More than Words

Asylum seeker Joao Victor’s passion for poetry helps him find his voice

Last spring, high school student Joao Victor was in his hometown of Lewiston, watching the state’s Poetry Out Loud competition. Asylum seeker Allan Monga, a student from Deering High School in Portland, had just been named the 2018 Poetry Out Loud winner, and Victor found himself inspired. Victor, an asylum seeker from Angola, had always loved poetry, and after watching Monga’s win, he wanted to try competing, too. With the help of Lewiston High School English and public speaking teacher Jim Siragusa, Victor began practicing every day, reciting poetry and refining his skills. “The thing is, I have good influences in my life,” says Victor. “Your life will depend on two things: the books that you read and the people that are surrounding you.”

After building up his confidence through in-school competitions, Victor felt ready. At the 2019 Poetry Out Loud competition, 4,300 high school students from across the state came together at the Waterville Opera House to recite poetry. Victor chose three poems for three rounds: “Songs for the People” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, “The Light of the Stars” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and “Bright Copper Kettles” by Vijay Seshadri. Five finalists were chosen, including Victor and Monga. In the end, Victor claimed the title, and he was later named Youth Poet Laureate of Lewiston. “I thought I wouldn’t win because Allan Monga was there, and he’s my hero,” Victor says.

In April Victor competed in the national Poetry Out Loud competition and made it to the top 9 of 200,000 fellow poets. “We did everything we could,” he says. “Practice, effort, my heart, everything [went into this], but you still need to know that there are judges, and sometimes judges aren’t looking for that.” Even though he didn’t win the national contest, Victor continues to pursue poetry. He credits the art form with teaching him compassion, how to talk with people, how to stay calm, and how to not take things personally. “Poetry taught me I need to be more patient with myself, sit down, and think outside of the box,” he says.

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