This week, Raleigh Charter High School senior Jessica Kariisa represents North Carolina in the national finals of the Poetry Out Loud recitation competition in Washington, D.C.
Sunday is sign-in and orientation. Monday, students get down to business, cycling through regional semifinal competitions from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday is the final showdown, starting at 7 p.m. The stakes are high: a $20,000 prize to the national champion.
“We feel like she’s going to take the nation,” said Banu Valladares, arts in education director at the N.C. Arts Council.
Sponsored locally by the N.C. Arts Council, the Poetry Out Loud competition was created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation to encourage students to master public speaking and gain a deeper understanding of literature. Students memorize and recite poems, and are judged on understanding and expression of the material as much as accuracy.
In the final weeks before the final contest, Jessica has been reciting daily each of the three poems she’ll take onstage in D.C. She has learned to slow down her usual fast speech, to stop slurring words together and cutting them off at the end.
“I really slow it down so I can catch each syllable and each consonant,” Jessica said. “If I can hear each one, I’m doing it right.”
It’s Jessica’s combination of poise and articulation that makes her a standout, Valladares said, coupled with the tilt of her head, the cadence of her voice, her still hands clasped at her waist.
“ ‘Striking’ is the word I would use,” Valladares said. “Above all, it’s her absolute understanding of the meaning of the poem. Every word has a purpose, and the way she recites it – she pauses and savors the words.”
Originally from Uganda, Jessica’s family move to Virginia from Cote d’Ivoire in west Africa because of government unrest when Jessica was 9. Her family isn’t very involved in the arts, Jessica said: her mom works in human resources, her three older sisters all majored in science or business in college, and her brother works for a nonprofit organization. Jessica is headed to Princeton next year and considering law school after that. A poetry recitation competition was the last thing she was expecting to catch her attention, Jessica said.
But Raleigh Charter High requires its students to participate in Poetry Out Loud every year. For Jessica, it was homework like any other school assignment for the first few years, until a video of a national champion reciting two years ago captured her imagination. Jessica was hooked.
She won the regional contest in Raleigh in January and the state contest in Greensboro in March. She’s done that while taking AP exams and studying for her black belt in tae kwon do.
Mom Agatha Kariisa said she was nervous watching the state competition. She feared her daughter wouldn’t win because she didn’t use broad gestures as did some of her competitors.
“I felt good, proud, when she won,” her mother said. “Tears came to my eyes.”
Kariisa has been her daughter’s recitation “guinea pig” since Jessica started practice. She’s traveling to D.C. with Jessica to watch her youngest compete in the finals.
So if she wins, expect more waterworks – and a lot of smiles.