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Trio of Howard County students flex creative muscles as regional winners in Poetry Out Loud competition

From left, Hanna Al-Kowsi of Marriotts Ridge High School, Jaylen Barrrett of Reservoir High, and Poushali Banerjee of Centennial High took first, second and third place, respectively, in a regional poetry performance program, and will compete for the statewide title.
From left, Hanna Al-Kowsi of Marriotts Ridge High School, Jaylen Barrrett of Reservoir High, and Poushali Banerjee of Centennial High took first, second and third place, respectively, in a regional poetry performance program, and will compete for the statewide title.(Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

A trio of Howard County high school seniors has pulled off a rare feat.

The three students made a clean sweep of the regional level of a national poetry recitation contest for high school students last month and are now in the throes of rehearsing for the state finals March 2 at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

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Their school sponsors say they each have the skills, confidence and self-awareness to win the final.

The finalists from region two are Hanna Al-Kowsi, first-place winner from Marriotts Ridge High School; Jaylen Barrett, second-place winner from Reservoir High School; and Poushali Banerjee, third-place winner from Centennial High School.

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Along with Howard County, region two encompasses Anne Arundel, Calvert, Montgomery and St. Mary’s counties. Maryland is divided into three regions for the contest.

Howard County's School Board voted to request nearly $1 billion in funding for next school year. The funds will come from the Howard County Government, the state of Maryland, federal government and other sources.

The students compete individually, not as a team, and recite at each level the same three poems they independently chose.

One Maryland student will be selected Saturday to advance to the national finals of Poetry Out Loud to be held April 30 and May 1 in Washington.

Christine Stewart, Poetry Out Loud program director for the Maryland State Arts Council, said having one county dominate at one of the state’s three regional contests is unusual, but “has happened at least once in the past.”

Corey O’Brien, an English teacher and contest sponsor at Centennial, was thrilled to learn about the students’ uncommon achievement in the competition, which was created in 2005 by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation.

“When I realized all three of our region’s winners were from Howard County, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really cool,’” he said.

Since 2005, Poetry Out Loud has grown to reach more than 3.6 million students and 55,000 teachers from 14,000 schools in every state, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, according to the competition’s website.

Across Maryland, 5,400 students participated in the contest this year before the field was narrowed to 27 at the regional level, then to nine state finalists, Stewart said.

Howard County schools were closed on Wednesday, after announcing last week the school year would be extended four days due to using up all its “inclement weather make-up days.”

In a new sister competition called Poetry Ourselves, in which competitors recite an original poem, Logan Hedgecoth of Severn High School in Anne Arundel County was named the region two winner.

At each level of Poetry Out Loud, students are judged in five categories: physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, evidence of understanding and overall performance. A separate judge scores them for accuracy.

Al-Kowsi said competitors walk a narrow tightrope in deciding how to shape their performances.

“There’s a fine line between overdoing it and giving an appropriate performance,” said the Marriotts Ridge student, who’s been practicing 15 to 30 minutes a day for months.

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“If you practice in isolation too much, you can get into your own head,” she said. “You can work it to death if you do it for too long.”

Her poems include “The Glories of Our Blood and State” by James Shirley, “Author’s Prayer” by Ilya Kaminsky and “Coda” by Basil Bunting.

The West Friendship resident stressed the importance of poetry, and the arts in general, to sustaining an informed and well-rounded society.

After competing with an ineligible player on its roster, Centennial girls basketball is forfeiting the first 17 games it played this winter — including nine wins — following an investigation by the Howard County Athletics Office.

“We make poetry seem inaccessible and we devalue it because it’s not a hard science,” she said, “but a lot is lost when you take away self-expression.”

Al-Kowsi said her methodology is drawn in part from memorizing lines for plays.

“I’ve had decent parts in theater, so I thought I’d do well,” she said. “The nerves are there, and it can be really nerve-racking, but I’m used to it.”

Marriotts Ridge English teacher and Slam Poetry Club sponsor Meg Roberts noted that Al-Kowsi has the lead role of Maria next month in the school’s presentation of “The Sound of Music.”

Playing the role made famous by Julie Andrews is “a pretty big deal,” Roberts said, and Al-Kowsi’s proven ability to thrive on stage serves her well.

“Hanna is mild-mannered and unassuming,” she said. “But when she steps in front of an audience, she’s a natural performer who commands attention.”

Jaylen Barrett, who’s called “Mr. Poet” by his varsity basketball teammates at Reservoir, brings a unique perspective to the competition.

While the Laurel resident intends to declare an international business and economics double-major at Howard University this fall, he has also set a long-term goal of becoming United States poet laureate.

“I write poetry and I’m good at reciting,” Barrett said, adding that poetry “helps you understand yourself.”

The poems he will recite are “Blade, Unplugged” by Tim Seibles, “Rondeau” by Leigh Hunt, and “Ode to the Midwest” by Kevin Young.

“You need to have a sense of rhythm and put your own cadence, emphasis and spin on your performance,” he said.

Matty Valvano, who teaches English 10 and advanced composition at Reservoir, said Barrett was a school finalist in Poetry Out Loud as a sophomore and has sharpened his skill set since then.

“Jay has matured in his writing and is crafting his own voice,” Valvano said. “He has an old soul vibe and he’s a multi-faceted personality. He can really take this contest and run with it.”

Centennial student Poushali Banerjee said she was “a little surprised” to learn she’d been named a regional winner.

“But I do have an aptitude for memorization and I’m good at taking the emotions [from a poem] and reciting them,” she said.

Banerjee, who has written her three poems down over and over in notebooks “to get a feel for the words,” said she worked to overcome a natural tendency to be “super shy.”

“It takes a lot of vulnerability to be able to interpret a poem for other people, but I’ve reached a place where I’m comfortable doing that,” the Ellicott City resident said.

Centennial English teacher and Poetry Out Loud coordinator Corey O’Brien said that when Banerjee took the stage at the regional competition, “she just became the poem,” referring to her recitation of “The Paradox,” by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

“I asked her, ‘Where did that come from?’” he recalled. “It’s a complicated poem and she did really well with it.”

Banerjee’s other selections are “bug’s psalm” by Rodney Koeneke and “Respiration” by Jamaal May.

O’Brien said successful interpretation of a poem “comes down to how a student and a poet interact” and that the healthy competition among students in Poetry Out Loud bears this out.

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“Some of the schools really bring it,” he said, “and these [Howard County] students are in it to win it.”

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If you go

The state finals of Poetry Out Loud will take place from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday in the Meyerhoff Auditorium at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive, Baltimore. The event is open to the public and admission is free. Information: msac.org.

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