Her air of solemnity as she approached the microphone was tempered immediately by her words. Avalon Langevin, a junior at Bucksport High School, walked onstage at The Grand theater in Ellsworth to read the poem “Golden Retrievals” by Mark Doty. It quickly became clear to the audience gathered to enjoy the northern regional finals of the Poetry Out Loud competition that her poem was about a dog.
Langevin, bright-eyed and smiling, recited with great animation Doty’s sonnet about the spiritual concerns of man’s best friend. Though she didn’t end up as one of five finalists during the competition, she was one of 21 Maine high school students who, for a few hours one February evening, gave life to more than 50 poems from writers as diverse as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
“I like that we all come together, all of us from different schools, and we are all together because we like poetry,” said Langevin. “It’s kind of neat that that’s the common thing.”
Now in its sixth year, Poetry Out Loud is a national program that last year boasted more than 325,000 participants. Students in high schools in every state choose a handful of poems, memorize them, stand in front of their peers and recite them. Each school chooses a winner, who then advances to regional finals and, potentially, state finals. Overall state winners get to travel, all expenses paid and with a chaperone, to Washington, D.C., in April, during National Poetry Month, for the national competition, where they’ll compete for a $20,000 first prize.
In Maine, the Maine Arts Commission sponsors Poetry Out Loud, which this year had more than 8,500 participants from 45 schools. MAC Executive Director Donna MacNeil was at both the southern Maine finals, held Feb. 11 in Biddeford, and the northern Maine finals, held Feb. 17 in Ellsworth. Five finalists were picked at each event to compete at the state finals March 11 in Lewiston.
“The competition gets better and better each year,” said MacNeil. “Each year, the students become more deeply engaged in the poetry in general. They gain confidence in public speaking. They even start writing their own poetry. We have twice as many kids participating this year as last. It’s really taken off.”
Though it is a competition, the mood backstage before the Ellsworth event was one of curious camaraderie. Some students are deeply devoted to writing and their English classes, some are athletes, some are in theater, and some are the quiet kids you might not notice at lunch.
“I think it helps to take it out of a stale, dry setting, and reinvigorate it,” said MacNeil. “Everyone has an emotional life, and that’s what poetry is all about. That’s the universality of it. That’s why you see an array of different kinds of kids participating.”
Bethany Bernhardt, a junior at Erskine Academy in Vassalboro, was one of the five northern Maine finalists, who read poems by Emily Dickinson, Gary Soto and William Matthews during the competition. She’s an actress, so being onstage isn’t a problem — but reading poetry out loud presents a different set of challenges from acting.
“Acting, you have other people onstage and backstage to help you out,” she said. “With poetry, it’s just you. You’re on your own. You have to figure it all out by yourself. I kind of like that.”
Jorgi Young, a senior at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, has participated in Poetry Out Loud every year of high school. This year, she stood onstage with poise and confidence as she read James Dickey’s “The Strength of Fields” during the first round, which was quite different from her freshman year when she cried in front of the classroom after she got up to read her poem.
“I think I have a lot more appreciation for how much energy and effort it takes to memorize it, and kind of inhabit it,” said Young, who lists Dickey and Maya Angelou as favorite poets. “When you recite it over and over, it changes every time. One syllable can change everything.”
The four judges in Ellsworth were radio broadcaster Jim Campbell, writer and teacher Ian Bannon, poet and filmmaker Walter Skold and poet Linda Buckmaster. Buckmaster, formerly the poet laureate of Belfast, said the oral recitation of poetry is crucial to understanding it fully.
“When I give readings, and I know this happens to a lot of poets, people come up afterward who say they never ‘get’ poetry on the page, but when they hear me read, they can appreciate it,” said Buckmaster. “And of course, poetry is originally an oral tradition, and even poetry written for the page relies on sound to make its point.”
Another finalist was Genevieve Shepard, a senior at Searsport District High School. Her take on Eaven Boland’s poem “Domestic Violence” began with stillness that, as the poem progressed, turned into catharsis.
“The poem is about a marriage falling apart, and [when I was] growing up, my parents went through a tough divorce. So it really hits home for me,” she said. “It helped me understand a lot of things. And it’s just full of really beautiful words that are fun to say. I love words.”
Justin Ortlip, a junior at Kents Hill School, identified the righteous fervor in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s timeless classic “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” and relished translating that into his reading.
“They’re staring into the face of death, and they know they’re probably going to die, but they do it anyway. It’s so exciting,” said Ortlip. “I write anyway, like historical fiction and sci-fi, but maybe I’ll expand into poetry now.”
The students are allowed to bring one teacher with them to the competition, who has the option of acting as a prompter if the student wishes. Mark Messer, who teaches English as a Second Language at George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, accompanied his student Martin Conte, a senior at GSA. This is the first year GSA has participated in the program.
“I think the thrill is in getting all the pieces together, and going through the process of making the poem come alive,” said Messer. “You find new things to do with it all the time. It starts to feel natural. It’s a really interesting thing to watch someone figure it all out. That’s the beauty of poetry.”
Regional finalists for Maine’s Poetry Out Loud competition are Frank Schuth, Shead High School; Genevieve Shepard, Searsport District High School; Eloise Harnett, Gardiner Area High School; Bethany Bernhardt, Erskine Academy; Bethanie Brown, Waterville Senior High School; Lulu Hawkes, Catherine McAuley High School; Ian Hawkes, Gorham High School; Munye Mohamed, Portland High School; Morgan Wiggan, Thornton Academy; and Crystal Farrington, Lake Region High School.
The Poetry Out Loud Maine State Finals will be held at 5 p.m. Friday, March 11, at the Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston. The event is free. For information, visit poetryoutloud.org.