GARDINER — Gabrielle Cooper said it wasn’t a big deal that she didn’t win the national Poetry Out Loud competition in Washington, D.C., last week and the prizes associated with it.

She was just happy to be there.

The senior from Pittston said the experience of the competition and getting to meet and spend time with students from all walks of life from across the country was more than enough of a prize.

Cooper represented the state of Maine and Gardiner Area High School in the annual contest and advanced to the top 24 before being eliminated. She said she has no regrets and hasn’t spent much time thinking about why she didn’t advance further.

“I feel really good about that,” Cooper said during an interview Tuesday afternoon at her school. “For me, it was all about meeting the people at the regional, state and national competition. The people are what made it really great.”

A partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation puts on the Poetry Out Loud contest every year, which encourages students to learn about great poetry through memorization and recitation. The program helps students master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about literary history and contemporary life.

Cooper was chosen to represent Maine after a contest that included more than 9,500 Maine high school students. She has been her class president all four years at Gardiner and plans to attend Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, in the fall, where she is leaning toward majoring in political science.

She said the contest, which had 53 finalists — one from each state, plus one each from Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands — didn’t seem like a competition to her. Instead, she said, it was like reciting poems in front of your friends.

“Everyone was so nice and friendly,” Cooper said. “One of the nights I stayed awake in the hotel lobby until 1 a.m. just hanging out, singing songs and meeting people who have a zest for life.”

Being from Maine, Cooper said, she had to answer questions about living here and dealing with Maine winters, and she said she learned a little about what it was like to go to high school in other parts of the country.

“A lot of them talked about having only one or two close friends and how coming to something like this showed them there are people who aren’t stuck in the high school mindset of popularity being the most important thing,” she said. “These three days helped them to see there is life after high school.”

For this year’s competition, including the nationals, Cooper chose three poems by three poets from the Poetry Out Loud anthology. She said “The Windhover” by Gerard Manley Hopkins has beautiful language and paints a detailed picture. “Please Don’t” by Tony Hoagland is light-hearted on the surface but has a powerful underlying message about the importance of protecting innocence, she said. Cooper said she really connected to her third poem, “To be of Use,” by Marge Piercy, because it discusses the value of hard work and the beauty in seeing progress in your efforts.

Cooper said her preparation for the national competition was almost identical to that for the regional and state rounds, though this time she enlisted the help of a poetry coach from the University of Maine, in Orono, who brought a fresh perspective to the poems she had been reciting for almost six months.

While performing poems in front a large audience might seem daunting to some, Cooper said she was just happy to be there.

“The best part of the entire journey was the people, from the English teachers to the Maine Arts Commission and to all the other competitors,” she said. “It was the people that made it a great experience and what I’ll remember the most.”

During the three-night trip to the nation’s capital, Cooper attended a welcome banquet, breakfast event, after party and poetry slam. She visited the Library of Congress and the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, a part of the Smithsonian Institution.

Cooper also had a chance to meet with Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins and Rep. Chellie Pingree. She said she had never been to Washington before and looks forward to going back sometime soon.

“We were in the tunnels under the Senate buildings and (Sen.) Bernie Sanders walked by us at one point, which was really cool,” she said. “It was really neat to be down there.”

Her classmates in Gardiner were supportive of her throughout her journey, English teacher Melissa Cheeseman said. On the wall outside Cheeseman’s first-floor classroom, students wrote good wishes and words of encouragement to Cooper, and the school’s marquee on West Hills Road also offered congratulations.

Cooper isn’t sure how much she’ll stay involved with poetry when she gets to college, but she does plan on watching the live stream of next year’s Poetry Out Loud finals.

More than 310,000 high school students participated in the contest this year. Georgia senior Samara Elán Huggins won this year’s national championship and a $20,000 cash prize. Cooper received a plaque and a gift bag for finishing among the top 24 in the nation.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

filed under: