Nine Student Finalists Compete for $50,000 at the 2013 Poetry Out Loud National Finals

Actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith hosts

April 30, 2013

WASHINGTON, DC — Nine high school students vie for the title of Poetry Out Loud National Champion and a $20,000 award at The George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium in Washington, DC tonight. The nine students advanced from yesterday’s semifinals, at which 53 students from every state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, competed. Some 375,000 high school students participated in Poetry Out Loud contests in classrooms nationwide this year. A total of $50,000 will be awarded Tuesday evening to the finalists and their schools. 

The nine finalists are:

  • Illinois State Champion Rapheal Mathis (Plainfield East High School, Plainfield, IL)
  • Maryland State Champion Blessed Sheriff (Richard Montgomery High School, Rockville, MD)
  • Minnesota State Champion Oluwatosin Oyeyemi Ajagbe (Woodbury High School, Woodbury, MN)
  • Nebraska State Champion Russell Heitman (Thayer Central Community Schools, Hebron, NE)
  • New Jersey State Champion Kavita Oza (Peddie School, Hightstown, NJ)
  • Oklahoma State Champion Denise L. Burns (Lawton High School, Lawton, Oklahoma)
  • Texas State Champion Maria Jose Zuniga (Coppell High School, Coppell, TX)
  • Washington State Champion Langston Ward (Mead High School, Spokane, WA)
  • Virgin Islands State Champion Josae Martin (St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands)

During tonight’s competition, all nine finalists will compete in two rounds of recitation, presenting both classic and contemporary poems. The top three contestants will advance to recite a third poem, and the student with the highest scores from all three rounds will be named Poetry Out Loud National Champion. 

Actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith hosts the Poetry Out Loud National Finals and cellist Ben Sollee performs. Featured speakers include Poetry Foundation program director Stephen Young and NEA acting chairman Joan Shigekawa. National Finals guest judges are poets Eduardo C. Corral and Patricia Smith, professional sign language interpreter Kevin Dyels, BBC journalist Jane O’Brien, and executive director of Richard Hugo House Tree Swenson.

The Poetry Out Loud National Finals take place Tuesday, April 30, 7:00 to 9:15 p.m., at The George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st Street NW, Washington, DC. The Poetry Out Loud National Finals are free and open to the public; no tickets or reservations are required. The event will offer ASL interpretation. The finals can be viewed remotely through a live, one-time only webcast.

Photo and interview opportunities with finalists are offered before the event from 6:00 to 6:30 p.m.; finalists and judges are also available onstage after the event, 9:15 to 9:45 p.m.

Video crews covering the Tuesday night National Finals must arrive by 6:45 p.m. to reserve a space.

Follow Poetry Out Loud on Twitter at @PoetryOutLoud and @NEAarts, hashtag #POLnews. For more information on the event, webcast, or viewing parties, visit or call 202.682.5606. More information is available at

* * *

Poetry Out Loud Partnerships
The National Finals are the culmination of efforts by many partners. As national partners, the NEA and the Poetry Foundation have contributed support for administration of the program, educational materials, and awards for both the state and national finals. State arts agencies have implemented the program in high schools nationwide and organized state competitions, often in collaboration with local arts organizations. The Poetry Out Loud National Finals are administered by Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation.

Schools interested in registering for the 2013-2014 Poetry Out Loud contest should contact their state arts agency. More information is available at

Educational Materials
The NEA and the Poetry Foundation provide free, standards-based curriculum materials for Poetry Out Loud, which include poetry anthologies containing more than 650 classic and contemporary poems, a teacher’s guide, video footage of performances from the National Finals, and audio tracks about the art of recitation. Schools are welcome to download these resources at

Contests and Awards
Using a pyramid structure, Poetry Out Loud started with classroom and school-wide activities and contests between September 2012 and February 2013. State contests were held by mid-March; the 53 champions of contests in every state, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Washington, DC compete at the National Finals. The Poetry Out Loud National Finals will present a total of $50,000 in awards and school stipends for the purchase of poetry books. Awards include $20,000 for the Poetry Out Loud National Champion, and $10,000 and $5,000 for the second- and third-place finalists. At the state-level finals the champion, runner-up, and their schools received $1,000 in cash awards. In total, Poetry Out Loud will award more than $100,000 to state- and national-level winners.


About the Poetry Foundation
The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, is an independent literary organization committed to a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture. It exists to discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience. The Poetry Foundation seeks to be a leader in shaping a receptive climate for poetry by developing new audiences, creating new avenues for delivery, and encouraging new kinds of poetry through innovative partnerships, prizes, and programs. For more information, please visit

About the National Endowment for the Arts
The National Endowment for the Arts was established by Congress in 1965 as an independent agency of the federal government. To date, the NEA has awarded more than $4 billion to support artistic excellence, creativity, and innovation for the benefit of individuals and communities. The NEA extends its work through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector. To join the discussion on how art works, visit the NEA at

About Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation
Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation develops partnerships and programs that reinforce artists’ capacity to create and present work, advance access to and participation in the arts, and promote a more sustainable arts ecology.

Follow the Poetry Foundation and Poetry on Facebook at or on Twitter @PoetryFound.

POETRY FOUNDATION | 61 West Superior St. | Chicago, IL 60611 | 312.787.7070 | Media Contact: Kristin Gecan, 312.799.8065;

What People are Saying

"Poetry Out Loud helped me gain confidence in myself. I'm usually quite shy, but memorizing and performing poems and meeting new people along the way has given me confidence that I will always carry with me."
Raina Verser
2017 AL POL Champion