TOWANDA — High school contestants from Bradford, Columbia, Lycoming, Montour, Sullivan, Tioga and Wyoming counties met at the Keystone Theater for the regional Poetry Out Loud competition, Friday, Jan. 17. The winner of Friday’s event qualified for the state championship, scheduled for March 9 at the State Museum in Harrisburg.

The afternoon competition began at 1 p.m., as nine students from across the seven counties took to the stage to demonstrate their understanding of their chosen poems. Each student would present a different poem in three recitations. Of the contestants, local ninth-grader Arika Woodward from North Penn-Liberty High School was the lone representative of Tioga County.

Each student was evaluated on six criteria: physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, evidence of understanding, overall performance and accuracy.

“The reality is, the memorization is the beginning. When you look back to why this program was established, at the very heart it is understanding,” said Gayle Gluck, state manager for Poetry Out Loud. “This is not a theater performance. It is not about drama. It is about the poet and the language. Poetry is a very condensed art form and the poet chooses each word in a particular order for a particular reason and the student needs to own that reason. When they have a physical presence, the vocal skills, the dramatic appropriateness, and a level of understanding that communicates to us in the audience and they are accurate, you have the perfect formula.”

Prior to the competition, students were tasked with learning and studying three poems from Poetry Out Loud’s approved list.

“I spent about two to three months reading the poems beforehand,” Woodward said.

Woodward, who writes her own poetry, said she connected most with the first poem she read during competition. That first poem, “I am trying to Break your Heart” by Kevin Young, was Woodward’s strongest recitation of the day, illustrating both her understanding and connection with the poem.

Though students could pick any poem they wished from the list of approved works, having that connection with the poet helped students’ comprehension.

“When I was picking a poem for this particular competition I was reading through the poems out loud and some of them I just felt like, I could really go off on this,” said Oam Patel, 11th grade student from Williamsport Area High School who won the regional contest. “You truly own a poem when you know that you are not memorizing the words, you are actually feeling the poem, it just flows right off your tongue.”

Patel, who said he started to get interested in poetry at the beginning of this year, demonstrated a thorough understanding of his chosen poems and went on to win Friday’s competition.

“This is the first poetry geared event that I tried. It was really fun and I definitely enjoyed it,” Patel said.

Friday’s competition as well as all Poetry Out Loud competitions help students master public speaking skills, build confidence, literary and foster connections with others.

“We can learn formulas, we can network, we can be educated, but connecting and relating that’s how we are going to find peace in this world,” Gluck said.