Poetry Out Loud National Champion (Washington, DC)

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  A young man gestures while  reciting at the microphone.  He has one hand on his hip and the other pointing to the side.  A stage backdrop reads: POETRY OUT LOUD National Recitation Contest

Jackson Hille of Ohio, the first national Poetry Out Loud champion, performs during the May 16 finals in Washington, D.C. Photo by James Kegley

Ohio high school senior Jackson Hille was the first winner of Poetry Out Loud, a national poetry recitation contest by the NEA in partnership with the Poetry Foundation. Hille took top honors after competing against state champions from all 50 states and the District of Columbia at a May 16th finals competition held in Washington, D.C.

NEA: How did you get involved in Poetry Out Loud?

Hille: I was first introduced to Poetry Out Loud as a class assignment that gave me the opportunity to earn 25 sorely needed extra credit points in my AP Literature/Language class. My teacher, Lynn Darke, is rather persuasive, and she convinced me to continue after I did well in the school competition

NEA: How did you choose the poems you recited in competition?

Hille: Well, I'm an actor, and in theater auditions it's best to have monologues that play to your strengths, that you have a special connection with, and that show a variety of topics and time periods. I chose my poems based on the same standards. My poems all had a way of using humor to deal with a more serious underlying topic, which is a trick I use to stay sane too.

NEA: Recitation styles at the finals ranged from highly theatrical to very understated. How did you develop your performance?

Hille: The competition breakdown I received said in giant flaming letters that THIS IS NOT A THEATRICAL PERFORMANCE. With that in mind I really took as much of the "acting" out of the performance as possible. I tried to think of myself as a bridge between the poet's words and the audience (in a way I took the place of the ink and paper), and I just tried my best to keep my personal flair out of the equation.

NEA: How have your feelings about poetry changed since being involved in Poetry Out Loud?

Hille: Before the competition poetry was, to me, strictly for bedtime stories for kids. I had never taken a poem seriously outside of a literature class before. As the competition went on and I started to have a stronger connection to those poems that I had memorized, I changed that opinion almost completely (they are still great bedtime stories). I'm really not sure how poetry will be a part of my life from here on out, but I know it will be a part. [Poetry is] something that I've come to love,and I'll incorporate it into whatever I do.

NEA: What is the most important thing that you’ve gained from participating in the program?

Hille: Other than $20,000 I would have to say the relationship I gained with "my" poems. They're always going to be with me from now on, their meanings and the memories of the competition. It's like being able to remember every word of your favorite book and dive into it anytime.

NEA: Do you have a favorite part of the trip to Washington, D.C. for the finals?

Hille: The banquet we had on Monday night that was meant to be an introduction to the finals and the other finalists. The dinner was so ridiculously tense for me that all I can do is laugh about it. I didn't know anyone, had no idea what I was up against, and thought everyone was glaring at me for not wearing nice enough clothes (I was a bit under-dressed after a day of travel). The funny part was that that banquet was the hardest part of the whole trip. The next day the tension was gone, and I was able to get to be friends with everyone I met. It was not at all what I had expected.

NEA: How did you feel when they announced your name as the national winner?

Hille: Relieved. All I could think of before they called me was how many awkward phone calls I was going to have to make telling everyone that I didn't win. Once they called my name I was so taken aback that it took about two hours to fully realize what had happened.

NEA: Is there anything you wish the media had asked you after your win that they didn’t?

Hille: Well, I certainly would have liked a chance to thank the academy, if only for laughs, but they never did ask me about my family or my teachers. I understand that they may have just wanted to get the winner and the coordinators, but I think that I should give credit where credit is due. Both of my teachers, Jamie Foley and Lynn Darke, were amazingly supportive, and my family deserves thanks just for putting up with me for 18 years. So I wish I had had a chance to get their names mentioned and not just mine. Beyond that I was asked most every question under the sun, so I think I can be satisfied now.

To learn more about Poetry Out Loud see our POL section.