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Baltimore County student takes state prize in poetry reading contest

Sharese Acheampong, 17, a New Town High School senior, reads her original poem, The Morrison House, after winning the Maryland finals of the national Poetry Out Loud competition. Acheampong advances to the May 2 national finals of for a chance to win the $20,000 top prize. (Doug Donovan/Baltimore Sun video)

When Sharese Acheampong returned to New Town High School in Baltimore County after spending her freshman year in the African nation of Ghana three years ago, she was placed in the school's lowest-level English class. Within weeks Acheampong jumped to the highest level after her English teachers realized she possessed a mastery of the language.

"She's amazing," said Arlo Horton, a New Town creative writing teacher.

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On Saturday at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Acheampong, now a 17-year-old senior, proved her mastery by winning a statewide poetry contest for reciting verse and for penning an original poem.

"It is very exciting to win," Acheampong said after hugging family members inside the museum auditorium that hosted the state finals for the national Poetry Out Loud contest.

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She and eight others emerged as semifinalists after a 2016 contest that started with 9,000 students across 13 counties who had to memorize and perform poems. The nationwide contest, co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, has counted nearly 5 million student participants since it started a decade ago. This year, the contest added an original poem component.

Over the last 11 years, 107,000 Maryland students have participated in a competition that Maryland State Arts Council Executive Director Theresa Colvin said in a statement "has enhanced the way poetry is taught in schools and has created many future readers of classic and contemporary poetry."

Acheampong's victory in the reciting and original poem contest won her $200 and a free trip to Washington for the May 2 national finals, where she will be eligible to win the $20,000 national champion prize.

That money would go a long way, she said, to help pay for college next year. She has been accepted to the University of Maryland and St. John's University in New York.

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Her father, Frank Acheampong, said his daughter is likely to major in biology but has been considering other studies related to writing, such as journalism.

"Writing poetry has helped her express herself," he said. "She's been working really hard on it."

She has been practicing for weeks to memorize the three poems she had to recite and to put the finishing touches on her original poem, called "The Morrison House." She wrote the poem as part of a "food" topic in her creative writing class in January.

She said she wants her poetry to relay common human experience. A stanza from her poem reads:

The Morrison Women had affixed themselves

with the art of modern cooking.

They folded themselves into the bread

and polished the dishes until they bled

and their fingers were sore

and all of it for

the art of modern cooking.

Horton, her creative writing teacher, and an English teacher, Krissy Anderson, attended the event Saturday at the Baltimore Museum of Art. They both said they are amazed at how hard Acheampong works on her writing.

"For her age, she pushes herself hard," Horton said.

Danni Vitullo, 17, a Wilde Lake High School senior in Howard County, won second place; Kaitlyn Wilson, a Colonel Richardson High School senior in Caroline County, won third place.

They were joined by six other competitors from Calvert, Washington, Talbot and Wicomico counties. Their readings Saturday were punctuated by musical performances by Victoria Vox, a singer-songwriter who has been featured on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

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