NEA Arts Magazine

Perfecting the Art

Poetry Out Loud 2008 National Finals


African-American woman at a microphone

2008 Poetry Out Loud National Champion Shawntay A. Henry of the United States Virgin Islands. Photo by James Kegley.

In just its first year of participation, the U.S. Virgin Islands saw its Poetry Out Loud champion, Charlotte Amalie High School sophomore Shawntay A. Henry, crowned the program's third national champion. Henry competed against 51 of her peers at the two-day national finals event held in our nation's capital.

Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest is a partnership of the NEA, the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation, and the state arts agencies. The SAAs administer the state-level programs, managing everything from recruiting local schools to pairing teaching artists with classrooms to conducting statewide competitions. This year the recitation contests were held in all 50 states, Washington, DC, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Since last year, the SAAs have increased the number of schools participating by 30 percent, bringing the total number of 2008 campuses to 1,570. All told, the NEA estimates that nearly 200,000 students participated in the 2007–2008 competition.

Also in 2008, more states involved local literary figures in the project. In Oklahoma, state poet laureate and 2007 National Medal of Arts recipient N. Scott Momaday was a featured speaker at the state finals, while in the Lone Star state, a trio of working poets traversed the state coaching students in how to recite poetry. In Washington, the state's first poet laureate, Samuel Green, helped judge the competition.

To kick off each local program, teachers received free curriculum materials, including an audio guide with poetry recitations, a Poetry Out Loud anthology, and a teacher's guide with lesson plans and contest guidelines, which is updated annually to reUect the needs of participating educators. Students and teachers also have access to an online anthology at that boasts more than 600 poems and bios of the selected poets.

Winners advanced to school, district, and regional competitions, with state winners going on to the national finals.While in the capital, many students had a chance to meet with their senator or state representative. On April 28, students competed in the semifinal round. Twelve students advanced to compete in the finals the following evening. Guest judges included radio personality Garrison Keillor; Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey; Poetry Daily editor Don Selby; California novelist Leslie Schwartz; 2007 Poetry Out Loud National Champion Amanda Fernandez; and memoirist, activist, and poet Luis Rodriguez. Scott Simon, host of National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Saturday, reprised his role as master of ceremonies. Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation coordinated the final event.

In a post-win interview with the St. Tomas Source, Henry commented on the transformative power of poetry that drives the program. "I thought poetry was boring, but when you really listen to the words and recite it on stage, it comes alive and you can feel that, and you have to make sure the audience feels that too. I hope this is an opportunity for me to open doors for younger let them know that poetry is not what it seems."