An Inside Look at the 2014 Poetry Out Loud National Finals

by Alison Schaeffler-Murphy

Each year State Champions from throughout the United States, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico are awarded the opportunity to compete in the Poetry Out Loud National Semi-Finals and Finals in Washington, DC.  This exciting opportunity includes an all-expense paid trip to Washington for each state finalists and a chaperone. I attended the Finals at the end of April as Florida’s State Coordinator to watch our champion, Emily Rodriguez, compete and to learn more about the Poetry Out Loud program.  While there I enjoyed touching base with other program directors from each state, and it was a pleasure to meet the many devoted folks from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Poetry Foundation who make Poetry Out Loud a huge success.

This year’s 53 Poetry Out Loud State Champions in Washington, DC. Photo by James Kegley, used with permission of the National Endowment for the Arts.

This year’s 53 Poetry Out Loud State Champions in Washington, DC. Photo by James Kegley, used with permission of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Emily Rodriguez, a 12th grade student at Academy of the Holy Names in Hillsborough County, traveled to Washington with her mom to compete in the National competition. During the first two rounds of Region 2’s semi-finals, Emily recited “The Empty Dance Shoes”by Cornelius Eady and “Memory as a Hearing Aid” by Tony Hoagland.  Not surprisingly, Emily’s excellent recitation skills led to the judges’ selecting her as one of the top 10 students to move onto the third round. During this final round, Emily recited “Holy Sonnets: Batter my heart, three-person’d God” by John Donne. All of us at the Division of Cultural Affairs are very proud of Emily’s performance and recognize how prestigious it is for her to have been selected to compete in the final round of the Semi-Finals.

Emily Rodriguez reciting Cornelius Eady’s “The Empty Dance Shoes.” Photo by James Kegley, used with permission of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Emily Rodriguez reciting Cornelius Eady’s “The Empty Dance Shoes.” Photo by James Kegley, used with permission of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Given the vast amount of talent that showed up in Washington for the 2014 National Finals, the judges understandably had a very difficult time making their final decisions.  In the end, three students from each of the three regional Semi-Finals were selected to compete in the Finals. The following evening these nine student each recited poems during the first two rounds. Ultimately, the top three students were selected to perform a third poem to determine their standings as the 2014 Poetry Out Loud National Finalists. This year, these finalists included Natasha Simone Vargas (New Jersey), Lake Wilburn (Ohio), and Anita Norman (Tennessee) who were surely thrilled!

Once Natasha, Lake, and Anita recited their third poem, the judges determined that Anita Norman would be this year’s National Champion.  In addition to all of the national recognition that accompanies this honor, Anita Norman was presented with a prize of $20,000!  Lake Wilburn came in 2nd place with a $10,000 prize and Natasha Vargas received $5,000. It was wonderful to see such talent acknowledged. The amount of positive energy flowing among all of the students, regardless of their final standings, was evidence of this. The experience was truly gratifying for all involved.

National Champion Anita Norman interviewed by Neda Ulaby from National Public Radio. Photo by James Kegley, used with permission of the National Endowment for the Arts.

National Champion Anita Norman interviewed by Neda Ulaby from National Public Radio. Photo by James Kegley, used with permission of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Clearly, the fifty-three Poetry Out Loud National Finalists had the time of their life! Besides making connections with like-minded teens from across the United States, their Washington experience included opportunities to meet significant published authors and public figures from stage, screen, radio, and government. Plus, the folks at the Poetry Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts made certain that the students’ time in Washington was filled with exciting events like meet and greet receptions, an opening banquet with last year’s National Champion Langston Ward, a Congressional breakfast, time on Capitol Hill, and a great National Finals after party.  Having seen how fulfilling the experience was and how wholly the students embraced their love of poetry, I have higher praise for Poetry Out Loud than ever before.

Participation in a Poetry Out Loud program begins at the classroom level. It’s easy to incorporate the program into the curriculum because Poetry Out Loud correlates with English Language Arts Standards set by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Not only does the program seek to encourage our nation’s youth to learn about great poetry through performance and recitation, it is an inclusive program.  It creates an entry point for students to appreciate poetry, it reaches out to students who might not have otherwise taken to poetry or the stage, and it impacts the lives of students both academically and socially. I strongly encourage high school teachers to incorporate the program into their language arts curriculum. Schools interested in finding out more can visit the official Poetry Out Loud website, visit the Florida Division of Cultural Affair’s POL webpage, or contact me for more information. It might just be a student from your community who goes to Washington next year!

Poetry, like camaraderie, is stirring and fun.Photo by James Kegley, used with permission of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Poetry, like camaraderie, is stirring and fun. Photo by James Kegley, used with permission of the National Endowment for the Arts.