Flashback Friday: Reflections From Poetry Out Loud National Champions

By Carolyn Coons

As we gear up for the 2024 Poetry Out Loud National Finals in Washington, D.C. (and streamed virtually on arts.gov!) May 1 and 2, we decided to take a walk down memory lane and revisit our conversations with past POL national champions.

Students always have wonderful things to say about their Poetry Out Loud experience, sharing how meeting fellow competitors, engaging with poetry, and performing on stage has affected their lives. Below, we’ve compiled some reflections from six past champions on what this opportunity meant to them. Check it out, and make sure to mark your calendars for the 2024 National Finals where we will crown the next student who will join this esteemed group! 


A young Indian woman recites poetry behind a microphone

Photo by James Kegley

2023 Poetry Out Loud National Champion   Sreepadaarchana Munjuluri, Indiana

"When I first came into this competition I [thought] 'Oh, it’s just a fun slam-type competition.' Then as it progressed and we went to nationals, meeting that community of people who believe in the power of voice and the power of poetry as a tool to spark discourse over important topics really inspired me to carry literature with me through whatever I do and pursue it in the future." Full interview.


A young white woman recites in front of stacked boxes and a black background

Photo by 5:00 Films & Media

2022 Poetry Out Loud National Champion
Mia Ronn, California

"I think that I learned a lot about how I can use poetry to connect further with myself as a writer—how I can use performance to learn more about the written process. I've always loved writing, but I haven't had quite as much actual experience with it in training as I have had with performance and storytelling. To be able to learn how much the two connect, and how much the two cross over, was really special." Full interview

A young Black man recites behind a microphone

Photo by James Kegley

2013 Poetry Out Loud National Champion  
Langston Ward, Washington

"I wasn't really into poetry before [Poetry Out Loud] even though I'm named after an amazing poet. It wasn't something I was reading or even interested in. But through this classroom requirement it really snuck up on me how much I would connect with these poems and how much poetry would be something I could carry with me for the rest of my life." Full interview.

A young Black woman recites behind a microphone

Photo by James Kegley

2018 Poetry Out Loud National Champion  
Janae Claxton, South Carolina

"A lot of people classify me as being just an athlete. I didn't really like that because I feel like nobody knew the theatrical side of me and nobody knew anything else [about me.] I was just the volleyball player. Becoming a part of Poetry Out Loud opened my identity and helped me shape myself so that I don't just think, 'I'm only good at sports.' I'm also good at poetry, which is something that I always thought was really hard, that I could never understand." Full interview


A young Native American woman recites behind a microphone

Photo by James Kegley

2019 Poetry Out Loud National Champion 
Isabella Callery (Anishinaabe), Minnesota

"Poetry will always stay with me. Most of all, I think that a lot of the public speaking—getting comfortable on a stage—that will really be what I use a lot. And just being able to use poetry as an outlet is always a really beautiful thing." Full interview.


A young Black man recites behind a microphone

Photo by James Kegley

2016 Poetry Out Loud National Champion  
Ahkei Togun, Virginia

"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…" Full interview.