Art Talk with 2016 Poetry Out Loud National Champion Ahkei Togun
“Be the best you you can be. That’s—in the simplest form—the best advice I can give.” — Ahkei Togun
With confident recitations of poems by Henry Taylor, Cornelius Eady, and William Lisle Bowles, Tallwood High School senior Ahkei Togun of Virginia Beach, Virginia, won his way word by word to the 2016 Poetry Out Loud National Championship. Togun beat out 52 other state champions who also recited during last week's two-day National Finals, all of whom had themselves risen to the top of the approximately 317,000 students who participated in Poetry Out Loud during the 2015-16 school year. Togun's win earned him a $20,000 award and, of course, major bragging rights. Following his victory, we sat down with Togun—who began competing in Poetry Out Loud as a freshman—to find out how it felt when he realized he'd won, what his future plans are, and his secret for success. (Click here to watch Togun recite Cornelius Eady's "I'm a Fool to Love You.")
NEA: How did you feel when you realized that you were the 2016 Poetry Out Loud National Champion?
AHKEI TOGUN: It was a lot of mixed emotions all at once. You couldn’t see it, but I actually fell to my knees and started crying backstage when they said [who was in] second place, knowing that I was first place. It feels great. I feel blessed.
NEA: How did you get involved in Poetry Out Loud?
TOGUN: It was my freshman year, and the teacher made it a test grade that we participate in the Poetry Out Loud competition. I’m an actor already, so there was no way that I could just read [the poems] and not put any in emotion into them, or not put any feeling behind them. So I kept it going, and I went year after year… and it was like I kept getting better and better so I just let the journey take me wherever I was supposed to go.
NEA: What kept you going year after year?
TOGUN: I started to build a passion for poetry and a passion for Poetry Out Loud, as well. I was already a spoken-word artist myself, but this competition really made me excited about poetry as a whole. The competition was a chance to exemplify that excitement. It was just like a basketball player waiting for the season to come back around. “Oh, Poetry Out Loud season is right around the corner,” and then you just get ready for it. [I was excited by] the thought of being on stage in another artistic way.
NEA: How did you keep your focus during the National Finals, given how much pressure you must have felt?
TOGUN: It’s really hard. [It’s about] not focusing on what you’re competing for. It’s knowing that you’re out there to exemplify your artistic abilities. Because if you think about the [$20,000 scholarship] it gets you out of the state of mind that you need to be in. I put my headphones in, and I cut the world off. I closed my eyes so it didn’t matter what was around me. I had some jazz going on in my ear, and I’d tap my foot to the beat of the jazz. Every tap, I would say, “Focus. Focus.” When I took the headphones out, I still felt my foot [moving to that beat] and I still heard, “Focus. Focus.” My biggest thing—because I’m a senior—was to go out there, and go out with a bang, leave everything on the stage.
NEA: When you’re reciting the poems, what do you hope that the audience is getting out of it?
TOGUN: I hope that they hear the story. I believe that each poem has a story behind it so the objective is definitely to make sure you hear the flips in the story, the good parts of the story. Emphasize the funny parts of the story, so you make sure you get those laughs right there; again, so that they enjoy watching you…. I want them to feel I’m not necessarily reciting a poem, but I’m just telling you a story. That’s really what I shoot for. A lot of that is not rehearsing it with too many movements; it’s just, again, learning the words. Connecting with the audience is the big thing for me. That’s really what I shoot for when I go out there: allowing the words to connect with the audience, so that we just keep bouncing off of each other. Their energy bounces off of me, and my energy bounces off with them.
NEA: What do you think that you’ve gotten out of participating in Poetry Out Loud? How have you changed from the experience?
TOGUN: I guess the general word for it is acceptance; going back to the fact of already being a spoken-word artist, but the competition allowed me to accept that part of me. So that was a growth part for me, to not only accept that part of me, but find some other things that I may have been not so open about, when it came to abilities or talents because I felt like people wouldn’t accept them as much, or people would look down on them. That was the biggest part for me—a thought of acceptance—as well as a thought of confidence. [When I’m acting], if I go off of a line, you don’t know that. Nobody’s watching me. Nobody’s looking at the script, trying to see if I’m word perfect. I can improvise and come back to where I’m supposed to be. But as far as a competition like this, where it comes to memorization, you tend to second-guess yourself: “Oh, am I supposed to say ‘you’ right there, or ‘me,’ or is it ‘she’?” My my mother had to tell me a lot of times, “Don’t second-guess yourself.” So the big general word for that would also be confidence. Those are two of the biggest things that I’ve learned going throughout the competition.
NEA: What would you say to someone who was reluctant to participate in Poetry Out Loud?
TOGUN: I would just say that maybe they haven’t found their poem yet, because I feel like that’s what also got me into it: finding so many poems that I can relate to. So I think you just keep looking. You keep diving into the poetry itself, finding different ways to analyze it, until you really figure out that poem that resonates with you. Keep pushing. Find some type of joy out of it. Once you find that joy, find something else about it that you like. And be confident and be accepting about it, if that’s what’s holding you back.
NEA: What has been the most challenging part of participating in Poetry Out Loud?
TOGUN: I think it goes back to the whole confidence thing. It’s looking past who you feel is your competition, and figuring out how to just be the best you that you can be. My quote for Poetry Out Loud for the past two years, has been, “Be the best you that you can be, and always be you.” That’s either going to get you the win, or it’s going to get you to lose. But at the end of the day, you can say you were yourself…. If I allow myself to be really nervous, then I’m going to get out there and do really bad. It’s not because of what anybody else does; it’s because of how I make myself feel. That was the biggest thing for me: pushing past everything that I was making a barrier for myself, and finding out how to beat myself.
NEA: You’re graduating this spring. What’s up next?
TOGUN: I will be going to a performing arts school called the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York, New York. I will be studying acting there. I’ve always wanted to be an actor since I’ve been younger, so that’s, a dream of mine. I’ve just been letting God pave the way, as far as how I was going to get there, and how big or how far he wanted me to go, as far as being an actor. As of late, I’ve been telling myself that when I graduate, that’s going to be the biggest time for me to learn—not just school, but learning things about life, learning how to cope with different things, learning how to be a man. Just learning different things is the next step for me.
NEA: Before I ask the final question, is there anything you want to say that I haven’t asked yet?
TOGUN: I do just want to give thanks to all the support. I want to give thanks to my school. They have been a really big support system behind me; my teachers—Miss Tuckerman, in specific; Miss Free. I want to give a shout-out to my old teacher, Miss Daniels, who started me off with it. My mother, of course, she’s been there through the whole process. She’s been my motivator. She’s been everything for me, throughout the whole process. So I really do want to give a shout out to her, and always give my glory to God, as well. I just want to say thank you to everyone who supported me, who believed in me.
NEA: Do you have any advice for future Poetry Out Loud participants?
TOGUN: I go back to the L-word: learn. It’s specifically learning how to learn: learning how to figure out what you did wrong, and fixing it; learning how to not look at your competitors, and figuring out how you can be the best you that you can be, and not [changing] yourself to be anything that you feel like the judges would like, or the audience would like, or whatever the case may be. Be the best you you can be. That’s—in the simplest form—the best advice I can give.
We had some additional winners at this year's Poetry Out Loud—two students who won prizes for their original work in our 50th anniversary Poetry Ourselves competiton for #POL16 State Champions. Meet the students and check out their winning words here.