WESTBROOK – For Westbrook High School freshman Nasar Zackaria, the words of Langston Hughes’ empowering poem, “I, too,” rang true.
The 15-year-old bested nine of his classmates during the high school’s Poetry Out Loud competition on Dec. 16. Contestants were judged on poise, articulation, memorization and difficulty as they recited works of poetry for a chance to move on to Poetry Out Loud’s regional competition in Biddeford in February.
Joining Zackaria at the regional contest will be runner-up Anthony Carignan, who recited Joshua Mehigan’s “Here.”
Poetry Out Loud is the result of a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation to encourage the nation’s youth to learn about influential poetry through memorization and recitation. The program is intended to help students master public speaking skills, build self-confidence and learn about their literary heritage.
The competition also comes with a sweet prize: Westbrook High School librarian Megan Blakemore said the grand prize at the national level is a $20,000 scholarship.
But getting there is not easy. Nerves were visible on students’ faces as they gathered in the school library to recite their poems. Some read through the poems a few final times to recall tricky lines, while others suffered stage fright and withdrew from the contest. Seventeen were originally slated to give it a shot, but only 10 made it to the microphone.
Zackaria was composed and theatrical throughout his recitation. He wagged a finger as he spoke, saying afterward his teacher help him with his gestures.
“I am the darker brother / They send me to eat in the kitchen / When company comes. / But I laugh, / And eat well / And grow strong,” the poem states. “I, too, am America.”
Zackaria said he had originally chosen a different poem, but Hughes’ words immediately spoke to him when a friend showed him the poem. He said he watched YouTube videos of Hughes reciting the poem to help him learn it.
“I wouldn’t say it was easy. I was nervous,” he said.
One of the judges was Corinne Henning-Sachs, the youth services librarian at Walker Memorial Library. She said she appreciated that so many students showed an interest in poetry.
“They so internalized the poem that it was a natural extension of themselves,” she said.
Rachel Lloyd, a 14-year-old freshman, emcee of the competition and an admitted “huge poetry geek,” said afterward that the participants all took the contest very seriously.
“They really did care about it,” she said, adding that when a poem “speaks to you,” you almost “become the character speaking the words.”
Lloyd said the school has its share of poetry buffs and budding artists, noting quarterly coffee houses are well attended. At those events, students sing, read poetry or play musical instruments.
“I always enjoy coming to them,” she said.
Along with Zackaria and Carignan, the other participants were Kadie Alexander, Nate Carver, Rose Pyle Carter, Brian Lawson, Amber Wallace, Morgan Reilly, Katie Berry and Megan Zabenko.