NEA Arts Magazine

Making Poetry Come Alive

Poetry Out Loud 2006 National Finals

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The 51 poetry Out Loud state champions onstage for a group photo beneath the Poetry Out Loud banner

The 2006 State Champions of the Poetry Out Loud National Recitation Contest. Photo: James Kegley.

The gold-swagged stage of Washington, DC's historic Lincoln Theater - once host to the likes of Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington - resounded with a different type of music on May 16, 2006, as 51 teens competed in the first national poetry recitation contest. Poetry Out Loud, a National Initiative of the NEA in partnership with the Poetry Foundation, fosters the next generation of literary readers by capitalizing on the latest trends in poetry - recitation and performance. The program was expanded to a national contest this year after a successful pilot phase in 2005 that featured competitions in the Washington, DC area and in Chicago.

Over the past year, high school students from all 50 states and the District of Columbia competed at the school and state levels in contests sponsored in collaboration with the state arts agencies. The NEA and the Poetry Foundation provided free standards-based curriculum materials for use by participating schools, including print and online poetry anthologies, a teacher's guide, and a CD of recited poems featuring well-known actors and writers. Each state champion received a $200 cash award, $500 for his or her school library to purchase poetry books, and an all-expenses paid trip to the nation's capital to compete in the national finals, administered by the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation.

The NEA hosted the 51 champions for a full schedule of events. Arriving in Washington the night before the semifinal and final competitions, the competitors and their chaperones enjoyed a welcome banquet. The next morning, the young people were feted on Capitol Hill at a breakfast with members of Congress, including Senators Daniel Akaka (Hawaii), Robert Bennett (Utah), Conrad Burns (Montana), Mark Dayton (Minnesota), Johnny Isakson (Georgia), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Jack Reed (Rhode Island), Ted Stevens (Alaska), Craig Thomas (Wyoming), and John Thune (South Dakota), and Representatives Shelley Moore Capito (West Virginia) and Betty McCollum (Minnesota).

Later that day, three regional semifinal rounds, in which competitors each recited two poems, yielded 12 finalists. Judges rated each performer on several factors including diction, speed, volume, and overall presentation. Participants recited poems ranging from Mary Howitt's humorous fable "The Spider and the Fly" to Rhina P. Espaillat's poignant meditation on multiculturalism "Bilingual/Bilingüe."

Several poems proved quite popular, and the judges were treated to multiple renditions. Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky, "Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise," and Allen Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California" each received four recitations.

Teal Van Dyck reciting Kelli Taulia Anae

Second place winner Teal Van Dyck, a senior at Bow High School in New Hampshire, performing in the final round of the Poetry Out Loud National Finals. Third place went to Kelli Taulia Anae, a senior at the Mid Pacific Institute in Hawaii. Photos: James Kegley.

Semifinal judge Sunil Iyengar, poetry editor and reviewer, noted, "Hearing the same poem done so many ways awakens your sense of the poem itself. You get an appreciation of the spoken and written word at the same time."

The day's events culminated in an exciting final round of competition that evening. As the curtain rose to reveal all 51 champions, an appreciative capacity crowd filled the Lincoln Theater and burst into applause and a standing ovation.

NEA Chairman Dana Gioia opened the finals, asserting that the program's aims were both artistic and practical. "Poetry Out Loud brings great language into our hearts, minds, and imaginations. But it also teaches our young people to speak with confidence in public.

Chairman Gioia went on to note that each of the 12 finalists had beat tremendous odds to make it to the final rounds of the competition. "When you consider that these finalists started at the state level with a field of 120,000, you realize that each has beat 10,000 to 1 odds, not on chance but on skill, to be here tonight."

Joining Chairman Gioia for opening remarks was Poetry Foundation president John Barr, who said, "Our common interest in seeing poetry flourish inspired our partnership with the NEA. To borrow from Robert Frost, poetry is 'a diminished thing' if it's not shared."

Scott Simon, host of National Public Radio's Weekend Edition, was the evening's emcee. He applauded the high school students for their participation in the program, saying, "At no other time in your lives will words sink more deeply into your bones." He added that speaking poetry out loud was important because "each time we hear someone recite a poem, we begin to understand what it is about the poem we find interesting."

The 12 finalists competed before a panel of illustrious judges: writer, lawyer, and poetry advocate Caroline Kennedy; Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda; author and professor Azar Nafisi; novelist Curtis Sittenfeld; and poet, critic, and former NEA deputy chairman A.B. Spellman.

After two rounds, the 12 finalists were whittled down to five: Kellie Taulia Anae (Hawaii), Ryan Arthur Berry (North Dakota), Jackson Hille (Ohio), Aislinn Lowry (Missouri), and Teal Van Dyck (New Hampshire). The five young people competed in a third round, and Ohio's Hille was awarded top honors and a $20,000 college scholarship after delivering Billy Collin's "Forgetfulness." Second place went to Teal Van Dyck, who received a $10,000 college scholarship, and Kellie Taulia Anae came in third, receiving a $5,000 scholarship. Each of the other 12 finalists will receive $1,000 in scholarship money, and all of the finalists's schools will receive $500 for the purchase of poetry books.

The next day, Hille met with Ohio Representatives Deborah Pryce and Patrick Tiberi, who had been the emcee at Ohio's state competition. Rep. Pryce stated, "Jackson is a dynamic and sensationally talented young man. He is a tremendous ambassador for central Ohio."

Hille says he got involved with the program when a teacher offered him extra credit to participate, but his involvement soon became about more than grades. "As I kept winning competitions, I realized that poetry was a powerful thing, that the person reciting the poem is a vessel between the poem and the audience."

More information about Poetry Out Loud can be found at www.poetryoutloud.org.