WALNUT CREEK -- Poise, perfect planning and powerful language were on full display at the seventh annual county finals of "Poetry Out Loud," a program sponsored at local high schools by the Arts & Culture Commission of Contra Costa County (known as AC5).

Eleven top-placing students -- one from each of 11 competing Contra Costa County high schools -- took the Las Lomas High School Theatre stage, winnowed from the 2,000 participants in the National Endowment for the Arts and National Poetry Foundation program.

Las Lomas High junior Victoria Baca took top honors, earning $200 and a trip to the state competition March in Sacramento to represent Contra Costa.

Poetry Out Loud began in Washington, D.C. and Chicago, but with the nationwide launch in 2006, state arts agencies and organizations like AC5 have partnered with the program to give birth to a generation of close to a million mighty, oral wordsmiths.

One of them is Natalie Hill.

"The world is flux, and light becomes what it touches, " she recited during the competition's second round, capturing the rhythm of "Monet Refuses the Operation" by Lisel Mueller.

"I chose poems I could connect to and content I agreed with," Hill said.

Students and teachers follow a curriculum, but each school designs its specific approach. AC5 provides coaching visits with poet/teachers from California Poets in the Schools free of charge to all participating high schools.

In addition to memorizing and reciting poems chosen from a master list of approximately 600 poems, students learn technical tools for effective public speaking and dig into the history of their chosen poem and its poet. To compete on the county level, students memorize two poems: one written before 1900 and one that is 25 lines or less.

"I'm a drama kid, so I'm always on stage. The light shining on me: I just click into the zone," said Baca.

She was accompanied by her parents, Stella and Michael; they used to coach her, but have since backed off, they said, now that she is older. They admitted to eavesdropping when Baca practices in the shower. Even so, her mother said seeing it live and lit is "like hearing it for the first time."

Carlos Leal's coaching was a more face-to-face encounter. His English teacher, Amanda Moreno, said Leal is "big into rapping" and emerged as a surprise talent. She worked on his tone and presentation.

"We have all our kids do the program: he just became a star, " Moreno said.

Leal, swaying gently and clasping his hands, spoke Cornelius Eady's "I'm a Fool to Love You" as if in prayer. His subtle delivery didn't try to make the poem bigger than it was -- tiptoeing across the poem's pain revealed its deep, heart-scarring content.

During intermission, Poetry Out Loud coordinator Robin Moore explained the rubric judges use to determine the county winner. Scoring guidelines allow ratings to be applied to physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, level of difficulty, evidence of understanding and overall performance.

Accuracy points are subtracted for skipping words, reversing stanzas, saying "a" instead of "the," using a prompter and other transgressions. "None of (the) competitors needed a prompt, which is fabulous, " Moore said.

Moderator and AC5 Commissioner Petural "PJ" Shelton ran a tight ship, staying exactly on schedule from the students' presentations through pauses for vote tallying. Calming the contestants' possible nervous jitters, Shelton peppered her introductions with "I tell you, this group has really raised the bar!" and challenges to the adults over 40 to memorize any one of the day's poems.

Judges were Joyce Gunn, Lea Kagel, Maya Kennedy, Peter Maund, Connie Van Guilder and Elizabeth Wood.

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