WALNUT CREEK -- Poise, perfect planning and powerful language were on full display Feb. 8 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 in Sacramento March 23-24 to represent Contra Costa.

Las Lomas junior Victoria Baca recites a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay titled "Time Does Not Bring Relief: You All Have Lied" while
Las Lomas junior Victoria Baca recites a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay titled "Time Does Not Bring Relief: You All Have Lied" while participating in the 7th annual Poetry Out Loud competition at Las Lomas High School in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014. The event is presented by the Arts and Culture Commission of Contra Costa County. The winner of today's event will compete in the state competition in Sacramento on March 16-17. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

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 College Park High junior Natalie Hill.

"The world is flux, and light becomes what it touches," she recited during the competition's second round. Capturing the poem's wave -- how it surged and subsided -- Hill allowed well-phrased snippets like "blue vapor without end" to linger. The poem, "Monet Refuses the Operation" by Lisel Mueller, "spoke to her," she said after the competition.

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

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," Baca said moments before her second recitation. 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 Richmond High 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 placing his hands together flat, or clasped, spoke Cornelius Eady's "I'm a Fool to Love You" as if in prayer. "This is the way the blues works/ Its sorry wonders,/ Makes trouble look like/ A feather bed,/ Makes the wrong man's kisses/ A healing." he said. 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 from "very weak" to "outstanding" 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 today's competitors needed a prompt, which is fabulous," Moore said.

Moderator and AC5 Commissioner Petural "PJ" Shelton ran a tight ship, staying exactly on schedule while segueing as smoothly as the event's soundtrack (selections from Canadian guitarist Don Ross's "Huron Street") from the students' presentations through pauses for vote tallying. Massaging 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 Joyce Gunn, Lea Kagel, Maya Kennedy, Peter Maund, Connie Van Guilder and Elizabeth Wood awarded third place and a $50 cash prize to College Park's Hill, who thanked her mother for coaching her performance. Richmond High's Leal placed second, receiving $100 and the opportunity to publicly thank his teacher, "Ms. Amanda."

Las Lomas' Baca thanked her parents after the win: "They're here now; they've always been my supporters and I love you," she said. Perhaps not poetry, but quite possibly the finest spoken words of the afternoon.