Since becoming one of eight state finalists and taking home the top honors in the Louisiana Poetry Out Loud state competition in March, Zachary High School junior Kyla Bates has been perfecting her ability to recite poems.

Arts integration specialist Elizabeth Foos, a state coordinator for Poetry Out Loud, works with state finalists to prepare them for Poetry Out Loud, one of the nation’s largest youth poetry recitation competitions.

Foos visited Kyla on April 21 to ready the student, helping her improve upon the poems she’ll recite in Washington this week.

“In D.C., you take the stage, and what a long stage it is. I’m working with her on everything from stage entrance to breathing and pauses to bringing her own voice into the lines,” Foos said. “This is poetry folks, and we love it, right?”

Several theater students perched in the front row of the performing arts center at Zachary High answer back. They’ve been asked to sit in on Kyla’s practices, offering their constructive criticism and feedback.

“What works here? Pauses? Inflection? We need to take it line by line ...word by word,” Foos said of Kyla’s recitation of “I’m a Fool to Love You” by Cornelius Eady.

Kyla takes the instruction and suggestions in stride, reciting the line again and again.

“Good, now let’s bring Kyla’s voice back into it,” Foos said. “Bring yourself back into it.”

Kyla, who is not a fan of social media, believes her background as a theater student has helped.

“There is an understated strength Kyla conveys when belting the lines out or barely whispering a word. I think she has experienced more than most kids her age,” Foos said.

Kyla’s mother died in 2011, and the 17-year-old is one of seven siblings being raised by her grandmother and father.

“I’m not nervous but still kind of up here,” Kyla said, waving her hand near her head. “It’s uncontrollable joy. This is where I found my home.”

Students get to choose from an anthology of poems for the contest, and as a state finalist, Kyla will recite two poems in the semifinal round and the third poem if she makes it to the championship round.

Her selections include Eady’s poem, pre-20th century poem and “I Felt a Funeral in my Brain” by Emily Dickinson.

“I’ve been doing this for nine years,” Foos said. “What works for many at the state level doesn’t always work at the national level, so that’s why I work with these students. Many of them do not have a theater background like Kyla. Some just have an English or literary background.” Judges look for evidence of complexity and evidence of understanding at nationals, Foos said.

Bates advanced from a field of more than 365,000 students nationwide to 53 finalists competing in Washington.

Students and their schools will receive $50,000 in awards, including $20,000 for the national champion.

The trip for Kyla and her grandmother Rosia Armstrong is being funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, which partners with the Poetry Foundation to present Poetry Out Loud. The program encourages the study of great poetry by offering educational materials and a dynamic recitation competition to high school students across the country, Foos said.

“This is open to all students and schools that would like to participate next year. All they have to do us contact their state arts agency through poetryout loud.org.”

The national competition was April 27-29. Results of Kyla’s performance was not known at press time.