Poetry Out Loud state finals come to UArizona

Students competing in Poetry Out Loud's Arizona Finals

Students competing in the 2023 Poetry Out Loud Arizona championships, hosted by The Poetry Center.

Poetry Center

Lovers of the written word and live performance will unite on Saturday when the University of Arizona Poetry Center hosts the Poetry Out Loud state championship. A national arts education program, Poetry Out Loud was developed by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006 to foster public speaking skills, build self confidence and teach about the world through literature.

The Poetry Center was named the administrative center of Poetry Out Loud's Arizona operations last year and is hosting the state finals in-person for the first time after hosting a virtual event in 2022.

"We provide creative laboratories for high school students to engage and develop their voice and critical thinking skills and formulate a love of creative arts – in this case, creative writing and poetry," said Gema Ornelas, Poetry Center K-12 education programs manager and community engagement specialist. "The Poetry Out Loud program positions students to do just that, through performance."

High school-aged students from across the state are invited to participate in the annual poetry performance contest. Arizona is divided into northern, central and southern regions, with faculty and staff from Northern Arizona University and Arizona State University working with the Poetry Center to coordinate their respective regions. Semifinal contests were held in February, and Arizona's overall winner will move on to the national finals held in Washington, D.C., in May. State winners receive $200, and their schools receive $500. Second-place finishers receive $100, as well as $200 for their schools. The national championship hands out a $20,000 first-place award, $10,000 for second place, $5,000 for third place and $1,000 each for fourth through ninth place. The schools of each national finalist receive an additional $500.

Students select three poems to perform for the state competition, chosen from an online anthology provided by Poetry Out Loud. One poem needs to be 25 words or less and another written before the 20th century. The third poem could fill both criteria, allowing participants some flexibility in their performances. Judges are picked from community partners and assess performances based on several criteria: physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, evidence of understanding, overall performance, and accuracy.

Ornelas said a safe space to celebrate a shared, creative art form is not always available to high school students, and she said that Poetry Center staff are proud to offer such an environment.

"There are so many wonderful people that attend, and the joy they receive from these performances is lovely to watch and experience," Ornelas said. "By the time they reach the state finals, these kids have engaged with dozens upon dozens of poems and found the three that really speak to who they are, their identities and what they're going through in that particular moment in their lives. Hearing them not just embody those words but bring them to life for themselves and the audience — that is something I thoroughly enjoy."

The Poetry Out Loud Arizona championship will be held at the Poetry Center, 1508 E. Helen St., from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturday. The event is free and open to the public and will also be livestreamed on Youtube.

Students from the following schools are participating in the state championship:

Southern Region

  • Sahuarita High School (Sahuarita)
  • The Gregory School (Tucson)
  • Rio Rico High School (Rio Rico)

Northern Region

  • Coconino High School (Flagstaff)
  • St. Michael Indian School (St. Michaels)
  • Sedona Red Rock High School (Sedona)

Central Region

  • Alhambra High School (Phoenix)
  • Gary K. Herberger Young Scholars Academy (Phoenix)
  • Shadow Ridge High School (Surprise)

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