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San Gabriel student wins Los Angeles County Poetry Out Loud Competition*

An Alhambra student beat students from 14 other school districts to win a poetry contest.

San Gabriel High School senior Calvin Lam won first prize in the Los Angeles County Poetry Out Loud Contest on Jan. 25. The contest took place in Culver City at the Actors’ Gang Theatre. 

Calvin Lam stands next to California Arts Council members Terry Lenihan and Malissa Shriver | Photo by Bianca Tran"I'm ecstatic and excited,” said Lam.

Lam will next compete at the state level, representing Los Angeles County and the Alhambra Unified School District, March 24-25 in Sacramento. If he wins, he will represent California in the national competition in Washington, D.C., aiming for the top prize of a $20,000 college scholarship.

Created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, Poetry Out Loud is a national contest in which high school students memorize and recite poems with the goal of helping them “master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about their literary heritage." At the county competition, Lam recited two poems: Candles, by Carl Dennis, and Ego, by Denise Duhamel, and won a $100 gift card for first place and a travel stipend to Sacramento. Judging criteria included physical presence, articulation, evidence of understanding, level of difficulty, and accuracy.

Katy Burkhart, Lam’s English teacher who was in the Culver City audience, described his performance: “Calvin has a natural ease, confidence, and professionalism, but not without emotion. Once he stood before the mic, he owned everyone in the audience.  You’re completely drawn in and under a spell.” 

Davie Sy, Lam’s classmate, said the evening was “so exciting and intense” and what distinguished Lam from the competition was “the fluidity of his poem, and his dramatic pauses were really epic.” Lam said, “In poetry, every inflection of every word is going to evoke something in the audience.”

Before becoming county champ, Lam qualified to compete in Ms. Burkhart’s classroom contest, won first place in the Poetry Out Loud competition at San Gabriel High, then bested the district competition of 31 students. 

But public speaking wasn’t always an easy journey for Lam. Though he’s a four-year member of San Gabriel High’s speech and debate team, Lam had not won any major awards. Poetry Out Loud was a way to prove himself as a senior. Before he went on stage, Lam told himself, “I’ve gotten this far. I’ve worked so hard in speech and debate for the past three years and gotten nothing. I want to make myself and my parents proud.”  But the number one thing he told himself was that he had to have fun on the stage. “If I don’t have fun, then people won’t enjoy it.”

The “fun” of poetry recitation is the reason Ms. Burkhart first brought the Poetry Out Loud to San Gabriel High last year. She believes if a student recites a poem well, she or he understands the poem’s tone and story, similar to the skills needed for poetry analysis, all without having to write an essay on it.

*A version of the story originally appeared in Around Alhambra.

For more information on Poetry Out Loud, including a poetry archive and teacher resources, visit www.poetryoutloud.orgTo view Lam’s performance visit youtu.be/2R3MmzfNKWM 

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