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Q+A with 2014 Poetry Out Loud National Champion Anita Norman

"Poetry Out Loud has given me the courage to speak up. Being champion has given me a platform to do so." -- Anita Norman, 2014 Poetry Out Loud National Champion

By this time next week, we'll be only 21 poems away from crowning the 2015 Poetry Out Loud champion! This week we asked the current champ, Anita Norman of Tennessee, to reflect on her "reign" as POL National Champ, offer advice to the state champs competing at this year's finals, and muse on how the competition has changed her life. 

NEA: You're heading off to college in the fall. What are you most looking forward to? What are you most dreading?

NORMAN: When people tell you that senior year begins and ends in one breath, believe them and hold tight. You'll have one foot in high school and another on whatever path you chose past graduation. It really is a blast.

There are many things I fear about college such as: the large number of class choices (I am wildly indecisive), distance from family, failure, loneliness.

However, everything will be okay because everything up to this point has been just that. I can't wait to be challenged and stretched. I look forward to meeting people from all over the world and carving my own thoughts about the way things work apart from what I've always known.

NEA: What’s been your favorite perk of being the National Poetry Out Loud Champion, what would it be?

NORMAN: The greatest perk to winning has been meeting some of the same poets whose poems I read on the Poetry Out Loud anthology. I've met Cornelius Eady, Terence Hayes, Naomi Shiab Nye, and Mark Doty. Who would have thought? 

NEA: We know you love poetry, but what else do you like to read? Do you have a favorite author? Or a favorite book?

NORMAN: Books are some of the most faithful friends. I especially love the work of James Baldwin, Jacqueline Woodson, Octavia Butler, Khaled Hosseini, and, of course, Toni Morrison. Her writing is cold milk in the perfect bowl of cereal (my favorite is Cinnamon Toast Crunch). She is much more than a writer, she melts words until they are golden. My favorite books are: The Color Purple by Alice Walker and The Catcher and the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

NEA: Did you get a chance to do any sightseeing while you were in DC for the National Finals? What was your favorite place to visit?

NORMAN: I sure did! In fact, there is plenty of time to check out several of the museums as well as the monuments. I found those experiences to relieve stress before and even after my performances, and can't help gushing over the beauty of the city.

As far as my favorite place, the Lincoln Memorial had the greatest impact on me as I had an opportunity to stand where Dr. King stood when he gave his "I Have a Dream Speech". That moment became of special significance after I was invited to speak at a celebration commemorating his life. The event took place at the Mason Temple where he gave his final speech "I've been to the Mountaintop". During Poetry Out Loud, I looked out from the memorial steps and this past January I spoke from the same podium as he. How things come full circle.

NEA: What's the most unexpected opportunity/experience/change that's come out of participating in Poetry Out Loud?

NORMAN: The most unexpected change came in being invited to speak at the National Storytelling Festival and watching  individuals from all walks of life tell their story. Sharing the things integral in your life allows others to connect with you and in turn do the same. I value people and their words differently after that experience. I crave opportunities to sit and listen now, to give people a platform from which they can unleash their voice. 

NEA: How did you keep yourself from being nervous when you were onstage doing your recitations?

NORMAN: Mostly, I think it helps to harness that energy, to let it fester, but not overpower. For me, that means talking to myself saying things like, "Anita, honey, you've got this!" or, "Will you ever be here again? I didn't think so, so get yourself together and give it to them." That may seem mildly psychotic but it works for me. I also listen to music right before a performance and jump rope (without the rope of course) to channel my inner Akeelah from the movie Akeelah and the Bee. I watched that before each performance day.

NEA: What advice do you have for the 2015 Poetry Out Loud champion about making the most out of their championship year?

NORMAN: Hello 2015 Poetry Out Loud champion. Congratulations to you! You will have lots of opportunities to travel and/ or perform. You will be recognized and questioned and appreciated. You will probably feel overwhelmed and then uber excited, but never forget why you started and the true essence of the poems. That is why you are where you are. Let those thoughts guide you, and I think you'll find the year to be nothing short of dreamy. All the best. 

NEA: How do you recommend pacing yourself through the three days so that you’re not too exhausted? Is there anything you wish you would have known before going to the national competition?

NORMAN: Don't let the stress of the competition consume you. Have fun! You will never be able to rewind the clock. In terms of exhaustion, honest to goodness you won't be. There's too much to see and experience to have time to be tired. Take it all in. 

NEA: How has participating in Poetry Out Loud changed you? How has spending a year as the Poetry Out Loud National Champion changed you?

NORMAN: Poetry Out Loud has given me the courage to speak up. Being champion has given me a platform to do so.

NEA: If you could do one thing differently having to do with your entire experience with Poetry Out Loud what would it be?

NORMAN: I regret absolutely nothing! I am grateful for the people I've met, the fear I've overcome, and mostly the ability to share.

Join us April 28-29, 2015 for the Poetry Out Loud National Finals. Watch live in Washington, DC at Lisner Auditorium, or online at arts.gov.

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