Vermont Arts Council Executive Director Alex Aldrich presents a certificate to semi-finalist Ann Wong at the 2017 Vermont Poetry Out Loud State Competition.

Poetry from Head to Heart: Wong Competes in State Competition

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Thursday April 06, 2017

The art of recitation is alive and well in the state of Vermont and Ann Wong is one of its many practitioners. A sophomore at South Burlington High School (SBHS), Wong traveled to the Barre Opera House last month to compete in the 2017 Vermont Poetry Out Loud State Competition. Created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, the competition is administered by the Vermont Arts Council. This year, more than 5,500 students participated in classroom contests with winners proceeding to school competitions. Wong was one of a group of students from 34 Vermont high schools representing 11 counties vying for the state win. She performed the poems “Her Head” by Joan Murray and “I Am Learning to Abandon the World”’ by Linda Pastan. Although Wong did not grab the title, she reports the experience was nothing but a win, “All of the hard work had definitely paid off and I was truly proud of everything I had accomplished.”

Poetry Out Loud competitors choose their poems from a list pre-selected by the organization. Wong says, “The greatest piece of advice I received was to choose poems that had meaning to me.” She describes Pastan’s piece as having “the ability to share optimism, even in one’s darkest times.” But it is Murray’s “Her Head” that really captured Wong’s attention. The sophomore describes it as “a powerful and eye-opening message about the strength of a woman in Africa, shedding light on the hardships that many don’t think about, yet many have to face.” Of the final stanza, with the words, “trusts her own head to bring to her people - what they need now - between life and death,” Wong says, “It truly could bring me to tears.”

Wong began the exacting memorization work at home, “I would rehearse with my mom, me saying the line and her correcting me if I made any mistakes. It was a painstakingly slow process, but after I did that for a few nights, I was then able to rehearse the poems more on my own.” From there, Wong had her own coach in Joyce Sheehey, a teacher in the English department at SBHS.

“Ann brings some natural strengths to the competition. In addition, she has an incredible work ethic and a willingness to experiment with different and difficult challenges,” reports Sheehey. She notes the judging criteria is comprehensive, “Judges evaluate the speakers on their accuracy, physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, and evidence of understanding.”

Wong says Sheehey made a world of difference for her in every aspect of the competition, “We spent hours rehearsing the poems over and over again, and I went from a beginner level to something that both Ms. Sheehey and I were very proud of.” Wong describes the two as sharing a passion for poetry, and notes that Sheehey even found additional people to coach her after school and during vacation. Wong adds, “Carly Bennett gave me pointers one day after school and with her fresh insight, Ms. Sheehey and I were able to further improve my performance.” By the time the competition arrived, the student had the poems “memorized by heart,” a distinction she credits to her coach. “As Ms. Sheehey told me, it is very different when you memorize something versus when you memorize something by heart. I know that I will have these poems in my heart forever which is something that I am grateful I can say.”

All of Wong’s preparation and attention to detail served her well. Even though she admits to jitters while anxiously awaiting her turn on stage, she says, “All my nerves slipped away once I got through the first stanza.” She adds, “When I got off stage, my mom and Ms. Sheehey both said that I had not only made an amazing improvement, but it was the best I had recited the poems.” Sheehey concurs, recalling, “She beautifully delivered her two poems that day.”

The sophomore plans to compete again next year. She says, “I hope to continue my passion for poetry and keep the experiences and lessons I have learned from poetry close to my heart.”