COLUMBIA — Nine high school students sat fidgeting in their seats, some rifling through programs or glancing at sheets of paper. Teachers and parents sat in the padded conference room seats in Daniel Boone City Building, quietly waiting for the first competitor to walk to the front of the room.
The students competed in the Poetry Out Loud mid-Missouri regional competition on Wednesday. They recited a variety of works from poets such as William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson for a panel of judges. Students recited three poems over the course of three rounds.
The winner will compete in the state contest March 13 in Jefferson City. The national competition is in Washington, D.C., in April.
Sarah Howard, children and youth services manager at Columbia Public Library, served as an accuracy judge for the event. While the three other judges focused on the students' performance and delivery, Howard focused on the fine details of the recitation, such as a mix-up in wording or an added or skipped line.
"You notice I don't look up when they perform," Howard said. "A student can be a great reciter, but not an accurate one."
Although reciting a poem in competition can be over quickly, a few students said the preparation can take much longer.
"I essentially stand in front of a mirror to practice. Sometimes I record on my iPad," Chris Melnyk, a sophomore at Columbia Independent School, said. "I get coaching by my parents."
Rock Bridge High School senior Sara Ashbaugh has participated in Poetry Out Loud competitions for four years. She takes a deliberate approach to preparation.
"I've participated all four years, so I've had a lot of practice," she said. "First I select what I want to perform, then I work on performing. I say them out loud over and over until I have internalized them. Then I'll practice in front of coaches and teachers."
Hickman High School freshman Sophia Casto said her interest in competing was sparked by a class assignment to recite a poem.
"It was an assignment from my teacher to recite a poem, and after the class competition, I made it to the school one, and now I'm here," Casto said.
Ashbaugh — who recited "Poor Angels" by Edward Hirsch, "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" by Walt Whitman and "More Lies" by Karin Gottshall — won the competition.
Ashbaugh walked to the podium to accept a certificate and a Barnes and Noble gift card. Later, she shook hands with other contestants.
"I was a little nervous at first, but I love doing this," she said, "So I was OK after my first poem."