By George Tatoris
“I have just come down from my father.
Higher and higher he lies
Above me in a blue light
Shed by a tinted window.”
Amos Koffa, a senior from Burlington County Institute of Technology, carefully recited the first four lines of James L. Dickey’s poem “Hospital Window” to a crowded Mayo Concert Hall.
For the third year in a row, Koffa was one of 12 finalists in the New Jersey Poetry Out Loud state finals on March 9.
Poetry Out Loud is a nationwide poetry recitation competition that allows high school students to choose, memorize and recite poems to be graded by a panel of judges. It is currently in its 11th year.
It took Koffa over a year of writing down the poem and listening to himself recite it to get it right, he revealed in a Q&A after the show, and it seems the effort paid off.
Koffa finally won. He will represent New Jersey in the National Finals on April 25 and April 26. Breana Senna, from Dr. Ronald E. McNair Academic High School, won runner up.
In “Hospital Window,” the narrator has just visited his father in the hospital. As he walks out into the street, he turns and gives a final look to the window to his father’s room. Traffic halts and drivers honk, and six stories up the narrator can make out his father waving and smiling at him through the glare of the hospital window. He waves back.
It is implied that the father will not last long. His father lies “Above me in a blue light” like a spirit rising to heaven. Koffa emphasized this element of the poem by making his voice ascend in pitch during the lines “Higher and higher.”
“Now (Koffa) is one student who will tell you he overcame a lot to participate in the program,” said Kay Potucek, New Jersey’s state coordinator.
Poetry Out Loud isn’t Koffa’s only exposure to poetry, he also does spoken-word poetry, through which he hopes to speak out for the oppressed. He considers himself a “fierce” LGBT advocate.
“It’s my job to use my talents and help other people,” Koffa said. “Since there is such a lack of representation, it’s my job to represent the silenced.”
Koffa first participated three years ago with his school, but last year, no teacher would run the program, preventing him from participating again. He started a poetry club and worked with Poetry Out Loud and the vice principal of his school to get involved again.
“He’s an amazing young man,” Potucek said. “This concept opened up a world for him.”
After competing in the regional competition in Camden, N.J., Koffa took the stage to talk about what the competition means to him. Potucek summarized what he said.
“This was his window, his way to get out, his escape,” Potucek said.
Breana Sena, the runner-up from Dr. Ronald E. McNair Academic High School in Jersey City, N.J., gave a moving performance of “I Sit and Sew” by Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson. The poem reflected the author’s desire to escape to something greater.
“I sit and sew — a useless task it seems,/My hands grown tired, my head weighed down with dreams,” Sena said quietly.
Sena, Koffa and the other finalists were scored based on physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, evidence of understanding and overall performance. In addition, an accuracy judge deducts points based on any mistakes a contestant makes.
“We always tell the students up front… that it’s about the simplicity of your poem and connecting with the audience,” Potucek said. “If that means you need some hand gestures or some facial expressions — of course — then you should use those.”
Potucek believes the most important thing about competing is clearly delivering the poet’s message.
“I think probably the most important thing… is that the student becomes the shell for the poem,” said Potucek, a former accuracy judge.
She hopes students learn something out of competing, whether they win or lose.
“(I hope) they find out a little bit about more themselves,” Potucek said.
In between the second and third rounds, a video honoring the 2010 state champion Shamsuddin Abdul-Hamid was projected onto the screen. Abdul-Hamid, affectionately called “Sham” by his friends, died unexpectedly at the age of 25 on March 3.
In the video, Abdul-Hamid explained how Poetry Out Loud gives students access to great writers they might not have been able to study in school.
“Organizations, like Poetry Out Loud and the New Jersey state arts council, they say that you, too — you, too, can do this,” Abdul-Hamid said in the video. “There are no boundaries, and I think that that’s sort of what we felt as a student having someone hand you a William Shakespeare sonnet — you sort of sit up and say, ‘What else am I worthy of?’”
Like Koffa, Abdul-Hamin won the state championship on his third try. In two lines of “Hospital Window,” the narrator realizes that, although his father is likely close to the end, he is not afraid. He can still smile.
“I am not afraid for my father—
Look! He is grinning.”