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Poetry & Strings: North Dakota's Poetry Out Loud; FM Symphony Orchestra

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Photo by Poppy Mills, ND DOT
NDCA is pleased to announce the results of the 2024 North Dakota Poetry Out Loud (POL) State Championship. The top five finalists pictured above from left to right are as follows: 5th-Maleah Pfeifer, Northern Cass HS; 3rd-Ayden McPartland, Valley City HS; 1st-Circe Atkinson, Mandan HS; 2nd-McKade Picken, Wahpeton HS; 4th-Anna Griedl, Starkweather School.

Show Segments:

Poetry Out Loud
Schools around North Dakota, students spend hours memorizing select poems -- and then more hours, with a coach -- on expression, timing, and articulation to best communicate the poems' meanings to an audience. It's called Poetry Out Loud and the North Dakota statewide competition was at the end of February. Bill Thomas (our former Director of Radio) was there and will be here with an interview of the poetry champion and samples of the best performances.

FM Orchestra's March 16 and 17 Concerts
We preview the Fargo Moorhead Orchestra's "Masterworks 4: The Four Seasons of Vietnam and Tchaikovsky," under the baton of Music Director Christopher Zimmerman. Performances are on Saturday, March 16th at 7:30 pm and on Sunday, March 17 at 2:00 pm. The concert showcases the talents of violinists Chuong Vu and Kit Zimmerman, including Zimmerman's own son, in a powerful display of musical camaraderie and virtuosity.

Poetry Out Loud Interview Highlights:

  1. Circe Atkinson's Personal Connection to Poetry and Mythology: Circe Atkinson, a senior from Mandan High School, chose poems with significant personal connections, including themes of queer representation and ancient Greek mythology, which mirrors her own chosen name inspired by the Greek goddess of sorcery. Her poem selections included "One Girl" by Sappho, "Siren Song" by Margaret Atwood, and "How to Break a Curse" by Danielle Boudreaux-Fortuney, reflecting her interests in LGBTQIA+ representation, Greek mythology, and personal spiritual experiences.
  2. Challenges of Poetry Performance: Atkinson discussed the intricate challenges of performing poetry, particularly focusing on the difficulty of memorizing and articulating complex phrases accurately under the pressure of competition. She highlighted her struggle with two sentences in "Siren Song" that were similar but required precise delivery, showcasing the meticulous preparation involved in poetry recitation.
  3. The Impact of Naming and Identity: Atkinson's journey of self-identification and renaming herself "Circe" after a controversial figure from her birth name demonstrates a deep personal connection to her chosen poems and mythology. This choice of name and the thematic focus on Greek mythology in her poem selection underscore her desire to forge her own identity and path.
  4. The Emotional and Educational Value of Poetry Out Loud: The interview captures the essence of the Poetry Out Loud competition as more than just a contest; it's an educational and emotional journey for participants. Atkinson shared her motivations for participating, including her love for poetry and reading, her desire to see the growth of poetry appreciation in North Dakota, and her personal goal of overcoming a fear of public speaking through the art of poetic expression.

Poetry Out Loud - Transcript:

Main Street

Welcome to Main Street on Prairie Public. I'm Craig Blumenshine. At high schools around North Dakota, students spend hours memorizing selected poems and then even more hours with a coach on expression, timing, and articulation to best communicate the poem's meaning to an audience.

It's called Poetry Out Loud, and the North Dakota Statewide Competition was held at the end of February. Our former director of radio, Bill Thomas, was there. Bill, how are ya?

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

I am good, it was a great contest this year, and I thought it would be good to start right off with a poem from the one who was the overall statewide champion.

Circe Atkinson, Mandan High School

Siren Song by Margaret Atwood. This is the one song everyone would like to learn. The song that is irresistible.

The song that forces men to leap overboard in squadrons, even though they see the beached skulls. The song nobody knows, because anyone who has heard it is dead, and the others can't remember. Shall I tell you the secret?

And if I do, will you get me out of this bird suit? I don't enjoy it here, squatting on this island looking picturesque and mythical, with these two feathery maniacs. I don't enjoy singing this trio, fatal and valuable.

I will tell the secret to you, to you, only to you. Come closer. This song is a cry for help.

Help me! Only you, only you can. You are unique.

Alas, it is a boring song, but it works every time. Hi, my name is Cersei Atkinson. I am a senior at Mandan High School, and I just won the state competition for Poetry Out Loud.

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

Yeah, you did, and that happened because somehow at Mandan High they selected- I was the only one who participated in the school competition. Oh, so you were an automatic winner.

Circe Atkinson, Mandan High School

Yeah, so automatic winner from the get-go.

