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OAKLAND -- Sharanya Stanley's voice carried the audience through the imagery of Philip Levine's poem "My Brother, The Artist, At Seven," building anticipation when it was needed and presenting an authentic voice to the words.

"As a boy he played alone in the fields behind our block, six frame houses holding six immigrant families, the parents speaking only gibberish to their neighbors.

Without the kids they couldn't say 'Good morning' and be understood. Little wonder he learned early to speak to himself, to tell no one what truly mattered ..."

The poem helped the Dublin High School senior win first place Wednesday in the third annual Alameda County Poetry Out Loud competition, presented by the Alameda County Arts Commission. Stanley beat three other contestants in two rounds of poetry recitation.

Poetry Out Loud is a nationwide competition where high school students compete by reciting classical poetry for a $20,000 first-place prize with an additional stipend for the winner's high school. The competition, currently in its eighth year, starts at the high school level and progresses through the counties, the state and then to the national finals in Washington, D.C., from April 28 to 30.

Students are judged on six categories: physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, level of difficulty, evidence of understanding and overall performance. An accuracy judge also submits a score based on how accurate the recitation is to the original poem.

It is no wonder her performance of Levine's poem and "April Love" by Ernest Dowson qualified her for the state finals. Stanley, encouraged by her English teacher to compete, was thrilled to be named the winner in just her second year of the competition.

"I'm really excited; I did not think this was gonna happen," she said. "There will be a Facebook status by tonight and then I'll be letting all my friends know at school."

Stanley will be reciting these two poems and a third poem, "The Painter" by John Ashbury, at the state finals in Sacramento on March 24 and 25. To prepare for the competition she'll be working closely with her current English teacher and practice as much as possible.

"I'm always impressed by the teenagers ... they are having to play the role of an artist," poetry judge Neil Sinclair said. "These young people are challenged to understand content of older poets, and these are deep themes."

Niveditha Raghavan, a junior at Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton, was the runner-up, reciting "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" by Emily Dickinson and "Beautiful Wreckage" by W.D. Ehrhart. She will still have to prepare three poems for the state finals in the event that Stanley cannot make it.

"I feel pretty good" about getting second place, she said. "This experience has definitely been progressive."

A veteran of the competition, Raghavan has participated since her freshman year, making it to county that first year and now working to make a comeback. Although not the winner this year, she is optimistic about her performance and still has next year to try one last time.

About 15 schools in the county were called to participate, but the competition Wednesday only saw four contestants. The two other competitors, sophomore Michelle Bostrom and junior Maawa Alhafid, were from Oakland Military Institute and Foothill High School, respectively.

"We're still growing, but next year, we want to work more closely with Alameda County and we hope to have more participating schools in the future," Rachel Osajima, director of the Alameda County Arts Commission, said.