• Steven File

On Poetry Out Loud

Updated: Mar 19, 2020

This whole experience has been surreal.

To understand it more, I want to take a look back on how my experience with Poetry Out Loud has evolved in the last three years.

My freshman year, in Mrs. Cebula's class, POL was mandatory, so I naturally looked on the website and picked one of the longest poems I could get my hands on: "An Anthology of Rain" by Phillis Levin. Did I know what an anthology was? Probably not. Did I know what an anthology of rain could be? Definitely not. And did I know what the poem was about? Absolutely not. Somehow, missing a couple of words, my class voted me to the school competition in a tie. I went, and I think I ended up placing eighth? Somewhere around there. However, the one thing I remember from that night was neither my performance nor the disappointment that ensued; rather, it was Zoe's performance: a captivating three minutes that made me loose track of time, reality, and my poem — keep this in mind.

My sophomore year, in Mrs. McNulty's class, POL was mandatory, so I naturally looked on the website and, again, picked one of the longest poems I could get my hands on: "Ode for the American Dead in Asia" by Thomas McGrath, which was a three-part portrayal of a soldier's death from their childhood to their corpse being returned to their hometown. This time, I knew exactly what this poem was about — a dead soldier. I knew there had to be changes in tone, stylistic choices, and it had to be dramatic — dramatic, I say. Somehow, my class voted me to the school competition as the winner. I went, and I won. I won by 1/4 of a point; the other girl lost because of accuracy — keep this in mind.

Here's my performance at YSHS in 2019 (very blurry, I know):

Now, I recount my first journey to regionals. I was tasked with picking two other poems, and Mrs. P told me that poems that told stories did the best. I looked on the website, specifically for a poem, a story, I could connect with. Bingo. "The Mortician in San Francisco" by Randall Mann appeared like a shooting star that showed no signs of leaving. That left two requirements I still had to meet: twenty-five lines or under, as well as pre-twentieth century. A single poem could meet both requirements — how about "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus. Did I know what this one met? Somewhat...probably not. I practiced them all on our stage, in hair salons, english classrooms, and who knows where else. What is important to note is that the only poem I was passionate about was "Mortician," and this would show.

In February 2019, at regionals, I don't remember that much, just that I peed probably 15 times and drank about 5 bottles of water. Definitely awkward. "Ode" was okay. "Mortician" was powerful, very powerful (my best score). And "Colossus," oh, god why? Remember I stressed the importance of accuracy; I messed up two words, which cost me two points. Even if I didn't mess up those two words, I still would have lost. I still would have lost because of my lack of connection to those poems. Their tones and structures were diverse, not captivating. And that is the key. I was runner-up.

My junior year, in Mrs. Oathout's class, POL was not mandatory, but I knew I was coming back for vengeance. I mean was the first male to win the school competition, and I wanted to make it to states. However, when you're in five clubs (some you're leading), honors societies, two shows, reconnecting with your dad, swamped with depression and OCD, two AP classes, some Honors classes, an Independent Study, YS Singers, etc. etc. etc. — you get the point. Time ran faster than I ran out of the closet, and, before I knew it, it was one week before the competition. I quickly ran to the muddled folder titled "POL 2k19 AGH" and printed the poem I selected one random night in July: "It is Not" by Valerie Martinez. Guess what? My best friend was doing it too, and that night I had a brief panic attack. No seriously.

I know what you're thinking: it's not mandatory, you're doing too much, and you have no time to memorize your poem. Don't do it. But remember there's always miracles, shooting stars — shooting stars like "Mortician." One that I memorized, practiced, and admired. A poem that took the audience on a journey for three minutes and was completely accurate.

I won the school competition, going last, and then I won regionals. Why? Because I picked two other poems that I lived and breathed: "Where did the handsome beloved go?" by Jalal al-Din Rumi, and "Undivided Attention" by Taylor Mali. If you asked me to recite any portion of "An Anthology of Rain" or "Ode for the American Dead in Asia," I can't.

You see, growing up in York, PA, there are not many options for gay men, let alone gay high schoolers. I know what it means to search for a way out of the closet, but also search for a way to not be affected by others' venture out of it. I also know the power of teaching through music, even math. These three poems felt like monologues. Not dramatic — natural.

States came quicker than I imagined too. They were the day after my high school production of Bye Bye Birdie; however, I made sure I practiced those three more than you could possibly imagine: in front of teachers, students, TVS, empty auditoriums, hours upon hours, in living rooms, classrooms, closets, phones, etc. I invested everything into being my best at these poems, not at being better than anyone else.