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

Well, so the way this thing works is you've got to pick three poems. Tell me about the poems you picked.

Circe Atkinson, Mandan High School

So I picked One Girl by Sappho, followed by Siren Song by Margaret Atwood, and then lastly, How to Break a Curse by Danielle Boudreaux-Fortuney. I chose Sappho because I wanted some queer representation. Sappho is iconic when it comes to the sphere circle of LGBTQIA+, and I also just really love ancient Greece and all the mythology that surrounds it, so that's why I picked that.

And then for Siren Song, I chose that because, again, it's based in Greek mythology discussing sirens as birds rather than as mermaids as we now think of in our modern era, which I really like. And then How to Break a Curse is, it hits a bit more close to home since I was raised in a very spiritual way by my mom, and a lot of the things that were recited in that poem are things that I did as a child with my mom, so it's just kind of like a nice memory to breed forth to the stage.

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

Does your name have anything to do with your connection to Greek mythology?

Circe Atkinson, Mandan High School

It does. Circe is the Greek goddess of sorcery. She is primarily seen in works like the Odyssey.

She is the guardian of the island Aeaea and the ruler of nymphs on the island.

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

Did your parents give you that name, and then you just naturally developed an interest in Greek mythology because of it? Because you, like, wondered, what is this name I have?

Circe Atkinson, Mandan High School

I was actually not born with the name Circe. It is a name that I chose for myself. I was named after, in my personal opinion, a very controversial figure, and as, like, I grew up and I learned more about history and what that means in our modern day, I slowly separated myself from it and decided I would choose my own name to forge my own path and not be held back by those who are inherently controversial.

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

And I started immediately noticing that you had a name that recollected Greek mythology, and you seemed to pick poems for that connection. How were those to work on as opposed to, you know, maybe more conventional modern writing poems?

Circe Atkinson, Mandan High School

I just love the stories that come behind them, and I think that verse, like, reading them on the page is so much different than just performing them and seeing it performed. It tells such a different, drastic story. Like, for example, in Sirensong, it reads kind of like almost, like, not, like, regretful, just very much, I got you, you're mine, you are in my grasp, whereas how I choose to perform it is regretful, full of remorse, and just general, I am so sorry that I have to do this.

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

Yeah, and of course, that's one of the things you get judged on is just how well you seem to understand and interpret the poem, and people don't always understand them exactly the same way. What was the hardest one to work on?

Circe Atkinson, Mandan High School

Sirens, there were two sentences in that poem that really just kind of flipped in my brain because they are very similar in nature, but the way that the words are placed in the sentence is just slightly different, so I would, like, flip them in the wrong place, and that was, like, the hardest hill to overcome was actually getting that in the right place.

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

What got you interested in the idea of poetry recitation?

Circe Atkinson, Mandan High School

I've always been a big reader and also a big writer, and by extension, poetry kind of just fell into that. I grew up watching a lot of slam poetry and participating a bit myself, and it's those moments where you feel such a connection in poetry and you feel seen, and I think that that's really beautiful, and that's partially why I wanted to do this competition in the first place, because I didn't think that North Dakota had, like, a very big poetry sphere, you know? So it's just very nice to see, like, locals all come together and cherish the love of poetry.

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

In Bismarck-Mandan, are there some open mic nights going on now?

Circe Atkinson, Mandan High School

There probably is, but I think they're also either 18 up or 21 up.

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

So you're a senior. What are you gonna be doing?

Circe Atkinson, Mandan High School

Well, I am going into fashion design. I'm hoping to get into FIT, which is the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, for their fashion design program.

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

There'll be some open mic nights there.

Circe Atkinson, Mandan High School

Yeah, hopefully.

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

Yeah. How was it being in the contest today? What was that experience like?

Circe Atkinson, Mandan High School

Incredibly nerve-wracking. I have an insane fear of public speaking. However, I am really good at it.

So it's just, it's having to, like, talk myself out of my own fears and just, like, sit down and just recollect myself and just remember that I am good at it and that I can captivate the stage and make whatever I'm saying my own. So even though it is one of my greatest fears, I am trying to slowly overcome it.

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

Well, we're glad that you participated in the contest this year. You were certainly a great addition to it. So thank you.

Main Street

Thank you. Bill, what happens next for her? Is there a next level of competition?

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

Yes. She goes to the national competition in Washington, D.C. and will compete with the winners from all the other states and territories, one from each. And it's a big show when they do that.

She also wins a cash prize for herself and for her school. The school prize is intended to be spent on buying poetry books for the school library. How many students participated?

There were a total, oh, let me see the exact, it was about 15 this year. And it usually runs 15, 16, 17 schools that participate from around the state.

