By ADAM SCHRADER
Published in The Lewisville Texan Journal on March 5, 2016
Lewisville High School senior Madison Heggins, 18, won the Poetry Out Loud state championship, a contest of the National Recitation Contest, last Saturday at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. The Texas Commission on the Arts hosted high school students from across the state.
“It feels pretty incredible. I never expected to be the state champ,” she said. “It’s cool that my hard work with Ms. Squibb has paid off and I made it this far.”
Heggins won the school $500 for the purchase of poetry books and materials, and received $200 and an all-expenses-paid trip to represent Texas on the national stage at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. from May 2-5. The winner of the national competition will receive a $20,000 scholarship.
Carmen Tafolla, the 2015 Texas Poet Laureate, served as master of ceremonies for the event. Poets Laurie Filipelli, Carrie Fountain, Brian Francis and Tomás Q. Morín judged 25 students, each having first won their school competition, on articulation, evidence of understanding, accuracy and overall performance.
National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation created Poetry Out Loud in 2006. They administrate the competition with the help of state arts agencies in all 50 states and Washington D.C. More than 370,000 students competed in 2013, according to a press release.
In the competition, students present three memorized poems from the Poetry Out loud anthology: one must be 25 lines or fewer, another must be written before the 20th century, and a third was the contestant’s choice.
This is the first time LHS has participated. Eight students interpreted poetry in preliminary trials at the school. Participants said Poetry Out Loud differs from other interpretation competitions.
“We walked in to state at a disadvantage,” Heggins said. “I had to focus more on my voice and face rather than presentation, like usual.”
In other competitions, contestants focus on body movement and physical expression, she said. At Poetry Out Loud, performers focus on their connection to its meaning shown through tone of voice and facial expressions.
LHS Killough sophomore Destinee Aguirre also placed in the top ten.
“Destinee did so well because she has a beautiful tone in her voice and a willingness to learn,” Heggins said. “She connected with the poems she chose in every way and you can hear it. I could listen to her all day.”
Heggins said her own voice also resonates with audiences.
“After joining speech and debate, I can project more emotion and portray different ‘characters’ when performing a poem,” she said. “I create a different person for each poem.”
Sally Squibb, a speech and debate teacher at LHS, said that Heggins and Aguirre stand out as interpreters because of their deep understanding of the poetry.
“They both love it,” she said. “It took them six months to prepare.”
Squibb said they used a microphone in the school’s lecture hall for practice.
“Destinee would ride the bus back here [from Killough] three days a week after school to practice,” she said. “We appreciate the support of the school in these endeavors.”
In most contests, students have a binder with the poetry in front of them. But, in this contest, they were limited in what they could choose.
“That makes it more difficult because they had to go through hundreds and hundreds of poems to find ones that they already knew, or that fit their voice or physical movements,” she said. “But, the hardest part was memorizing all the poems and then bringing them to life.”
Aguirre selected “Spanglish” by Tato Laviera, “A Poison Tree” by Robert Blake and “Weighing In” by Rhina P. Espaillat. Heggins performed “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson, “Self-Help” by Michael Ryan and “Black Boys Play the Classics” by Toi Derricotte.
She chose “Richard Cory” because she has performed it for a few years and was comfortable with it. Anger and frustration dominate ‘Self Help” and she interprets dramatic poems better than happy poems—and people have claimed its their favorite performance of hers, she said.
But as a black teenager, she relates to “Black Boys Play the Classics” the most, she said, particularly through “how the author uses metaphors to show how racism has affected society and black children.”
“The first poem I ever performed was a poem on racism, as are many of the poems I perform,” she said. “My own writing has to do with racism because it’s such a prevalent thing in society and in my life right now, and will be throughout my life.”
Her love for poetry started as a hobby at an early age, she said, but as she got older, it became more than that. Poetry has shown her what she wants to do with her life.
“I want to go into journalism because poetry has showed me the impact that writing can have on people and events,” she said. “Like poetry, journalism talks about cultural issues and gives a voice to the voiceless and that’s why I do it.”
The inaugural “Original Poetry-Writing” contest will also take place at this year’s national finals. Nuyorican Poets CafeSlam Poet Patricia Smith will the judge of students’ writing.
Heggins will interpret an original piece because “It’s a wonderful opportunity for young writers,” she said. It will be her first time performing one of her pieces in front of others.
“I love Patricia Smith. She wrote a lot of work that I’ve performed,” Heggins said. “I want to do slam poetry because I think it’s what I’m best at.”
Heggins said she usually doesn’t get nervous until she’s onstage, but it fades fast once she starts performing. But, she thinks she’ll be more nervous when performing her own poetry.
“It’s harder to perform your own stuff than other people’s writing,” she said. “So my next challenge is sharing my own writing which is a raw piece of me.”