WATERVILLE — Lewiston High School senior Joao Victor never dreamed he could win the State of Maine 2019 Poetry Out Loud Finals, but he hoped. Oh, how he hoped.

His role model was last year’s winner, Allan Monga, of Deering High School in Portland. Though Victor did not know him, he saw Monga on the TV news last year, reciting Lord Byron’s poem, “She Walks in Beauty,” at the state event and he was mesmerized

“I was just like, wow, this boy is really doing this,” Victor recalled. “I can try. I can do this. I want to do this.”

The two young men — who would meet a year later — had something in common. Both had fled their respective countries and both are seeking asylum in the U.S.

And now they have another thing in common.

Victor, 18, who came to the U.S. three years ago from Angola and speaks seven languages, won the state event Monday at the Waterville Opera House, beating nine other contestants from around the state. Monga, 20, from Zambia, was the runner-up.

Monga was initially told after he won the state competition last year that he was not allowed to compete at the nationals because he was not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.

Monga and Portland Public Schools then sued the National Endowment for the Arts, saying Monga’s right to public education was being violated. A federal judge allowed Monga to take part in the national competition in Washington, D.C.

The NEA last year widened the eligibility rules for the poetry recital contest after Monga’s high-profile lawsuit.

Victor will receive $200 and a $500 stipend for the purchase of poetry books for his school.  Monga will receive $100 and $200 for his school library. Victor also will receive an all-expenses-paid trip, with a chaperone, to compete in the National Finals April 29-May 1 in Washington, D.C.

When the winner and runner-up were announced Monday, Victor and Monga hugged onstage amid cries of joy and a flurry of congratulations from the other contestants, their teachers, friends and some family members.

“I’m so glad the rules were changed so he can go to Washington,” Monga, who speaks eight languages, said of Victor.

Victor was stunned by his win and very happy.

“This is just amazing,” he said in an interview. “I conquered my goal. I achieved my goal.”

Victor recited three poems Monday in the competition’s three rounds: “Songs for the People,” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, “The Light of the Stars,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and “Bright Copper Kettles,” by Vijay Seshadri.

He walked to the stage each time, confident and impeccably dressed in a gray suit and bow tie. He projected to the audience, with whom he made frequent eye contact. He was articulate, enunciated well, used hand gestures, was emotive and spoke powerfully.

His coach, Lewiston High School English and public speaking teacher Jim Siragusa, said afterward that Victor had come to his classroom every morning all winter to recite the three poems.

“That was just the tip of the iceberg,” Siragusa said. “He recited them all the time. He believes in ‘practice makes perfect.'”

Siragusa described Victor as modest, but outgoing and constantly asking for help and advice while questioning his performance. Siragusa started the Poetry Out Loud program at Lewiston High School in 2010 as part of the state and national program and said he has taken a student every year to the regionals, but Victor was the first to win the state event.

“He’s the best I’ve seen. He’s so passionate about it. He puts his heart into every word.”

Siragusa said Victor won because of just that reason.

“I am thrilled,” Siragusa said. “I wouldn’t say ‘surprised.’ He’s so good.”

Under the bright lights of the stage, Victor said in the interview that he did not get involved in theater at school because he was so busy with school work and track, though he had wanted to try theater.

He has been accepted at four colleges, but the one he really wants to attend is University of Maine Fort Kent, which has offered him a financial package, but he is not sure whether he will be able to go because he is still seeking asylum.

“You need to have citizenship,” he said. “I would love to go there to study engineering and technology and also do business management.”

As he spoke, his sister, Mariana, and brother, Josue, sat in the audience, waiting for him. His father, Rodrigues, was back in Lewiston, and his mother is still in Angola, he said.

“The situation in my country — there are political problems,” he said. “It is a dictatorship. Education is not that good.”

Monga, who would fill in for Victor at the nationals if for any reason Victor could not attend, said he is happy his new friend won the state contest.

“I am astonished, without a doubt,” he said. “I am impressed. I am proud. I am beyond what words can say. His story and my story are pretty much the same. What got me into poetry was watching the other kids on TV recite, and what got him into poetry was watching me.”

Other contestants Monday were  Emily Campbell, a freshman at Waterville Senior High School; Hanna Lavenson, a junior at Messalonskee High School in Oakland; Shaphnah McKenzie, a Bangor High School senior; Delaney Ziegman, a senior at Thornton Academy in Saco; Magnolia Vandiver, a sophomore at George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill; Aaliyah Biamby, a Gorham High School senior; Wyatt Bates, a senior at Yarmouth High School; and Emma Jacot-Descombes, a sophomore at Rangeley Lakes Regional Schools.

Besides Victor and Monga, Vandiver, Biamby and Bates were named among the five finalists Monday.

More than 4,300 students from 32 high schools in Maine took part in the earlier part of the competition, according to Julie Richard, executive director of the Maine Arts Commission, who greeted the audience Monday. She said that as regional champions, the 10 competing Monday were all winners.

“We are proud of each and every one of you,” she said. “Congratulations.”

She introduced Monday’s host, Bill Green, executive producer and host of  the WCSH TV show “Bill Green’s Maine.” Green explained the points on which the contestants would be judged, including accuracy, physical presence, voice, articulation, understanding and overall performance.

Green also introduced Maine’s poet laureate, Stuart Kestenbaum, who recited several of his poems, including “Starting the Subaru at Five Below,” and announced that people in the audience were the first to hear that he has a new book coming out called “How to Start Over.”

The poems students recited had to be chosen from the national Poetry Out Loud anthology. Poems in the Poetry Out Loud print anthology could be used. Students had to prepare to recite three poems at the regional competition, as well as at the state contest. One of the poems had to be 25 lines or fewer and one must have been written before the 20th Century.

Students in the state event Monday had advanced from the two regional finals held earlier in the year in the northern and southern areas of Maine.

The Poetry Out Loud National Finals will award a total of $50,000 in scholarships and school stipends, with a $20,000 college scholarship provided to the Poetry Out Loud National Champion.

Charles Stanhope, chairman of the Maine Arts Commission, said after the event that the students performed beautifully.

“They’re all beyond words, to me,” he said.

The poetry celebration is a high point for the Arts Commission, he said, adding that a student from Maine won the national event a few years ago.

“We’d like to have a repeat national champion this year,” he said.

The Messalonskee High School Jazz Band, under the director of Andrew Forster, performed before the competition and during intermission.

 

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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