As the crowd quiets, Dasan Ahanu rubs his hands together.
The friction creates a sort of humming that travels through the room. The attendees join in, frantically running the palms of their hands together, contributing to the sound. Ahanu says it all adds to the energy.
Ahanu skips the applause as he amps everyone up for the reveal of the final five contestants in the annual statewide Poetry Out Loud competition. After a series of smaller competitions at the classroom, school-wide and county-wide levels, high-schoolers from more than 30 schools across North Carolina gather at Triad Stage in Greensboro. They spend a recent Saturday reciting poems by other authors, vying to go to the national competition in Washington, DC.
The National Endowment for the Arts puts on the contest each year with help from the Poetry Foundation and, on the state level, the North Carolina Arts Council. The 2020 contest marks its 15th year nationally. Other than spots in the national finals, the student winner and runner-up each receive a check and small funds for their high schools to purchase poetry books of the students’ choosing. Rebecca Moore, senior program director of marketing of the North Carolina Arts Council, finds that the challenge helps students to get more involved with creative writing.
“It’s a recitation contest, but it’s so much more,” Moore says. “It teaches the theatrics of the written word.”
For the final round, each student takes turns reciting poems, line for line. They go for two rounds until the final cut is made, leaving only five students to perform a third.
“The kids can pick a poem that speaks to them,” Moore says.
As the emcee, Ahanu ushers many students up to the microphone, listening to how each analyzes their poem. From his work as a creative writing professor at Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh, along with his other work, he finds that adding the competitive edge encourages a closer connection with the works.
“As an educator,” Ahanu says during a brief interlude, “this is a good way to get them familiar with the poems that are part of our poetry tradition.”
Talia DeStasio, a junior from Wake County, steps up to the microphone in the center of the green-carpeted stage. After adjusting it to her height, she begins the recitation of her first finalist poem — “1969” by Alex Dimitrov.
“The summer everyone left for the moon,” she proclaims, “even those yet to be born.”
She goes through the poem in a romantic tone, recasting the moon landing, the space race, entwining them with hope for the future. She suddenly drops her cadence to deliver the kicker.
“We came in peace for all mankind,” she says. “Then returned to continue the war.”
This year’s competition is DeStasio’s third, and it lands her in the runner-up spot. She explains that the difficulty of memorizing so many poems has given her even more of a love for literature. She finds that the best way to approach the challenge is by exploring each piece — figuring out what’s behind the figurative language.
“Poetry is a different kind of story,” DeStasio says.
For Marrianna Flores, a senior from Atkins High in Forsyth County, the final round offered a chance to share three such stories from three different poets. Her first poem walks through the process of writing, her tone growing frantic or more relaxed as the process grows difficult or easier. She finishes the finals with a poem that carries a more formal structure: “The Paradox” by Paul Laurence Dunbar.
She takes a more comedic approach for her middle piece. Having near to no experience with more humorous subjects in the medium, Flores tackles “End of Days Advice from an Ex-Zombie,” by Micheal Derrick Hudson.
“To think,” Flores begins, “I used to be so good at going to pieces, gobbling my way through the cops.”
Her voice grows nostalgic, filling in the role of the Ex-Zombie, addressing the audience through undead memories and questions about humanity. She goes staccato, the fantastical subject turning into a metaphor for people’s own lives.
As the day ends, Flores hears the announcement that her performances set her in first place. The win, other than sending her to the national competition, symbolizes her love of creative writing, as a poet herself.
“Poetry is a very big outlet in my life,” Flores says. “And it’s gotten me here.”
For more information about Poetry Out Loud, visit poetryoutloud.org.