Four finalists from Ashland, Grants Pass, Medford and Bandon will show off their poetry recitation and performance skills as they vie for more than $50,000 in scholarships during the Poetry Out Loud regional finals Monday in Ashland.

Four finalists from Ashland, Grants Pass, Medford and Bandon will show off their poetry recitation and performance skills as they vie for more than $50,000 in scholarships during the Poetry Out Loud regional finals Monday in Ashland.

Though some students may cringe at the idea, reciting memorized poems is pure performance art and a path to prizes for participants in the 2012 Poetry Out Loud competition.

The program for high school students is intended to encourage appreciation of poetry and to hone their memorization, performance and public speaking skills. Now in its seventh year, the program is organized by the National Endowment for the Arts, Poetry Foundation and, in Oregon, the Oregon Arts Commission.

"Each year we see more students participating from all over the state," says Sarah Dougher, state interim director. "This year we have students from remote communities who have never done this before. We think Poetry Out Loud is a great way to teach communication, to excite students about literature."

In Oregon, more than 30 schools participate, so just getting to the regional competition is tough work. Students spend months preparing to compete within classroom contests and then in schoolwide competitions. Schools send their top performers to the regional finals, and the top three finishers in each region will advance to the state contest March 31 in Salem. That winner will go on to represent Oregon May 13-15 at the National Finals in Washington, D.C.

Each winner at the state level receives $200 and an all-expenses-paid trip with an adult chaperone to Washington to compete for the national championship. The state winner's school receives a $500 stipend for the purchase of poetry books. The first runner-up receives $100, with $400 for his or her school library.

Only one student is representing Ashland this year, Alexander Barnes. Barnes is a home-schooled student who also takes classes at Ashland High School. Since AHS did not participate this year, Barnes registered independently. Nationwide, more than 300,000 students are expected to participate.

The semi-final phase of competition for the Southern Oregon region will be from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Carpenter Hall. Students will recite three poems each. One poem must be 25 lines or fewer, and one must have been written before the 20th century.

The regional finals will take place the same day at 7 p.m., as part of OSF's open mike at the Black Swan. Dougher will emcee the competition.

"This year, we're partnering with the Shakespeare Festival. They've provided space and some of the judges are OSF performers. It should be great," she said.

Judges for the 2012 competition will include local educators, performers and poets. One judge, Liz Robinson, is a former teacher and a poet. While she has judged classroom contests in Medford, this is her first time judging a regional event.

"I'm looking forward to hearing the kids and the poems they have chosen. It is amazing what happens when you memorize a poem. These kids take that poem inside themselves and make it a part of themselves," she said.

For more information, call the Oregon Arts Commission at 503-986-0082 or visit www.poetryoutloud.org.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at decker4@gmail.com.