IT IS DOWN TO THE TOP SIX. A 14-year-old girl in a grown-up’s gray suit and red blouse pauses just outside the auditorium door, hugging herself as she moves her lips wordlessly. A tall girl dressed in bright coral huddles nearby with her mother. They are standing nearly nose to nose and murmuring. It’s hard to tell whether they are reciting a poem or a prayer. In five minutes, these two teens and four others will compete in the last round of the Massachusetts state finals of Poetry Out Loud, a national poetry recitation contest. The winner will get a Kindle, a crown of leaves, and, most important, the chance to compete for a $20,000 prize at Poetry Out Loud’s national finals, which take place Sunday through Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
In the main room of the Old South Meeting House in Boston, a jazz pianist keeps the audience entertained while the top six rehearse one final time. The girl in coral lifts her chin high; her mother wipes away tears. The music stops. The first finalist heads for the microphone.
The road to that microphone begins each January in hundreds of high school English classrooms across the state. The Poetry Out Loud contest started nationwide in 2006, with 12 participating high schools in Massachusetts. After six years of steady growth, some 20,000 teens from 74 schools competed here this spring, putting the state among the top five for participation. Poetry Out Loud is one result of a bequest that made national headlines in 2002, when pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly donated more than $100 million to Poetry magazine; the contest is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. According to promotional materials, its goal is to help students “master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about their literary heritage.”
The study of poetry may be especially important for kids growing up in the age of tweets. Not only does learning a poem illustrate the power of precise language, it also can be a useful check against self-centeredness — whether the natural narcissism of adolescence or the kind that comes from staring too long at your own Facebook timeline. Close reading, after all, is essentially an act of listening; to learn a poem well enough to speak it aloud with confidence requires careful attention to someone else’s words, someone else’s experience. It means tuning out the clamor of voices competing for your attention — including your own — until you’ve fully heard what another person is saying.
In some Massachusetts schools, teachers and teens say, Poetry Out Loud is creating a clamor of its own: By giving poetry a competitive element — and a big public forum — the contest is filling high school hallways with the excited chatter once reserved for athletic tournaments and making heroes out of kids who can bring metaphors to life. But as the poetry event grows in popularity and in luster, the downside to organized sports is at work as well. Some kids are suffering under the weight of adult expectations — and think the notion of competitive poetry is at odds with the art form itself.
ON A MILD GRAY morning in January, Lisken Van Pelt Dus is arranging the desks for her Advanced Placement English class when a girl rushes into the room, five minutes ahead of schedule. “I’m so nervous!” the student moans. She has long, flowing blond hair and wears leggings and boots. “I’m so nervous.”
“But you told me you’ve memorized your poem and have been reciting it in your sleep,” Dus says patiently. An English teacher whose light brown hair is faintly flecked with gray, Dus coordinates Poetry Out Loud at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington. The superintendent of the local school district calls her “the Red Auerbach of poetry,” since her school, located deep in the Berkshires, has the best track record of sending teens to the Poetry Out Loud state finals in Boston.
“I’m still so nervous,” the blond girl sighs as the rest of her class settles into desks for the first round. Like many participating teachers, Dus requires her students to take part in the contest: They have been assigned to choose a poem — “one they love” — from the contest’s approved anthology and memorize it.
Once all the kids are seated, Dus leans forward with the intensity of a coach in a pregame huddle. “You chose poems you love,” she tells them. “Now enjoy them.”
One by one, students rise and recite. There’s applause, and then a pause after each one, as Dus and a guest judge scribble furiously, giving each student six different scores in categories ranging from “dramatic appropriateness” to “evidence of understanding.” Not all students have gotten the memorization down perfectly — there are some frantic calls of “Line!” for a prompt — but nobody gives up.
The best performance of the morning belongs to Ezra Marcus, a tall 17-year-old with a quick smile, who is wearing a brown corduroy blazer and a tie. He recites “The Legend,” by Garrett Hongo, and as he builds toward the poem’s climactic violence, his voice is at once urgent and conversational: “A boy — that’s all he was — backs from the corner package store shooting a pistol,”
says Ezra. He makes a shooting gesture — the kind that could cause a high school classroom to burst into laughter. But nobody laughs. “There’s a lot of compassion,” Ezra says afterward. “Everyone is supportive. The kids who play sports, the kids who drop out on drugs . . . ” He laughs. “Everyone can connect to poetry.”
