Person of interest: Anna Voelker, high school poet


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For the second straight year, Hampton High School senior Anna Voelker will be reciting poetry in Harrisburg Monday after winning the regional Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest.

Last year, Miss Voelker, 18, didn't get chosen to perform in the third round of the state contest, which is limited to the top five student poet performers. "My goal this year is to qualify for the third round," she said.

Hampton High teacher Scott Stickney, the school's enrichment facilitator who tries to find opportunities for students, said he believes Miss Voelker has improved since competing in last year's state contest.

"Anna really studies what other contestants are doing with poems," he said. "So her experience from last year's regionals, states, this year's regionals, what [students] are interpreting ... has made her better and gives her a better shot of making that final group at state."

Poetry Out Loud not only encourages the nation's high school students to learn about great poetry through memorization and recitation, but participation helps them master public speaking skills, build self-confidence and learn about their literary heritage. After running successful pilot programs in Chicago and Washington, D.C., Poetry Out Loud launched nationally in 2006 and now involves millions of high school students across the United States.

Miss Voelker also writes her own poetry. She's been involved since her sophomore year with Young Steel, the youth subset of Steel City Slam, the adult slam poetry league of Pittsburgh. "They're really cool because they organize poetry slams around the city," she said.

"Writers come to a poetry slam, held at a coffee shop or bar, and they perform their poetry for people," she added. "Poetry slams are truly community building events."

She also looks for poetry help from two older sisters, recent college graduate Emily, 22, and college sophomore Sarah, 20. She calls them "phenomenal" poets. "If I'm practicing for Poetry Out Loud, they're great to show and I get great feedback from them."

On Monday, Miss Voelker and 13 other regional champions will go to the governor's residence for the competition. Each is prepared to recite three poems of varying lengths chosen from a collection of 600 poems on the Poetry Out Loud website.

"There are actually three rounds," said Gayle Clark, Poetry Out Loud manager for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. "In the first two, all the [regional] winners will recite a poem. In the third round, the top five will recite a third poem."

There are several requirements: One poem must be from before the 20th century, she said. And one poem needs to have fewer than 25 lines.

Miss Voelker will recite the same three poems she used in winning this year's regional contest: "I Am the People, the Mob" by Carl Sandburg, Edith Wharton's "An Autumn Sunset" and "I Am Offering This Poem" by Jimmy Santiago Baca.

There are six judges and two accuracy judges. Ms. Clark said the judges include last year's state champ, David Gress, now a student at Penn State.

Gov. Tom Corbett's wife, Susan, is the chair and host of Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the state agency that runs the contest. These state agencies partner with The National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation to support Poetry Out Loud.

Miss Voelker, who also is involved in drama, theater and sports, hopes to study astronomy next year in college. She is awaiting word from several colleges before deciding where to go. She hopes to stay active in poetry and theater.

On Monday, "I plan on just trying my best, trying to give an engaging performance, interest the audience and the judges in the poetry and in the words of the poets," she said.

One of Miss Voelker's goals is to one day have her own collection of poems published.

"I have had 10 different poems published, but in a greater collection," she said. "I think it would be wonderful to publish my own."


Pohla Smith: psmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1228.

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