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Teen claims Poetry Out Loud title

Poetry Out Loud competitions are part performance art, part memory test, and for those who excel at it, understanding the material in all its nuances is only part of the challenge.

Because, explains Ashlander and Poetry Out Loud state champion Megan Kim, you also have to feel it.

“When I pick a poem, I look at not necessarily, oh, this is a winning poem, or this poem has really good alliterations,” she said. “It could be a really great poem and maybe it doesn’t speak to me. I look for something, a story I can relate to, that means something to me and I can connect emotionally. Because if I can’t connect to the poem and I can’t relate my experiences to it, then I don’t think I can recite it well.”

When Kim does find a poem she connects to, she can recite it about as well as any teenager in the state of Oregon. Kim, an 18-year-old senior at Cascade Christian High School, won the Poetry Out Loud Oregon state championship March 11 in the Salem library, beating out eight other regional finalists who advanced to state. That earned her a $200 cash prize and a spot in the national Poetry Out Loud competition, scheduled for April 24-26 in Washington, D.C.

The victory at state represents a breakthrough of sorts for Kim, who didn’t advance beyond her own high school's ultra-competitive Poetry Out Loud competition the previous two years, placing second as a junior and fourth as a sophomore.

She knew if she could win Cascade Christian’s competition, however, her chances at regionals would be pretty good. Her school’s historical success is notable — last year’s CCHS Poetry Out Loud champion also advanced to regionals and state, and the last student from Southern Oregon to advance to nationals, Jillian Frakes in 2012, was from CCHS.

Organized in Oregon by the Oregon Arts Commission in collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, Poetry Out Loud competitions feature students reciting poems of their choice, testing their public speaking skills as well as their ability to interpret and present complex ideas.

A video, available on YouTube under the title “POL 2017 Vid NewsClip,” captured a snippet of Kim’s powerful state semifinal performance of “Bleeding Heart” by Carmen Gimenez Smith. With the pressure of a state championship and a shot at major scholarship dollars on the line, Kim delivers Smith’s words with the subtle intensity of a seasoned performer.

“I am bleeding for you and for me and for the tiny babies and the IED-blown leg,” she intones. Kim lets “leg” hang in the air for a couple seconds as she scans the audience with cold eyes, her mouth slightly agape. The pregnant pause does its work.

Asked about her nerves before performances, Kim says there’s too much going through her head when she’s up on stage to allow much room for anxiety.

“I get nervous beforehand and when I’m waiting,” she said. “But for me, once I’m actually up there, it’s just the words and it’s just the audience and you. So the nerves, for me at least, they go away. Because I’m here to do this, I’m not here to win. It’s like, this is more important to me and therefore I’m not really concerned about it or nervous about it.”

Immediately before going on stage, Kim goes through a little routine that helps her calibrate her focus.

“I always take a moment and say the poem title, and then I always bow my head and just wait a couple beats just to get in the right mindset,” she said. “And then I start reciting.”

It’s working for her, although she had no idea what her chances were after reciting British poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s “Ode” in the state final. She thought it came off well, but maybe not quite as well as her previous reading.

Every live performance is different, she said, because your current mood organically bleeds into the readings, giving birth to unplanned, spontaneous reinterpretations that can catch even the most seasoned reader — and by extension, the audience — by surprise.

“What’s really cool about the poetry is that maybe that day you put a different meaning into that line,” she said. “Or you see something new there, or convey a different emotion.”

All nine state competitors stood on stage to await the announcement. First, the woman in front of the microphone announced the alternate, then the winner — Kim, whose reaction was part confusion, part surprise.

“I was not expecting it,” she said between bursts of laughter.

The YouTube video includes the announcement, and if one were to crank up the volume they might be able to make out a short yelp immediately after Kim’s name comes over the loudspeakers. That’s Debbi Armas, the communications coordinator for Grace Cascade Christian Schools, who drove Kim and her mom Carol to Salem for the competition.

“She was like squealing a little,” Carol Kim said of the moment. “It was just this great joy. … It was like, ‘Wow, that’s awesome.’ ”

Carol Kim will accompany her daughter to D.C.

Megan Kim also plays the flute and studies ballet, and she somehow found time last year to start, edit and contribute to a 64-page literary magazine at CCHS called “Spark.” She’s hoping to bring it back this spring.

Kim’s passion for art comes through in her editor's note.

“I wanted to begin something that would spread like a wildfire,” she writes. “Sparks. Snippets of creativity exposed to the world. Vulnerability. The human experience embedded in paper. Dialogue. Matches made of words and images with the ability to set the school ablaze — not to burn it down, but to heat it up. To illuminate it.”

— Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.

Megan Kim, third from left, reacts as she is announced as the winner of the Oregon Poetry Out Loud competition. [Photo by Gordon Wilson]
Megan Kim competes on March 11 in the Oregon Poetry Out Loud finals in Salem. [Photo by Gordon Wilson]