Just before the bell rings, Dus announces that she’s finished tallying the scores. Ezra and one other student have the highest scores and will go on to compete against others in their grade for a chance at the all-school competition. Then she keeps kids in their seats one moment longer: “I’m proud of all of you,” she says.
In Dus’s class, Poetry Out Loud feels as much like a class project as a competition, with students focused more on not messing up than on wondering how they’ll stack up against one another. There are no catcalls, no attempts to distract someone else into mixing a metaphor.
Yet the competitive element provides an incentive for Ezra to take his homework extra seriously. The son of an English major, he says he grew up in a literary household; these days, his main interests include both theater and basketball. He’s wearing a tie because he has a game after school, not because he had a poem to recite. “Sports are my general thing,” he says; the contest spurred him to work hard at poetry, too. “I wouldn’t have worked as hard if there weren’t the competition,” he admits. “Poetry Out Loud creates a prestigious image,” he says. “You see a high pedestal, but you also see that it’s within reach.”
THE PEDESTAL EZRA is reaching for has a current occupant: 18-year-old Michaela Murray. A senior at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics & Science in Roxbury, she won the Massachusetts state finals in 2011 and placed ninth in the nation. A petite Dorchester girl with huge brown eyes, Michaela hopes to defend her title this year, but isn’t taking anything for granted: She says she builds poetry practice into many of her daily routines. When she’s doing homework or baking bread or working at her after-school library job, Michaela is also running through the three poems she’s picked for this year: “Passing,” by Toi Derricotte; Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55; and the “The Powwow at the End of the World,’’ by Sherman Alexie. Students need to prepare one poem for classroom rounds, two for school finals, and three if they make it to the state and national finals.
“I like to do my poems as if I’m having a conversation with myself,” Michaela says. “I just say it while I’m doing my homework or my chores. It has to be very natural for me; if not, I haven’t done my job.”
A soft-spoken girl who transforms into a commanding presence onstage, Murray knows her victory last year complicates matters for other students at the O’Bryant. “A lot of people don’t want to compete against me,” she says. “They’re saying I’ll just win.”
Crystal Coy-Gonfa, who is director of the O’Bryant’s English program, says that having last year’s winner is at once an honor and a challenge for her school. “Other students are a little intimidated by her at this point. They feel as if it’s a done deal,” she says. She proudly recounts Michaela’s successes last year — first in the school and the state; ninth in the country — and says, “We’ll see where she goes this year!
“If she’s the school winner,” Coy-Gonfa adds quickly, with an emphasis on if. “If she’s the winner.”
TEN DAYS AFTER winning his class competition, Ezra Marcus, again in his brown blazer, is on the stage of Monument Mountain’s cavernous auditorium. The stakes here are much higher: A huge film screen displays the Poetry Out Loud logo behind the contestants like a backdrop at the Academy Awards. There are shouts and encouraging whistles after each student finishes. Four boys in varsity jackets, who are in the front row, leap into the air to cheer after one of their teammates performs. Several hundred kids are in the audience, either because they have a free period or because their teacher decided to bring an entire class. At a handful of schools, including Burlington and Malden high schools, Poetry Out Loud finals have all-school attendance. A judge at one says that hearing an entire school cheer for their classmates’ poetry recitations reminded her of “waiting for the Beatles to perform.”
After the last Monument Mountain student recites, the judges spend about five minutes adding the scores. As the finalists fidget on stage, Lisken Dus approaches the microphone, looking a little rattled. “It was a heartbreaker,” she tells the audience. “Our top two students had the exact same score. This has never happened before.”
The audience breaks into excited rumbles. Dus tries to talk over the chatter, explaining that the school can’t have a tie, that she doesn’t have the discretion to nominate two students to the regional semifinals in Springfield. “The contest rules tell us in this case, we use the accuracy score to break the tie,” Dus says.
A little shadow passes over Ezra’s face, as if he’s trying to figure out what his accuracy score might be. Had he gotten every word right, every preposition? Had he said “the” when he meant “a”?
One by one, Dus calls the names of students who will receive a certificate of participation. Before long, only two remain, the top two: Ezra and a red-haired senior named Lily Sexton, who recited Denise Duhamel’s “Ego” beautifully in the first round. “As I said, Ezra and Lily had the same exact score. So we looked at the accuracy score and counted it again,” says Dus. “And there, we had a 2-point difference.”
