What began as an extra credit project her freshman year propelled Olathe South senior Khadija Ceesay into the spotlight this week as one of nine national finalists in the Poetry Out Loud competition. Tuesday night, Khadija won $1,000 for her performance in Washington, D.C., plus $500 for her school to buy poetry materials.
Sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation and related agencies from each state, Poetry Out Loud showcases high school students’ ability to memorize and perform poetry with emotion. This is the 14th year for the competition.
Eighteen-year-old Ceesay earned her spot at nationals with a victory at the state competition in Salina, after winning at both the school and regional levels. Each student had to prepare three poems from an approved list. Hers were “Bleeding Heart” by Carmen Giménez Smith, “Epitaph” by Katherine Philips and “Dead Butterfly” by Ellen Bass.
“I’ve been told I portray stronger emotions very well,” Ceesay said. “‘Epitaph,’ I liked the sound of it, and I thought I could accurately portray the voice of the mother who’s lost that important thing in her life.”
Others told her that “Bleeding Heart,” a poem about feeling deep emotion, fit her personality well.
Although she only started performing poetry in high school, she’s loved the art form longer than that.
“I started writing my own poetry when I was about 12,” Ceesay said. “Whenever I had an idea, I wrote it down, and it just kind of became a poem.”
She hopes to publish a book of her poems someday.
The trip to nationals had several highlights for her. One of the biggest was spending time with the other poetry students.
“All the competitors were really sweet, and I made a lot of friends, so that was the best part,” Ceesay said. “There was an after-party at the very end. We went to the lower lobby of the hotel, and we had a slam poetry session, so that was very cool. I liked how I got along with everyone.”
She also appreciated the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. Ceesay said her travel so far has been limited to Texas and California.
When she returned, she found that a lot more people than she expected had been watching her performance on a livestream.
“I got a lot of hugs and high fives. A lot of people I didn’t think would watch me said they watched with their families,” she said. “I really like the support my school is giving me.”
All year, Ceesay worked with English teacher Cindy Roth, who traveled with her to the national competition, to refine her performance.
“We looked at how the author wrote various words that had emotions behind them — if we needed to draw it out or whisper it,” Roth said. “She was so reliable in coming every day during lunch. … I was really impressed that she was able to have a good balanced discussion between us. I felt like she was hungry for it.”
Roth said that after the state competition, they changed two of Ceesay’s poems, and she had the new ones memorized by the next week.
And although her mother’s not into poetry, Ceesay said she’s been a strong supporter as well, “making sure that I’m ready and able to be at my best.”
Ceesay has some experience performing with the drama program at Olathe South but said performing poetry is really different.
“With theater, it’s not as technical as poetry. I had to be very minimal with hand gestures. Even if I moved my eyebrows in a weird way, they’d (the judges would) be like, ‘Is that part of the poem?’” Ceesay said.
“Performing in a play is very different. You get to put yourself in the shoes of a character for a longer time. It’s more freeing, but poetry makes me feel more powerful, so I think I like it a bit better.”