Every year for four years, Northfield, Minn., student Isabella Callery has entered the Poetry Out Loud competition. And every year for three years she got as far as state before going home.
This year, Callery — a senior at Northfield’s Arcadia Charter School — made it to the finals in Washington, D.C. And on Wednesday night, reciting three poems that are “close to her heart,” she won the competition and its $20,000 grand prize.
“To be honest, I was really kind of shocked,” Callery, 18, said. “I didn’t expect that. When they announced third place, I mouthed my name because I thought I’d taken third place.”
More than 275,000 high school students took part in the competition, which begins at the local school level before moving up to a state competition and then the national finals, where the field narrowed to 53 — one student from each of the 50 states as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The rules require that participants memorize and recite three poems, including one of fewer than 25 lines and one written before the start of the 20th century.
Callery’s choices were “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation,” by Natalie Diaz; “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” by Joy Harjo, and “Thoughtless Cruelty,” by 19th-century English poet Charles Lamb. (You can watch Callery recite Lamb’s poem on YouTube.)
“I do love poetry,” said Callery, who is Anishinaabe. “I think it’s a really beautiful way to take something that you’re feeling — any emotion that you have, good or bad — and turn it into something beautiful that people can relate to.”
She chose her three poems carefully. “The first two poems are written by Native artists, and I found a really deep connection, both with the artists and the words they had written,” she said.
The Harjo poem begins with “how your life revolves around kitchen tables, and that was really strong imagery for me. I pictured our old wooden table,” she said.
“And the [Diaz poem] is about how do you, as a Native person, deal with still seeing the effects of Catholicism on the Native culture, and that’s a conversation I’ve had with myself many times.”
She said she chose the Lamb poem because of its theme of saving the life of even the lowly fly — “I do not kill any bugs, not even any mosquitoes,” she said — but she struggled with the best way to recite it because “it’s super rhyme-y. I worked on that a lot.”
Her method was to spend two weeks memorizing the poems. “And then I start going through them line by line, figuring out what each line conveys and how I can best convey that with my body and my face and my inflections.”
At the finals on Wednesday night, she didn’t think she had done well. “I thought I did my poems really badly,” she said. “Sometimes you do a poem and you just feel like you did it the best you could and it’s fully in the moment. But with one of the poems I felt like I did it too slowly, and it really stressed me out.”
Clearly, the judges did not agree.