Seventeen-year-old Lily is hugging herself. Ezra looks as if he doesn’t like the way this is going to turn out.
“And so,” says Dus. “Ezra Marcus is our runner-up. Our winner, Lily . . . ” But her voice is drowned out by cheers. Lily’s eyes get very wide. She’s won the whole school.
But that night, the Red Auerbach of poetry has a terrible realization. It’s Dus’s job to make sure Monument Mountain follows all the contest rules, and she’s gotten something critical wrong. The Poetry Out Loud rules state that the “overall performance score” should be used to break a tie; if the students are still tied, then the accuracy score is used to determine the winner. When Dus follows the procedure correctly, she discovers that Ezra comes out ahead. Now she has a dilemma: Does she tell a teenage girl who has just accepted an award in front of the whole school that it’s not hers? Or let the mistake go, as the lesser of two evils? Dus discusses the situation with her colleagues and principal and decides that “the integrity of the process and the program is too important to ignore,” as she puts it. First thing the next morning, she calls Lily into her office and breaks the news — and then tells Ezra of his victory.
“I’m glad to advance,” Ezra writes in an e-mail. “However, the circumstances dampened my spirits a bit. The best way I can describe it is bittersweet. I felt really bad for Lily.”
IN BOSTON, Michaela Murray wins her class, and she triumphs in the O’Bryant’s school competition, though it’s by no means a runaway. Coy-Gonfa, the English program director, says two boys came very close to doing as well as Michaela. Next stop is the regional semifinals, held in Boston, Springfield, Framingham, and Cape Cod, on March 3 and 4.
Michaela, who competes at the Boston semifinals in the South End, says she “felt the competition” this year, that a lot of kids were very good. But she’s good enough to become one of six in her region to advance to the state finals on March 11.
In the week leading up to the finals, Michaela starts to feel really nervous. Her parents, her schoolmates and teachers, and members of her church are all certain she’ll be the 2012 champion. “They’re like, ‘Pack your bags, you’re going to D.C.!’ ” Michaela says one evening after school. “But I don’t know. I feel like I have to live up to expectations because I think they are counting on me. I am extremely nervous.”
As sometimes happens with elite athletes, some talented kids decide Poetry Out Loud isn’t worth the pressure. Wilmene Hercule, of Randolph, is a senior at Prospect Hill Academy Charter School in Cambridge. She was the state champion her freshman and sophomore years. Her first year, 2009, she says she had fun because she never expected to win. “I was just happy to make it past the classroom round,” she says. “My nerves weren’t that bad.” As a returning champion — the position Michaela is in now — Wilmene felt “extremely anxious. My hands were shaking at all levels of the competition.” She thinks her nerves affected her negatively, that she thought too hard about her performance and lost some of her spark. “Because I was more scared, I kept thinking, ‘Oh, do the judges like this or that?’ ”
She still won the entire state as a sophomore. But the following year, she won her class competition and dropped out. This year, as a senior, Wilmene is participating in her classroom competition because it’s required, but she has asked that her scores not be counted. Wilmene is a two-season varsity athlete, so she doesn’t shy away from competition across the board. She just has mixed feelings about making a contest out of poetry, which unlike football or Ping-Pong, is not inherently structured to produce winners and losers.
As Wilmene, who will attend Stanford University in the fall, looks back on her experience with Poetry Out Loud, she is of two minds about it: “I personally feel that poetry is something people should look forward to and should do for themselves, not in a contest where they’ll be judged,” she says. “At the same time, the competition can bring out the best in contestants.”
ON MARCH 11, a beautiful springlike Sunday, Michaela, Ezra, and 21 other students arrive at Boston’s Old South Meeting House, all hoping that the contest will inspire rather than inhibit them. At this level, students are uniformly excellent: Watching them compete in the first round, one forgets they belong to a generation often chided for writing and speaking in the lingo of instant messages. Long poems are delivered with deliberation and passion. There are few obvious errors. Who will win is a question, largely, of who will have the extra spark, the oomph that Wilmene Hercule feared she’d lose under the pressure of nerves.
