© 2012 (Poetry, Art,Dance,Fashion,Music) "Bleed Ambition" #1 In The Arts & Music
An ode to Chicago, a lament of war and the praise of woman’s beauty earned Burlington High School senior Claude Mumbere a second-place finish Tuesday night in the national Poetry Out Loud recitation competition in Washington, D.C.
After competing last year, Mumbere said, all he wanted to do this year was improve on that performance. He left that goal in the dust.
“I came in with the attitude that I was going to the top nine,” he said in a phone interview shortly after the results were announced at 9 p.m. “Making it to the top 3 was just, wow. I was so very excited. Then when they called the third person and it wasn’t me, I was just, like, whoa! I didn’t know what to think. And then when they said second place I was like — ”
His voice trailed off as he searched for the right words. Finally, he said, “Yeah!”
For someone as speechless as Mumbere said he was in the afterglow of the accomplishment, that was a pretty good articulation of his feelings.
Monday, Mumbere’s performances in the semifinals of “Chicago” by Carl Sandburg, “Strange Meeting” by Wilfred Owen and “She Walks in Beauty” by Lord Byron advanced him from the field of 53 state and territorial winners to the final nine.
Those nine met Tuesday night. Mumbere, with a deep voice, precise enunciation and emotional presentations of “Chicago” and “Strange Meeting,” moved on to the top three. A powerful performance of “She Walks in Beauty” landed him the second-place honor, behind Kristen Dupard of Mississippi and ahead of MarKaye Hassan of Utah.
After the results were announced following a competition broadcast live on the Internet, Mumbere, 18, smiled, held his trophy aloft and exchanged embraces with the first- and third-place finishers, including one big group hug. He also took home a medal and a $10,000 prize.
“I was thinking this was like a dream, like somebody was going to splash water on my face and I was going wake up,” Mumbere said. “I was just ecstatic. This has been an amazing, amazing day and an amazing, amazing year.”
Mumbere can trace his success to a great, deep voice and to his discipline, including rehearsing and going to bed early even after he arrived Sunday in Washington, said Erika Lowe, a Burlington High School English teacher who accompanied Mumbere. She helps run Poetry Out Loud at the school.
“He was really here to win it and not be distracted by socializing like most high-school kids are,” said Lowe, who praised her student as a natural talent whose hard work helped him advance through local, state and national levels in the competition. “When you think about the fact that there were 365,000 kids who participated in this, and he placed second, that’s pretty astounding.”
Mumbere said he focused on the dramatic levels in the poems he recited — noticing last year that some of the competitors were fairly subdued throughout their performances. Some sections of a poem are delicate, he said, “and other parts you have to be like a lion and attack.”
He used those louder moments to grab and hold the judges’ attention, he said.
In an interview before the finals, Mumbere said Byron’s 1814 poem in praise of a woman’s dazzling beauty and fine spirit went over especially well in the semifinals.
“It was short and sweet and delicate, and I think I made a very strong selection, so it sort of helped me out,” he said.
With just a few hours to go before the push for the title and the $20,000 prize that goes with first place, Mumbere said he was anticipating stiff competition.
“It’s the best nine in the country, so it’s going to be a very rough road,” he said. “I’ve been getting a lot of encouragement, a lot of support, so that should hopefully boost my confidence up a little bit.”
He said he appreciated texts from supporters at Burlington High School and was planning to complete his usual stress-reliever before the competition Tuesday night: “I do push-ups backstage.”
Mumbere was born in the Congo and came to the U.S. in 2004. After graduation, Mumbere plans to attend St. Lawrence University in New York in the fall.
Students from more than 2,000 high schools took part in the annual Poetry Out Loud contest this year — and Mumbere stood out.
“He has an incredible voice, and he’s also very confident and has a strong presence,” said Lowe, the BHS teacher. “He’s also really pushing himself to improve and work hard.”
Contestants are judged on physical presence, voice and articulation, evidence of understanding, level of difficulty, dramatic performance and overall performance. Poems must be selected from an anthology published as part of the contest. Finalists earn $1,000 and $500 for their high school toward the purchase of poetry.
Poetry Out Loud is a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. Judges for Tuesday’s finals included poets Marilyn Chin and Major Jackson, who also is a University of Vermont professor, and “Prairie Home Companion” host Garrison Keillor.
All nine finalists competed in the first two rounds Tuesday, and three were chosen for the last round.
After the finals, Mumbere was beside himself: “I have never been so happy in my whole life.”