A Deering High School junior who is in Maine seeking asylum from Zambia will find out by Friday whether he can participate in a national poetry recital contest that begins Monday.

A federal judge in Portland on Wednesday heard arguments in a lawsuit filed on behalf of Allan Monga, 19, who has been banned from participating in the Poetry Out Loud competition to be held April 23-25 in Washington, D.C.

Allan Monga

Monga, who began reciting poetry last fall shortly after arriving from Zambia, won the Maine Poetry Out Loud finals in March. That earned him the right to compete in the national finals. But the rules of Poetry Out Loud, administered by the National Endowment for the Arts, say contestants must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents, and Monga was deemed ineligible.

Judge John A. Woodcock said after the 90-minute hearing that he would make a decision by Friday. Monga’s attorneys are asking for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against the NEA, which would allow Monga to participate. Monga, who said he’d never been in a courtroom before Wednesday, has continued to practice reciting so that he’ll be ready if he gets to go to the national finals. When asked if the court case was distracting from his focus on poetry, Monga said he thinks his recital skills have become stronger in the past week or so since the suit was filed. As he left court, he said he was going straight to a practice session with two of his poetry coaches.

“I just have to focus on being ready,” said Monga, as a couple dozen supporters – including teachers and friends – stood behind him in court. “Being in court and seeing everything that happens here has been a wonderful experience.”

A COMPLICATED CASE

One of Monga’s lawyers, Bruce Smith, said the case was largely about “a local program to benefit kids” and about Monga’s right, as a public school student, to the program’s benefits. He said Monga would suffer “irreparable” harm by not going to the contest because he may not get another chance to compete in the national finals. The national Poetry Out Loud champion is awarded $20,000, and other awards and school stipends are given to competitors. But the NEA’s lawyer, Rachael Westmoreland, said the case was more about the NEA’s right to “draw the line” in deciding who is eligible for programs and how money should be spent. She said a ruling in favor of Monga could cause harm because it opens up the NEA to potential challenges from other non-permanent residents.

Woodcock called the case “complicated” because past rulings had different assessments of the powers specific government agencies or states have to restrict benefits or aid non-permanent residents are entitled to. It’s further complicated by the fact that, while the NEA budgets about $195,000 for Poetry Out Loud, the private Poetry Foundation funds more of the nationwide event, at a cost of about $500,000, lawyers said.

Woodcock said that the U.S. Supreme Court has asserted the right of all immigrant children, even illegal ones, to a public education. Westmoreland said Monga was not being denied access to public education, as he worked on his poetry with teachers at his school and competed in, and won, the school’s Poetry Out Loud competition before winning at regional and state competitions as well.

But Woodcock said allowing Monga to compete in a school and state poetry competition when he has no chance to advance beyond that to the national competition would be like telling a student soccer player “you can compete in all the matches, but you can’t compete in the championship.” He asked if that scenario seemed “somewhat contrary to what we as Americans think we stand for?”

Monga’s talent for reciting poetry, given that he only took it up a few months ago, has stunned teachers and poets who have worked with him to prepare for the competition.

“He’s uncommonly talented at this, no matter what his story is,” said Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, Portland’s poet laureate. “He’s tapping in to something, and when he recites, the temperature in the room changes. Not everyone can do that.”

Monga and the Portland Public Schools filed suit against the NEA on April 11, and the first hearing on the suit was Wednesday. If Monga does win the right to participate, he may only have a couple days to get to Washington, D.C., for the start of the competition, on Monday. The Maine winner is scheduled to recite sometime between 9 a.m. and noon on Tuesday. The finals will be on Wednesday evening.

THE ROAD TO THE FINALS

Poetry Out Loud rules say that each state winner gets an “all expenses paid” trip to the finals, but Monga is not listed on the event’s website, so it’s unclear if his trip would be paid for by the NEA. Melissa A. Hewey, one of the lawyers for Monga, said in an email that employees of the law firm Drummond Woodsum in Portland have collected money to fund Monga’s trip. The firm is handling the case at no cost.

