On Feb. 7, Mainland Regional High School senior Hanna Anderson, 17, stood before an audience of hundreds. The spotlight was strong, a standing microphone her only prop.
The occasion was the Poetry Out Loud regional finals at the Center for the Arts at Rutgers-Camden. That segment of the contest, now in its eighth-year, involved 16 South Jersey high school students, each required to memorize and recite three poems, personally chosen from an anthology of selections.
Anderson, of Linwood, made an impact, winning the competition and earning her a spot at the state competition next month.
"I didn't expect to get past the school competition," she said. "I enjoyed it, and I had a good time, but I thought so many other people did such a great job."
The modest senior beat out classmates and 35 students at the schoolwide competition in December, Dorsey Finn, Mainland's supervisor of instruction, said.
"She has great control of the content, and in the end that's what really matters in this competition," said Finn, who oversees the English Department.
Finn brought Poetry Out Loud to Mainland with him six years ago, finding much success with the program while teaching at Absegami High School.
Mainland has seen five of its six competitors advance from the regional to the state competition, he said.
"It feels pretty great. I am very proud," he said, adding that this year's schoolwide participation involved about a quarter of the school's students.
Anderson's Advanced Placement Literature teacher, Patricia McLaughlin, has been proud of her student's progress along the way, accompanying her to the regional competition, with plans to travel with her to the state competition.
McLaughlin said she has no doubts that Anderson could win at the next level.
"Hanna is very poised and confident in front of an audience," the teacher said via email. "She chose poems with high levels of difficulty to recite, which highlighted her range and ability to understand challenging works. Her accuracy in memorization is flawless and her diction is perfect."
Anderson - who recited "Thoughtless Cruelty," by Charles Lamb; "These Poems, She Said," by Robert Bringhurst; and "On the Existence of the Soul," by Pattiann Rogers - did not walk confidently on stage with little experience.
The 17-year-old credits some of her success to her association with the Drama Department. She competes with the school's speech and drama team at the New Jersey Drama and Forensics League championships, often in the poetry category, she said.
"I'm constantly using that which I think has been helpful, especially getting direct feedback from judges," she said. "I see the overlap."
Anderson will star in the school's spring musical, "In the Heights," which premieres March 21. The newly released production - Mainland is one of the first in the country to perform it - follows Nina, a resident of the struggling Latino community of Washington Heights.
But before Anderson takes the stage as its lead, she must travel to Princeton on March 15 for the New Jersey Poetry Out Loud state competition.
She will recite the same three poems and will be judged on her physical presence, her depth of understanding of each piece, the appropriateness of her dramatization, and her annunciation, clarity and accuracy, Finn said.
At Mainland recently, Anderson recited a stanza of "On the Existence of the Soul," claiming its reference to stars drew her to recite the piece.
"And if not for its sake, why would I go/out into the night alone and stare deliberately /straight up into 15 billion years ago and more?"
The senior admitted that poetry can sometimes seem boring, but the experience has taught her to open her eyes.
"I've learned so much from it already, and I've been exposed to so many new poems that I didn't really think I had an interest in."
If Anderson wins the state title, she will take an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., in April to compete in the national championship. According to the Poetry Out Loud site, a total of $50,000 in awards and school stipends is awarded annually at these finals.
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