Meet the poet representing LA in a statewide recitation competition

Cennemi Diaz, a senior at Millikan High School in Long Beach, will represent Los Angeles County in the 2017 Poetry Out Loud contest.
Cennemi Diaz, a senior at Millikan High School in Long Beach, will represent Los Angeles County in the 2017 Poetry Out Loud contest.
Priska Neely/KPCC

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Take the structure of the National Spelling Bee, but replace the recitation of winding words with poetry and you get Poetry Out Loud. High schoolers across California are gearing up for the state finals of the big poetry recitation contest this weekend. 

Students from 44 counties will compete in Sacramento for a chance to move to nationals in Washington, D.C in April. Cennemi Diaz, a senior at Millikan High School in Long Beach, said she is honored to represent L.A. County.

"For me, it’s a great opportunity to be a part of promoting the arts," said Diaz, 18.

"I think that people need to be taught how to think creatively, and creativity also brings tolerance."The competition was founded in 2005 by the Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, under the leadership of Dana Gioia, the current poet laureate for California. 

Young poets from Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange and Ventura County will also compete in the state finals March 12 and 13th. The winner will be announced Monday.

Diaz talked with KPCC's arts education reporter Priska Neely about how the competition fuses her interests and goals. 

Diaz learned about the competition last year, but didn't make it to state finals. This time, she's nervous and excited to meet the competitors.

I started writing poetry in middle school. You know, those kind of angst-y days that most teens have. And I always like performing. So when I heard about this competition from my English teacher and when I saw these videos of people reading the poetry and they seemed really passionate – they turned the poems, even though they didn’t write them, the way they turned them into their own poems -- that was a perfect fit.

Outside of poetry, Diaz is also part of the French club, fashion club, the Female Leadership Academy club, the National Honors Society and she's a black belt.

Taekwondo kind of empowers me. I love the way it feels when you're practicing kicks and the way you have to show respect to the teachers. There's also a really small number of girls there. So for me to be in taekwondo. It makes me feel strong and powerful and I love that feeling. The adrenaline when you're actually sparring against another person it kind of shows like Oh I'm not scared and that has helped me a lot in another situations.

Diaz has applied to a number of schools specializing in either visual art and design or cinematography.

I'm in A.P. studio art at the moment. It's a college level art course and I know a lot of really talented artists. And I'll ask them, "Are you considering an art career?" And they're tell me that art is their passion, but they're going to be doctors, for example, because their parents want them to be doctors or because that makes more money. So even though that's their passion they don't pursue it out of fear of not being successful. 

There was a time when I was actually not going to major in art, even though I knew I wanted to major in art. But I think that there are a lot of opportunities in the art field. I've done my research and even though it is a little bit difficult, it's all about the communication skills that you have. You just have to snatch opportunities as soon as they are placed in front of you.