Lizette Harris made her public speaking debut at age 8.
That’s when — at the urging of her parents — she wrote a speech on the theme of forgiveness and read it aloud at a church youth service.
She remembers the moment as the time when she discovered her love for the beauty of the spoken word.
“That was the beginning of me finding poetry,” recalls Harris, now an 18-year-old senior at Life Christian Academy in Tacoma.
She’s a Puget Sound regional winner of the Poetry Out Loud competition, created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation to encourage students to learn about great poetry through memorization and recitation. The Washington State Arts Commission coordinates the program in the state.
On March 4, she’ll compete against 12 other regional student winners for the state title in an event at the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts in Tacoma.
The Poetry Out Loud competition begins at the classroom level. Winners advance to a schoolwide competition, then to regional and state competitions, and ultimately to the national finals. In Washington state this year, more than 20,000 students from 66 high schools participated at the classroom and school level.
The state winner receives a cash prize of $200 and a chance to vie for the national Poetry Out Loud title in Washington, D.C., in April.
To clinch her regional title, Harris performed “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou and “The Children of the Poor” by Gwendolyn Brooks. Competition poems must be selected from the Poetry Out Loud online anthology, which contains more than 900 poems.
“I try to look for poems I can relate to,” Harris said. She was drawn to the social commentary in both pieces — Angelou’s metaphor for oppression and freedom, and Brooks’ lament for the vulnerability of children and mothers.
At the state competition, she’ll add a third poem to her repertoire: “Silence” by Thomas Hood. It fulfills the state-level competition requirement that one poem be written before the 20th century.
She acknowledges that it’s more difficult for her to relate to the poetry of long ago. But she always tries to search for a poem’s meaning.
“I try to find something of the depth to it,” Harris says. “I want to be able to find what the poet meant.”
If you put the emphasis on the wrong word, it can mean something completely different.
Regional Poetry Out Loud champ Lizette Harris
To memorize her chosen poems, Harris most often practices with an audience of one: her mom.
“She knows my poems as well as I do,” Harris said.
She sometimes practices in front of a mirror. But she doesn’t watch videos of herself performing. And she doesn’t like to listen to recordings of others reciting her selected poems.
“I tried,” she says. “But I stopped after the first time. I felt like I was cheating.”
When she’s not reading or reciting poetry, Harris is busy with school activities. This spring, she’ll travel to Mexico with a school mission group to work at an orphanage. She’s vice president of Interact, a school service club. At Halloween, club members went trick-or-treating for canned goods that they donated to a food bank.
Harris has already applied to 10 colleges, where she wants to study social work.
“I could choose a job that pays a lot, but at the end of the day I wouldn’t be happy,” she said. “I just want to help people.”
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635
Poetry Out Loud in Tacoma
Washington state final competition in the Poetry Out Loud contest takes place at 1 p.m. March 4 at the Broadway Center’s Theatre on the Square, 915 Broadway, Tacoma. The event is free and open to the public.