Nijah Richardson wasn't much for poetry before taking Kelli Midgley's speech class at Wilde Lake High School this year.
"I didn't really like it all," said Richardson, 17, a senior at the Columbia school. "Well, I guess I didn't know — I didn't really think of it at all before then."
But a public speaking assignment wrapped her into the school's Poetry Out Loud, and on Monday, Jan. 13, Richardson took first place in the county-wide competition at the Howard County Center for the Arts.
Poetry Out Loud is a national program started in 2005 by the Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. The program encourages high school students to learn about poetry through memorization, performance and competition.
For her recitation performances, Richardson selected William Ernest Henley's "Invictus" and Al Young's "The Blues Don't Change."
Second place went to Centennial High School student Bobby Henneberg for his recitations of Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias" and Siman Armitage's "Zoom." Third place went to Centennial student Gabe Lewman for his recitation of Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night" and Henley's "Invictus."
It's rare for the same poem to pop up more than once in a Howard competition, said Howard County Public School System Secondary Language Arts Resource Teacher Nancy Czarnecki, But, she added, Henley's poem is usually a favorite, and may be more so now since the passing of Nelson Mandela, who recited the poem to other inmates while imprisoned.
Besides, Czarnecki said, each student comes to the poem with a different interpretation. For Richardson, it was the poem that meant the most to her in the competition.
"I could relate to it a little bit more," Richardson said. "It's a personal story, and (Henley's) story is really inspiring to me. He went through a lot of things in his life and he came back from it all. ... I like that you can put your own feel into it. Everyone can do it differently. For me, I think about how the poet felt when he wrote it and I tried to bring that into my mind and interpret it is the best way I could."
Richardson will go on to regional competition Feb. 8 at the Montpelier Cultural Arts Center in Laurel. The winner of that round goes on to the state round and then the national competition.
Students were scored based on their physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, level of (the poem's) complexity, evidence of understanding, accuracy and overall performance.
It's a fine line, Czarnecki said, between acting out the poem and bringing it to life. Students will actually have points detracted from their score if they act out the poem too much, she said.
"It's about bringing the words to life and not overshadowing them," she said.
The eight students who competed Monday night came from a pool of more than 500, Czarnecki said. The four high schools — Centennial, Wilde Lake, Oakland Mills and Reservoir — first held classroom rounds and the school-wide competitions, sending their top two students to the Howard competition. Czarnecki said other schools have competed in Poetry Out Loud over the years, but those four high schools represent "the bedrock, the core," of the participating schools.
"It gives every kid an opportunity to shine," she said. "The most unlikely kid will sometimes step up and do this. There are kids who have been walking around with a poem in their head for a long time, and they've memorized a poem a long time ago but they've never got to showcase it like this."
Memorizing a poem is a challenge in and of itself, Czarnecki said, but Poetry Out Loud goes beyond that. Students have to show they understand the poet's message and the nuances of the phrases and words.
"They have to breathe life and love into them. ...You just have to give them an opportunity to share their passion," she said. "And passion, shared, is fun to be around."