Vera Escaja-Heiss

South Burlington High School senior Vera Escaja-Heiss at the national finals for the Poetry Out Loud competition in Washington, D.C.

Vermont champion and South Burlington High School senior Vera Escaja-Heiss made the top nine for the second year running at the national finals for the Poetry Out Loud competition. The finals took place at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., on April 30 and May 1. 

Escaja-Heiss traveled to the nation’s capital for the event along with her family. After her stellar performance in the 2018 competition, her English teacher and coach Joyce Sheehey decided to join the family to be able to support her star student in person.

“Vera is the only South Burlington student to win the state competition … and to win that twice? Well, twice is an incredible accomplishment,” Sheehey said. “And to make the finals in Washington twice? Nearly unheard of!”

Escaja-Heiss took to the stage with a powerful rendition of “To Solitude” by Alice Cary, bringing an impressive maturity to the poem. She also performed “Harina de Castilla” by Sandra M. Castillo and “El Olvido” by Judith Ortiz Cofer, two selections that offer her a deep connection as a first-generation American. 

She achieved a spot in the top three during the semi-final round on Tuesday, earning her place on the stage on May 1. The semifinals are split into three groups, sorted by region, with the top three from each moving forward. 

“I had an unbelievable experience in Washington, meeting some of the most genuine and talented people. Apart from getting to know other competitors, I met with (Senator) Patrick Leahy and (Congressman) Peter Welch,” Escaja-Heiss said, mentioning the Vermont politicians.

She also saw some familiar faces from last year.

“I believe there were about four people that were returning for the competition,” she said. “It was so great to see people I admired and didn’t think I would have the opportunity of seeing again,” 

South Burlington High School has had many excellent students compete in the state competition over the years, with several making the top 10 in the state, but none have come as far as Escaja-Heiss.

Escaja-Heiss showed great respect for her fellow competitors, even if she’s not entirely in agreement with the way the event is judged.

“Each [competitor] is very talented, however, I personally believe that the judging criteria does not promote this talent,” she said. “The Poetry Out Loud judging criteria veers away from spoken word poetry and closes more in on traditional recitation, which I believe brings results that end up being rather surprising. The winners did an amazing job hitting each judging category, but I believe that there were certain individuals that should have made it further had the criteria been geared less toward a strict recitation guideline.”

She said that she felt the competition should expand its guidelines to include other poetic forms.

“Poetry has many different formats and I think the fact that Poetry Out Loud looks at only one form of poetry ends up not valuing certain performances,” Escaja-Heiss elaborates. “With this said, Poetry Out Loud gives a fantastic platform to students such as myself, allowing us to promote our own stories through an incredible art form. Poetry is very subjective and difficult to judge; therefore, these judging guidelines are also understandable.”

The South Burlington senior plans on spending her summer with friends and family, including a month-long visit to relatives in Spain. In the fall, she will be attending the University of Vermont, where she wants to continue her relationship with poetry, both as a performer and a writer. As for a major, the incoming freshman is keeping her options open.

“In college, I will be going in undecided, as there are numerous things I would love to study — communications, speech and debate, environmental science and so much more,” she said. “I would rather figure out my path through learning about everything rather than picking one and changing my mind in the future.” 

Regardless of which direction Escaja-Heiss choses to take academically, her English teacher and coach said she knows one thing for sure:

“I don’t know what Vera will choose for a career, but it’s clear to me that she is an artist and a natural storyteller,” Sheehey said.

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