Main Street

Paint the picture for us of where this competition was, where the presenters were, the students who recited the poetry. Were they on a stage, Bill, in front of an audience?

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

Yes, this was at the auditorium at the Heritage Center. And maybe some of our listeners have been there. It's a steeply raked audience.

So the stage is down below in front. It does feel a little bit like a Greek amphitheater. And then the seats rise up, because it was built on a hill.

It's inside the building now, but it was built on a hill. And it's a very nice auditorium, great sound there. And there's a little bit of pageantry to it.

Music plays, the champions from each of the schools process in together and sit down. There's an introduction. The emcee was Alicia Hoagland Thorpe, who many people may remember.

She was on Main Street for a while here and has gone on to other things. And she did a great job introducing everything. And then each student stands up in turn and recites a poem.

And then the judges score them. It's kind of like the Olympic scoring that you see. You've got to do it really fast and just very quickly rate them.

And it's kept anonymous. They don't know what their scores are. And then they each do another poem.

So they do two. And out of that, they select five finalists. And then the five finalists go.

And out of those, they get ranked one through five. And number one is the big winner. And they're reciting a unique poem at each of those levels.

Yes, and these poems are selected by the Poetry Foundation, which is one of the sponsors, one of the major sponsors of the contest. And the Poetry Foundation clearly puts a lot of effort into picking, oh, a few hundred poems that the students can pick from. So it's not like a narrow choice.

But they pick ones that are good for reciting. And some of them are old, going back to the 1600s. And many of them, of course, are contemporary.

Some of them very recently written. How does the North Dakota Council on the Arts participate in this, Bill? Well, they're the local sponsor.

The National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation are the major national sponsors. The North Dakota Council on the Arts organizes the whole thing. And it's a bit of work, because there have to be contests done all according to the guidelines of all the different schools that are participating.

You've got to work out having this statewide meet where they all come in for the competition. So they do all that work. Let's play another poem.

Well, how about another one by Circe?

Circe Atkinson, Mandan High School

How to Break a Curse by Danielle Boudou-Fortune. Lemon balm is for forgiveness. Pull up from the root, steep in boiling water.

Add low-kissed wings, salt, the dried bones of hummingbirds. Drink when you feel ready. Drink even if you do not.

Pepper seeds are for courage. Sprinkle them on your tongue. Sprinkle in the doorway and along the windowsill.

Mix pepper and water to a thick paste. Spackle the cracks in the concrete. Anoint the part in your hair.

You need as much courage as you can get. Water is for healing. Leave a jar open beneath the full moon.

Let it rest. Water your plants. Wash your face.

Drink. The sharpened blade is for memory. Metal lives long.

Never grows weary of our comings and goings. Wrap this blade in newspaper. Keep beneath your bed.

Be patient, daughter. Be patient.

Main Street

Bill, I participated in debate in high school, and if I recall, our competitions also had a poetry, I guess, component. Is that still a place where you can compete on a weekly or a normal basis relative to poetry?

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

In speech contest, it depends on the state and how they organize it, but yes, I think generally speaking, that's true.

Main Street

How much time do the contestants tell you they end up having to prepare for a competition like this?

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

All the ones I've talked to talk about very intensive preparation, spending hours and hours. They work first to win and practice for their local school contest, and then the winner of that one spends more hours working up for the state contest. And I'll have to say, some of the students clearly are more prepared than others, but there's a difference.

Some are more nervous than others. Some are maybe more naturally have stage presence. So everybody has things to work on, and they clearly, most of them really work a lot on these.

Let's find another poem. Let's go to McCade Picken. He was the guy of the ones who made it to the finals.

And this poem, it's kind of the first line of this one is pretty famous. It's from the 1600s. Let's listen to that.

McKade Picken, Wahpeton

To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time by Robert Herrick. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. Old time is still a-flying.

And this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying. The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun, the higher he's a-getting. And sooner will his race be run, and nearer he's to setting.

That age is first, which is the best, when youth and blood are warmer, but being spent, the worse and worse, time still succeed the former. Then be not coy, but use your time. And while ye may, go marry.

For having lost but once your prime, you may forever too.

Main Street

So McCade Picken, he's from Wapington High School. Bill, what are the common characteristics that you notice of participants? And this is something that you have been involved with over the years.

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

I've been a judge for several years, and it's been very interesting to see kids come and go. Some participate for three years in a row. Some are just there once.

There are, you begin to see certain patterns of interpretation, I guess you would say. There's a certain way of, oh, I'm gonna present anger, or I'm gonna present sorrow, I'm gonna present humor. And so that's okay.

It's like a play in football. There's the same play, but how well do you do the play? And that's kind of what you look for here.

