Kyle Shreve always gets most nervous just before he takes the stage to recite a poem.
"It's the worst when the person before you is walking back to their seat," he said.
But when the 15-year-old freshman from Frederick County steps in front of the microphone, the lines he has memorized come front of mind, he said, and the nerves ease.
"I don't have to worry about what I'm saying next, I can just worry about how I'm saying it," he said.
That formula seemed to work Saturday, when Shreve beat Maryland's seven other high school finalists in the annual Poetry Out Loud state recitation competition, delivering three poems without missing a beat and with just the right amount of panache.
"It's been amazing just to see him add to his repertoire," said Linda Henry, Shreve's English teacher at Tuscarora High School. "It's been very exciting for us on the sidelines."
The competition, in which students recite well-known and contemporary poems, is now in its 10th year, promoted by its local sponsor, the Maryland State Arts Council, as a way for kids to "learn about their literary heritage, build self-confidence and improve their public speaking skills."
The students are judged on physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, evidence of understanding, their chosen poems' level of complexity and their overall performance.
They must be poised, the criteria say, but "not artificially so." They must be loud enough to hear, but never mistaken for yelling. They must strive toward the "art of oral interpretation," but never emote unnecessarily.
The eight state finalists beat the competition at their own schools with a single poem, at the county level with two, and then in their regions with three to land on stage at the Baltimore Museum of Art on Saturday, where they each recited three poems again.
As state champion, Shreve — who stood out by infusing a bit of humor into his recitations — will now move on to the national finals in Washington next month, where he has a shot at winning $20,000.
Placing second was Blessed Sheriff, a 17-year-old senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Montgomery County who in 2013 placed second nationally. Placing third was Paige Hilton, a 17-year-old junior at Boonsboro High School in Washington County.
The finalists also included two students from the Baltimore region: Caleb Barnes, a 16-year-old sophomore at Western School of Technology and Environmental Science in Catonsville, and Rachael Langston, a 16-year-old junior at Annapolis High School.
"It's really fun to be up there," Langston said of the experience. "When you focus so much on one poem, it really opens up."
Rounding out the top eight were Amy Nguyen of Saints Peter and Paul High School and Taraea Anthony of St. Michaels High School, both in Talbot County, and Spencer Tilghman, of James M. Bennet High School in Wicomico County.
About 80 family members, friends and educators attended the event.
"Without all of my teachers, my family, I probably wouldn't be here. I probably would have given up," said Hilton, whose secret to memorization — she's also in theater — is typing out the words of her poems over and over again.
"At some point I think the poem becomes a part of you," said Sheriff, who plans to attend Brown University next year. "They become more than just words on a page. They're something important."
When Shreve was announced the winner over Sheriff, his family — including his parents Robert and Dawn Shreve and grandparents Charlie and Carole Kearse — all jumped in their seats.
"I'm just so incredibly proud of him," his mother said.
Kyle — who put compelling voices to the rock, paper and scissors personified in his last poem, "Song of the Powers" by David Mason — is more shy offstage than on. He gives less eye contact, is softer-spoken.
But with each win, he said, he's getting more confident.