FREEPORT, Maine — One of the nation’s foremost poets will read his work at a student poetry competition at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Merriconeag Waldorf School.
Richard Blanco, who gained national acclaim when he delivered the inaugural poem last year at President Obama’s second swearing-in, will serve as the judge of the seventh annual Merriconeag Poetry Festival at the school at 57 Desert Road.
“I wish when I was a kid something like this would have [existed],” Blanco said Tuesday. “I think this encourages kids to understand that there are possibilities in life and things we can explore beyond the reading, writing and arithmetic approach to life. That poetry is something that can be written, can be enjoyed, whether you grow up to be a writer or not.”
The festival is free and open to the public, but due to limited seating, registration is required through the school’s website at Merriconeag.org.
A resident of Bethel, Blanco immigrated from Madrid, Spain, to Miami as an infant. His poetry collections include “City of a Hundred Fires,” “Directions to the Beach of the Dead” and “Looking for the Gulf Motel.” With his reading of his original piece “One Today,” Blanco became the fifth person to deliver an inaugural poem — and the youngest. He is reportedly the first immigrant, first Latino and first openly gay person to have that honor.
In previous years, the Merriconeag Poetry Festival’s judges have included current Maine poet laureate Wesley McNair; former Maine poet laureate Betsy Sholl; Adrian Blevins, who teaches at Colby College; and Megan Grumbling, a teacher at the University of New England and theater critic for the Portland Phoenix.
“I don’t know why we’ve been so fortunate, but one of the things I’m proudest of is that the judges for the past six festivals have all been high-profile Maine poets,” said David Sloan, a humanities and drama teacher at Merriconeag who organizes the festival. “And Richard Blanco certainly follows in that proud line.”
The competition, which celebrates original works of poetry, is open to all public and private high school students in Cumberland, Androscoggin and Sagadahoc counties. This year’s competition drew the largest-ever number of submissions, about 150.
After initial entries were screened by local poet Helene McGlauflin and the pool was narrowed, Blanco selected 20 finalists, all of whom are invited to read their work at Sunday’s ceremony. At the conclusion of the event, Blanco will announce the first-, second- and third-prize winners.
This year’s finalists hail from the Hyde School, Merriconeag, and Gorham, Edward Little, Cape Elizabeth, Chop Point, Falmouth, Yarmouth, South Portland and Greely high schools.
Blanco said in choosing the finalists he looked for poets who seemed plugged in to the world around them.
“I don’t think there’s a distinction in terms of student poetry versus adult poetry,” he said. “A poem that the voice shines through, something in which you get the sense that no one else in the world could have written that poem except that person. A sense of uniqueness. A sense of urgency — in other words, that they seem to really care or are really trying to understand what they’re choosing to talk about. A good poem is a good poem.”
Sloan said he encourages his students to use concrete imagery and fresh language and to avoid mimicking other writers. Most of all, though, he just wants them to keep writing.
“That’s at the root of this festival,” Sloan said. “We want these young people to be recognized for their efforts, and we want them to feel encouraged to go on and write more and more.”
Jesse Saffeir, a junior at Merriconeag, has caught the poetry bug. After taking a poetry course with Sloan as a freshman, she began writing, not just at school, but on her own time. She is one of the festival finalists, and her entry, “By a River,” is written from the perspective of Ophelia from “Hamlet.”
“It’s kind of meditative, almost,” Saffeir said of writing verse. “We have pretty busy lives. It’s a good way of calming down, of relaxing, and thinking more deeply about all kinds of subjects.”