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Grizzlies Poetry Slam winner becomes National Champion

On a national stage, fielded from 365,000 participants, seventeen-year-old Anita Norman of Arlington, Tenn. stood alongside nine other teens to match their skills in reciting classic and contemporary poetry for the title of 2014 National Poetry Out Loud Champion and a $20,000 award. Before claiming the crown as National Champion, Norman competed locally in the Fourth Annual Grizzlies Poetry Slam on February 18.

The Arlington High School junior is now equipped with a national, state, and high school Poetry Out Loud title, and has a bull’s-eye on applying early action to Yale University in August to study juvenile law and educational policy, and maybe even start her own clothing line on the side. As a secondary plan, if she doesn’t get into Yale she plans to apply to Vanderbilt, Rhodes, Rice and the University of Chicago.
Suddenly Norman doesn’t seem so seventeen anymore.

“There’s never been an excuse to not do your best, right?” she said.

She doesn’t sound seventeen either. The judges at the 2014 National Poetry Out Loud Finals were also impressed by Norman’s rhetoric as she took top honors in a highly competitive field of 365,000 high school students vying for the top spot and the chance to compete in the two-day competition in Washington D.C.

Poetry Out Loud was created by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and Poetry Foundation and holds a yearly national poetry recitation competition to encourage students to learn about great poetry through recitation and memorization, in an effort to enhance students’ public speaking skills and to build self-confidence.

An avid book reader and poetry buff, scouring the works of Maya Angelou, June Jordan and Langston Hughes, Norman was influenced by her communications teacher at Arlington High School to enter the contest. She quickly rose through the ranks in 2013-14, winning the Arlington High School Poetry Out Loud title and State of Tennessee title before she started prepping for Nationals.


During her prep, Norman stumbled upon the Memphis Grizzlies Fourth Annual Poetry Slam competition and decided to compete in a different oratory form. The Poetry Slam differs from the Poetry Out Loud program by encouraging students to combine creativity and composition in their own original works, often called ‘Spoken Word,’ under the Slam’s theme of “Greater Memphis.” Norman delivered her own “Mama Memphis” piece, comparing the city of Memphis to a mother giving birth. Students from across the Mid-South presented their original lyrics with Norman taking the top spot and a two-year scholarship (equivalent to over $7,000) to Southwest Community College and a trip to New York City from the Grizzlies.

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“I really enjoyed being able to see a different side of myself in the Memphis Grizzlies Poetry Slam. Spoken Word lives a little more with attitude and it’s funky,” said Norman. “Spoken word is a great motivation because Poetry Out Loud is a little different. I got to kind of come out of my box in the Grizzlies’ Poetry Slam.  You have to hold it in during Poetry Out Loud, but the Spoken Word world is very inspirational for creativity because of its social and activism type movements. I’ve had a plethora of motivation in this experience.”
Riding her highs and titles, Norman made it to Washington D.C. where she would face three different rounds of recitations before clinching her title. She would also face her intense stage fright – which you’d never suspect if you talked to her – but she relied on her experiences with her family to get her through the spotlights, shakes and sweats.
Norman and her family are heavily involved in a small family church, and while growing up, speaking or singing at church was always a requirement. When she gets nervous, Norman recalls her great-grandmother’s excellent storytelling skills in order to understand and observe what good recitation looks like.

She stepped on the stage in Washington D.C. on April 30 and recited her final poem, "Let the Light Enter" by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and aces it with a perfect, bold recitation, before being crowned champion. Stage fright was never evident.

“I just focus on my goal and the story I’m going to tell. Then it’s OK, because I don’t have to be myself when I immerse myself into the story of someone else.

“The main goal of the program is to share the work of the author. The piece itself is a character. The character seems dead, just there on the page. But of course it’s alive, it’s on a page, it breathes. But if the words are dead on the paper, then the person who is reading it aloud gets the opportunity to bring the piece to life. The performer gets to give CPR to the poem.” Norman said.
So what’s next for the soon-to-be high school senior? She’ll serve as an Ambassador for the Poetry Out Loud program, but she’s ready for a new challenge, a new challenge with a little more, as she calls it, funk and attitude. Norman plans to focus on writing poetry so she can get more involved in the Spoken Word world.

“I don’t think winning this competition sets me apart from anyone. I just found something I like. I’m like other kids, I’m afraid of expressing myself, but the Poetry Out Loud competition taught me that it’s okay to be a little bit weird. It’s okay to be yourself. We’re not supposed to be carbon copies of each other. The different types of poetry competitions that I’ve been in have taught me that I have to dream on the biggest level. I may never be Oprah or President Obama, but the accolades don’t matter. As long as we know they’re there and they exist, it pushes us to something greater. You just have to discover your niche, and be a nut about it.”

To learn more about the Poetry Out Loud program visit