Well versed

Alexander Barnes is passionate about spoken poetry and eagerly shares his passion with others.

The 17-year-old high school junior is the only Ashland student scheduled to compete in this year's Poetry Out Loud competition. If Alexander wins the regionals on Monday, where he'll compete with students from Medford, Grants Pass and Bandon, he will go on to the state finals in Salem.

Alexander, who also is on the Ashland High School debate team, has competed twice before and was runner-up both times in the statewide competition. This year he is hoping to win.

"It was frustrating to get so close twice," he says. "I feel I've matured as a reciter and I am pleased with my work, but you have to do your best not to get attached to the outcome. This time, we will see how it goes."

Although home-schooled, Alexander takes classes part-time at AHS. When he is not studying, debating or reciting poetry, he is helping to teach Ashland Middle School students poetry-recitation skills, developing a curriculum for poetry recitation for kids and helping students make personal connections with the poems.

"This year's kids are great," he says. "They may not remember all the poems they read through, but they will remember and perhaps be changed by the poems they recited. To me that has value in and of itself. I hope they go on to compete with Poetry Out Loud," he says.

Alexander credits the Poetry Out Loud program with both honing his recitation skills and providing him unexpected opportunities. After last year's performance at the state finals, he was asked by state Sen. Alan Bates to recite a poem on the Senate floor in Salem for the invocation, and was invited to tour the Capitol and spend the day with the senator.

"That was really special for me," Alexander says. "I had the huge honor of actually being on the Senate floor and hearing him debate. I got a rare view of our state politicians in action. It was amazing and inspiring."

Since AHS is not participating in this year's event, Alexander registered independently, practicing with his family and reciting to local poets Patty and Vince Wixon for the first round of competition.

"He is going to do quite well," Patty Wixon says. "He really focuses on the poem more than the drama. I'm always impressed with that."

Alexander spoke with the Daily Tidings about his love of poetry and the support of his family.

DT: How did you get involved with the Poetry Out Loud competition?

AB: My freshman year, one of the varsity members of our debate team asked me to compete in it, which was her senior project. Because I attend AHS part-time, I was able to participate, and I went on to compete at the state level.

DT: What poems are you reading for the regional competition?

AB: We need to have three poems. I'm doing "The Affliction of Richard," by Robert Bridges, "Calling Him Back from Layoff," by Bob Hicok and "Time Does Not Bring Relief: You All Have Lied," by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

DT: How do you go about choosing the poems you read?

AB: The poems have to be selected from the Poetry Out Loud anthology. It's massive, with almost the entire canon of classic poetry as well as modern poems. It's one of the most incredible resources. I go through so many poems until I find the ones that resonate.

DT: How much do you practice?

AB: I think there is a lot of benefit to not practicing too much. When I find the poems I want, I'll sit with them a little, go over them passively until I feel comfortable with them, and really understand the poet's intent and meaning. Mr. and Mrs. Wixon helped me a lot. Once I have that, I only practice about once a week. I don't really have a choice because I'm also busy with the debate team.

DT: What are your favorite aspects of the competition?

AB: When you recite a poem, you connect with it in a new way, and bring something of your life to it. This has been my experience from both reciting and from listening to others recite. I have heard two people recite the same poem and felt two vastly differently experiences of the poem.

DT: What are the biggest challenges in regard to the competition?

AB: It is a long process. There are three stages of preparation for reciting: selection of poems, close reading of the works and understanding the imagery, tone and voice, and lastly, memorization and delivery. The challenge is to do your best to represent the poet.

DT: Do you have a favorite poem or poet?

AB: I can't really say. It's not that there haven't been poems that jump out at me, it's that there have been so many.

DT: Any advice for other students who want to participate in the Poetry Out Loud program?

AB: The best advice I can offer is to love the poems you select. Take a lot of time to read through the program's anthology. Choosing a poem that is right for you is the most important part of preparing. If the poem has meaning for you, then you can't go wrong.

DT: What do you want to do after high school?

AB: I definitely want to go to a four-year college, but I'm not yet sure where I want to go. I'm primarily interested in law. Politics is also something I'd enjoy. I like the idea of being a public servant after practicing law.

DT: Is it difficult to manage your school schedule and your other interests?

AB: Sometimes it is difficult. Policy debate takes a lot of time and a lot of motivation. Hours of preparation, drills and research go into each tournament. After the three days of competition, plus travel time, I have to make up all the work I missed and keep up with my home-school work. Add to this studying for the SAT and AP exams, and I don't have a lot of free time.

DT: Is there someone who inspires you?

AB: It's hard to point to one person. A lot of my interests are sparked by others. My older siblings have inspired an interest in music; my sister was the one who introduced me to poetry. My mother and father have been a great support. My mom is an inspiration, and she drives me to competitions. My father, too. Debate, poetry and my other activities aren't cheap. My father has worked hard to make these things financially possible. I'm very grateful for that. I feel I have a responsibility to not squander those opportunities.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at decker4@gmail.com.

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