Stage presence: Cherokee student wins runner-up in state poetry competition

By Michael Beadle

Sara Tramper can take you to the powwow at end of the world.

If you’re willing to listen, she can take you on a journey from a front yard to the mouth of the Columbia River as it enters the Pacific Ocean. With the magic of memory and the power of spoken word, Tramper travels to a place of pure poetry.

“I’m just having a good time just doing what I enjoy,” she says, seated in her English classroom at Cherokee High School.

The Cherokee senior from the Paint Town community recently thrilled audiences in a statewide dramatic recitation competition known as Poetry Out Loud. Students from across the state and nation memorize and perform poems from a list of classical and contemporary poets as part of a program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and state arts councils across the country.

After rehearsing for months, winning at the district level, and making it to the final round of eight, Tramper finished as the overall runner-up in North Carolina, winning $100 and various prizes for herself plus another $200 for her school to purchase poetry books.

The state championship took place Feb. 23 at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh. Sixteen semifinalists from across the state competed in two rounds to win one of eight spots in the evening finals, which included two more rounds. In each round, a student dramatically recited a poem as three judges scored the performance.

The eventual state winner, Sasha Morfaw, a senior at Ronald Reagan High School in Pfafftown (near Winston-Salem), won first place and will go on to compete with other state winners in April at the National Poetry Out Loud Championship in Washington, D.C.

While Tramper just barely missed winning the state competition, she was the lone Western North Carolina finalist in this year’s event, and her performance earned her plenty of praise from teachers, fellow students and leading poets from across the state including North Carolina’s Poet Laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer of Cullowhee.

“I thought her choice of poems was superb,” Byer said. “She brought controlled emotion to her poems, and she made them hers completely.”

Byer has attended or judged the state competition in each of the three state championships since the program started, and this year’s crop of performers did not fail to impress audience members who came from all over the state. There were tears, laughter and plenty of applause.

“Special moments still make my head spin,” Byer recalled of the competition, describing Tramper’s recitation as “mesmerizing.”

In her notes for the N.C. Arts Council’s Web site on Poetry Out Loud, Byer stated, “Cherokee High School student Sara Tramper, second-place winner, offered a stunning reminder of how poetry can enable us to express our deepest selves in ways nothing else can.”

Byer sent Tramper a bouquet of flowers and invited her to perform at this year’s Western Carolina Literary Festival in April. Tramper also received invitations to perform for a class at Southwestern Community College and at the North Carolina Poetry Council’s Poetry Day festivities on Oct. 4 at Catawba College in Salisbury.

“We’re proud of her,” said Tramper’s father, Todd Kent. “We knew she could do it if she applied herself.”

In addition to her dramatic talents, Tramper is maintaining a 3.92 grade point average in school and is a leading candidate for valedictorian of her senior class. She’s also the highest-ranking member in her Jr. R.O.T.C. unit and is a member of the Beta Club. After school, she tutors fellow students in math and works at a gift shop in Cherokee. She’s interested in pursuing a career in marine biology or perhaps archeology and plans to continue acting in plays after she graduates.

Having gone through therapy to improve speech impediments, she’s not nearly as shy about speaking in front of a group. Tramper said she’s learned a lot from her experiences in Poetry Out Loud — from choosing the poems to rehearsing to performing on stage.

“Just because something seems impossible to do, it’s not,” she said.

After a disappointing run in last year’s state competition where she didn’t make it past the semifinal round, she decided to lead off this year with a pair of emotionally charged poems — Hart Crane’s “My Grandmother’s Love Letters,” which conjured up memories of her own grandmother, and Sherman Alexie’s “The Powwow at the End of the World,” which Tramper delivers with tender poignancy and clever wit.

“I just like the humor in it,” Tramper said of the latter poem.

For her third poem, Tramper chose Gwendolyn Brooks’ “a song in the front yard,” which comes to life with a sassy voice.

Tramper admits she was nervous in the semifinal round this year and battled flu-like symptoms leading into the competition, but she said the adrenaline rush actually helped put more energy into her performance.

This year, she worked on finding a particular tone of voice and meaning for each word in the poems she chose, and she learned to slow down her words to create just the right emotional effect.

“I have a tendency to ... talk really really fast,” she said.

Tramper’s former English and drama teacher, Kevin Norris, helped coach her through last year’s competition and some of this year. After he transferred to Smoky Mountain High School, she got additional coaching from her father and Cherokee High School English teacher Jamie Lightfoot-Underwood.

In November, Cherokee High School students teamed up with students from Manteo High School on the other end of the state in a Poetry Out Loud distance learning workshop led by poet Kay Byer and coordinated by Cris Crissman, distance learning consultant at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. The students from Cherokee went to a classroom on the campus of Western Carolina University to link up by video with students from Manteo, and the two classes were able to read poems and discuss techniques involved with reciting and performing poetry.

The judging in Poetry Out Loud is based on a point system that grades physical presence, voice and articulation, the level of the poem’s difficulty, evidence of the student’s understanding of the poem, overall performance and accuracy.

Each day of the month, the N.C. Arts Council’s Web page will feature a video of a Poetry Out Loud participant reciting a poem. Details of the program can be found at or at (click on Arts in Education at the top of the page and then Poetry Out Loud on the left side of the next page).

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