NEA Arts Magazine

AMBER ROSE JOHNSON

2010 Poetry Out Loud National Champion from Providence, Rhode Island

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Amber Rose Johnson

Photo by James Kegley

Amber Rose Johnson was in her junior year at Classical High School in Providence, Rhode Island, when she took top honors at the 2010 National Finals. Today she's a freshman at Tufts University, just outside of Boston, now studying education policy and critical race theory. Johnson's pretty clear on what she plans to do next. "After college, I would love to do education reform on a national level, particularly working to close opportunity and achievement gaps." Not surprising for a young woman who cites this Rumi quote as one of her favorites: "Set your world on fire. Seek those who fan your flame." Currently, she also is coaching a high school poetry slam team in Boston for the first annual Massachusetts Louder Than a Bomb Festival and Competition.

NEA: What lessons have you learned from your experience with Poetry Out Loud?

AMBER ROSE JOHNSON: Having competed in Poetry Out Loud for two years, then returning the following year to pass off the title, I have learned something so valuable and particular to each experience. The first year I began to understand what it truly meant to stand behind someone. Having gone to nationals with such confidence that I would win that year, not hearing your name called for the announcement of who will advance was devastating. Each competitor is then faced with a choice of being upset or moving beyond that disappointment to support the individuals who do advance. After being elevated by the praise of becoming the state champion, I learned a lesson of humility and grace as I cheered Will Farley on to win his champion title.

The year I won the National Finals is overflowing with precious moments and lessons, from the time I began memorizing my first poem up until the very last day I could still be called the current champion. It would be impossible to choose only one. I was blessed with the opportunity to travel with my family to Mississippi to the Margaret Walker Research Center to perform her poem, "For My People," at the center's Martin Luther King celebration. Also during that trip I was able to visit a few schools in Mississippi, and speak with students who may not have ever seen anyone their age reciting the works of Shakespeare or [Nikki] Giovanni. In those moments, I learned that winning a title has only a small percentage to do with the individual once the title is won. From that point on, it is about how to use that recognition, talent, or resource to benefit someone else.

Lastly, when it was time for me to pass off the title (which is harder than you may think!), I learned so much about myself. For the last year, I had been valued as the Poetry Out Loud National Champion. It is very hard to separate yourself from something that has not only meant so much to you but in some ways defined you. It takes grace, courage, and confidence to be able to move away from something you loved, and into a new season of your life.

NEA: Would you have changed anything about your POL experience?

JOHNSON: I would not change a single thing about my Poetry Out Loud experience. Even the failures or slips I may have had contributed to the triumph I felt when they called my name as the winner. I have so many fantastic memories. One of the best actually took place in my own living room before I got to nationals the second year. Day after day my sister, Sarah Ashley, coached me on my poems. Although we were serious about the work, and sometimes got upset with each other, we have so many silly memories! I still have videos of us trying to practice the poems at midnight or 1 a.m. when even Shakespeare couldn't get us to stop cracking up. Another favorite memory would be the last night of my first year competition. I must've had nine or ten other state champions in my room, and we had our own mini after-party. Two of those champions became my best friends. I'm absolutely positive that they all remember that night too. POL is not only about the moments on stage; it's about the community that is built when the curtain is closed.

NEA: What advice would you give future participants?

Johnson: Enjoy the ride. Yes, being on stage is important of course, but it is not the only important part. Love every moment of working with your coach, choose each poem carefully with your heart, soak up the energy of the other competitors, stay humble, and OWN it.

NEA: Do you still remember your poems?

JOHNSON: After living, sleeping, and breathing them for so long, it would be quite hard to forget. In fact, my entire family remembers my poems. When we get nostalgic we like to recite them together. The poems that I competed with were "For My People" by Margaret Walker, "Walking Down Park" by Nikki Giovanni, Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare, "The Minefield" by Diane Thiel, "Lincoln Man of the People" by Edwin Markham, "If" by Rudyard Kipling, "Phenomenal Woman" by Maya Angelou, and "Gitanjali 35" by Rabindranath Tagore. This is a compilation of poems that I did at the school, state, and national level. I remember each one! These poems mean so much to me; I will never forget them.