When Savannah Hillebrand gets nervous, she takes deep breaths to calm herself. Just thinking about it gives her butterflies, so she begins to wind sun-kissed locks of hair tightly around her fingers.
On Feb. 2 and Feb. 3, Hildebrand competed in — and won — New Gate School’s Poetry Out Loud recitation contest, a competition that encourages youth to learn poetry through memorization and performance. In March, she will compete at the state level against students from 77 Florida high schools for a chance to represent that state at the national championship in Washington, D.C.
Although Hillebrand has landed a few acting gigs, this competition marks the 10th-grader’s first time reciting poetry before a team of judges. She memorized two poems: “On Virtue,” by Phyllis Wheatley, and “I Carry Your Heart With Me,” by e.e. cummings.
She’s often drawn to pre-20th century poetry — pretty much anything that’s old and tied to a historical time. When it came time to choose what to recite, she picked the poems she felt could really come to life on stage. It took one week of practicing once per day, memorizing one stanza at a time.
“It was like I was in another place in my poem,” Hillebrand said. “You definitely had to work with the poem and dissect it … go through deep analysis of the poem, just to be able to know the inflection you were going to use, the cadence of your voice and how to recite the poem beforehand.”
Nine judges evaluated the 23 New Gate candidates over a two-day period based on their demeanor, eye contact, physical presence and accuracy, to name a few qualifications, with five finalists reciting on the second day. Ninth-grader Beth Osborne-Schwartz was named runner-up in the competition, which was organized by faculty member Amy Kremer.
Hillebrand plans to keep “On Virtue” as her first poem for the state competition, but because contestants must recite three poems, she has added “I Felt a Funeral in my Brain,” by Emily Dickenson, and “Litany,” by Billy Collins.
“It kind of feels like an old friend that you put in your pocket every day after working with it and getting to understand it,” Hillebrand said. “When I was reciting the poem, it was near to me. I wasn’t so detached from it.”
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