NEA Arts Magazine

Poetry Out Loud National Finals

Connecting with Great Poets Past and Present

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Poetry Out Loud National Champion Amanda Fernandez speaks with judge Garrison Keillor

Poetry Out Loud National Champion Amanda Fernandez speaks with judge Garrison Keillor after the contest. Photo by James Kegley.

This past spring, the Lisner Auditorium at DC's George Washington University resounded with odes, sonnets, and ballads, among other poetry forms, as 51 teens from the 50 states and the District of Columbia competed for the title of 2007 Poetry Out Loud National Champion. A joint project with the Poetry Foundation and the nation's state arts agencies, the NEA's Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest is a national arts education program that encourages the study of great poetry by offering educational materials and a dynamic recitation competition to high school students across the country.

The 2007 class of Poetry Out Loud state champions competed in three regional semifinals before the top twelve advanced to the contest finals, reciting before a capacity crowd and a distinguished group of judges including radio personality and author Garrison Keillor and 2006 Poetry Out Loud National Champion Jackson Hille. As part of the two-day event, the high-schoolers also greeted members of Congress at a Capitol Hill breakfast and toured the nation's capital with their chaperones. The finals were again administered by the Baltimore-based Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, and Southwest Airlines joined as a sponsor, supporting travel to DC for state champions and their chaperones and awarding each finalist with two roundtrip airline tickets.

Hometown favorite Amanda Fernandez, a senior at Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Washington, DC, eventually took top honors with dramatic, poignant, and commanding recitations of poems by Wilfred Owen, Anne Sexton, and legendary DC poet Sterling A. Brown. Fernandez received a $20,000 college scholarship, and she is excited to use her platform to get more young people involved in poetry. "People are going to hear about the prize money and become interested in the contest aspect, all without even knowing that they are immersing themselves in an once-in a-lifetime experience with poetry that will stay with them forever." Now a First-year acting major at New York University, Fernandez continues to make time for poetry. "Everyday I write poetry. In order to develop [my writing] and myself I have to read it and read about it."

Fernandez offers several pieces of advice to aspiring competitors, "Be about the work. If you are there for the money and the fame, the judges will see it, and the work onstage won't be truthful. Be real. If you are connected to a poem, go for it. Follow the guidelines about not overdramatizing a piece and understand the messages and themes and so on. But do not memorize the longest poem of [the Poetry Out Loud anthology] and repeat it verbatim just to win the money or show off your amazing amount of memory. It shows. You don't have to be an actor. Just to be a human being connecting to other human beings is a message, the message of a great artist, a great poet."