Camaraderie and Competition in Poetry Out Loud

This year’s Poetry Out Loud Finals took place on Thursday, February 1st. With its arrival came a heated competition between students which culminated in a victory for Senior Birukti Tsige, who won first place with her recitations of the poems “Vagrants and Loiterers,” by Kwame Dawes and “Songs for the People,” by Francis Ellen Watkins Harper. She will be moving be heading to the State Semi-Finals on Saturday, March 2nd in Newburyport City Hall.

In this year’s finals, English teacher Yahaira Marquez was in charge of accuracy, Director of Humanities Sean Walsh and Assistant Superintendent Kelly Chase were judges and English teacher Jennifer Clapp calculated and kept tabulations of all the scores.

Each year, before the day of the final competition, Marquez surveys staff members via email to see who’s interested in judging and provides each judge with the official POL rubric and score guide. The English Department has chosen to allow teachers from other departments to partake in POL as well because it’s “the one thing everybody shares as a community,” according to Clapp.

Along with students competing against one another, there was also competition between teachers, the only difference being that teachers were allowed to read their poems off of printed copies while students were not. This year, three members of the MHS staff recited in the teacher competition including Principal Chris Mastrangelo, math teacher Evan Mauser, and math teacher Thomas Snarsky, who won out of the teacher competition with his recitation of the poem “Favors from the Dead,” by Noelle Kocot.

Clapp states that this year was “one of the best finals [Malden High School has] ever had.” She notes that “there were so many strong performances,” any one of which could have represented MHS at the regional competition but that Tsige’s win was “great and very well deserved.”

Junior finalist and Blue and Gold staff member Ana Pirosca recites her poem “Song for the Last Act” by Louise Bogan. Photo taken by Fallyn Kelley.

Marquez explains that POL “pushes some students out of their comfort zone” and she is a firm believer that growth is only possible when students are pushed out of their comfort zones. Clapp adds that “out of all of the things that [MHS and the English Department] do, [POL is] one of the things that has a lot of real world implications where you might find it very useful.”

Besides Tsige’s sophomore year, she has made it in the Finals her entire high school career. Tsige says she does not aim to win but that her sole purpose is to “shine the poem in the best light possible and express [her] feelings about it to the audience.” Adding onto that thought, Tsige says that “memorizing a piece of work and then performing it in your own way and style, to [her] is one of the greatest parts of POL.”
Snarsky, the POL teacher competition winner, believes that POL gives students “exposure to some wonderful contemporary poets and their work, and [he] think[s] it’s important for students to experience what it’s like to know a poem by heart,” rather than simply reading it, and hopefully understanding the poem on a more meaningful level.

When asked what his favorite part of the competition was, Snarsky admits that although he was surprised by his win, “the best surprise of the competition was that Mauser chose to recite a poem that [Snarsky] wrote and [he] was really touched by his choice and his excellent performance.” Snarsky was so touched by Mauser’s performance that they hugged afterwards and, once it was his turn to recite, he said to the crowd “I’m not crying, you’re crying.”

This year, Junior Rasmee Ky performed “The Legend” by Garrett Hongo and “In the Desert” by Stephen Crane. This was the first year that Ky advanced to the Finals explains that she enjoys POL “because it gives [her] the opportunity to express [her] unique interpretation of a piece.” She also finds it really important to practice her public speaking skills, which she builds on weekly as a member of the Speech and Debate team.

Ky also states that although she is “always nervous” and finds it difficult to “concentrate while waiting to perform” but that she gains confidence “as soon as [she] get[s] up to perform and [is] focused solely on performing.”

Sophomore finalist Rasmee Ky recites her poem. Photo “The Legend” by Garrett Hongo. Photo taken by Fallyn Kelley.

Tsige explains that her confidence has gained throughout the years after having done POL for four consecutive years, Speech and Debate for the past several years and Junior Varieties since her Sophomore year. So instead of feeling nervous, she feels more “exhilarated.”

She says the best thing to remember when you get nervous, is that “no one will really remember what happened on stage because it will have passed and people will have moved on. So while you’re on that stage, make the best of it and if you completely blank, then end it there and walk off like a boss.”

Although Tsige is sad that this is her last year, she is excited to be moving on to the next round.

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