WATERVILLE – Emma Bailey never expected to be in the Poetry Out Loud state finals. But there she was Friday evening at the Waterville Opera House, along with her fans – wearing special T-shirts and wildly cheering her efforts.
Bailey and nine other students each recited three poems from memory during the 2-hour competition. Bailey, a senior at Messalonskee High School, finished second to the defending champion, Will Whitham, a senior at Bangor High.
“I was surprised that I made it to state, and I’m really surprised that I’m runner-up,” Bailey said.
Whitham receives $200 and an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., to represent Maine in the national finals in April. Bangor High will receive $500 to buy poetry books for the school library.
Bailey receives $100, and Messalonskee will get $200 for poetry books.
Whitham, who is undecided on college but is looking at some Ivy League schools, said last year’s competition helped him better understand the judging, but other factors made this year tougher.
“This year, there was so much more pressure,” he said. “Last year, I didn’t even know I was able to do this. This year, the entire time, I was like, ‘I have to defend my title’ or whatnot. So it was really much more stressful.”
The students selected their poems from a list, and by chance two of the poems Whitham recited were performed minutes earlier. One was “Alabanza, In Praise of Local 100,” by Martin Espada, recited by Maine Central Institute junior Jorgi Young.
“I liked seeing it done a different way,” Young said. “I saw (Whitham) at regionals, and it kind of gave me another idea about how it could be done.”
Young also recited “Ancestor” by Jimmy Santiago Baca, and “The Glove and the Lions” by Leigh Hunt.
“The first one I did, ‘Alabanza, in Praise of Local 100,’ I felt like it was really powerful,” Young said. “The second one, ‘Ancestor,’ was about a guy’s father who wasn’t around. I personally had that experience, and it kind of struck me when I read it.”
Bailey’s poems were Herman Melville’s “The Maldive Shark,” Isaac Rosenberg’s “Break of Day in the Trenches,” and Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners.”
Thornton Academy’s Paige Meserve went last in each round, and recited “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus and “Monet Refuses the Operation” by Lisel Mueller.
“I was trying to find poetry that I could connect with on an internal level, and really be able to convey, maybe even as part of me,” Meserve said. “The poems I chose, I felt really resonated with me.”
At the end of the evening, the 10 students got a standing ovation from the crowd of about 150. Whitham said that response was not unique to Friday’s competition.
“You end up building up a pretty incredible fan base,” Whitham said. “Hard to believe, I know. But we have our school competition, and we have like 100 or 200 kids from the high school sitting in a huge auditorium over at Bangor. They’d be cheering and applauding – they got really into it. It’s almost like a sporting event in some ways.”