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A Worcester Youth Poet Was Set To Compete Nationally, Then Came The Coronavirus

Anya Barrett performs at the Massachusetts 2020 Poetry Out Loud Championship. (Courtesy David Marshall)
Anya Barrett performs at the Massachusetts 2020 Poetry Out Loud Championship. (Courtesy David Marshall)

Next week would have been one of the biggest weeks of Anya Barrett's burgeoning poetry career.

The 18-year old is all smiles as she recounts the moment she was named the Massachusetts 2020 Poetry Out Loud State Champion. "It felt like fireworks going off inside," she says with a wide grin. "There are really no words to describe it. I just couldn't believe it."

This year marked the Bay State's 15th time participating in Poetry Out Loud, a national youth poetry recitation contest run by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. Huntington Theatre Company facilitates the Massachusetts contest, one of the largest in the nation, in partnership with the Massachusetts Cultural Council. After competing in state-wide competitions, high school wordsmiths from across the country battle for the top spot in Washington, D.C.

"I don't know how COVID-19 will affect me going to college or even going out of state. It's just a state of uneasiness because nobody knows where anything is going."

Anya Barrett

Barrett, who represented her city of Worcester, bested 21 other participants in the state. She was excited for the all-expense-paid trip to the nation's capital to compete. But then the coronavirus pandemic hit and the economy started to shutter, with businesses, schools and events being closed and canceled, one after another. An email informed Barrett that the competition, scheduled to take place April 27-29, was canceled. "I think my dad was even more disappointed than I was," Barrett laughs. "He had to let everyone know who he told that I wouldn't be going to D.C."

It's not easy being a high schooler on the precipice of major life shifts. It's definitely not any easier during a global pandemic. Three different colleges sat high on Barrett's list to attend in the fall but that was before the coronavirus outbreak. "I don't know how COVID-19 will affect me going to college or even going out of state," she says. "It's just a state of uneasiness because nobody knows where anything is going."

Anya Barrett was named the Massachusetts 2020 Poetry Out Loud Champion. (Courtesy David Marshall)
Anya Barrett was named the Massachusetts 2020 Poetry Out Loud Champion. (Courtesy David Marshall)

Barrett doesn't plan on going to school for literature or poetry. She wants to go into the medical field, like many of her family members who are currently on the front lines in New York. The realities of the profession are particularly stark in the time of a pandemic. "Every day I pray that they're okay," she says. "Because I know there's nothing else that I can do. And I'm very happy to hear when they call to check in."

Poetry is still an outlet for Barrett as she navigates the unfolding of the coronavirus. Writing runs in her blood. It's a trait passed down from her mother, who is also a poet and storyteller. "She keeps her poems in this little book," Barrett describes. "At one time, we were in a hurricane and our roof blew off and it got wet. So some of the pages are a little soiled. But I don't know, I think it makes it all the more special."

In her short 18 years, Barrett and her family, who are from Jamaica, have lived on three different continents and in four countries. This means that Barrett's seen, and experienced, many things others her age may not. "I'm very thankful for the exposure that I had to different cultures," she says. "I always have a different story to tell because of it."

"My mind is just preoccupied with everything right now and it's hard to write like I used to."

Anya Barrett

The coronavirus pandemic will certainly be another tale Barrett immortalizes in her poetry. But for now, she's finding it more difficult to write. "My mind is just preoccupied with everything right now and it's hard to write like I used to." Barrett is feeling an ennui that creatives everywhere are wrestling with in the midst of quarantine. There's a desire to create that's so often overshadowed by the overwhelming reality of living during a viral outbreak.

For now, Barrett is taking it slow in quarantine while absorbing the glow of becoming the Massachusetts 2020 Poetry Out Loud Champion. While the national competition may be canceled, Barrett's joy is not. She's enjoying more time with her younger sister and is fine-tuning her cooking skills to pass the time.

Writing more poetry will come later. For now, Barrett is just basking in living.

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Arielle Gray Twitter Arts Engagement Producer
Arielle Gray is the Arts Engagement Producer for The ARTery. She manages its social media, events and curated content.

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