and is administered statewide by the Vermont Arts Council. Now in its 12th year, Poetry Out Loud has inspired hundreds of thousands of American high school students to discover and commit to memory classic and contemporary poetry.

For the semifinal competition, Escaja-Heiss, who is also on the SBHS debate and speech teams, performed two poems. The first was “Spanglish” by Tato Lavier. She says, “I chose ‘Spanglish’ for my free choice poem because it brought into light the current issues of immigration, as well as the importance of Latino culture in the U.S. and how the language itself is not foreign to America.” Escaja-Heiss explained her appreciation that half of “Spanglish” is written in Spanish, adding, “It gives me the opportunity to express my own story growing up as a first generation trilingual American, speaking Spanish, German, and English in my household.”

Her second recitation was “I Remember, I Remember” by Thomas Hood, a selection that served as her mandatory poem written before the 20th century. Published in 1826, Hood’s poem reminisces about his youth, contrasting childhood joy to adult sorrow. Escaja-Heiss says, “It has a lot of flexibility for vocal and emotional variety and brings out the shared image of everyone’s memory of childhood, which includes beautiful moments as well as some darker themes that you only realize once you get older.”

For the state finals last week, contestants had to perform a third poem. Escaja-Heiss’ selection was “I Am Learning to Abandon the World” by Linda Pastan. A poem filled with grief, it is ultimately hopeful. Escaja-Heiss says her favorite line is the first, “I am learning to abandon the world before it can abandon me,” because “it has to do with the feeling that in society we must let go and forget all the toxic energy that surround us before we become absorbed within it.”

Joyce Sheehey, SBHS English teacher and Escaja-Heiss’ coach, said, “Vera has a lot of experience public speaking; she can be seen, occasionally, in our school’s drama productions, and she is our morning/afternoon announcement person, but memorizing and performing poetry is an entirely different skill.” After the semifinals in Barre, Sheehey notes, “As today’s master of ceremonies admitted, ‘Poetry is art, and judging art is subjective.’ In the end, it comes down to the numbers given by the five judges, and Vera stood out.” 

“The Poetry Out Loud program not only connects students to poets and poetry, it helps students develop transferable skills like communication and analysis that prepare them for college, career, and life,” said Troy Hickman, Vermont Arts Council education programs manager.

Having won the Vermont State Competition, in April Escaja-Heiss will travel to George Washington University in Washington D.C. to compete against champions from every state in the country. Meanwhile, see her performance at the state finals when it is broadcast on Vermont PBS March 29 at 7 p.m.


SOURCE: Carole Vasta Folley, The Other Paper