In recent years, Greenbrier East High School has built a reputation for producing winners in the West Virginia Poetry Out Loud competition.
Following in the footsteps of two-time state champion Neely Seams of Lewisburg, Greenbrier East senior Brett Napier captured this year’s title in the competition held in Charleston earlier this month. Between them, Seams and Napier have brought three out of the last five Poetry Out Loud titles home to the Fairlea high school.
Greenbrier West High School also climbed into the spotlight at this year’s state competition, as Tia Walkup took second-place honors. This marked only the second time in the West Virginia event’s history that both the winner and the runner-up hailed from the same county.
Poetry Out Loud is a poetry recitation contest sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry Magazine, the oldest English-language monthly publication dedicated to verse. The program is designed to encourage high school students to learn about great poetry through memorization, performance and competition.
Beginning at the classroom level, 4,167 students and 113 teachers at 51 West Virginia high schools participated in the Poetry Out Loud program this year. Of those 4,167 students, 45 moved on to compete in the state semifinals, with the top 10 contestants moving on to the finals.
“I’ve always enjoyed public speaking,” Napier said in a recent interview with The Register-Herald.
Despite his having “no interest in poetry” at the time, when the White Sulphur teen was in ninth grade, English teachers Celia Moore and Kallie Cochran encouraged him to take a stab at the school’s Poetry Out Loud competition.
He was a natural, placing third in a school-level contest that Neely Seams won that year, on her way to the state championship.
“Every year since then, I’ve moved up in the standings,” Napier said. “In 10th grade, I was first at the school and top 20 at the state. In 11th grade, I was first at the school and top 10 at the state. This year, in 12th grade, I was first at the school and first at the state.”
The 17-year-old pointed out that his friends and family have been enormously supportive of his efforts.
His mother has been instrumental in helping him prepare for the competitions. During those practice sessions, Napier said, his mom starts out with poem in hand as he recites. The next portion involves her helping him present appropriate emotion and emphasis in his recitation. And the sessions may conclude with an examination of the meanings and backstories of the poems to provide context.
In addition to those practice sessions at home with his mother, Napier also practices in class at Greenbrier East and after school at Greenbrier Valley Theatre in Lewisburg, either in the rehearsal hall or onstage, with GVT assistant artistic director Courtney Susman helping him to prepare.
Each Poetry Out Loud competitor must be prepared to recite three poems, one of which must be a pre-20th century work and one of which must be less than 25 lines.
Napier combines the two special requirements in one of his chosen poems — the 17th century work “The Glories of Our Blood and State” (also known as “Death the Leveller”) by James Shirley. The other poems he recites are “Candles” by Carl Dennis and “My Brother the Artist, at Seven” by Philip Levine. Each takes between two and four minutes to recite.
Walkup’s poems were “Quite Frankly” by Mark Halliday, “Very Large Moth” by Craig Arnold and “A Song: Lying is an occupation” by Laetitia Pilkington.
Napier received $200 and an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., for the national finals on April 30 through May 1. Greenbrier East High School received a $500 stipend to buy poetry books and materials.
As the runner-up, Walkup received $100. Greenbrier West High School was awarded $200 to purchase poetry books and materials. Her teacher is Jaye-Andrea Arp.
In a “Time Out for Applause” recognition at the Greenbrier County Board of Education’s March 12 regular meeting, Christy Clemons-Rodgers, coordinator of grants, partnerships and community relations for the school system, said in prepared remarks, “Brett and Tia, you make us ‘Greenbrier County proud,’ and we congratulate you both on your remarkable talents and accomplishments.”
Others students from the newspaper’s readership area who competed at the state level in the Poetry Out Loud event were: Maggie McAllister of Fayetteville High School, Emily Cales of Meadow Bridge High School, Galilea Villasenor of Nicholas County High School, Fiona Legg of Oak Hill High School, Natalie Adams of Shady Spring High School, Dylan Cain of Woodrow Wilson High School and Kalli Stewart of Wyoming East High School.