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Drama instructor brings Poetry Out Loud competition back to Crook County High School with Cecily Cooper winning the school competition

JASON CHANEY - Sophomore Cecily Cooper won the Crook County High School Poetry Out Loud competition, qualifying her for state.Students gathered Feb. 3 at the Crook County High School Auditorium to present a local Poetry Out Loud competition.

It was the first time the school had held the contest in several years – although when one considers who recently took over as the school's drama instructor, the renewal of the contest should come as no surprise.

"I participated in this contest three years in a row in high school," said Nathaniel Dunaway, a Crook County High School alumnus who is replacing retired drama instructor Anita Hoffman. "I went to state every year. When I was a senior, I won the state contest and got to represent Oregon at nationals in Washington, D.C. It was a formative experience for me, so I'm very excited to be bringing it back to CCHS."

Poetry Out Loud is a recitation contest sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. Competitors selected two poems from the Poetry Out Loud catalogue, which compiles poetry from Shakespeare to Whitman to Angelou and beyond.

Four students competed in the renewed event, with junior Cecily Cooper taking first place and earning a berth in the state competition early next month. She recited "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight" by Vachel Lindsay and "Lineage" by Margaret Walker.

Cooper and other competitors memorized two poems and recited them for an audience while being scored by a panel of judges on categories such as voice and articulation, evidence of understanding, physical presence and more.

Things have changed at the high school and throughout the country since Dunaway performed in high school and the state competitions – particularly because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I tried to make the school contest resemble the in-person events of the past as best I could, but beyond the school level, when you're talking about state and nationals, it's almost entirely virtual, meaning the competitor's recitations are recorded," he said. "On one hand, this can significantly increase the likelihood of a competitor doing well on the physical presence and voice and articulation categories, as it removes the live audience, public speaking aspect that can wreak havoc on their nerves. But on the other hand, like theatre, it loses some of the magic when it's entirely virtual."

The four competitors this year are all theater kids, Dunaway said, but added that one of the great things about Poetry Out Loud that it can bridge the gaps between theater kids, poetry kid, art kid and speech and debate kid.

Everyone has a shot," he said. "In fact, students who are used to acting in plays might have a harder time reciting poetry, because their impulse is to perform the poem. The goal is to walk that tightrope between acting and reciting. The student should be telling a story, but it's the words, the language, that should be at the forefront, not the student's acting abilities. I think Cecily walks that line very well."

While the renewed Poetry Out Loud competition drew only four local high school competitors, Dunaway was not discouraged because "those four brought their A game." However, he hopes to grow the program and see 10-15 participants compete next year.

Fresh off her schoolwide victory, Cooper will add one more poem for the state competition, which will be livestreamed by the Oregon Arts Commission on Friday, March 11 at 5 p.m. And Dunaway likes her chances.

"Right now, Cecily's on the hunt for that third piece," he said. "Knowing her drive, I think she has a serious shot at state."

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