We're not looking, and the contest specifically discourages real theatrical performances where you act it out a lot. They want the focus to be on the meaning of the poem. And there's always a few of them, I have to tell you, and this is part of my judging process.

I rate them higher when this happens. There's always a few of them that give me a shiver. What do you mean by that?

So I'm listening to them, and I just feel a kind of a thrill of feeling in myself at a certain point in the poem, that they have, it's a good poem, obviously, to start with, that says something that's meaningful, and they have really done a good job of conveying that meaning, and it just hits you.

Main Street

Are you aware, Bill, of any alumni that have went on and continued at least an interest, if not a career, in writing and poetry? Not much.

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

I don't know much about what has happened to them after there's been few and far between any people that I had any kind of connection to, a personal connection where I would know their family or something, you know, to kind of know what happened. But there have been some that have come back and visited the contest after years, you know, after being in college or whatever, and yeah, some of them have ended up pursuing theater, drama, so yeah, some of them do. Let's have another poem, Bill.

Aiden McPartland from Valley City. I think she did a good job, and people might appreciate this poem because it's got some references that will be familiar to people who've lived through the winter in this part of the country.

Main Street

I already have the feel of chill, Bill, so she's already been successful.

Ayden McPartland, Valley City High School

Blind Curse by Simon J. Ortiz. You could drive blind for those two seconds, and they would be forever.

I think that as a diesel truck passes us eight miles east of Mission, it is churning through the storm. He lists of the hill sliding away. There's not much use to curse, but I do.

Words fly away, tumbling invisibly toward the unseen point where the prairie and sky meet. The road is like that in those seconds. Nothing but the blind white side of creation.

You are there somewhere, a tiny, struggling cell. You might just be significant, but you might not be anything. Forever is a space of split time.

From which to recover after the mass passes. My curse flies out there somewhere. And then I send my prayer into the wake of the diesel truck headed for Sioux Falls.

180 miles through the storm.

Main Street

Bill, do you get a sense of how important poetry is in curriculums in the state to high school students?

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

I think it's not something that's built in in a standard state curriculum in a strong way. So a lot depends on teachers who have an interest in cultivating this in their students and students who have an interest in doing it. And so you'll see some teachers who realize that this is something that can really be of assistance to students.

And I mentioned how some of them come back and they talk about how this is such great preparation for just communicating in general. And of course, public speaking, because you get up in front of this audience, that's kind of stressful and scary. And you have this material that you have to communicate well.

And that's really good training for people.

Main Street

The winner was mortified to speak in public, yet had to overcome that. Right, right. Let's hear another poem.

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

I am going to suggest going to Anna Greedle. She is from Starkweather School. And this was notable to me, Starkweather School, I think the whole school, which is K through 12, has a total of like 50 or 60 students.

So you don't have to be from a big school to be a winner in this series. She was very good. Where is that school, Bill?

It's in kind of the northeast part of the state. It's south of Turtle Mountain, north of Devil's Lake. Here's the poem.

Anna Griedl, Starkweather School

On an Unsociable Family by Elizabeth Hans. Oh, what a strange parcel of creatures are we, scarce ever to quarrel or even agree. We all are alone, though at home altogether, except to the fire, constrained by the weather.

Then one says, "'Tis cold," which we all of us know, and with unanimity answer, "'Tis so." With shrugs and with shivers, all look at the fire and shuffle ourselves in our chairs a bit nigher. Then quickly, preceded by a silence profound, a yawn epidemical catches around.

To comfort each other is never our plan, for to please ourselves truly, it's more than we can.

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

That's a picture, that was from, I think, the 1700s. It was pre-Revolutionary War. Female poet Elizabeth Hand, who wrote in the United States.

But you can picture that kind of family. It's cold, "'Tis so. What's the future of Poetry Out Loud in your eyes, Bill?

Well, I know that the Arts Council is interested in expanding on it a bit. So the contests that these poems and their recitation was part of are structured in a very specific way by the Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. And so they're done in this certain way.

And I know the Arts Council is interested in doing other things with poetry, including, and our winner, Cersei Atkinson referred to this, including the kind of what was called a poetry slam or open mic kind of poetry, where people have the option of doing their own work as well. So they're interested in that. And definitely gonna keep going with it.

Main Street

Bill Thomas, he's our former director of radio here at Prairie Public. And he was, again, a judge at the Poetry Out Loud competition here in North Dakota. Bill, is this always held in the late winter, early spring?

Bill Thomas, Former Prairie Public Director of Radio

It is Sometimes they always have a weather date for it because of that, but this winter was easy. So happens at the end of February, usually. Thank you, Bill, for joining us.

Main Street

More Main Streets ahead. Stay with us.

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