PITTSFIELD, Maine — Ten brave and talented Maine Central Institute students stood one by one on the Pittsfield Community Theatre stage Thursday and proved that even in an era of electronic distraction, the spoken word holds as much power as it ever did.
With nothing buffering them from the audience but a microphone, the students recited familiar and not-so-familiar stanzas from famous and not-so-famous poets. Though their motivations were clearly their love of the material, this wasn’t an exercise in verbal aesthetics. It was a competition for the title of MCI’s Poetry Out Loud champion, which was won for the second year in a row by senior Jorgi Young.
Young, with her powerful performances of James L. Dickey’s “The Strength of Fields” and Carolyn Kizer’s “The Great Blue Heron,” will represent MCI at a regional competition in Ellsworth on Feb. 17 and possibly a statewide competition in Camden in March. The statewide winner will travel to Washington, D.C., in April to compete for the national title.
From the somber to the ridiculous, the performers sought to not only deliver their poems flawlessly and without notes, but also to pack emotion and meaning behind their words. On both counts, they succeeded. The prompter, whose job it was to step in if a performer dropped a line, was silent all night, and though the judges’ score cards were confidential, there were several competitors who must have been in the running.
“Phew,” said MCI humanities chairwoman Deborah Rozeboom when all of the poems had been recited. “Now we can breathe.”
Poetry Out Loud is a national program that seeks to engage high school students with prose. In the past six years, according to Rozeboom, the number of participating high schools in Maine has jumped from 16 to more than 50. At MCI, every student is required to recite a poem from memory for his or her English class. The winner in each class had the option of competing in the school finals.
Sophomore Josie Young, whose playful rendition of “Golden Retrievals” by Mark Doty elicited one of the most spirited audience reactions of the night, said the exercise showed her the beauty of poetry, but she never thought it would result in her onstage performance. Opinions on the poetry requirement at MCI vary student-by-student, she said.
“Some people think it’s a nuisance,” she said during an intermission. “Other people really enjoy it, and that’s all that matters.”
Mike Hwang, a student from South Korea who performed poems by Robert Frost and Robert Creeley, said he was surprised to win first place in his class competition. When asked if he wanted to perform at Thursday’s competition, he joined. Despite English being his second language, his performances were strong, which he attributed to his choice of material.
“I just picked a poem that I thought fit who I was,” he said.