These High Schoolers Have A Passion For 'Poetry Out Loud'

May 1, 2019
Originally published on May 1, 2019 11:46 am

On Wednesday evening, nine high school students will compete for the title of national champion of Poetry Out Loud, a kind of annual spelling bee for poetry.

Tens of thousands of teens from across the country faced off in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands before they made it to Tuesday's semifinals at Lisner Auditorium on the campus of George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

The champion will take home $20,000. Second- and third-place finalists take home $10,000 and $5,000 respectively.

This competition is a huge part of my life. I've been looking forward to it since I've been in elementary school. - Mahlana Graham

For the competition — now in its 14th year — students select, memorize and recite classic and contemporary poems; this year, Shakespeare, Yeats, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, Rita Dove and Philip Levine are in the mix. Judges rate the recitations on criteria including "physical presence," "voice and articulation" and "evidence of understanding."

Vermont state champion and returning finalist Vera Escaja-Heiss chose "To Solitude" by Alice Cary and "Harina de Castilla" by Sandra M. Castillo. As the daughter of immigrants from Spain and Germany, Escaja-Heiss says she looks for poems she can relate to. Castillo "talks about not knowing your culture and being stripped from it, and I feel that every day," she says.

Joao Rodrigues Victor, the state champion from Maine, landed a spot in the finals reciting "Bright Copper Kettles" by Vijay Seshadri and "A History Without Suffering" by E.A. Markham. Victor says he was pacing back and forth before it was his turn to take the stage. "I was really nervous," says Victor. "I get to compete with all these people from different states like Ohio," he says, in charming disbelief.

This is the second year in a row that Maine's state champion is an asylum- seeker. Victor is from Angola; last year's Maine champion was Allan Monga from Zambia, who sued the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation for a chance at the national title. Last year the NEA said only U.S. citizens could compete on that level; this year, the rules are different.

The semifinals were bittersweet for Mahlana Graham, champion from the U.S. Virgin Islands, who recited "Black Boys Play the Classics" by Toi Derricotte and "Her Head" by Joan Murray. As a senior, this is Graham's fourth and last Poetry Out Loud. She received an honorable mention, but was sad not to move to the next round.

"This competition is a huge part of my life," Graham said, tearing up a little. "I've been looking forward to it since I've been in elementary school."

This story was edited for radio and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It started with tens of thousands of high school students. Tonight, nine of them face off in the finals of Poetry Out Loud, a kind of spelling bee for poetry. The champion gets fame, glory and $20,000. NPR's Elizabeth Blair went to yesterday's semi-finals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EVAN REYNOLDS: "I Have A Time Machine" by Brenda Shaughnessy.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: That's the Poetry Out Loud state champion from Connecticut, Evan Reynolds.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EVAN: It can only travel into the future at a rate of one second per second.

BLAIR: Students recited poems by the likes of Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson and Phillip Levine. They're judged on things like physical presence, voice and articulation and evidence of understanding. From the U.S. Virgin Islands, Mahlana Graham recited "Black Boys Play The Classics" by Toi Derricotte.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAHLANA GRAHAM: The most popular act in Penn Station is the three black kids in ratty sneakers and T-shirts playing two violins and a cello.

BLAIR: As a senior, this is Graham's fourth and last Poetry Out Loud. She received an honorable mention but was sad not to move to the next round.

MAHLANA: This competition is a huge part of my life. I have been looking forward to it since I've been in elementary school.

BLAIR: The state champion from Maine, Joao Rodrigues Victor, is moving on to the finals. He recited "Bright Copper Kettles" by Vijay Seshadri.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOAO RODRIGUES VICTOR: Dead friends coming back to life. Dead family speaking languages living and dead.

BLAIR: This is the second year in a row the Maine state champion is an asylum-seeker. Victor is from Angola. Last year, the main champion was Allan Monga from Zambia. He sued the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation for a chance to compete for the national title. Last year, the NEA said only U.S. citizens could compete. This year, the rules are different. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.