There are a couple of things I remember from the competition — the nice hotel room, Mrs. P and Mrs. Kendrick's smiles (that said: don't you dare let anyone bring you down), the meditation I did at 5 AM because I couldn't fall asleep, one special message I received that morning cheering me on. There's one thing I can't forget though — when I screwed up a word I never screwed up before. Imagine this. I nailed the first two poems, and, when I mean nailed, I mean I saw euphoric fireworks sparkling amidst my friends', families', and mentors' eyes. Freaking amazing.

It was before my third piece that things fell a little off. The judge messed up the order, and he made a comment about my pants. The ora I created in my mind before every piece, as if the actual poet was becoming my roommate, his/her clothes the neuro-pathways connecting their lines in my mind, was lost. Routine fell into place, and I recited the poem. I felt the poem. Suddenly: "FR-BY." I think I need to call Merriam-Webster on whether that's even a word, but I know it isn't.

I walked off that stage with more depression that I have ever experienced in my life. This is coming from someone who once spent two weeks in their bed holding urine for hours on end so they didn't have to bear making twenty steps across a hallway to do something I would have to do for the rest of my life. I also experienced more OCD than I ever have in that moment too, obsessing over those two words. This is coming from someone who had a sore throat and eventually convinced themselves they had throat cancer, which eventually caused so much tension from anxiety that I couldn't speak. I could barely eat, barely talk. I have this bad habit of equating wanting to live with my success, so naturally this broke me.

Before I knew it, Mrs. P and Mrs. Kendrick were back, comforting me with reassurance that I did amazing, but had a slim chance, if any, of winning. Do NOT paint them as bad people, because these women are honest angels that I adore. Even so, I sat down and sunk into the pits of hell. The concerto that ensued felt like the last moments of my death, oddly peaceful and dejecting, as well as an avalanche that never ended, each key another ton of snow pressed on my mind and the three poets' arguing within it: a 15th century Persian emperor, 21st century gay activist, and middle-aged english teacher. Did I tell you I forgot to take my meds that morning? That always helps.

The drumrole for the Runner-Up began, and I swear I had flashbacks to Regionals 2019, the butterflies in my stomach mixing with doubt I even made it into the top two. He announced the runner-up: a wonderfully kind senior, whose mount of friends consumed the back of the audience and cheered her on. I met her initially in the elevator before I even met my hotel room. This is where I sank. Like never learned to swim. The state winner from the previous year was back, and, yes, while I may have drank 8 bottles of water, which, yes, may have lead to an insane amount of bathroom breaks, which, yes, may have thwarted me from hearing essentially anyone else's poems, I sank. And I still had to pee.

"And the 2020 Pennsylvania State Champion of Poetry Out Loud is..." Oh God, get it over with. Let me walk down the Harrisburg streets with more dread and disappointment than someone who just voted for...nevermind. He said my name.

I swear I have never felt more happiness and joy in my life than in that moment. It's like if Lexapro and Zoloft and Wellbutrin had a really good baby with no side effects, not even peeing. I walked up, received my trophy, got my lecture from the amazing Gayle Cluck, and went on with my "girls" to (enter basic white girl) Starbucks and Sweet Frog.

I felt seen. I felt worthy. I felt talented. I felt joyous. Teachers, students, random people, heck, even Randall Mann congratulated me. Yes, Randall Mann. But it is in this moment my mindset changed. Not only did I believe that I could accomplish great things, but it was in this moment, I think, that I also told myself this doesn't make me seen, or worthy, or talented. It gives me a title. And yes, while that title may come with things, I wasn't proud of my performance that day — I messed up a word, I messed up accuracy.

But I took the audience on a three-minute journey, three times.

Art isn't beautiful, nor it is perfect. No one is.

Nationals were cancelled, but Poetry Ourselves, a written/spoken-word competition for the state finalists will still go on. Life still goes on. No matter if we loose, or mess up a line, or spend two weeks in bed not wanting to eat or pee, or think we have cancer. Everyone one of us is beautiful, and not perfect. That's what's beautiful about it. That's what poetry is.

This realization is what opened up an interview with York Dispatch, and Inside Magazine. This realization is what allowed me to message and get a response from poets like Randall Mann. Not the perfect lines or the long poems.

This whole experience has been surreal, and I owe it to everyone in my life like my mom, my brother, Olivia Levin, Olivia Gibson, India Sacher, Cassie Molloy, Gelisse Seidel, Justice Rivera, Grace Motter, Lindy, Mrs. P, Mrs. Kendrick, Mrs. Oathout, Mrs. McNulty, Mrs. Cebula, McKenna Graham, Arianna Greco, Maia Carney, etc. etc. etc. who showed me my own beauty in my imperfection.

I love each and every one of you.

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