One of the perks of being a big fish (says she, literally) in a small pond (native-English-speakers in Budapest) is that I occasionally get asked to attend functions I would otherwise miss. Last Friday, I had the good fortune to be invited to sit on the judging panel for the International Schools’ Poetry Competition. I wasn’t exactly jumping up and down at the prospect of spending my Friday evening listening to poetry recitations. But if I’m to preach about the importance of community involvement as an expat, or the benefits of volunteerism for mental health and well-being, I have to walk the talk.
This is the eighth year that the International Schools in Budapest have held this competition. Contestants compete in four categories: 10–12, 13–15, 16+, and group recitals. They came from five schools: American International School of Budapest (AISB), British International School Budapest (BISB), SEK Budapest International School, International Christian School of Budapest (ICSB), and Britannica International School (the latter hosted the 2014 final).
I read the order of events with a sinking heart, noticing that some poems would be recited by more than one competitor. The theme of the 2014 competition was water. I had mistakenly thought that the competitors would be reciting their own work and had been vaguely looking forward to hearing something of Budapest’s young creative talent in action. Trying hard to stem the growing tide of despair, I settled down to judge.
What ebbed and flowed over the course of the next couple of hours was inspirational. Each one of these young people had put time and effort into their recitations. They had given thought as to how best to interpret their particular poem. And while some might have gone a tad overboard on the drama, they were all a pleasure to listen to. A few chose particularly ambitious poems, difficult to interpret and even harder to do justice to in reciting. Respect.
Luke Miller chose James Whitcomb Riley’s The Old Swimmin’ Hole, a poem written in eye dialect where non-standard spelling is used to draw the speaker’s attention to pronunciation. With his rendition, he painted an evocative image of an old man’s reflection of his life, a picture that warranted a medal in the 13-15 category. Fabiana Vilsan’s winning recitation of Black Rook in Rainy Weather in the 16+ category was an insightful treatment of one of the very few of Sylvia Plath’s poems that I consider life-affirming. Tanvhi Chadha and Rebekah Brown showed great maturity in the group recitals with their extract from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott. For me though, the highlight of the evening was James Howells’ treatment of Rupert Brooke’s Heaven in the 10-12 category. I sat, in awe, listening to this young man express his understanding of what might well be Brooke’s most memorable and wittiest poem. We three judges chose Howells as the overall winner of the evening.
My font of knowledge was replenished on that particular Friday evening; my faith in the future restored. Though some were disappointed with their performances and others perhaps a little taken aback that they didn’t place, each contestant helped remind me of some of life’s key lessons: (i) There’s no shame in making a mistake; what matters is how you recover from it. (ii) The easiest option may be the safest, yet to grow we must challenge ourselves. (iii) When it comes to drama in life (as in reciting poetry), less is often more. (iv) It takes real courage to put yourself front and centre for others to judge. (v) Modesty in achievement is a quiet indicator of self-confidence. (vi) Saying yes can be the key to a whole new world.
First published in the Budapest Times 28 March 2014