Meet Anita Norman, #POL14 National Champion!


by Paulette Beete
POL14 National Champ Anita Norman
2014 Poetry Out Loud National Champion Anita Norman of Tennessee. Photo by James Kegley

You know what they say: in the end there can be only one. And at the end of the two-day 2014 Poetry Out Loud National Finals, that one was Anita Norman of Arlington, Tennessee. With bold, confident recitations of poems by Stanley Kunitz, Robert Hayden, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, the Arlington High School junior earned the top spot out of the approximately 365,000 student-competitors who participated in the program this year. (Ohio's Lake Wilburn took second place, followed by New Jersey's Natasha Simone Vargas.) After Norman's second recitation--Hayden's "Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday"--emcee Neda Ulaby asked what she'd remember most about the experience. Norman replied, "This trumps everything." Norman's winnings include a $20,000 award and $500 for her school to purchase poetry books for its library. And major-league bragging rights, of course.

Want to check out Norman's award-winning skills in action? Here's her recitation of "Let the Light Enter" by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. (Click through for the text of the poem.)

Poetry Out Loud: Recitation by Anita Norman

A partnership among the NEA, the Poetry Foundation, and the state arts agencies, Poetry Out Loud encourages the nation's youth to learn about great poetry through memorization and recitation. This program helps students master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about their literary heritage. Visit poetryoutloud.org to learn more about the competition structure and browse the anthology of poems.

I chose "The Layers" by Stanley Kunitz because I think each poem that any person recites should make a statement and it should be a piece of who you are. And I know I'm kind of in this period, I'm trying to choose, like, what am I going to do? What is life about? What does it look like? What are some of the struggles that I'm not anticipating but that are gonna pop up and how do I overcome these things? And I think it's a powerful thing to make a statement on stage and Stanley Kunitz made that statement for me and I get to breathe his life into my life and how it all relates and comes full circle. Because we all go through things, and how you choose to come through them is really powerful.

I chose "Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday" by Robert Hayden because it tells a fantastic story. It's about a woman and she was a singer at church. And for anybody who's attended church and has experienced the choir and what that does to the worshippers in the sanctuary, the lead singer of the choir, this particular woman, she stole the show. She was very, very powerful, angelic voice and she's shot by her lover and how are the church members going to come to grips with her death? Pretty much each stanza ends with "Who would have thought she'd end that way?" It's an interesting take on what she did and what they've lost and it just asks a question: "What does that look like?" "What does it make you feel?" For some the message may be less personal but I know music has played a big part in my life, I really appreciate music, and I appreciate and enjoy going to church. And when I read the poem I connected with some of the terms used, how this woman was depicted because all of my family members go to church and we have a small family church at home and everybody gets up to sing. Everybody can sing, can play some kind of instrument. I liked that when I said this poem, no matter where I am or what I'm thinking about, I feel like I'm at home.

I think there's a huge difference between memorizing a poem and saying a poem because when you just read it, you know, you connect with the words on a literal level. You may pick up on some of the undertones but you get this appreciation of the poem when you read it. When you start to memorize it, you internalize it. It becomes a part of you and you're able to take in the words but you're also able to add a little bit of yourself to it. So when you memorize it, you do pick up on those undertones and you have to focus on, you know, what is this particular phrase mean because when you say it it has to mean something, just like, you know, when you speak what you say is not just fluff. Though you appreciate the text when you read it, it really does-- it sounds so cliche-- but it comes to life when you memorize it because it's no longer on paper, it's a part of you. So when you say it, and you've had it memorized for some time, it becomes less performancy, if you're just reading it, it's really a giving of yourself. And a direct, direct connection with the words rather than the paper.

I come to poetry because I like storytelling. I appreciate, you know, what words does to people and how you can hold people, in your hands, literally, you know, they're trying to hear your every word. So, I come to poetry with an appreciation of literature, I've always been a big reader, and an appreciation of the story, but the performance aspect came after a Communications class and my teacher showed this video and she was like, "Look what you can do with words." And I liked how, you know, performance, if you say a monologue, it's not really somebody else's words--it's somebody else's words but you're performing it as the character. But with Poetry Out Loud in particular, you're sharing the story of somebody else and their thoughts. And of course you put yourself in it but it's not the same as theater, so I appreciated the difference in recitation and acting. And then I've always loved poetry so I really think they mesh really great together.