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Finding Her Voice

‘Chi Chi’ Ukeje aims for Poetry Out Loud title

     Indian Creek High School senior Chinyere Ukeje (or Chi Chi, as she prefers) has a title to defend. 
     Last year, fellow Indian Creek student Cayla Turner represented Maryland at the Poetry Out Loud national finals.
     Now it’s Ukeje’s turn. She takes the stage Saturday, January 19, in the Poetry Out Loud regional finals. She will be up against 39 other Maryland high school students competing to win this prestigious national contest.
     “It feels good to be representing the school,” Ukeje said. “I was surprised when I took first place, but I am so happy to show the world what this [literature] class has taught me so far.”
      A native of Nigeria now living in Bowie, Ukeje has embraced the competition as a way to improve her public speaking. “I thought this was a good idea to just get my name out there and do it. It sounded like a lot of fun, anyway. The biggest challenge for me is just learning how to juggle the competition on top of school work and other competitions. I’ve got a tight schedule, but I know I’ll fit it in somehow.”
      Ukeje joins students from Broadneck High School, Severna Park High School and King’s Christian Academy in the regional competition.
      Contestants are judged on physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, evidence of understanding and overall performance. 
      The contest, created and co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and The Poetry Foundation, aims to teach students about their literary heritage, build their self-confidence and improve their public speaking skills. This year, students will also have the option of writing an original poem for the Poetry Ourselves competition.
       “The Maryland State Arts Council began participating in the national Poetry Out Loud program 14 years ago with two counties,” said director Chris Stewart. “It has now grown to an average of 16 counties and 8,000 students. More than 125,000 Maryland students have competed, memorizing at least one poem.”
       Contestants recite two poems from memory, and a third if they advance during the round. Ukeje chose James Weldon Johnson’s “Art vs. Trade” and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Arrow and the Song.” Her third choice was “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which she says sounded “so cool.”
      The state champion earns a $1,200 prize from the sponsors and an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., to compete in the National Poetry Out Loud Finals in April. The Maryland State Poetry Ourselves winner earns a $300 prize.
     Three finalists from each region advance to the State Finals March 2 at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
     “I never really had any special feelings about poetry. Poetry was just poetry to me,” Ukeje says. “I don’t have any favorite poems, unless prophecies from the Percy Jackson books count?”
      Ukeje says she believes learning poetry is important, however, because she is an emotional person and poetry is a way of expressing that emotion.
     “Whether it’s a cry for help or a shout for joy, people need an outlet for their emotions. And for some people, that outlet is poetry.”