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Male student in blue shirt standing in front of mic on stage with a large sign behind him.

The first Poetry Out Loud National Champion in 2006, Jackson Hille from Columbus, Ohio. Photo by James Kegley

In 2005, the National Endowment of the Arts, in partnership with the Poetry Foundation, held a pilot program for a new initiative, Poetry Out Loud, a poetry contest involving memorization and recitation, in Washington, DC, and Chicago, Illinois. The success of the pilot led to a launch of the program nationwide the next year in partnership with the state arts agencies.

The contest helps build the confidence and public speaking skills of millions of high school students every year through the art of poetry and is the largest contest of its kind in the United States. The first stage of Poetry Out Loud begins in high school classrooms. A school-wide competition follows, then a regional or state competition, and finally the National Finals in Washington, DC, which draws large crowds both in person at the competition as well as digitally through live webcasts.

Benefits of participating in the program include cash prizes for the winners comprising $200 to state winners and an all-expenses-paid trip for the student as well as chaperon. The student’s school benefits financially as well with a $500 stipend to supply poetry books. In each state the first runner-up receives an award amount of $100 and a $200 stipend for their school library. Annually at the National Finals, the amount total reaches $50,000 in awards and school stipends. The program celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2015, noting that nearly three million students from 9,500 schools had participated in the program.

In addition to the monetary rewards the winners receive bragging rights, but more importantly, they gain a life changing experience that is invaluable. “Poetry Out Loud has given me the opportunity to be able to speak up as a person, to be able to get the message across, which, to me, is my experiences coming from an immigrant family and all the hardships we've faced,” said 2015 Poetry Out Loud National Champion Maeva Ordaz from Anchorage, Alaska, who won the contest from a field of more than 365,000 students nationwide. “Even though I may be reciting a poem from Keats from several hundred years ago, I am still able to connect with that. It ties me into the rest of humanity and all the writers who've come before me.”