Poetry Out Loud: The Finalists

By Susan Wallner

Seven years ago, Poetry Out Loud – a national high school poetry recitation contest – began in New Jersey with seven schools participating. This year, more than 19,000 students from 108 high schools and one home school association took part in the statewide program. Students choose from classic and contemporary poems, memorize them, and give them dramatic readings. Sometimes, a poem is chosen by more than one student – this year, “The Meaning of the Shovel” by Martín Espada and “Barter” by Sara Teasdale were favorites. Repeat poems are valuable in that they show how much difference a reading can make.

Kristin Tsuo, a junior from The Lawrenceville School, won top honors this year at the New Jersey State Finals. She goes on to compete in the 2012 Poetry Out Loud National Finals, taking place May 13-15 in Washington, D.C. Students will be there from the 50 states, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. It’s a very big deal, with $50,000 worth of prizes and school stipends, and sometimes even the chance to recite before the President.


Kristin Tsuo reading “The Meaning of the Shovel” by Martín Espada

In a poetic twist, Kristin won this year after taking the runner-up spot last year – and last year’s champion, Clarissa Lotson, was chosen as the runner-up this year. Clarissa is a senior at West Orange High School. It’s a hard fought competition, with students often trying year after year to win their classroom, school, and regional contests. The chance to participate in the State Finals, held this year on March 21 at The College of New Jersey and webcast live, is quite an accomplishment.

On May 13, State of the Arts features a story shot during this year’s Poetry Out Loud NJ State Finals. The sense of anticipation is palpable, and the artistry of the readings is impressive. Watch the story on NJTV Sunday at 8 pm, or now in this special State of the Arts preview.


“Poetry Out Loud NJ State Finals 2012” produced by Christopher Benincasa.

You can see each of this year’s eight state finalists, from Vineland to Hoboken, reciting one of their poems in full at You can also see a video of “The Wire” star Frankie Faison reading “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley. It turns out that Faison, one of this year’s judges, learned some of his dramatic skills by reciting poetry as a teen.

Good luck Kristin Tsuo!

Visit Discover Jersey Arts to see videos of the 2012 finalists and for more information about New Jersey’s Poetry Out Loud program.

The Poetry Out Loud national competition gets underway on Monday, May 14 at 9 am with three rounds of semifinals. The main event will be at 7 pm on Tuesday, May 15. Both the semifinals and the finals can be viewed remotely through a one-time-only live webcast.

Susan Wallner is an award-winning producer with PCK Media. She is a long-time contributor to State of the Arts, airing on NJTV Sundays at 8 pm.