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Student Determined to Win Poetry Out Loud

BERLIN – When Stephen Decatur High School student Jacqueline Saldana selected the poems that would eventually win both the local and countywide Poetry Out Loud contest, she hadn’t really counted on making it all the way through to the state competition. So when her name wasn’t called as a finalist in Baltimore last weekend, she was more determined than disappointed.

“You never know what’s going to appeal to the judges,” she said. 

Poems that she thought went over well by other poets, as well as those she presented herself, didn’t make the cut and poems she was pretty sure wouldn’t, did. Saldana said she identified the performer who would win almost immediately but that the second and third places could have as easily gone to her or one of the others as not.

Saldana, who is a junior, recited “Love of My Flesh, Living Death” by Lorna Dee Cervantes and “Insomnia” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Among her self-criticisms were that the poems she chose were a little short and that, all other things being equal, the brevity might have hurt her at the competition. That is, she was clear, taking nothing away from her fellow competitors who were all the winners of several competitive rounds of poetry readings.

“They were all just well put together,” she said.

But Saldana is already preparing for next year’s competition. One of the aspects she hadn’t taken seriously enough was that the poems you chose for the first competition were the only poems you could use throughout the rest of it. As soon as she’d won the Stephen Decatur competition in October, she asked Dawn Russell, her English teacher, if she could make other selections but was informed that would violate the rules.

As she prepares for next year, Saldana is on the lookout for lengthier, more complicated poems that still fit her expressive style but will carry her through the entire competition.

“People cam up to me after and said, ‘You were so good with your eyes,’” she said. 

Saldana credited Russell along with teachers Angela Paris and Diane Stulz who drove her to the event and took her out to a celebratory dinner afterwards. She said they were so incredibly supportive that her confidence was restored and she came home more determined to go back than she’d ever been.

“When I picked my poems, I thought I was just doing it for an English grade,” she said. Saldana never expected to win at Stephen Decatur, let alone at the county as well.

Since her involvement with the project, however, not only has Saldana become interested in searching out poetry she might not normally have, she’s also begun writing some of her own. She said she occasionally feels herself compelled to write and has begun to get an even deeper sense of how the medium works from the inside as well as the out.

Poetry Out Loud was established with an experience just like Saldana’s in mind. Each year the winner received a $20,000 scholarship, a deal sweetener of which Saldana has become even more acutely aware since coming so close to winning it.

“Who doesn’t want $20,000 for college?” she said.