As the winner of the 2020 Ohio Poetry Out Loud competition, Bexley High School senior Austin Smith, 18, said he developed a new appreciation for the art form while memorizing the three poems he recited.

The state finals were held March 6 at the King Arts Complex in Columbus.

"It took a couple of days to memorize each poem," Smith said. "I would go line by line and memorize each stanza."

Poetry Out Loud encourages high school students to learn about poetry and literature, master public-speaking skills and build self-confidence, and it is the nation's largest youth poetry recitation competitions, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, which sponsors the competition along with the Poetry Foundation.

State arts agencies from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico participate every year. The Ohio Arts Council sponsors Ohio's competition.

Smith was one of nine high school students who competed in the state finals. He won previous contests at the school and regional levels. The national competition had been scheduled April 27 to April 29 in Washington, D.C., but it was canceled because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

In spite of the cancellation, Smith said he is riding high from winning a $200 prize at the state finals and $500 for Bexley High School's library to purchase new books.

Each state finals contestant is asked to prepare two poems to recite in front of a panel of judges during the first and second rounds of competition. The highest-scoring students are asked to recite a third poem in the final round.

Smith recited "The Sun Rising" by John Donne, "Wide Receiver" by Mark Halliday and "Worth" by Marilyn Nelson. Smith said each poem he selected had significance, especially "Worth," which addresses the horrors of the slave trade.

"I wanted one by a black author or something that had to do with racism," said Smith, who is African American. "I like what it had to say, but it didn't have any rhymes or anything that would make it difficult to recite."

Smith said before he decided to enter the Poetry Out Loud competition, he enjoyed participating in discussions in English literature class.

He gained public-speaking experience as a junior when he won the Whitehall-Bexley Rotary Club's speech contest for students.

"That's when I realized how much I enjoyed public speaking," he said.

Smith's mother, Michelle Douglass, an anesthesiologist, said her son's recitations at the Poetry Out Loud state finals marked the first time she heard him speak before an audience.

"I thought he did very well," she said, adding that she chalks up the fact he didn't tell her about the Whitehall-Bexley Rotary event because he's an independent-minded teenager.

However, Smith said, he plans to follow in his mother's footsteps by becoming a physician. He has earned a full scholarship to Ohio State University.

In addition to the poetry competitions, Smith is involved in several extracurricular activities, including serving as president of the Bexley High School Vocal Ensemble and participating on the Frisbee and basketball teams.

He said he and his family, which includes his father, Elton Smith, and two brothers, are adjusting to the coronavirus quarantine.

"I'm adapting to doing school online," he said.

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