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WATCH: Poetry Out Loud 2020 State Finals

The power of language is celebrated across the Commonwealth each year at schools that participate in Poetry Out Loud, a national arts education program. High school students work to master public speaking skills, build self-confidence and learn about literary heritage through classical and contemporary works of poetry. The program includes a recitation competition that begins in the classroom, progresses to regional and state finals, and typically ends with the naming of a national champion. The program is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, Poetry Foundation and locally by the Virginia Commission for the Arts.

On March 18, the Virginia state finals took place in a virtual world for the first time in 15 years. The annual in-person Poetry Out Loud event diverged from its typical jovial gathering of performers, friends, family members, judges and dignitaries amid concerns about COVID-19. Hosted by Alexandra Wiles from the studios of VPM, the event was transformed into a live-stream on Facebook, during which pre-recorded student performance videos were judged in real-time.

The live-stream opened with Palestinian American writer, poet, editor, and community activist Zeina Azzam reading an original work titled “Leaving My Childhood Home.” Janet Starke, Executive Director of the Virginia Commission for the Arts, shared inspiring words reflective of the current world situation.

Performances were judged on physical presentation, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, level of complexity, evidence of understanding and overall performance and accuracy by: Robert Fields, otherwise known as BlackLiq, an Emcee, Promoter, Teacher and Radio DJ; Suzanne Mallory-Parker, Local Program Director for Turnaround Arts: Richmond, a partnership program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Richmond Public Schools; Ron Smith, former Poet Laureate of Virginia and current Writer-in-Residence at St. Christopher’s School and Poetry Editor for Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature; and Rich Follett, a high school English teacher whose works have been featured in numerous online and print journals for more than 40 years.

State finals competitors: Sam Rooker from Harrisonburg High School; Tani Washington from Deep Run High School; Libby Snowden of Norfolk Collegiate; Piper Won from John Champe High School; Ryan Poquis from Mills E. Godwin High School; Isabella Fernandez from Tallwood High School; Katherine Nguyen of Colonial Forge High School; Mia Shenkman from Washington-Liberty High School; Macie Miller from Alleghany High School; and Nalani Mason from Lake Braddock Secondary.

Katherine Nguyen, a sophomore at Colonial Forge High School, won first prize for a second consecutive year—she is the second student to do so in the Virginia competition's history. While some recitations have been removed for copyright purposes, you can enjoy many of the performances of the 10 young competitors above.

The national competition for 2020 is now canceled but the Poetry Out Loud organization is looking into innovative ways to honor the achievements of this year’s state champions.