Calumet student advances in national poetry competition

In this March 19, 2019 photo, Calumet High School senior Tajah-Rayne Davise holds her first-place trophy for Poetry Out Loud at the school in Calumet, Mich. Davise was named state champion, the first to come from the Upper Peninsula. (Garrett Neese/The Daily Mining Gazette via AP)

CALUMET — Coming to the state Poetry Out Loud competition in Lansing, Tajah-Rayne Davise was intimidated by the other students.

None of them recited like her. They were “proper,” Davise said; she compared them to old English people reciting “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

“Then there’s me who goes up there and I kind of chuckle my way through one poem and sentimentalize my other poem,” said Davise, a senior at Calumet High School. “It was just so much different than everybody else. So I’m freaking out.”

After hearing from 33 students over three rounds, judges agreed: None of them recited like her.

Davise was named state champion, the first to come from the Upper Peninsula, The Daily Mining Gazette reported. High school students from across the country compete in the event. Students recite from memory three poems chosen from a pre-approved list. They’re judged on qualities like expressiveness and understanding of the text.

Davise started Poetry Out Loud in ninth grade. Like most freshmen, she was lured by the promise of extra credit. That first year, she picked poems at random. By the next year, she began looking for poems that connected with her.

Brenda Shaughnessy’s “I Have a Time Machine” resonated with Davise; like her, it’s whimsical. George Herbert’s “Love (III),” which she read in the final round, moved her.

Davise chose Mark Halliday’s “Quite Frankly” after hearing someone else perform it in her junior year.

“I just really loved it, the meaning behind it, and I knew then I wanted to do it the next year,” she said.

Davise has been the school’s runner-up the past three years — including this year. When the first-place finisher chose not to go to state, Davise stepped in as alternate.

She used the second chance to attack her Achilles’ heel, memorization. Between the school competition and preparing for state, she estimated she put in a solid day of rehearsal.

“On the car ride there I almost lost my voice because I was reciting my poems over and over again trying to see what the best way to start was and the best way to end, how my hands should be moving,” she said.

After her initial panic, Davise spent the next morning trying to relax. Once the first round started, she settled in, marveling at the performers and the way the poems touched each one differently. That night, she hung out with other competitors, where they relaxed and helped each other with their poems.

“I started to have a really good time, and I cared way less about winning,” she said. “I myself am a really competitive person, so that was a big thing for me.”

Davise was one of the four students to advance to the final four, where she read her third poem. They announced the standings in reverse order. They began saying the runner-up’s name, which starts with a “d.” Because of the similar sound, Davise assumed it was hers.

She was OK with it; second place and a little bit of cash are consoling that way.

Then they said the full name of the runner-up. It wasn’t hers.

She got “pretty hysterical” and cried, she admits.

“Just having people be proud of me for putting work into something, that was probably the best feeling ever,” she said.

Davise is preparing for Nationals, held in Washington, D.C. at the end of April. It’s the second of three national competitions she has within eight days — bookended by FIRST Robotics and Quiz Bowl.

Oh, and she has exams the next week.

But the time crunch is worth it. Thanks to her win, people who never would have considered watching poetry will be tuned in to the national competition.

“The last poem, it really touched my heart, and I know it touched other people’s hearts,” she said. “That was incredible to me, just to see how words that are flowing out of my mouth can move people.”