The scene on a Napa theater stage was as spare as could be – just a teenage girl on a bare stage, illuminating verses and stanzas as a spotlight cast light on her face.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole …
The lines of William Ernest Hensley’s “Invictus” flowed from the lips of Kristie Chau, gaining punch and momentum seemingly beyond the bounds of the high school freshman’s slim frame. The verbal drama surged in and back out again in little more than a minute, before the 14-year-old American Canyon student serenely sounded out the final words:
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
Chau and five other local teens were the stars of Napa’s Poetry Out Loud recital competition, an annual event organized by Arts Council Napa Valley. For two fortunate performers – those favored by a panel of five judges in the front row – the Monday night contest at the Lucky Penny Productions theater would be a springboard to a statewide contest and, perhaps, to a national final in Washington, D.C.
Poetry Out Loud is a joint effort of the California Arts Council, Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts to promote verse and recitation among high school students. In Napa County, local high schools sent the winners of classroom contests to the Monday event, according to organizers.
“The point is to, while bringing the poem to life, also respect the intention of the author,” said Bethany Crown, an Arts Council program coordinator and the organizer of Poetry Out Loud.
Each reciter selected two pieces from the Poetry Foundation’s online registry of hundreds of works, both classic and modern. The contrasts between one poem and the other were often jarring – and for Olivia Boles, the first to take the stage, that was entirely intentional.
While Boles chose George Herbert’s “Love (III)” “because I felt I should have something that’s lovey-dovey,” the 16-year-old Justin-Siena junior also added the acid-tongued “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation,” with which she opened the contest.
“It had a striking name, and some lines that mean a lot to me. I really like the challenge it makes to society; it’s hard-hitting,” she said of the Natalie Diaz composition, an attack on the conquest of indigenous North American peoples that includes lines like “Everyone knows angels are white.”
While the judges – four poets and an actor – scored performances for phrasing, physical presence and understanding, a sixth judge sat at the same table keeping track of any dropped or extraneous words; all poems are required to be recited from memory.
Sabrina Leipziger had set an especially high bar for her memory; her second piece, Mina Loy’s “Lunar Baedeker,” opens with the kaleidoscopic lines:
A silver Lucifer
cocaine in cornucopia
To some somnambulists
of adolescent thighs
in satirical draperies …
During her rehearsals, said the 15-year-old New Technology High School sophomore, “I would write it out, three or four times from memory, and then I’d compare it to the poem and ask myself, ‘Did I miss anything?’”
An hour later, the judges’ results came in; Boles was named the winner and would be entered into California’s Poetry Out Loud event March 18-19 in Sacramento. Joining her would be her Justin-Siena schoolmate Mary Cate Hyde, whose reading of Dorothy Parker’s “Love Song” had drawn the audience’s laughs with the over-the-top outbursts of the poem’s jilted lover: “My own dear love, he is all my heart— and I wish somebody’d shoot him!”
Chau, meanwhile, appeared gratified simply to have reached the finish line of a path that led her from the stoicism of “Invictus” to the warm-hearted spirit of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s “I Am Offering This Poem,” in which she wrapped her arms around herself to punctuate the narrator’s hopes for a beloved to keep the verses “like a warm coat when winter comes to cover you.”
“Relieved,” she answered afterward with a nervous exhale and laugh. “Very relieved.”