In a poetry competition that started with more than 365,000 students, Monica Labelle is one of 53 still standing.
On April 29, the senior from Wheaton Warrenville South High School will recite three poems at the Poetry Out Loud national finals in Washington, D.C. The winner will go home with a $20,000 prize -- but Labelle is more excited for the opportunity to just take the stage and meet other students who share her interest in poetry.
"Right now, I'm a little overwhelmed. It's all very exciting," she said Thursday. "It's an amazing feeling to be able to do something that you love and perform for people.
"Poetry is something that is meant to be shared and I think this program is incredible because kids from all over are able to share poetry and really bring the message of the poem -- and the poet -- to life."
Sponsored by the Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, Poetry Out Loud is a program that provides high school students with a chance to learn about poetry through memorization and recitation. While some students don't take part in the program outside the classroom, others opt to compete in a school contest, which gives them an opportunity to advance to regional and state competitions.
Earlier this month, Labelle was named the Illinois State Champion, earning her a $200 prize and an all-expenses-paid trip to the national finals, where she will compete alongside one student from every other state, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. A $500 stipend also was awarded to her school for the purchase of poetry books.
Labelle's passion for poetry began last year, when she hesitantly agreed to compete in the poetry category for her school's speech team, which she joined as a freshman.
"Poetry kind of has a negative stigma, especially in high school. It's thought to be boring or confusing," she said. "I learned that poetry is actually amazing and not as scary as some people think it is."
In speech club, however, Labelle was practicing a style of poetry that allowed the student to rearrange poems and make them into a program.
After enrolling in a modern poetry class this school year -- where she was first introduced to the Poetry Out Loud program -- Labelle realized she enjoyed "spoken word" poetry more, which she describes as a variation of slam poetry, but "a little calmer."
"There are certain poems that are meant to be read out loud and that's something that really interested me because the poem comes alive when it's read out loud," she said.
While competing, Labelle has to focus on more than just being accurate. The students are judged in a variety of categories, from articulation and physical presence to dramatic appropriateness and evidence of understanding -- the last of which Labelle spends a lot of time on.
"It's getting to the deeper meaning and connecting with the poem as much as you can so you can embody the poet," she said. "You want to make sure that you get across the message that the poem is trying to say. You're pretty much a middle man between the poet and the audience."
Craig Lawrence, English department chairman and faculty sponsor for Poetry Out Loud at Wheaton Warrenville South, said Labelle is a "rare" student who decided to compete simply because of her love for poetry and desire to share it.
"She's just the messenger between the poet and the audience," he said. "That's what separated her, I think. She's not so much performing the poem as much as she's reciting it."
Labelle will be joined by Lawrence, state coordinators for Poetry Out Loud and her family at the national competition, which will be aired live at arts.gov.
High school teachers interested in introducing Poetry Out Loud in their classrooms are encouraged to visit poetryoutloud.org.