South Whidbey senior Donia Kashkooli knew well the risks when she took the stage at the Poetry Out Loud state finals on March 7.
The poems she chose to perform, Terrance Hayes’ “The Golden Shovel” and “to the notebook kid” by Eve L. Ewing, were unconventional and dark. They also didn’t necessarily suit the types of work judges have scored highly in the past, traditional poems such as Sylvia Plath’s “The Applicant.”
Yet she wasn’t nervous. In previous recitations, such as when she won the Northwest Regional competition on Feb. 3, Kashkooli had difficulty calming her nerves. The state championship, held at Broadway Center’s Theatre on the Square in downtown Tacoma, was different. She knew she could do no wrong because she was being herself.
“At that point in the competition, I just wasn’t nervous anymore because I had gotten so accustomed to meeting all these different people from all over the state and we’re all just having fun doing poetry,” Kashkooli said. “I felt good about it. The atmosphere was nice. I didn’t feel like I needed to try really hard, even though it was a state competition.
“I could be myself and I really liked that,” Kashkooli added.
Over 20,000 students across Washington participate in Poetry Out Loud annually, according to the event’s website. Though Kashkooli didn’t win the competition, with those honors going to Ellensburg High School’s Jake Andrews, she still accomplished her goal.
After the competition, a group of local college students approached Kashkooli, 17, and complimented her poetry selections, adding that it had inspired them to do something of their own. For Kashkooli, that was enough.
“The reason I picked poems that resonated with me so much is because I can connect with people and be myself,” Kashkooli said. “When I’m up there, I just don’t care, honestly. If they don’t like it, so what? But I know I’m going to make an impression on at least a couple of people and make them feel something.”
Kashkooli’s English teacher, Jaryl Cave, felt the young poet got something out of the competition that was even bigger than a prize.
“It takes a lot of courage to choose difficult poems,” Cave said. “It takes a lot of bravery to not conform to what people might expect. She knew when she was done, she had done a good job.”
It was the culmination of five months of preparation for Kashkooli. Mastering her recitation of the poems took practice. Both poems were 46 lines each, while her opponents averaged 25 to 30 lines. Because she had never seen a recitation of “The Golden Shovel,” she had to create one from scratch and present it in a way that was authentic to the poem. Judges rated the competitors on their performance, accuracy and grammatical appropriateness.
With “The Golden Shovel,” Kashkooli said her interpretation led to a lot of pauses and times where she would be more dramatic. Much of her style derived from 1990s American rapper The Notorious B.I.G., who she touted as one of her inspirations, along with ’80s and ’90s hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest.
She practiced steadily from September to March, but was cautious not to over-practice. She felt it might lead to a less exciting performance.
“I feel like when you’re emotional, stuff just tends to change a little bit,” Kashkooli said. “I had total control over the poems and I played around with them a little bit. Each time I did every poem, it was different.”
Kashkooli was initially upset having not made it to the final round of the competition, but she soon calmed down after she put things in perspective.
“I don’t really express my anger outward, and I was kind of mad, just a little bit,” Kashkooli said. “I worked really hard. But after that it was fine. I had a lot of support from literally everybody in the school and people who just know me in general. I wasn’t that bummed out because I made it so far.”
Her mother was ecstatic with her daughter’s determination.
“I’m so happy. It has a great, positive outcome,” Fatemeh Kashkooli said. “She had a lot of encouragement from friends. I’m so glad she had a chance to go compete in a state competition.”
Kashkooli credited her mother and father, Mahmood, for allowing her free rein to choose what she wanted in life.
“My parents have encouraged me to be a very open minded person,” Kashkooli said. “They say, ‘Make all your decisions for yourself.’
“They’ve never forced me to do anything. They say, ‘If you do what we want you to do, you’re not going to be happy with yourself and you’re not going to be satisfied.’ They’ve always supported my wide variation of interests and think it’s awesome. I don’t think I could have gotten a better set of parents.”
Kashkooli has a wide range of interests in addition to poetry. She is a contributor on KKWPA FM 96.9, Whidbey/AIR, a local all-volunteer public radio station. She is also the team manager of the Falcon baseball team.
Kashkooli hopes to host a few poetry slams at the Useless Bay Coffee Company this summer before she attends Spokane Falls Community College in the fall. She hopes to eventually transfer to Whitworth College to study law, and has aspirations to open her own law firm some day.
It was taking a leap of faith on herself that Kashkooli was proud to have done in the competition.
“It’s an experience that I’m really happy I did,” Kashkooli said. “I’m glad that I got so far and I would have never gotten so far without all the support I’ve been getting and that’s awesome and I love it.”