COLUMBIA — Even for a library, the silence was remarkable — the turning of a page caused heads to crane. With an impish grin, Rosa Hoyle of Jefferson City started her first recitation, “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll:
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Rosa’s gestures as she spoke were few but sure — outstretched arms, a sweep of the hand. Her voice was steady. The whimsical poem, from “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There,” was a bedtime story that one sibling read to another in the Hoyle home.
Rosa’s performance was a natural extension of a lifetime of books and reading. At 15, she was the youngest student to compete in the mid-Missouri arm of the Poetry Out Loud contest. About 50 people had gathered in the Friends Room at the Columbia Public Library for the annual contest on Feb. 12. Ten students participated.
Poetry Out Loud was started as a limited pilot program in 2005. It expanded the next year, and Missouri signed on in 2006. Last year’s contest involved 300,000 high school students nationwide.
“It gives them exposure to poetry,” Ken Logsdon, master of ceremonies, said later. “I think it’s much less exposure than when I was growing up. It gives them a diversion and worldliness they might otherwise not have.”
This was Rosa’s first competition, and she represented the Jefferson City Home Educators, a home-schooling association to which her family belongs. That group had held a competition in January, with 15 participants. Rosa showed up at the Columbia competition with an entourage of fellow home-schoolers.
And when she won, two of her friends, who were leaning forward and clasping each other’s hands, let out a cheer. Rosa had one of those “is this really happening?” smiles on her face. “I’m just flabbergasted,” she said right after the contest. “I’m the youngest performer.”
The students were judged on physical presence, voice and articulation, appropriateness of dramatization, the poems’ level of difficulty, evidence of understanding and overall performance.
“One of the wonderful things about both your performances is that you really look like you’re having a good time,” Chad Parmenter, one of the judges, told Rosa and the runner-up, Amanda Bunner of Cole Camp.
An early love of words
For winning the local competition, Rosa received a $25 gift card to Barnes & Noble with which she later bought Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” She also was given instructions about representing the central Missouri region at the state championships — including the suggestion that she practice in a high school auditorium, which she didn’t do.
Rosa goes to school at home, a two-story brick house in downtown Jefferson City. She and her siblings — Ulzii, 13, Kalo, 17, and Evan, 21 — have been taught by their parents. Michael and Heather Hoyle trade off periods of time, with one working full time outside the home. Michael Hoyle currently works for Missouri Wildflowers Nursery.
Heather Hoyle, a former public school teacher, said the Jefferson City group didn’t know that home-schoolers were eligible until December so they had little time to prepare. “It was hard work. Those are long speeches,” she said. “Poetry is complex language in a simple-looking package.”
Because it was their first year competing, it was something of an experiment.
“When she got into the competition, we really didn’t know what to expect,” Heather Hoyle said. “We still don’t understand where the line is for dramatization.”
She and her husband have read stories and poems to their children since they were little. A family favorite was an old children’s anthology, including Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” that had belonged to Heather Hoyle’s mother when she was a child.
“They don’t have to know their ABCs to be able to sing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,’” Heather Hoyle said. “They can enjoy the sound of the words.”
Hearing her mother say this, Rosa piped up. “You’re good at reading poetry so even though we couldn’t read, we could appreciate it.”
Even though three of the children are teenagers and Evan has married and moved out, the Hoyles still read together. They recently reread “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien and now are on the Lemony Snicket series by Daniel Handler.
“Especially in the winter, we’ll sit there together and read,” Heather Hoyle said. “All their life we’ve gone to the library and just gotten piles and piles of children’s books.”
Rosa loves children’s classics, her favorite being “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. She doesn’t read a lot of poetry but likes Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and enjoys fairy tales such as those by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson.
“When I was learning to read, it was a real incentive to be able to read these books I’ve heard all my life,” Rosa said. “For me, I wanted to learn how to read ‘Lord of the Rings.’”
Practice makes pentameter
The Hoyles began home schooling “purely for fun,” Heather Hoyle said. “We just love being with our kids. My kids are anything but sheltered. They’re out in the world all the time.”
Rosa’s extracurricular schedule is full: ballet, modern dance, karate, speech and debate, gymnastics and playing cello in the Jefferson City Symphony. She began doing speech at age 8 or 9 and debate when she was 12. She recently placed in the National Christian Forensics and Communications Competition.
“I just do speech because I like acting,” Rosa said. “Dancing is my real joy. I thought about maybe being a modern dancer for a while.”
Her career interests are all over the map. Maybe it will be photojournalism; she’s interested in making videos for National Geographic and currently takes pictures using film. Or maybe it will be biology. Rosa also draws and paints and writes a little poetry. The last one she wrote was about how she hadn’t practiced her cello in a week and how silly it was to not practice when she enjoyed playing. She also wrote a poem about concentration camps when she was studying Nazi Germany.
“Maybe it’s just me, but I can only write if I’m inspired at the moment,” she said. “I don’t consider myself a poet at all.”
Still, she enjoys bringing life to other people’s works when she takes the stage. During the three weeks between the regional contest and the state contest, Rosa recited her three entries every day, dedicating part of the time to smoothing out her movements.
“It’s kind of hard you know figuring out what to do with your arms,” she said.
Rosa’s poems, which she drew from an anthology required by the competition, meant something special to her: “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll, because it spoke to her; “The Powwow at the End of the World” by Sherman Alexie, because her mother likes him; and “Sonnet 116” by William Shakespeare because she loves Shakespeare and it was her favorite of his in the anthology.
“She’s one of those kids that’s naturally attracted to Shakespeare at 11 or 12,” Heather Hoyle said. “She’s one of those weirdos.”
Her mother helped her practice, especially breaking the sonnet down into iambic pentameter and emphasizing the repeated sounds from line to line. “Even though I’ve heard them 50 times now, you can hear it when she gets it,” Heather Hoyle said.
Rosa said she still discovered new things in the works and marvels at the poets’ genius. “That’s the whole thing about poetry — there’s all these feelings and meanings squashed into one little poem.”
Camaraderie at the contest
At the state competition in Jefferson City on March 3, Rosa wore a black collared shirt and a patterned red skirt with a wide belt. Some applesauce — her comfort food — from breakfast had stained her skirt, but it wasn’t obvious.
As she waited for the contest to begin at the Etta & Joseph Miller Performing Arts Center, Rosa flitted back and forth between her friends from the home-schooling group and the other contestants. Dignitaries including Missouri’s first poet laureate, Walter Bargen, and the first lady of Missouri, Georganne Wheeler Nixon, made brief speeches in the near-empty auditorium.
David Clewell, professor and director of creative writing at Webster University in St. Louis, was introduced as the 2010 state poet laureate. Reading poetry aloud, Clewell said afterward, “brings it alive. Poetry is a physical pleasure.”
When it came time to compete, Rosa went first. She climbed the stairs to the stage and began “Jabberwocky” in a calm, clear voice. The nine students who followed her recited poems by Allen Ginsberg, Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, William Butler Yeats and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Before the competition and again later, Rosa said she had been nervous, but it didn’t show. Overall, she was pleased with her performance.
After Nicole Andrews from Central High School in Springfield was announced as the winner, and the contestants joined their families, Rosa’s friend ran over and handed her a red rose.
Rosa was prosaic about the loss. “I’m just relieved I don’t have to memorize anything anymore,” she said.
Not for a while, anyway. Next year, she’ll be back.