Anita Norman of Arlington, TN takes first place in the final competition of National Endowment for the Art’s Poetry Out Loud, April 30, 2014 in Washington DC.

derrickAnita Norman, a junior at Arlington High School won first place in last night’s ninth annual National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Poetry Out Loud National Championship, edging out every other state champion to win the $20,000 grand prize and $500 for her school to purchase poetry books for its library. She will serve as the NEA’s Poetry Out Loud ambassador for the coming year.

The competition began with 565,000 participants across the country. Last night’s event opened with nine finalists, all state champions who recited two poems each before the field was narrowed to Norman, Natasha Vargas of New Jersey and Lake Wilburn of Ohio. After Norman’s recitation of Hayden’s "Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday,” emcee Neda Ulaby, NPR Arts reporter, asked what Norman would remember most about her visit to the capitol. "This trumps everything,” she replied.

Norman worked hard to become the nation’s champion. She began competing in 2012 as a freshman. That year, Norman won the Tennessee State championship and made her first appearance at the national competition. In 2013 as a sophomore, Norman lost the state competition, coming in second. However, Norman plunged back in again this year and took home the Tennessee State Championship on March 15, 2014.

Norman has invested a great deal of herself into getting this far, but also knows she hasn’t done it alone. Norman commented after winning the state championship, “I am so blessed with fantastic parents and a wonderful teacher who works around the clock with me.” She was coached by her teacher, Anne Terry who is in her eleventh year of teaching at Arlington High School. Terry says she enjoys helping her students connect with the universal human experience through poetry.

The Tennessee Arts Commission is the state arts agency that partners with the NEA and Poetry Foundation to bring Poetry Out Loud to Tennessee. Anne B. Pope, Executive Director of the Tennessee Arts Commission commented, “It has been a privilege to watch Anita grow in her performance these past three years. She has such a remarkable talent, but we have also seen her dedication and determination that make her a true champion. We are so proud of her and of all the 8,000 students who competed in the competition across Tennessee.”

Norman recited poems by Robert Hayden, Stanley Kunitz and George Moses Horton. “I think there's a huge difference between memorizing a poem and saying a poem because when you just read it, 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,” said Norman, in an interview after the competition by the NEA’s audio producer, Josephine Reed. “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.”

The other national finalists represented high schools from Idaho, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, Texas, New Jersey, Washington State and West Virginia.

A partnership among the National Endowment for the Arts, 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.