Carroll County student takes first place in regional poetry competition
There’s something onstage at the Carroll Arts Center nearly every weekend, and many weekdays, too. Musicians, theater folk and dancers walk the boards regularly, but on Saturday, Feb. 2, poets took the spotlight.
The annual Poetry Out Loud competition encourages high school students to memorize and perform great poems. This year, the Poetry Ourselves competition for original poems written by the students was held alongside it. A regional competition was held in Westminster and finalists move on to the state competition March 2 at the Baltimore Museum of Art and then, possibly, nationals in Washington, D.C.
Kate Maerten, representing Gerstell Academy, took home the Poetry Out Loud prize after reciting three poems she had memorized.
The Poetry Ourselves winner for the day was Judah Lyles with her original poem “Baltimore City Streets.”
Maerten, a sophomore, competed for the second time after traveling to states last year. Originally, it was a way to earn extra credit for her freshman English class, but it became something more.
“There’s great people here and finding new poems is just a lot of fun,” she said.
Maerten’s original poem, “How to Know You Don’t Belong,” also took home second out of the original entries. Broken down into numerical sections, it described with sensory specificity the gut-sinking feeling of being out of place and a few minutes late.
“While their eyes burn you like lasers, they still manage to look through you. As if the lasers themselves burned you into nothing,” she read.
“I have written poetry just for fun, but last year I wrote my first real poetry,” she said.
For the memorized pieces, she selects pieces that are “weird” and stand out to her.
“Usually I look through a lot of poems. … This year I found some that really spoke to me and thought would relate to other people,” she said.
Sometimes, as she reads them, her understanding changes and evolves.
“ ‘The Wish, by a Young Lady,’ I had read in a serious tone, and I was reading it as a sad melancholy poem. ... I didn’t think about it, but she was a feminist before her time, and I didn’t realize how much fun you could have with the poem until I started reciting to other people and they gave me suggestions,” she said.
What advice would she give for performance and public speaking?
“The nerves beforehand go away once you start,” she said.
Finding the voice of the poem’s speaker and the story of the poem is key.
“I start off through finding the voice,” she said. “I go through it a couple of times trying to find the voice I hear in it, but when i recite it to other people, they give me little suggestions, and so maybe that changes a bit of the poem and the way I see it.”
Lyles, who is in a writing program at the George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Baltimore, has “just always been writing poetry, but I didn’t really know it,” she said.
Ninth grade was when she really started taking the craft seriously and where she confronted expectations that face artists of color.
“I kind of got stuck in a rut because I’m black, so there’s this whole expectation of black writers to just kind of stay in that one rut and write about the quote, unquote ‘black struggle.’ ”
Her winning poem is a way to show that there’s more to the streets of Baltimore than people think, she said. “I think it’s very important because we’re in a time where it’s very difficult to see the good right now.”
The stanzas each starting with “my streets” crackle with images and build a layered idea of place.
“My streets dance with their devils and sing to their God. My streets recite the poetry of our ancestors with lips made of cement and flesh, words sneaking their way through a crooked smile,” she read.
For the young artist, poetry can be “a way to sift through everything and figure things out. [This poem] gave me an opportunity to put my mark on my idea of Baltimore city.”
She was inspired by the line “La poesie est dans la rue” from the band The 1975. Roughly translated it means poetry is in the streets.
It reminded her of Baltimore’s underground poetry scene, which she describes as big and vibrant, but maybe hard to find if you aren’t looking for it.
“Poetry and Baltimore just kind of go together for me,” she said. “Hearing that poetry is in the streets is something that meant a lot for me.”
“If something happens, I’ll write about it in poetry, but nothing really happened to inspire this. It was more like something that had been floating around in my mind, but it took that one line to unlock it.”
Poet and professor Mejdulene Shomali, poet Cliff Lynn and Carroll County Arts Council Executive Director Judy Morley judged the competition.
Morley said the council was thrilled to host the competition for the second year and was impressed by the young people on the stage.
“That takes a lot of courage to memorize the poem, get up there, be judged,” she said.
When evaluating the recitations, the judges were given criteria by the event organizers to consider.
“The thing probably for me that tipped it over the edge was how much they really showed that they weren’t just reciting the poem, but rather feeling like they were telling a story in verse,” she said. “If they crossed that line from looking like they were remembering a poem and doing it well to actually sitting down and telling you a story in verse was when they bumped up in my estimation.”