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The Bard is Alive and Well at Charlotte Amalie High School

Nov. 27, 2007 — Her recitation was poised, unflinching and worthy of shivers:
When the medication she was taking
caused tiny vessels in her face to break
leaving faint but permanent blue stitches in her cheeks
my sister said she knew she would
never be beautiful again

And so began Charlotte Amalie High School sophomore Shawntay Henry, reciting a poem by North Carolina writer Tony Hoagland entitled "Beauty." Henry, who ultimately nailed first place in the school's "Poetry Out Loud" contest Tuesday, left the stage amid cheers and was practically irrepressible a few hours later when she was called back up and congratulated on her victory.
Coming in second was Jouvieur Pennyfeather, a junior, with a rendition of Paul Dunbar's "You Wear the Mask."
"Poetry Out Loud" is a nationwide competition sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation and presented locally in partnership with the V.I. Council on the Arts. Students were responsible for memorizing two poems from a select anthology and reciting them using interpretive skills.
This is the first year the territory has participated, and it kicked off Tuesday with some 30 CAHS students competing in the first leg of the competition that will eventually earn a winner $20,000 in scholarship money.
Students, like senior Veronica Smith, were genuinely eager about presenting their poems, which for her were heartfelt.
"It's empowering, uplifting the black culture," said Smith of the first poem she was preparing to recite, called "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou. Her second poem, "Romance" by Claude McKay, "soothes my soul reading it," she said.
Sitting alongside her, senior Shamir Joseph said as much as he enjoyed studying poetry, he was looking forward to the contest: "For me, it's about learning public speaking, gaining abilities to overcome nervousness and fears."
Tuesday's face off began in September when each CAHS student in grades 9 through 12 was responsible for memorizing and reciting a poem in front of their classmates. Each class selected a winner, whose performances took the better part of the day to complete Tuesday. Listening and watching closely were judges from the Reichhold Center for the Performing Arts, the V.I. Council on the Humanities, the Enid M. Baa Public Library and the Board of Education. The poems students chose ranged from classics like those of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to more contemporary, edgy poems like that of Nikki Giovanni called "Beautiful Black Men."
While some students displayed nerves, missing occasional words or fumbling with their hands, many were able to immerse themselves in the sense of the poems, delivering sometimes stunning recitations that hushed, even startled audience members.
The students were judged on seven qualities: physical presence — meaning posture, eye contract, body language — voice and articulation, level of difficulty, evidence of understanding, overall performance, accuracy and appropriateness of dramatization.
"This is not a theatrical enactment," explained Vanessa Olivacce, advanced-placement literature and language teacher. She explained to the audience that a poetry recitation should be a "subtle dramatization to enhance, not overshadow, the poem."
The contest moves to Julius E. Sprauve Elementary on St. John Thursday, then on to Ivanna Eudora Kean High School on Monday, and will also include two private schools on St. Thomas, as well as public and private schools on St. Croix. Competition dates for St. Croix schools have yet to be determined.
Ultimately, a winner and a runner-up from each competing school will square off in a territory-wide competition March 5 at the Reichhold. The sole winner of that competition goes on to Washington, D.C., to compete against hundreds of students from across the nation and its territories on April 28 and 29. A total of $50,000 in scholarship money will be divided between 15 contestants, with the winner receiving $20,000.
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