Jeremy Pataky | Juneau Out Loud

Lots of good reasons could justify short wintertime trips to Juneau, but I felt lucky that poetry was the reason behind last week’s trip. Julie Hungiville LeMay and I were invited by Alaska State Council on the Arts (ASCA) to serve as judges for this year’s Alaska Statewide Poetry Out Loud Competition there, a fun opportunity I enjoyed once several years ago. Julie and I were able to head south early enough to offer a 49 Writers reading, too, occasioned by the publication of Julie’s beautiful new book of poems, The Echo of Ice Letting Go (University of Alaska Press).

The reading was hosted by the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center (JACC). When I invited Julie to read the night before judging, she asked if I would join her to read, too. I hesitated, but agreed to read a few unpublished poems, appetizer-style, stuff I’ve written since I last read in Juneau two years ago when Overwinter came out. It was a great pleasure to listen to her—first on the radio that afternoon, briefly, and then at the JACC—and to finally get my own hardcopy of her book.

It was also a great pleasure to have dinner with Stephen Young, a Poetry Foundation Program Director who works on the nationwide Poetry Out Loud program out of Chicago. His visit to Alaska meant especially much to him in light of the season he lived in a tent in Valdez while working in the fishing industry early in the 80s; later, he proposed to his wife in Seward.

Poetry Out Loud encourages high school students to learn about poetry through memorization, performance, and competition. The Alaska program is coordinated by ASCA and JAHC together with support from The National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation.

Two years ago, Maeva Ordaz of Anchorage’s West High School won the national contest in Washington, DC, taking top honors over 365,000 other students who participated at school, regional, and statewide levels across the country leading up to the national contest. Maeva actually won our statewide competition and represented Alaska twice at nationals before her well-deserved win, there.

This year’s Alaska champion is Isabella Weiss, a freshman from Colony High School in Palmer. Junior Elisa Larson of Petersburg High School was runner up. Isabella will move on to nationals next month in DC. Since she’s a freshman, she’ll have three more chances to potentially compete at the national level again after this year, unless she earns another win for Alaska right out of the gate—I hope she does! Isabella recited “Cartoon Physics, part 1” by Nick Flynn, “Requests for Toy Piano” by Tony Hoagland, and “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” – (314) by Emily Dickinson. You can watch the entire 2017 state finals event here.

The nine other competitors offered very stiff competition. They included the aforementioned Elisa Larson, Madeline Andriesen of Haines High School, Amanda Davison of Elim Aniguiin School, Elissa Koyuk of Juneau-Douglas High School, Moriyah Lorentzen of Tanalian School in Port Alsworth, Sarah Price of North Pole High School, Ashelyn Rude of Glennallen School, Juan Sarmiento of Homer High School, and Jania Tumey of West Anchorage High School.

Over 3,700 Alaska students in grades 9-12 participated in Poetry Out Loud across Alaska this year. Since poet and then-NEA chair Dana Gioia created Poetry Out Loud in 2005, over 3.5 million students have participated from 10,000 schools spanning every state, plus Washington, DC, the US Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.

Another great aspect of this year’s competition was Alaska State Representative Sam Kito III and Senator John Coghill’s presentation of a legislative citation to Ernestine Hayes, our current State Writer Laureate. The citation honors her work in the arts and accomplishments as a writer for the state of Alaska. She is, indeed, amazing, and it was a nice surprise to get to lend some heartfelt applause as she was acknowledged.

Emily Wall and Lisa Mariotti of Juneau joined Julie and I as judges, as well as Accuracy Judge Bridget Lujan. All of us were very inspired and impressed by each finalist in this year’s statewide POL competition.

Despite the funny slip of the tongue from actress, comedienne, and Master of Ceremonies Allison Holtkamp, who said “resuscitation” a few times instead of “recitation” before gracefully—and humorously—correcting herself, the POL competition demonstrated that poetry does not need to be brought back from the dead anytime soon. That poetry’s habitat includes the minds and voices of these ten Alaskan high school students who truly enlivened the poems and themselves through their recitations felt deeply inspiring and hopeful. I was glad to be in the @360 studio with them, and glad to be in Juneau among some of the many hard working people who made it happen, like Amanda Filori, Laura Forbes, and Nancy DeCherney. Hearty congrats to Elisa, Madeline, Amanda, Elissa, Moriyah, Sarah, Ashelyn, Juan, Jania, and Isabella. Join us in cheering on Alaska and Isabella next month (National Poetry Month!) at the nation-wide competition, and stay tuned next year for Poetry Out Loud events in schools across the state.

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