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A student from York Suburban High School won the state championship in a poetry performance contest, beating out 14 other finalists from across the commonwealth.

Steven File, a junior, was named Pennsylvania's state champion of the Poetry Out Loud competition earlier this month. He was among 4,600 students coming from 110 schools across the state who entered this year's contest.

Steven was to travel to Washington, D.C., in April to compete at the national level with 51 other high school students, but the contest was canceled because of concerns over the coronavirus.

"It definitely hurt," Steven said of the contest's cancellation. "However, I think if anything this experience has motivated me to continue competing next year."

Students in the contest were required to memorize three poems and recite them to a panel of judges. Scoring is based on artistic presentation, delivery of language and accuracy, said Norah Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the organization that hosted the competition.

The three poems Steven recited were “Where Did the Handsome Beloved Go?” by Jalal al-Din Rumi; "The Mortician in San Francisco" by Randall Mann; and "Undivided Attention" by Taylor Mali.

"The Mortician in San Francisco," a poem about Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay elected official to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors and was assassinated, speaks on a personal level to Steven, who also identifies as gay. 

Steven said weaving his own identity into the poem on a deep and personal level allowed him to fully draw out his emotions and perform it for the judges.

"The story really captivated me," he said, of Milk's life and death. "I wanted to show people the power of that poem."

Steven first competed in the Poetry Out Loud contest in ninth grade, when his freshman English classes made participation mandatory. He's returned every year since.

"This year, by focusing on the emotion of the poems and really connecting with them, that allowed me to be successful," Steven said.  

Steven said he's always been a performer, with passions for music and theater. Since his exposure to the Poetry Out Loud contest, Steven said he's taken a liking to writing his own poetry, which evolved into aspirations for playwriting after high school. 

The Poetry Out Loud competition got its start in 2005. Johnson said it's an empowering contest that gives high school students the power to gain confidence and imagination and an opportunity to explore a world outside of their usual high school bubble.

"Poetry is emblematic of our society and humanity," Johnson said. "It helps students gain an appreciation for that part of life and gives students the opportunity to experience getting up in front of a crowd and speaking."

Even though the national competition in Washington, D.C., was canceled, Steven said he's submitting a spoken-word piece titled "Lost in the Waves" for a separate contest.

"I love writing, and I love performing — and that's my root," he said. "Poetry is something I absolutely adore. I'm excited to continue on my work throughout this break."

— Reach Tina Locurto at tlocurto@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.

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