Emily Paruk, an aspiring actor and a senior at Gorham High School, will represent Maine in the Poetry Out Loud national semifinals next month, competing virtually for a chance to be crowned national champion and to win the $20,000 grand prize.

In a telephone interview Thursday evening, Paruk credited her father and her older sister with inspiring her passion for poetry. Her father, Jim Paruk, an associate professor at Saint Joseph’s College, once gave a commencement address on the power of poetry – when the family lived in California. Her older sister, Olivia, is a former Poetry Out Loud competitor in Gorham.

Emily Paruk Courtesy Maine Arts Commission

“Poetry has been a tradition in my family for years,” Paruk said. “My dad likes to share poetry with us at the dining room table. He has been an inspiration to me. I loved watching my sister learn a poem and bring it to life.”

Meg Fournier, interim performing arts and media director for the Maine Arts Commission, said the state’s Poetry Out Loud program starts in classrooms across the the state. Schools hold competitions before sending their winners to the regional competitions held in the northern and southern regions of Maine. Paruk advanced to the finals, where she was declared state champion in March. Helen Strout, a Cape Elizabeth High School senior, was the runner-up.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this was the first year that the Poetry Out Loud contest was held virtually, with competitors submitting three recorded readings. Judges scored each student remotely.

Fournier said that Media Loma, a Portland-based video production service, is in the process of creating a Poetry Out Loud finals competition film that includes three rounds of student recitation videos and performances by musicians from the Maine Academy of Music. Former Maine Poetry Out Loud state champion Allan Monga will serve as the film’s emcee. The film will be released the week of April 12 on the Maine Arts Commission website and social media accounts.


Getting to be crowned state champion was no easy task, especially during a global pandemic that forced students into doing a solo, virtual recitation that they performed in their homes. Paruk, 18, said she had to convert a spare room in her home into a film studio where she memorized and recited three poems while she filmed her performance.

Paruk said she selected three poems that resonated with her: “Once the World Was Perfect” by Joy Harjo, “Fairy-tale Logic” by A.E. Stallings and “Often Rebuked, Yet Always Back Returning” by Emily Bronte. Paruk said of the three poems, she liked Bronte’s the best. “Often Rebuked” describes a speaker’s intention to walk her own path, not the one society constructed for her to follow.

Paruk said if she were fortunate enough to win the national championship she would put the $20,000 in prize money toward her education. She is planning to study acting at Rider University in New Jersey, but poetry will always remain a big part of her life.

“Wherever my future takes me I am ready to go,” she said. “I love telling stories and becoming another character.”

Paruk will be among 55 students from across the United States as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa, who will compete in the Poetry Out Loud National Finals. Her first appearance will occur May 2 at noon during one of three semifinal matches. If she advances beyond the semifinal, Paruk will compete in the national finals, which will be broadcast on May 27 at 7 p.m. Nine finalists will recite poems.

This will be the first year in the program’s 16-year history for the Poetry Out Loud national competition to be held virtually.

“We know this has been a challenging year for students and we hope Poetry Out Loud has provided them with an opportunity to find joy, comfort, or explore new ideas in a poem,” Ann Eilers, acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, said in a statement. “We encourage audiences to tune in to the national finals to celebrate the hard work and incredible accomplishments of these students and cheer on their state champions.”

“We are so grateful to our partners across the country for making Poetry Out Loud possible in this evolving reality,” said Poetry Foundation program manager Justine Haka. “The students themselves have been an inspiration, joining this program because they are open to the power of poetry and what it can do to connect us while we are apart.”

Poetry Out Loud is a partnership of the National Endowment for the Arts, Poetry Foundation, and the state and jurisdictional arts agencies. The program encourages the study of great poetry by offering free educational materials and a dynamic recitation competition for high school students, helping them to master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about literary history and contemporary life.

A total of $50,000 in awards and school or organizational stipends will be awarded at the national finals, including $20,000 for the Poetry Out Loud National Champion, and $10,000 and $5,000 for the second- and third-place finishers. Since the program began in 2005, more than 4.1 million students and 68,000 teachers from 17,000 schools and organizations across the nation have participated in Poetry Out Loud.

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