BY KATE BUNSTER
NISKAYUNA — When Kelly Millett announced the winners of the 2015 Poetry Out Loud contest Dec. 22, Nikos Assimakopoulos and Matthew Mitchell jumped up out of their seats and hugged.
The two friends will go on to compete at the state level, representing Niskayuna High School. Assimakopoulos, a senior, recited “Nocturne” by Louise Glück and Mitchell, a junior, read “Discrimination” by Kenneth Rexroth.
In order to compete in the schoolwide competition, students first competed within their own classrooms. One winner was chosen from each class to participate in the Dec. 22 event, for a total of 20.
The contest was scored based on the participant’s accuracy through a point system, with eight the maximum a student can earn. From there, one to six points can be taken off for minor to major inaccuracies, such as skipping a word or reversing a line. Participants are under quite some pressure, so these flubs were a real possibility.
This is Assimakopoulos’ second year winning the schoolwide poetry competition. Being an actor, he says that standing up in front of a crowd doesn’t make him nervous anymore.
His strategy selecting a poem is as relaxed as his feelings about getting on stage.
“I selected one from random,” he said, though adding that he does search for something with substance.
“I look for something I can present dramatically,” he added.
Mitchell had a similar approach, in that he went down the list alphabetically and picked one that “struck” him. “I was nervous before I got on stage,” he admitted.
Nervousness was to be expected, as the students were being judged by a panel. “I messed up in the middle,” said Katie Showers. Nonetheless, she walked off the stage smiling.
The sophomore said she memorized the poem by reciting it over and over again. “When I would mess up, I’d start over again,” she said.
It’s less painful to mess up at home than it is in front of an audience. Although Assimakopoulos admits that he was distracted at one point by a custodian passing by the room, he was able to refocus by focusing on the poem itself — its passion and meaning.
Poetry Out Loud is a contest supported by The National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation and various state arts agencies. Initially, participants are asked to recite a poem. Now that Assimakopoulos and Mitchell have made it to the next level, they will have to recite two poems.
Poetry Out Loud isn’t just about competing to see who has the best memory, according to the contest website. It also, “helps students master public-speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about their literary heritage.”
“Poetry is alive and well, yes?” Millett exclaimed at the conclusion of the contest. The remark, a declaration more than a question, drew applause from the competitors and spectators.
Assimakopoulos and Mitchell will compete in the state competition in March. Assimakopoulos did not win at last year’s competition.