“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Lowell Jaeger, Montana Poet Laureate, posed this question taken from Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day,” to student competitors during the Poetry Out Loud state finals held Saturday, March 3, at Grandstreet Theatre.

Anna Hedinger, a junior at Flathead High School in Kalispell, planned and succeeded in taking top honors in Saturday’s competition, where 21 Montana high school students vied for the state title. Hedinger’s win also guaranteed her an all-expense paid trip to Washington, D.C., to compete in the National Poetry Out Loud Finals being held April 23-25.

While this was Hedinger’s first year of competing in Poetry Out Loud, she admitted to a lifelong love of poetry and literature.

The Poetry Out Loud contest was created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation and partners with U.S. state arts agencies including the Montana Arts Council. The contest encourages youth to learn about poetry through memorization and recitation. In turn, the contest “helps students master public speaking skills, build self-confidence and learn about their literary heritage.”

After successful pilot programs were held in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, Poetry Out Loud was launched in high schools nationwide in the spring of 2006. It has since grown to involve thousands of students across the country each year.

Poetry Out Loud uses a pyramid structure that starts at the classroom level. Winners advance to a schoolwide competition and then to a regional and/or state competition, and ultimately to the National Finals.

According to Monica Grable, arts education director for the Montana Arts Council and state POL coordinator, a total of 85 Montana schools participated at the classroom level this year. From there students advanced to regional competitions held in Columbus, Butte and Missoula. These regional competitions selected the 21 students who competed on Saturday.

“The classroom teacher gets the credit for turning the students on to the recitation of poetry, helping them dissect poetry and wrap their heads around it so they can convey what the writer is trying to convey,” said Grable.

Hedinger credits her English teacher, Allison Kreiss, with helping her prepare for Saturday’s competition and select the three poems she recited. And Kreiss was sitting in the audience when Hedinger’s name was announced as the winner.

Saturday’s competition began with a semi-final round from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. During this round, all students recited two poems of their choosing. From there, Hedinger was among the eight students moved into the final round from 12:45 pm to 1:30 p.m. to recite their third prepared poem.

At both the state and national finals, students prepare three poems for recitation. One must be 25 lines or fewer and one must be written before the 20th century. All poems are selected from the Poetry Out Loud online or print anthology. Grable shared that more than 900 poems are available through the online anthology.

For Hedinger’s first two recitations she chose two more modern poems: “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation” by Natalie Diaz and “Backdrop Addresses Cowboy” by Margaret Atwood.

“These were two of the first poems I read on the online anthology,” said Hedinger. “I looked over almost all of the poems in the anthology and these were the two I kept coming back to.”

It was Hedinger’s recitation of her third poem, “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, however, that claimed her the Poetry Out Loud win. Hedinger explained that she wanted to choose a poem by a more classical author for her third recitation.

According to Grable, Hedinger’s win was determined by the evaluation of six judges. Four of those listened to the recitations and judged on physical appearance, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, evidence of understanding and overall performance. There was also an accuracy judge who verified the recitation line by line and a performance consultant who provided written feedback.

“I was completely shocked at winning,” said Hedinger. “I’ve never given a speech to a crowd larger than a classroom before.”

For her win, Hedinger received $200 as the Montana state champ, and Flathead High School will receive a $500 stipend for the purchase of poetry books.

At the national finals in April, Hedinger will be among 53 state and territorial champions converging on Washington, D.C., to compete for the championship and $20,000 in prize money. While there has yet to be a national Poetry Out Loud winner from Montana, Grable did say that a handful of Montana students have made it into the top five before.

After competing in the Poetry Out Loud finals, Hedinger shared she has future plans to study journalism and conversation as well as become a published author.

“The maturity of these students is really remarkable,” said Grable. “Any of these students could be reciting on public radio and hold their own. They know how to breathe life into the words and convey the writer’s meaning.”