On Tuesday morning, 19-year-old Allan Monga of Westbrook stepped onstage in the first round of the Poetry Out Loud National Finals in Washington, D.C. He took a breath, exhaled, and recited W.E.B. Dubois’ 1907 poem, “The Song of the Smoke.”
If it wasn’t for a federal judge’s ruling, that performance likely wouldn’t have happened, because while Monga won Maine’s Poetry Out Loud competition last month, he wasn’t considered eligible for the national finals because of his immigration status.
When Monga immigrated to Portland last summer, he sought asylum from his home country of Zambia. That means he wasn’t classified as a “U.S. citizen or permanent resident” — a requirement to take part in the Poetry Out Loud national finals.
Earlier this month, Monga took the National Endowment for the Arts, the festival organizer, to court and asked a judge to let him compete. Monga’s lawyers argued that the NEA’s rules discriminated against him and others.
In a ruling on Friday, U.S. District Judge John Woodcock granted Monga’s request to participate, ruling that the NEA’s regulations would harm Monga by not letting him compete in a “unique, fleeting, one-time opportunity.” On Tuesday morning, Monga took that opportunity and performed two works: “The Song of the Smoke” and Lord Byron’s poem “She Walks in Beauty.”
He didn’t make it to the competition’s final round, which takes place Wednesday, but his lawsuit against the NEA is still ongoing. While the judge allowed Monga to participate in the national finals, he has yet to make a final decision determining whether the NEA’s eligibility rules are unconstitutional — a decision that could have an effect on future competitors.
Portland Public Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana says his district has many students who are seeking asylum. He says the district is talking with lawyers about how to make sure those students will be eligible for future competitions, whether by continuing the lawsuit against the NEA or by petitioning state and local organizers directly.
“Clearly, from our perspective, it has to change,” Botana says. “We can’t have our students in this situation going forward.”
The NEA’s rules are still present on the Poetry Out Loud website. Asked whether they would be changed, a spokesperson for the agency had no comment.
This story was originally published April 24, 2018 at 4:30 p.m. ET.
Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.