Vivi Ostheimer is an actor, singer and instrumentalist, but she never saw herself reciting poetry in front of an audience — that is, until she attended the annual Buffalo High School Poetry Out Loud competition last year as a freshman. She saw her peers perform an array of poems and bring them to life on stage, and that ignited her interest and inspired her to register the following year.
On Jan. 15 in the BHS auditorium, she and 16 other high schoolers each recited two poems for an audience of students and school staff, which included four teachers who served as the judges.
Ostheimer won, to her surprise and delight. She said she did not enter the competition to win, only to share poetry with people. She now advances to the state finals sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. The contest is administered by the Wyoming Arts Council. She will compete against champions from nine other high schools in the state.
Performers are judged on accuracy, physical presence, evidence of understanding, dramatic appropriateness, voice and articulation and overall performance.
According to Kira Wages, a contest sponsor who scored for accuracy at the competition, Ostheimer’s delivery was excellent.
“She has a subtle and lovely speaking voice that allows the poem to float in the air,” said Wages.
Ostheimer said that fear of forgetting the poems motivated her to recite the poems over and over again.
During the day, she’d reread the poems and then write them down to commit them to her memory.
“I went to bed with poetry in my head a lot,” said Ostheimer.
She also learned movements to put more feeling into her recitation, after considering what her choir teacher had said before: Audience members listen with their eyes, and performers sound like they look.
“No matter how beautifully someone sings or recites something, if they look terrified or bored, it will not come across as a practiced piece,” said Ostheimer.
Although she felt a little anxious before her performance and self-conscious about the movements, once she began reciting, she was fine.
“I get swept up into what I am doing and forget I am on stage with people looking at me,” said Ostheimer.
Ostheimer chose her first poem, “Burning the Old Year,” by Naomi Shihab Nye, because it reminded her of the winter solstice celebration that her family hosts every year. As part of the tradition, everyone writes down their regrets or something they want to let go of from the past year and then they toss the slips of paper into the fire.
“It was a strong tradition for me growing up, so when I saw that poem, it spoke to me,” said Ostheimer.
She chose her second poem, “Song of the Powers,” by David Mason, which is based on the game rock, paper, scissors,” because she liked the flow of it and how it employed personification and metaphor to describe conflict.
“It was a fun poem with a dark meaning,” said Ostheimer.
For the state competition, each participant must prepare three poems. One must be 25 lines or fewer, and one must be written before the 20th century. Ostheimer chose “The Coming Woman,” by Mary Weston Fordham, as her pre-20th century poem, partly because it incorporated humor that her other two selections did not have.
“I think it’s important to have diversity in your poems so the judges can see you have range,” said Ostheimer. “Hopefully, with this poem, I will be able to switch up the mood, because my other two are pretty solemn.”
She also felt like it was a “statement poem,” because the gender roles are reversed and the woman asks the man to do things for her.
After she memorized her third poem, she said, she worked with Wages on improving her recitation before the state competition.
In the past, the state finals were held in Cheyenne, but due to COVID-19, the program coordinator for the state is visiting each school to record a video of the winners reciting their poems.
Benefits of participating in Poetry Out Loud, Wages said, is that the competition prompts for a close, analytic reading of a text, and the memory of the poems a student recites may last a lifetime.
“It is a gift to have a piece of art floating around in your head for your whole life,” said Wages.