NEA Arts Magazine


2008 POL National Champion from the U.S. Virgin Islands


Shawntay Henry

Photo by James Kegley

Sixteen-year-old Shawntay Henry captured the 2008 Poetry Out Loud National Championship with an impressive final recitation of Robert Hayden's poem "Frederick Douglass." Henry, then a sophomore at Charlotte Amalie High School, won the competition the very first year the Virgin Islands participated in Poetry Out Loud. Now a student at High Point University, Henry is involved with the dance team and the school newspaper.

NEA: What was your experience with Poetry Out Loud?

SHAWNTAY HENRY: I enjoy telling anyone and everyone about my Poetry Out Loud experience because I believe that the trials and tribulations I faced along the way, as a result of my strong desire to be successful in the competition, humbled me in so many ways and made my faith a whole lot stronger. The day I was supposed to be in Washington, DC, my flight from St. Thomas to Miami was delayed, I missed my connecting flight from Miami to Washington, DC, never made it to the meet and greet, got in late that night, and my bags were nowhere to be found; everything that could possibly go wrong, went wrong. I was broken, I did not know how or if I would be able to recite my poems to the best of my ability without thinking about everything that happened the previous day.

NEA: What was the highlight of your experience?

HENRY: My love for the stage is strong, so the highlight of my experience was being on stage, performing and reciting my poems to the best of my ability. I wouldn't change anything about my Poetry Out Loud experience because everything I went through from delayed and missed flights to meeting all these young adults who I still keep in contact with to this day was a blessing and I wouldn't have chosen any other organization to share this experience with than the National Endowment of the Arts. In addition, poetry was something that I was never really interested in. However, as I got more and more involved in the competition, I became one with my poems and could feel and relate to the things that the authors were addressing in their poems. I became excited about poetry, there was so much life and meaning in a poem that I never took the time to acknowledge until I became a part of Poetry Out Loud. And now every time I read a poem, just for fun, I read it as though I am part of the Poetry Out Loud competition, back on stage.

NEA: What advice would you give future participants?

HENRY: The advice that I would give to future participants is the good old clichéd line, "Practice makes perfect." You never really value the meaning of those three words until you sacrifice your leisure time to practice, practice, practice, only then to reap the benefits and the rewards granted to you for putting forth 110 percent effort in perfecting your craft. Hard work does pay off, and if this is something that you really want you will sacrifice any and everything to get it.

NEA: Do you still remember your poems?

HENRY: My poems were "Beauty" by Tony Hoagand (my personal favorite), "Frederick Douglass" by Robert E. Hayden (another favorite and the winning poem), and the last one was a pre-20th century poem that I am unable to remember. It had a strong rhyme scheme that I tried very hard not to play on so I wouldn't sound like I was singing a song, and after a lot of hard work I was successful.