Everyone connected to the contest — coordinated in this state by the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston and the Massachusetts Cultural Council — acknowledges that judging is both subjective and difficult. One of the four judges says he prefers speakers who are restrained and not too theatrical, while another gravitates toward students who “hit the emotional moments” in the poems. The judges — largely poetry and theater professionals — never confer, so whichever student has the highest cumulative score wins. There are always more girls than boys (this year, only two of the 23 state finalists are male), and black students tend to make up a disproportionate percentage of finalists and winners. Donna Glick, the Huntington’s director of education, acknowledges that she faces the “reverse question” of many organizations: Why so many successful girls and students of color? It’s not a question she can answer, but also not one that troubles her. She thinks the system of judging is as fair as any subjective process can be and that the best students are rewarded. “In terms of diversity, it is what it is, as Bill Beli-chick would say,” says Glick.
In the state finals, contestants are required to embrace some literary diversity: They must choose at least one poem written before 1900. Ezra, who struggled to find a non-modern poem he liked, has settled on “Death Be Not Proud,” by John Donne. He recites cleanly, but it’s not as inspired as some of his past recitations. The final line — “Death, thou shalt die!” — feels a little cheerful for Donne.
Michaela, who is dressed in a lilac blouse, chooses Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55 — “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes . . . ” — which another girl has just recited a few minutes earlier. It’s unfortunate luck; Poetry Out Loud tries to avoid duplication by retiring some of the most popular poems, like Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” from its anthology. Still, Michaela’s recitation seems stronger, with expressions better suited to the poem’s mood.
After six hours and two rounds of competition, it’s time for the first moment of reckoning, when the top 23 will be whittled down to the top six. Just as students are getting antsy in the pews, a Huntington staff member goes onstage to announce the top six, and the room falls silent.
“Michaela . . . ” he begins.
But it’s a different Michaela whose name has been called. Soon the top six in the state are dashing for the exits to prepare for the final round. Neither Michaela Murray, last year’s champion, nor Ezra Marcus are among them.
“It’s fine,” Michaela says afterward. Her mother and four siblings hover nearby. “I’m fine,” she repeats, but she looks as if she’s trying hard not to cry.
Ezra, who as a junior can compete again next year, is more upbeat. “I think I was pretty close to the top six,” he says.
In the final round, all six students deliver strong performances, but one in particular has an added oomph: Stephanie Igharosa, of Randolph High School, recites Al Young’s “The Blues Don’t Change,” and as she finishes, she sweeps one arm downward in a gesture of triumph. “Thank you!” she cries into the microphone, as if she knows she’s nailed it.
And she has. Stephanie, a cross-country runner, Model UN enthusiast, and native of Nigeria, is the new Massachusetts Poetry Out Loud champion. As a freshman, she is also a first-time participant in the contest. Like her fellow Randolph resident Wilmene Hercule in 2009, or Michaela Murray last year, she faces none of the pressure of a repeat performance. As the 14-year-old stands onstage, with a crown of leaves on her head, she smiles and blinks back tears.
A month later, Stephanie is still reeling from her victory. “It’s been phenomenal. I’m still in shock,” she says in early April, just over a month before her trip to Washington, D.C. Chatting on her cellphone after school, she sounds bubbly with excitement. “I definitely didn’t expect to win, but I thought there was a chance, because I put a lot of time and effort into it.” Part of what drove her, she says, was knowing she’d be competing against Michaela Murray. “When I realized the state champ from last year was competing, I gave myself this big plan to beat her in the competition. That was my goal, to pass her because I knew she was a big champion,” says Stephanie, who had never been interested in poetry until competing in the contest this year.
She’s looking forward to this week, when 50 students selected from more than 300,000 nationwide will compete for a $20,000 cash prize. Her English teacher and she have been rehearsing; her teacher plans to videotape Stephanie so they can watch together and discuss ways she can improve. “I’ll watch and see what needs to be fixed,” says Stephanie. “You might not know what you’re doing unless you see it from outside your body.”
In Washington, Stephanie will recite the same three poems that she did in the state finals: “Richard Cory,” by Edwin Arlington Robinson; “The Man With the Hoe,” by Edwin Markham; and “The Blues Don’t Change,” by Al Young. Her favorite is the Markham poem. “It was the one I really had to try to understand,” she says. “It was the most challenging to memorize.”
“I love challenges,” she adds.