When Irvin Mason Jr. says “I keep myself busy,” he’s not exaggerating.
The All Saints Cathedral School senior, the territory champion in the 2016 Poetry Out Loud contest, spent much of last week in Washington, D.C., where he represented the Virgin Islands in the national competition, vying with contestants from all 50 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico. He didn’t win but was pleased with the experience.
The contest was created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, with a pilot program in 2006. It caught on quickly and widely; the Virgin Islands began participating in 2008.
Students are required to memorize and recite three poems of their choosing from the Poetry Out Loud anthology. They are judged on evidence of understanding of the poem, accuracy of the recitation, and such presentation aspects as pronunciation, articulation, volume, pace, confidence and eye contact with the audience.
Mason’s choices this year were “The Bones of My Father” by Ethridge Knight, “Flounder” by Natasha Trethewey, and “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus.
He’s an Ethridge Knight fan, so, he said, he went looking for a work of the poet’s that was new to him. “The New Colossus” appealed to him because of its immigration theme; he found it particularly relevant in light of the current Syrian refugee crisis.
And “Flounder” attracted him because “It’s so complex” although it appears to be simple. The flounder is black on one side, and white on the other, like the little girl who watches it “flip-flop” after it is caught.
“It was a great representation for our culture,” Mason said.
The first step in preparing for the contest is studying the material. Mason said his coach, who is also his AP English teacher, Dena Langdon, had students discuss, research and write an analysis of their poems.
As for memorizing the material, Mason said “I actually don’t know” how that process works, but he does know he spent a lot of time on it, reading and rereading and committing the verses to memory. He recorded his pieces and listened to them on his way to and from school. He also presented them several times, starting with the school competition in late January through the territory-wide finals in March.
“I’ve had dreams saying the poems,” he said.
Mason said he had great help from his coach and tremendous support from his parents.
There was a lot of time pressure for the nationals.
“That was just the worst combination: Carnival right before the competition,” he said.
Mason is a mocko jumbie and a member of two Carnival troupes, the Caribbean Ritual Dancers and the Tropical Masqueraders. He was also part of the welcome show when the Tom Joyner cruise docked in St. Thomas.
Add to that the three Advance Placement courses he takes and the play he’s directing. All Saints will perform "Shrek the Musical, Jr." on May 28.
Although he enjoys poetry, Mason said he’s not a poet.
“I find it easier to write skits and dialogue,” he said.
In the fall, he’ll enter UCLA, where he plans to pursue a double major: political science and theater directing.
Don’t be surprised if he ends up on the Virgin Islands political stage.