In this contest, poetry is the winning answer
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If Emma Ridinger’s neighbors see her walking toward the woods talking to herself, maybe waving her arms slightly, perhaps emoting more than she should for walking down the street, they should know one thing: She’s not weird. She’s just a poet.
“I walk down my road and into the woods, and I’m sure all my neighbors think I’m nuts,” Ridinger said. “Because I just recite these poems and practice them and when I choose a poem originally, it has to connect. So I always try to have an emotional level to the poems.”
Ridinger, a Hopkinton Middle High School junior, is one of 11 finalists performing in the annual Poetry Out Loud state finals tomorrow. At the end of the night, one student will be chosen to represent New Hampshire at the national championship in Washington, D.C., where a total of $50,000 in awards and school stipends will go to top-placing students.
This year, more than 9,000 students from 36 New Hampshire high schools participated in Poetry Out Loud, a program of the National Endowment of the Arts in partnership with the Poetry Foundation. The idea is to encourage young people to learn about the beauty and power of language through memorization and performance of great poems. Criteria for judging includes physical presence, voice and articulation, appropriateness of dramatization, level of difficulty, evidence of understanding, overall performance and accuracy.
Ridinger wants to win, and who wouldn’t? But she also really just loves poetry.
“What I find beautiful about poetry is how some carefully chosen words – very often very few words – can convey so much and evoke so much feeling,” Ridinger said.
At the competition, she will be reciting three poems, one of which is “The Powwow at the End of the World,” by Sherman Alexie. The poem
describes the struggle of Native Americans. Ridinger gets emotional when she talks about it and, she said, when she recites the poem.
“My family likes to joke that I’m the hard-core feminist in the family, but I don’t think that’s true,” she said. “I think I’m a humanist. And I think I really feel passionately for the troubles people face, not only in this country, but all over the world. Because we’re all humans. . . . It’s a very intense poem, and it just strikes that chord.”
Loving poetry at 17 is not necessarily common these days, but her English teacher, Susan McClellan, said she’s doing her part to make it hip again. McClellan said often students feel disconnected from poetry, thinking that it contains heavy mysteries beyond their understanding. So, she said, she likes to get them focused on appreciating the words in the poems or even just the sounds they make.
“They at least have gleaned something from it and found more meaning in it, that it’s not just some mysterious words on a page that you’re supposed to just get when you read it,” McClellan said. “We’re trying a more holistic approach.”
In fact, since she added poetry into the curriculum and started taking kids to the competition, she’s seen an increase in the enthusiasm for both.
“Some kids are already picking out their poems for next year,” she said. The competition “has really put poetry on the map here at Hopkinton High School.”
And regardless of what happens tomorrow, for Ridinger, poetry will last longer than the glory of competition.
“Poems have a very rich history,” she said. “You can find poems that were written in ancient Greece, you can find poems that were written yesterday and I think this tradition of conveying emotion – I don’t think it could ever truly die as long as humanity is still around.”
The 2013 New Hampshire Poetry Out Loud program will take place at Representatives Hall at the State House in Concord tomorrow at 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Virginia Prescott, host of New Hampshire Public Radio’s “Word of Mouth,” will be master of ceremonies.
New England College has offered $20,000 scholarships to each of the high school champions, should they choose to enroll at NEC. Southern New Hampshire University has offered renewable merit scholarships of $4,000-$12,000 to high school champions and alternate champions, should they decide to attend SNHU.
For information about New Hampshire Poetry Out Loud, contact Catherine O’Brian, at the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts at 271-0795, or Catherine.R.OBrian@