Smith said, if the temporary restraining order is granted and Monga can participate, that his clients, Monga and Portland Public Schools, would have no problem with the NEA also letting the student who came in second at the Maine finals participate in the nationals. The runner-up to Monga at the March 20 state finals was Lauren Dodge, a senior at Lee Academy in Lee, which is about 60 miles north of Bangor.

During the hearing, Monga sat at a table with his lawyers, wearing a gray and purple jacket that had the words “Deering High School State Champion Poetry Out Loud” stitched on it.

Monga could compete in the state version of Poetry Out Loud because the Maine Arts Commission – organizer of the state’s Poetry Out Loud contest – decided to allow him despite the national contest rules, Hewey said. After becoming a regional finalist and earning a spot in the state finals, Monga was told he could not compete further. But Portland school officials contacted the Maine Arts Commission on his behalf, and he was allowed to participate.

When his suit was filed last week, Monga quickly gained some vocal and public supporters in his quest to recite verse, including Portland’s legislative delegation, city school officials, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, and a group of Maine writers that includes novelists Richard Russo and Lily King.

Although one key component of the suit is Monga’s asylum seeker status, he has not said why he left Zambia. Asylum cases are confidential, based on the rationale that sharing information about an asylum seeker’s claims could bring harm to friends and family left behind. So asylum seekers often don’t make their pasts public, said Anna Welch, a professor who heads the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law in Portland.

“Talking about the fears someone has of their government back home can be very dangerous. We’ve heard of cases where family members have been killed because of it,” said Welch.

To be granted asylum, a person has to have suffered past persecution in the country they left or have a well-founded fear of future persecution. The government in question has to be deemed unwilling or unable to protect them from that harm, Welch said. Asylum cases can take years to resolve.

FLIGHT FROM ZAMBIA

In a declaration filed with the suit, Monga stated that he fled Zambia in 2017 and traveled alone to New York, where he spent the night in an airport, then flew on to Portland. He said he lived for a while last summer at the Preble Street Teen Center in Portland. He lives in Westbrook now. The declaration states that Monga has applied for asylum with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and has an Employment Authorization Card and a Social Security number. If he receives asylum, he hopes to apply to be a permanent resident.

Once a person is in the U.S. and has applied for asylum formally, he or she cannot be lawfully removed from the country until the case is resolved, Welch said. There is precedent for asylum seekers taking legal action to protect their rights while in the U.S., Welch said, including joining class-action suits to project due process rights, such as the right to an attorney or the right to an interpreter.

Monga found out about Poetry Out Loud last fall and entered a Deering competition in December. He won and then started getting ready for the regional competition. Monga said he practiced reciting poems daily, arriving at school around 7:20 a.m. to practice and work with his English teacher on pronunciation, gestures and understanding the meaning of the poems. He also practiced with his school’s drama teacher.

Monga has been reciting three poems for the competitions: “In The Desert” by Stephen Crane, “The Song of the Smoke” by W.E.B. DuBois and “She Walks in Beauty” by Lord Byron.

Fay-LeBlanc, the Portland poet laureate, has also been working with Monga, as he’s done with Poetry Out Loud finalists in the past. He’s been impressed with Monga’s willingness to “learn the poem inside and out,” so he understands, not only its meaning, but the thought behind it. He told Monga that when he recites “She Walks in Beauty,” an emotional poem about a woman, he needs to know exactly who he is talking about. Monga has said the poem makes him think of his mother.

One of Monga’s talents seems to be his ability to tell stories with his recitations, said Margaret Callaghan, a Deering English teacher who has worked with him.

“The way he uses his voice and his gestures to conjure a picture of a character or a situation puts you right there,” she said. “And it seemed to come out of the blue. The first time he came to practice (and read “In The Desert”), I was just shocked.”

Callaghan said the poem was an especially hard one to recite. It’s only 10 lines long but describes seeing “a creature, naked, bestial” in the desert. She said his recitation has the power of something “blasting out of a cannon.” Callaghan said teachers at the school talked about whether Monga came on “a little strong” when he recited, given the power of his voice and the emotion he exudes.

“We decided that he is special and different, and we should just let him go with his talent,” Callaghan said.

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: RayRouthier

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