A Night at Poetry in Voice

Saturday April 16, 2011

This morning I found myself half-reading, half-reciting the poem "The Darkling Thrush" by Thomas Hardy to our cat Gizmo. It wasn't for his benefit (although sometimes I think Gadget could do with a little more culture), rather it was because I simply don't have enough poetry memorized. That wasn't a big problem for me - wasn't even something I vaguely considered a problem - until a dozen high school students came along and ruined everything.

My happy little non-poetry-memorizing world was shattered this past Tuesday night when Steve and I took in the Poetry in Voice 2011 Recitation Finals. This was the first year for the event, which offered students from several Ontario high schools the chance to compete for thousands of dollars in prizes by memorizing and reciting poems from a select collection. This wasn't about writing poetry, it was about students exploring existing literature and connecting with it on a whole new level.

And connect with it they did.

When I had sheepishly asked Steve if he'd go with me to watch the thing, I was expecting there would maybe be a handful of pieces we would genuinely enjoy. But all twelve of the participants blew us away, and while I sat beaming in my seat at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts I was embarrassed on two fronts; first that I had doubted them at all, and second oh-my-god-why-can't-I-think-of-the-lines-to-single-poem-right-now!

(Left to Right) Suzanna Alsayed, Lily MacLeod, David Castillo, Amelia Druskis, Mélodie Cyr, Victoria Campbell, founder Scott Griffin (of the Griffin Poetry Prize), Estera Musiala, Jonathan Welstead, Brogan Carruthers, Spencer Slaney, Malvika Chowdry, and Anna Jiang
@Tom Sandler/Poetry In Voice

The competition played out in two rounds, with three finalists going on to perform one last poem.  Jonathan Welstead (Grade 12, Upper Canada College) took first place, which didn't surprise me at all (there are lots of checkmarks and exclamation points in the notes I made in my program next to his name). He earned $5000 for himself and $2,500 for his school library. Anna Jiang (Grade 12, Victoria Park Collegiate Institute) took second, earning $1000/$500, and Spencer Slaney (Grade 10, Lockerby Composite... Grade 10!) took third and $500/$500.

I could go on forever about how good the night was, but I'll contain myself to a few highlights (mostly taken from the aforementioned program scrawls):

  • The young jazz trio that played throughout were wonderful, as was the sticker "Drum machines have no soul".  Also, the drummer himself is litearlly a musical giant, which we discovered when he walked past us at intermission.  Awesome.
  • I was glad Albert Schultz confessed he was going to be stumped by the French poems; made me feel a little better.
  • In the tough opening spot, Amelia Druskis really drew me in with "I Am" by John Clare
  • Lily MacLeod offered a more gentle take on Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • Spencer Slaney looked sombre through the on-stage photo session and sombre through "Spleen" by Charles Baudelaire, then flashed a surprising, charming smile to let us know when the poem was done! (a moment captured in the Open Book Toronto photo gallery of the event - image 5 of 34!)
  • I couldn't understand much of "Le Moulin" by Émile Verhaeren, yet I still really enjoyed Victoria Campbell's recitation.
  • Jonathan Welstead had me (and the rest of the crowd, I think) when he pulled out a flawless Scottish brogue for Robbie Burns' "To a Mouse".
  • Anna Jiang was the first to go to Eliot (one of my favourites) with a great take on "Journey of the Magi" 
  • Suzanna Alsayed and Malvika Chowdry demonstrated beautifully how you can put yourself into a poem with two different but solid takes on "It Couldn't Be Done" by Edgar Albert Guest.
  • I can't believe Mélodie Cyr is only in Grade 9!
  • David Castillo showed he's a performer at heart; funny and full of variety
  • Estera Musiala gave a superb, passionate recitation of "Chicago" by Carl Sandburg
  • Brogan Carruthers was another one who I enjoyed both in French and English!
  • Steve and I both agreed it was a great night, and something we hope to do again next year!
Macleans put together a video from the night where you can hear snippets of the performances.  (You can also read the whole Macleans article on the inaugural Poetry in Voice competition

Next year the program will be open to all high schools in Ontario and Quebec, and in 2013 it goes national.

As for me, I've got the first two stanzas of "Darkling Thrush" down and a book of "The Top 500 Poems" to work with.

Steve may end up regretting that night after all.


Appendix One - The Poems
If you're wondering which poems were recited, I wrote them out in order of performance.  Just for you.