Art Works Blog

Art Talk, Poetry Out Loud edition

“Poetry has been used for hundreds of years to share stories and bring people together; Poetry Out Loud should be no different.” – Amber Rose Johnson, 2010 Poetry Out Loud National Champion

In 2010, after advancing from a field of 325,000 students, Rhode Island Poetry Out Loud Champion Amber Rose Johnson was named that year’s National Champion. Johnson is currently working toward a degree from Tufts University, where her senior thesis focuses on black feminist writers. In an interview with Poetry Out Loud, Johnson reflected on the competition and some ways poetry has influenced her identity and life choices.

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement with the arts?

AMBER ROSE JOHNSON: My earliest engagement with the arts was with my father and the art of storytelling. My dad would read to me and my siblings every night and I would be amazed at the way stories came to life, right from my bedroom. I still remember all of my favorite books that we read together and often site this as the reason I have come to love poetry and storytelling as much as I do.

NEA: Fill us in on your life since being named Poetry Out Loud National Champion. Has poetry informed any of your more recent endeavors?

JOHNSON: Since Poetry Out Loud, poetry has remained a huge part of my life. I am currently a senior at Tufts University and my undergraduate thesis centers on the ways that black feminist writers use poetics to deconstruct and rebuild language. Additionally, I have taught several poetry classes for middle school students in the community and am current the coach for my university’s spoken word team. Though my relationship with poetry has changed, it continues to be a huge part of my life and driving force for my academic research.

NEA: Any plans for the future?

JOHNSON: I plan to enroll in a PhD program for next fall in an interdisciplinary major such as Culture and Theory or American Studies.

NEA: Who are some poets or writers who inspire you?

JOHNSON: M. NourbeSe Philip, Dionne Brand, June Jordan, Toni Morrison, and Hortense Spillers.

NEA: What is your favorite memory of participating in Poetry Out Loud?

JOHNSON: My favorite memory (though it is really difficult to choose because I have so many memories from NEA that I hold very dear) is actually from the first year I made it to [the National Finals], which was the year before I became the National Champion. On the last night of the competition, a bunch of us from different states got together to talk with one another, listen to music and build community—without the pressure of the competition. To this day, some of the competitors from that year are still my best and closest friends. Aside from the competition, NEA is an opportunity to meet amazing people from across the country and share something that we all love.

NEA: What advice would you give to students participating, or thinking about participating, in Poetry Out Loud?

JOHNSON: Do it! Poetry Out Loud changed my life and is by far one of the best experiences I have had. Don't worry too much about the competitionfocus on finding poems that really resonate with you (because you will probably never forget them) and sharing the experience with others along the way, no matter what level you are at in the competition. Poetry has been used for hundreds of years to share stories and bring people togetherPoetry Out Loud should be no different.

NEA: What would you like to ask yourself—and answer—as the final question of this interview?

JOHNSON: Do you remember all of your poems from Poetry Out Loud? Not only do I remember all of my poems, but all of my family members do too! Sometimes we will get nostalgic and recite them together--remembering the long nights I would spend practicing and asking my parents and siblings to help me with memorization and performance. Each of the poems carries an important message and they continue to be relevant to me in all the things I do today. I am happy to carry these poems in my head and my heart.

Portrait of young African-American woman

Kristen Dupard. Photo courtesy of Ms. Dupard

“Every time I read a poem, it touches a part of my life that I am trying to figure out, change, or make sense of.” – Kristen Dupard, 2011 Poetry Out Loud National Champion

Representing the state of Mississippi, Kristen Dupard took home the title of Poetry Out Loud National Champion in 2012. She is currently working toward a degree in biochemistry from the University of Southern Mississippi. In an interview with Poetry Out Loud, Dupard reflected on the competition and some ways poetry has influenced her identity and life choices.              

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement with the arts?

KRISTEN DUPARD: My earliest engagement with the arts stems from an early age when my teachers would always ask me to read stories in front of the class. I remember when I was in the second grade, my teacher asked me to read the newspaper in front of my entire class. My teachers always told me I had a wonderful voice. However, my love for poetry didn’t start until my involvement with the National Forensics League.

NEA: Fill us in on your life since being named Poetry Out Loud National Champion. Has poetry informed any of your more recent endeavors?

DUPARD: My life has transformed before my very eyes. It’s honestly one of the biggest blessings I have ever received. Since Poetry Out Loud I have had the opportunity to record a jazz CD, perform and interview at the Library of Congress, and to top it all off, meet First Lady Michelle Obama.

NEA: Any plans for the future?

DUPARD: Currently, I am a junior at the University of Southern Mississippi, where I am majoring in Biochemistry with a minor in Broadcasting. After graduation, I plan to attend medical school. Post medical school graduation, I plan to work as a pediatrician and a medical correspondent for CNN News.

NEA: Who are some poets or writers who inspire you?

DUPARD: I feel that all poets inspire me. It is difficult to choose just one poet that has impacted my life. Every time I read a poem, it touches a part of my life that I am trying to figure out, change, or make sense of. I feel that every poet binds us and reminds us that we are never alone.

NEA: What is your favorite memory of participating in Poetry Out Loud?

DUPARD: My favorite memory of participating in Poetry Out Loud would be having the opportunity to meet my senators in Washington DC and having breakfast at the Capitol. This was an awesome way to relax right before the big contest later on that night.

NEA: What advice would you give to students participating in or thinking about participating in Poetry Out Loud?

DUPARD: My advice would be to soak in every moment that you experience with Poetry Out Loud. Never get so caught up in the idea of winning that you fail to enjoy the experience. It took me three attempts to win the nationals. Hard work and determination will get you to exactly where you want to be.

NEA: What would you like to ask yourself—and answer—as the final question of this interview?

DUPARD: Who helped you along the way? It’s quite easy to think that I became an overnight Poetry Out Loud Champion. However, that is not the case. It took past national champions like Amber-Rose Johnson, my mom, and my coaches to perfect the gift that existed within me. 

Who will be the 2015 Poetry Out Loud National Champion? Find out by joining us for the National Finals on Wednesday, April 29 livestreaming on arts.gov at 7:00pm ET. (We're also livestreaming the semifinals all day on Tuesday, April 28 starting at 9am ET.)

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