Three-Season Athlete Excels at a New Sport: Poetry Recitation

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On February 11, Andrew Wilson faced a choice. As a member of the Northfield High School boys varsity swimming and diving team, he could compete in the Missota Conference finals in Northfield, or he could head about 50 miles south to Mantorville to compete in the regional round of the Poetry Out Loud competition. Wilson chose to recite poetry.

Actually, the choice had been made three weeks earlier, when Wilson became aware of the conflict and approached Coach Davis to request permission to attend the Poetry Out Loud semifinals. It’s an indication of his character that Wilson not only obtained his coach’s permission, but was later chosen as one of the captains of next year’s swim team.

It’s an exceptional student who has to make the kind of choice that Andrew Wilson made, but Wilson—an ARTech junior who is also a star of the Northfield cross country and track teams—takes it all in stride.

“I like sports that make you push yourself to be your individual best,” Wilson says. “Sports like swimming and running—and reciting poetry.”

Not only did Wilson advance from the local Poetry Out Loud competition at ARTech to the southeast regional round in Mantorville, he was one of eighteen high school students from around the state who advanced to the state finals at the Fitzgerald Theater on March 19. In three rounds of eliminations, the field of eighteen was reduced to twelve, and then to six. Twenty of his classmates, three of his teachers, and members of his family were there to listen and cheer him on to the final round. When it was all over, he had placed third in the entire state of Minnesota, narrowly missing a chance to travel to Washington, DC, for the national competition.

Poetry Out Loud is a national poetry recitation competition sponsored by the Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, in cooperation with state arts boards in all fifty states. Students memorize and recite poems for a panel of judges, who judge the participants on a range of criteria from evidence of understanding to physical presence. 

For Wilson, standing up in from of judges to recite poetry draws on much of the same physical and mental discipline that contributes to his success as an athlete. To reach the state finals, Wilson put in hours of preparation, working twice a week with ARTech teacher Bob Gregory-Bjorklund in the weeks between the local competition and the finals.

“Andrew had the right combination of abilities for this,” Gregory-Bjorklund said.

He has a strong voice, a sensitive understanding of poetry, and remarkable poise and self-confidence.  He’s also a competitor, who enjoys the challenge of pushing himself to be his best, whether it’s as a runner, a swimmer, or a reader of poetry.  On the varsity cross-country team, he and teammate Sam Fox pushed each other to improve their performance, and he found himself doing the same with his friend and local Poetry Out Loud finalist Arye Lovestrand. And as a poet himself, he’s found that reading so much poetry for Poetry Out Loud has made him “more particular” about his craft.

Wilson has been attending ARTech since eighth grade, traveling to the school in Northfield from his home in Prior Lake. He was drawn to ARTech because of the opportunities it offered for developing independence and self-reliance under the mentorship of teachers like Gregory-Bjorklund, Poetry Out Loud advisor Scott Grave, and creative writing teacher Anne Klawiter.

Wilson is one of several ARTech students who’ll be joining Klawiter for a writer’s workshop in the Black Hills of South Dakota in May. After he graduates from ARTech, he’s considering the Marines. Meanwhile, he promised Coach Davis that next year he would focus on his reponsibilities as captain of the swim team instead of participating in Poetry Out Loud.

But the strong traditition of Poetry Out Loud at ARTech will continue. Since the competition’s first year in 2006, the Northfield charter school has sent a student to the state finals three times, including last year, when the school was represented by another strong competitor, Gabby Frenstad.

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Links to the poems Andrew read on the stage of the Fitzgerald Theater in the state finals of Poetry Out Loud:

Round One: Linda Gregg, “The Lamb

Round Two: Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur

Round Three: Garrett Hongo, “The Legend


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