Crater student finds her voice through poetry
Most people might not think much of an abandoned farmhouse, but Crater High School junior Clara Bennett knows how to make it interesting.
With changes of facial expressions and differing vocal cadences, she can recite a poem about a dilapidated structure in the country written by Pulitzer Prize-winning Poet Ted Kooser in 1980.
The passage describes a big, tall, “God-fearing” man who lives with his wife and child in a house with a “weed-choked yard” and a “rusty tractor with a broken plow.” For the family, “money was scarce,” with only tomatoes and plum preserves to eat. One day, the man’s wife decides to leave him “in a nervous haste.”
“Something went wrong, says the empty house,” Bennett said. “Something went wrong, they say.”
She filmed her recital of the poem for the virtual 2022 Oregon Virtual Poetry Out Loud state contest, scheduled for 5 p.m. Friday, March 11. The contest will be streamed on the Oregon Arts Commission’s Facebook page and YouTube Channel.
With Poetry Out Loud, participants “memorize and present poems,” which allows them to practice “public speaking skills while exploring the complexity of poetry,” according to a news release.
Facing an evaluation by a panel of judges, Bennett will also read “The Rainbow” by Thomas Love Peacock and “All of This and More” by Mary Karr, in addition to Kooser’s poem. Bennett had to select works from the Poetry Out Loud Anthology, including one that was dated pre-20th century, so the competition’s rules were part of the reason she selected the works she did.
“Of course, I did want to pick poems that spoke to me, too. I need to feel a connection with them. I need to know what they’re saying, and I need to relate to them,” said Bennett, who also performs in school plays. “Otherwise, it’s not interesting for me to perform them.”
Her ascent to the statewide competition came with starts and stops. Bennett first heard of Poetry Out Loud her freshman year and placed second in her school’s competition. But when the first place winner could not go to the regional event, Bennett did. She placed fourth, making her an alternate to state in case someone else could not participate there. But the start of the pandemic canceled the event.
In the meantime, Bennett continued acting and studied previous poetry winners to learn the art of poetry recitation. She even organized Poetry Out Loud competitions at Crater High School, which her counselor approved.
“She said, ‘OK, if you head it and co-run this, then we can do the competition. At that point, I was like, ‘yeah, sure. I miss doing poetry,’” Bennett said. “I decided to put on the competition.”
Bennett began working closely with Kristen Sullivan, a Crater High instructor who helps organize Poetry Out Loud competitions. The two had known each other for years, and Bennett’s father, Todd Bennett, was once Sullivan’s principal.
“I knew that she was very engaged in our local theater community,” Sullivan said, adding that most Poetry Out Loud students come from the speech and debate team. “She is not a speech and debate student … but I think because of her theater background, it was appealing to her.”
In fact, Bennett mentioned her involvement in acting as what partly inspired her to join Poetry Out Loud.
“I wanted to branch out and learn something new my freshman year — and I really loved it,” she said.
Recitation of a poem obviously requires memorization, but when it comes to how she delivers it to an audience, Bennett has her own style.
“It’s interesting — when I came into my freshmen year of poetry, at first I thought it was acting, where you’re putting on a character,” she said. “I didn’t realize that the words are just as important as the message.”
With each poem, Bennett examines its overall tone. Then, she looks at each sentence and what it’s saying. Finally, she’ll go through each word to determine the tone of her delivery.
“That’s usually when I add pauses and I add how to say different words,” Bennett said. “I just slowly get more specific as I go.”
It can take her two-and-a-half to three hours to fully analyze a poem. But the process doesn’t always come in one sitting.
“Just whenever I’m inspired and I’ll think. Sometimes, I’ll be sitting in class and just go through the poems in my head,” Bennett said. “It’s kind of an ongoing process and it changes constantly.”
Her journey to the public speaking arena was not always a guarantee. She struggled with her own speech and consulted a therapist for nearly a decade.
“It changed from time to time. At first, I couldn’t say my Rs or Ls or blended syllables,” Bennett said. “Throughout middle school, I had a huge problem with stuttering. I (still) have days where I’m just really stuttering (badly) and I can’t turn it off.”
Reciting poetry has helped Bennett with her speech issues.
“I realized when I plan something out and I have it memorized, it’s much easier for me to say it,” she said. “Presenting actually became a comfort thing and that actually helped my mental health.”
Watching Bennett overcome her speech challenges and evolve into a performing artist is one of the reasons her mom, Kim, a District 6 employee, is proud of her daughter.
“I think of all that money we spent (on therapy) and I think that was money well spent,” Kim said. “I’m just incredibly proud.”
Sullivan noted Bennett’s journey to the statewide Poetry Out Loud competition involving the pandemic cancellation and her subsequent help in organizing school events.
“My impression of her was that she had a ton of talent. She’s very professional, has a lot of poise, and is very articulate — especially for being so young,” Sullivan said. “For a freshman, she definitely stood out.”
She applauded Bennett for her ascent to the statewide competition and believes she is more than capable of participating.
“She’s very deliberate about her recitation. She thinks a lot about the choices she makes, so it’s a very perfectly crafted recitation that still has some raw and very authentic elements to it — and that’s what I think sets her apart,” Sullivan said.
Bennett won’t be able to watch her peers recite poetry for the competition Friday, because she’ll be performing in Teen Musical Theater of Oregon’s “The Drowsy Chaperone.” The junior is more confident about how the audience at Crater High will perceive her in the play over what the judges with Poetry Out Loud might think of her recitations.
“To be honest, I’ve no clue how I’ll place because it’s hard when you can’t see the other people’s poetry,” Bennett said. “This is my first time going to state, so I have no idea how I’ll level up with the competition.”
Whatever happens, she is just happy to be given the opportunity to recite poetry for people.
“I really want them to understand not only the poem, but the emotions that go with the poem,” Bennett said. “I want to leave them with a poem that provokes thought and makes them intrigued — something that isn’t just done after the poem is done.”
Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.