Poetry Out Loud winner: 'I am the Smoke King … I am black'

Reprinted with permission from FORUM magazine, a publication of the Florida Humanities Council.

Zhaedyn Hodge Sigars paced the school hallway.

"I am the Smoke King …''

Classmates stared at him as they headed to their lockers.

"I am black!''

But Zhaedyn continued, unfazed.

“People asked me, ‘Are you all right?’,” he recalls. “Are you going insane?’”

Perhaps it was insane to believe that a student from an inner-city school could win top honors in a statewide poetry recitation contest. But that’s exactly what happened in March, when Zhaedyn, a junior at Tampa’s Howard W. Blake High School of the Arts, was declared the statewide winner of Florida’s Poetry Out Loud contest.

Started in 2005, Poetry Out Loud is a national competition that invites high school students to memorize and perform poems they select from an extensive online catalog of works by historical and contemporary poets. The contest is administered through a partnership of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation and state arts agencies, including the Florida Humanities Council. During the most recent school year, more than 275,000 students participated in Poetry Out Loud nationwide, including 4,856 in Florida.

Participants are judged on five criteria -- physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, evidence of understanding, and overall performance -- first by their peers or adult volunteers in a classroom competition, then schoolwide, then regionally and eventually statewide. At the March 2 Florida-wide competition at USF St. Petersburg, the judges included college-level creative writing professors and Florida poet laureate Peter Meinke.

So was Zhaedyn nervous?

“Very,” admits the soft-spoken 16-year-old. But performing gives Zhaedyn confidence, and he took to the ballroom stage round after round, bellowing poems chosen for him by his classmates and Blake’s director of creative writing, Casey Curry: Discrimination by Kenneth Rexroth, The Paradox by Paul Laurence Dunbar and the crowd favorite, The Song of the Smoke by African-American activist and educator W.E.B. Du Bois.

“That particular poem fits -- we call him Z -- it fits because Du Bois was so regal,” Curry says. “I thought he was regal and confident and sure of himself and his place in the world as an African-American male.”

Just like Z.

Zhaedyn’s first place in the world was Aurora, Colorado. During middle school, he moved to Florida to live with his father and stepmother while studying his original passion, dance, at Tampa’s Orange Grove Middle Magnet School of the Arts.

“Since Orange Grove and Blake were essentially sister schools, I was recruited for the dance program [at Blake] and really looked forward to extending my stay in Florida,” he says. “Later in my freshman year, I decided to make the switch to creative writing to focus on my poetry.” When a teacher introduced the Poetry Out Loud competition in one of Zhaedyn’s classes, “I saw it as a way to enhance my own poetry,” he says.

In the end, Zhaedyn wasn’t the only one moved by his poetry recitation.

In the ballroom, when the judges declared him Florida’s Poetry Out Loud champion, the usually stoic Curry cried.

“Glasses off, and everything,” Zhaedyn notes with a laugh.

Curry’s tears had been a long time coming. She first introduced the Poetry Out Loud competition to Blake High School, a magnet school, more than a decade ago, and the closest Blake had come to winning was third place in 2014. 

“It was a lesson in perseverance, that you just don’t give up,” Curry says. Inner-city schools like Blake are often discounted, she says, “but I know that we have a great deal of talent here and that we can do what anybody else can do.”

For a longer version of this story, please see the current issue of FORUM magazine, the publication of the Florida Humanities Council, where this story first appeared. You can also order a free copy of FORUM there.

Here are links to schools referenced in this story:
Dalia Colón produces WUSF Media's new food-centric podcast "The Zest.'' She also co-produces and co-hosts WEDU's Arts Plus television program. She is a former staff reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and Cleveland Magazine, has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Ohio University and a master's degree in Spanish education from Kent State University.
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