BIDDEFORD – Thousands of Maine high school students have spent much of the year searching for the perfect poem to recite as part of this year’s national Poetry Out Loud competition.

There are more than 600 approved poems from which to choose, from Longfellow to Poe, Shakespeare to Yeats. Sanford High School English teacher Nancy Kane said some of her students took weeks to pick out their material.

“They’re very concerned about the message and if it fits them,” Kane said. “They feel strongly about using their voice to change the world, even though it is other people’s words.”

The national competition begins in the classroom. Some 8,500 Maine students participated this year, along with 250 teachers in 45 high schools. The number of participants has nearly doubled over last year, he said.

Southern Maine students who won their high school competition will compete in the regional Thursday in Biddeford’s City Theater. The northern regional will be held Feb. 17 in Ellsworth.

Five students each from the two regionals will compete at the state finals on March 11 at the Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston. The state winner will receive $200 and an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., for the national competition April 29, said Maine Arts Commission Director Donna McNeil. The state winner’s school will receive a $500 stipend for the purchase of poetry books. The first runner-up in each state will receive $100, with $200 for his or her school library.

The national winner takes home $20,000.

The competition is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation — the Maine Arts Commission organizes the state competition.

At each level, students are judged on the accuracy of their recitation, as well as elements of their performance that indicate that they not only memorized the poem, but also understand its message, McNeil said.

“There is not much opportunity to engage with the spoken word and to express yourself,” she said. “This reaches every community in Maine and engages these students.”

To offer students in southern Maine more opportunities to recite in public, a series of open mic nights have been scheduled at local performance venue The Oak & The Ax on Main Street in Biddeford. The series, which begins Sunday, was planned by local organizations and funded by the Maine Arts Commission to give area high school students more chances to get out of the classroom and perform poetry in the community, said Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance Executive Director Joshua Bodwell.

“So many kids are busting out to perform,” said Bodwell, who will emcee Thursday’s regional competition.

Daniel Norwood, a senior in Kane’s Advanced Placement Literature class, this year participated for the second time in his high school’s competition, reciting poems by Edgar Allan Poe and Dylan Thomas. He said the experience has turned him into a poetry fan.

“It’s something I’ve really enjoyed,” Norwood said.

Which is exactly what Bodwell hopes students get out of the competition.

“I think about how formative it was for me (as a young writer) to be invited to read and be engaged in the real world,” he said.

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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