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SIOUX CITY -- Over the course of 96 hours, East High School senior Nathan Kitrell traveled, via bus, to Nashville, Tennessee, where he and the rest of his high school's "Headliners" show choir competed at the 2019 Show Choir Nationals.

Departing Nashville, Kitrell then traveled to St. Louis, by bus, in order to catch a van that was headed to the University of Northern Iowa, in Cedar Falls, where he and several of his classmates were nominated to take part in the Iowa High School Speech Association's Individual All-State Speech festival, which took place March 25.

It was there that Kitrell presented a piece in the literary program category, as well as performed the song "If I Didn't Believe in You" from the musical "The Last Five Years" in the solo musical category.

Phew! If that seems like a heavy load, you're right. It was also a schedule Kitrell shared with his 12th grade classmate, Denisse Camarena.

A member of the "Headliners" stage crew, Camarena also made the 855-mile trip from Sioux City to Nashville. Since she, too, was invited to recite one of her own poems at the all-state speech festival, Camarena made a side trip to Cedar Falls.

"I'm exhausted, but I loved it," said Camarena, an 18-year-old from Le Mars, Iowa. "I've made it to the all-state speech festival as a freshman, sophomore and junior. It would've broken my heart if I didn't make it as a senior."

Kitrell, 17, of Sioux City, secured the position in the all-state speech fest for the past three years. That's OK, since musical theater has always taken precedence over speech.

"I enjoy speech and I enjoyed debate," he explained. "But singing and performing is my passion."

Indeed, Kitrell wants to pursue a career in music education after college.

Camarena, however, wants to study to become an animal behaviorist when she attends Iowa State University in the fall.

Still that doesn't mean she will ever give up reciting -- or writing -- poetry. 

"Denisse is unusual because she writes all of the poetry she uses for competition," Nathan Irwin, an Iowa High School Speech Association coach, explained. "One of the hardest things for students is interpreting source material. That's not an issue for Denisse since she recites what she writes."

So, what is "Reality" -- a poem that Camarena has recited for the past four all-state speech festivals -- all about? Sexual assault, domestic violence and a host of hot-button issues one doesn't usually associate with poetry.

Um ... what?

"I think young people have problems getting into poetry because it doesn't seem contemporary or real to them," Camarena explained. "Poetry can delve into issues as much as other type of writing. If you do it right, the issues raised will stick with you long after the poem's been read." 

This is true for Kitrell as well.

"It's easier to make an audience laugh or cry that it is to touch their hearts," he said. "You know that you're connecting with material when you make people think."

Right now, the only thing on Kitrell's mind is sleep and plenty of it. Camarena feels the same way.

"I've been sick, I lost my voice and I'm tired," Camarena said. "As soon as I get in front of an audience, that all goes away."

According to Kitrell, it is because there is meaning behind words.

"A poem or a song can change the way you think or feel," he said. "They can have that kind of power."

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