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Oxford High School student named winner in Mississippi spoken poetry contest

Oxford High School student Anna Claire Franklin was recently named Mississippi’s state champion in the Poetry Out Loud spoken word contest.

Poetry Out Loud was created 13 years ago by the Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Franklin, who recently returned from her trip to the national contest in Washington, D.C., said the state and national contests were vastly different from February’s regional contest, but she was grateful for the opportunity to make strides as a public speaker.

“The state contest was televised and I knew the competition was tougher,” Franklin said. “Nationals were, obviously, a lot more pressure. There was a bigger sense of community however, as we were all staying in the same hotel and we all went places and did things together. There was even a slam poetry party after the final round of nationals, and that was awesome.”

At the state level, Franklin read “Diameter” by Michelle Y. Burke, “I Go Back to May 1937” by Sharon Olds, and “Confessions” by Robert Browning. At the national level, she read “What I Learned From The Incredible Hulk” by family friend and Grisham Writer-in-Residence Aimee Nezhukumatathil, as well as the two poems by Burke and Olds.

An active member of the OHS debate team, Franklin said the confidence she’s gained through different types of public speaking is something she used during the POL contest and will continue to use for years to come.

“I was definitely more confident due to debate,” she said. “Having experience with public speaking is so important no matter what you do, and I absolutely felt better doing POL knowing I had my debate experience behind me.”

In order to win the contest, participants had to not only recite their poems word-for-word, but also deliver them flawlessly, evoking thoughts and emotions in the audience and judges. Contestants are scored based on six categories: physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, evidence of understanding, overall performance and accuracy.

Franklin’s mother, Mississippi Poet Laureate Beth Ann Fennelly, said her daughter’s ability to meet and exceed the judges’ expectations is due to sheer hard work. Fennelly has judged the contest in the past and considers herself a “strong supporter” of the art of spoken word poetry.

“I would like to take more credit for this, but the truth is, she did it on her own,” Fennelly said. “It’s not just a matter of remembering the words. That’s the easiest part of it. There are so many aspects of using your voice to tell the story of the poem, changing your pace, your pitch, your intonation at certain parts. To see these 52 kids who are so amazing, and my daughter was one of them – it was rather stunning.”

At the national level, Franklin was one of 52 students, one from each of the 50 states as well as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Some of these students had been participating in the POL contest since their freshman year of high school, and were seasoned veterans in the realm of reciting poetry. The fact that this was Franklin’s first attempt at the top title, as well as the fact that she is only in the 11th grade, means she’s not finished yet.

POL state director Ken Bolinski said, because of the skill required to evoke such emotions in the audience, Franklin’s achievement is rather remarkable.

“It’s almost kind of magical, because it’s not acting,” Bolinski said. “It’s not oral interpretation. Your job isn’t to make the audience know what the poem means or tell them what they should feel. It’s about making them sit back and think, ‘Wow, that really spoke to my soul.’”

With the help of OHS librarian Amanda Osborne, Bolinski and her parents, Franklin said she’s willing to put in the work to make it back to nationals one more time. In the meantime, she’s got her sights set on a degree in forensic psychology or law, as well as continuing her journey with the debate team.

Both Fennelly and Franklin said the opportunity to share spoken word on such a grand scale, to help others understand feelings and emotions on a new level, is a gift the high schooler hasn’t taken for granted.

“I’ve definitely learned a lot about how a small little element can completely change an entire story,” Franklin said. “Shifting the inflection of a word or sentence can have the effect of changing the entire poem, and altering the story conveyed. It’s something I didn’t necessarily think a lot about before, but I’ve noticed it more and more recently.”

For more information on the Poetry Out Loud contest, visit www.poetryoutloud.org.

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