Arts Education Poetry TheaterMarch 23, 2012

Kristin Tsuo is quick to say she isn’t an actress. Nor does she aspire to be one.

But as the 16-year-old Princeton resident stepped onto a theater stage at The College Of New Jersey on Wednesday morning, you might have mistaken her for a thespian. She looked at the crowd, slipped into character and began reciting lines — contorting her face and wringing her hands, just like an actor would.

Only, Tsuo wasn’t in a play. She was reciting poetry.

And doing it well. Tsuo, a junior at The Lawrenceville School, was named the 2012 New Jersey champion of Poetry Out Loud, a contest in which students across the country perform poems by noted authors.

“I wasn’t expecting it,” Tsuo said of her victory. “Everyone was so good. I’m still kind of in disbelief.”

You can’t blame her. She beat out more than 19,000 students from 108 schools across New Jersey in the seventh annual program, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation.

Think of it like a spelling bee — only the words come from Edgar Allen Poe and William Blake, not from Webster’s Dictionary.

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Students choose poems from the hundreds of selections on the Poetry Out Loud website. First, they compete in their classrooms, then among the whole school, then at regionals. Yesterday, eight students — two young men, six young women — performed at Kendall Hall at the Ewing college in the New Jersey finals.

Tsuo’s performance earned her a trip to the national Poetry Out Loud finals in Washington, D.C., from May 13-15. The winner receives a $20,000 scholarship.

Tsuo fell into the program two years ago. The Lawrenceville School — a private school in Mercer County — required that all sophomores compete in Poetry Out Loud.

“Some people in class were like, ‘What is this?’” Tsuo recalls. “But it was already something I loved to do. I love to get up on stage and perform. And I love poetry. I couldn’t stop doing it.”

She had no acting experience, but she fell in love with public speaking at an early age. Tsuo said reciting poetry was a natural extension.

Memorizing the poems, she says, is the easy part. That only takes a day or two. She spends more time interpreting and reiterating the pieces.

“First, I memorize,” Tsuo said. “Then, I dig deeper.”

No, she doesn’t worry about forgetting lines when she moves to the front of the stage, staring out into the crowd.

“When I’m in the zone, it just flows,” she said. “I’m thinking about the interpretation, my hand movements. Is there an audience member I want to connect with?”

Last year, Tsuo finished second to Clarissa Lotson of West Orange. This year, the two switched places — Tsuo the winner, Lotson the runner-up.

Tsuo took the title by showing incredible command of three very different poems yesterday: “The Meaning Of The Shovel” by Martin Espada, about a latrine digger in Nicaragua; “Pastoral Dialogue” by Anne Killigrew, a 17th century aristocrat; and “Slant” by Suji Kwock Kim, about growing up as a Korean-American.

But Tsuo wasn’t the only New Jersey finalist to impress. Sarah Finnan of Cinnaminson showed elegance. Brianne Barker of Dumont sparked with energy. Daisha Davis of North 13th Street Tech in Newark flashed charm. Jake Ohring of High Tech High School had a flare for the dramatic. Michael Chang of The Hun School used careful intonation. Allison Beres of Vineland displayed poise. Runner-up Lotson shone like a pro, emphasizing words in unexpected ways.

One of the guest speakers was Frankie Faison — who was nominated for a Tony in 1987 for August Wilson’s Fences, played the role of psychiatric-ward orderly Barney the 1991 film Silence Of The Lambs, and portrayed Baltimore City Police Commissioner Ervin Burrell on HBO’s acclaimed TV drama The Wire. After all the performers had finished, Faison walked on stage in front of them and shook his head in amazement.

“I stand in awe of the talent on the stage here today,” he said.

Faison noted that he, too, competed in poetry competitions as a youth — helping lead to his acting career. And more than half of the finalists yesterday are actors, as well.

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Lotson, a senior at West Orange High School, said she entered the program thinking reciting poetry wouldn’t be much different than reciting lines with her drama troupe.

“But it turned out to be different,” she explained. “This, the focus is more on the poet. Your own interpretation goes into it, but you have to stay true to the poet. You have to be as accurate as possible.”

Lotson is hoping for an odd double-career: environmental lawyer and actress.

“I could work cases at night and act during the day,” she said, grinning. “Why can’t I do both?”

As for Tsuo? She doesn’t know what career she want to pursue. But she knows she wants to keep speaking publicly — and she knows that’s a plus for any profession.

“Public speaking helps with everything,” she said with a smile.

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Brent Johnson
Brent Johnson

Brent Johnson is a pop-culture-obsessed writer from East Brunswick, N.J. He's currently a reporter for The Star-Ledger of Newark. Before that, he was a longtime entertainment and music columnist for The Trenton Times. His work has also been published by Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated On Campus and Night & Day Magazine. His favorite musical artists: Elvis Costello, Billy Joel, The Smiths, Roxy Music, Dave Matthews Band, The Beatles, Blur, Squeeze, The Kinks. When he's not writing, Brent is the lead singer in alt-rock band The Clydes.