Chicago High School Senior Advances In Poetry Contest By Harnessing The Power Of Words

Apr 6, 2021

A Chicago student won the Illinois state championship for a national poetry competition.  

Catherine Herrera is a senior at William Howard Taft High School. The 17-year-old first took part in the Poetry Out Loud contest a few years ago. She said she originally entered the contest because she loves performance theater. 

“I realized when I was reading these poems that it kind of felt like, like a monologue that I would be able to do in theater,” she explained. “And it felt like I could bring a sort of character to these pieces.” 

Herrera said she’s a musical theater enthusiast and has participated in many productions and contests. Her first professional theater competition was the Jackalope Theatre One Act Living Newspaper Festival with some students from Taft. 

Herrera added that performing spoken word is a little different from the type of art that she is used to doing.  

“I feel like with poetry there's this newfound sense of power that I also can feel,” she described. “Because your words, everyone is hanging on to your word by like every single phrase and verse that you're saying in the in the poem. And it's all so important. Every word is so important in Poetry Out Loud.”

Bryan Wilson is a drama teacher at Taft. This is his first year serving as a Poetry Out Loud school coordinator but he’s helped with the event in the past.

Wilson said the school is proud of Herrera and that she has many accolades besides this one.  

“Like the Chicago Youth Theatre Festival, she didn't quite mention it. But she won the musical theater competition this year, was a finalist last year,” he added. “The year before that she and her partner were finalists for the two-person scene competition. So, she's not a stranger to the limelight, at least on the competitive stage.”

Wilson said this year’s preparation for the event was different because it wasn’t in-person. He mentioned that some students, who would have normally taken part, didn’t feel comfortable with the in-home surveillance. 

“And with some of the mandates that we have, as teachers, we can't really say students have to have the cameras on,” he said.  “We know that there's equity issues with that. We know that there are some students that just is not an option for them.” 

He said there’s a shared heartbeat that is felt when things take place in person and this is missing during the virtual events. 

Herrera would agree. She expressed that she is much more comfortable with performing on a stage.  

“There's this different sensation you get when performing poetry in front of like a large audience like that,” she said. “In front of a microphone and on a stage where your words -- you can hear them through the microphone -- and they just sound so much more powerful.” 

While Herrera may enjoy the live setting, Wilson said one of the biggest challenges that most students face is nervousness. 

“That's been a focal point in the drama class, and also, when we've prepared students for Poetry Out Loud before,” he added.

He said practicing breathing techniques, vocal warm ups that includes tongue twisters and allowing room for mistakes can help with the anxiety.  

Last year, Herrera didn’t advance at the state level of the competition. And so she didn’t get to perform the poem ‘The Collar’ by George Herbert, which she had practiced and had hoped to do. She said, this time, given the chance, she wanted to make sure that she was able to bring the piece to life. She noted her favorite part:

“There's this line where I think it goes 'to suit to serve, or to suit and serve his need, deserves his load.' And I love that line so much, because I feel like that is the climax of the poem,” Herrera explained.

She said the word “deserve” carries the most weight because most people can relate to it.  

“And so, I normally really say that word with a lot of… just almost angry, but also confused energy of like, I want this, I deserve this,” she pointed out.

Herrera said she didn’t have an affection for poetry early on. She didn’t really understand it at first and she thinks a lot of people don’t explore it because they don’t quite get it. But she said being a part of this contest helped her understand the power of words. She is suggesting that if people recite the words of a poem or even record themselves saying it, they may develop a deeper affection for the art, too. 

The 2021 Poetry Out Loud competition will conclude with the national championship on May 27.  

  • Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.