Willow Peyton finds ‘The Poem You’ve Been Waiting For’ on her way to Poetry Out Loud state title

By Matthew Young, RealWV

“I have been twisting and turning across these lifetimes where forgetting me is what you do so you don’t have to look at yourself.

I saw that I would drown in a creek carved out of a field, our incarnations forged the first path through to those mountains.

I invited you to stroll with me there again for the first time, to pause and sprawl in the grass while I read to you the poem you hadn’t known you’d been waiting to hear.”

Those words were written by poet Tarfia Faizullah. 

On Saturday however, they were spoken by St. Mary’s High School senior Willow Peyton on stage before friends, family, well-wishers, strangers, and judges at Charleston’s Culture Center Theatre during the 2024 West Virginia Poetry Out Loud state finals. And while Faizullah’s “The Poem You’ve Been Waiting For” was Peyton’s final recitation, it was one of three the 2023 runner-up performed over two days of competition, and the last step on her way to becoming 2024’s state champion. 

“I’m thrilled, I’m humbled, and I’m just so excited,” Peyton told RealWV at the conclusion of the competition. 

Not only was Willow Peyton runner-up in 2023, but in 2022 as well. Both years Peyton stepped back as two-time state champion Morgan Sprouse represented West Virginia at the Poetry Out Loud national finals in Washington, D.C. 

But this year, Peyton was simply undeniable. Her poise, delivery, and feeling for the material was uncanny. And much like the final line from her second poem, “How to Triumph Like A Girl,” by Ada Limón, Peyton thought – no, she knew – she was going to come in first.

“It’s a huge honor to finally have the opportunity to represent West Virginia on a national level,” Peyton noted, perhaps too humbled to realize that it is the state’s honor to have her representing us.

In fact, West Virginia is honored by all of our Poetry Out Loud participants, whether they made it to the state finals or not. With the support and guidance of dedicated teachers, students work for months to learn these poems and master the recitations, and that’s all before taking that final leap of faith by putting their vulnerability out into the world. 

Created in 2005 through a partnership of the Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, Poetry Out Loud helps students develop confidence in themselves, and teaches them both the nuances of literary history and the complexities of contemporary life. In the 19 years since its inception, Poetry Out Loud has grown to encompass every corner of the United States and its territories, and has positively impacted more than 4.3 million students and 76,000 teachers from 19,000 different schools and organizations. 

“My heavens, it’s always such an inspiration to just hear the kids recite these poems and bring this poetry to life,” West Virginia Poet Laureate Marc Harshman, who served as a judge for the competition, told RealWV. “They’re so young, and yet they deliver these poems with passion and intelligence.”

“You can’t help but to admire the young people of West Virginia when you see them at this Poetry Out Loud competition,” Harshman added. 

Champions from 46 West Virginia high schools competed in the state finals, with the top 10 finalists being announced to begin the second day of competition. 

In addition to Peyton, West Virginia’s finalists in the 2024 Poetry Out Loud competition were Isaiah Canterbury of Capital High School, Jordyn Floyd of Oak Hill High School, Christian Montgomery of Greenbrier East High School, Hunter Hook of Berkeley Springs High School, Carson Misch of Woodrow Wilson High School, Tara Leigh Rice of Philip Barbour High School, Jay Scott of  Bridgeport High School, and Alexa Swyck of Grafton High School. John Spellman of Morgantown High School was 2024’s runner-up.

“I was amazed by the kid’s performances and the amount of poise that they have,” writer and poet Sarah Elkins, who also served as a judge, said after the competition. “When they really landed it, when you knew that they really knew the poem that they were reciting, it would floor me.”

Additional judges for the state finals included writer and owner of Mother Wit Writing and Design, Colleen Anderson; novelist and author of “In the Language of Miracles,” Rajia Hassib; poet, translator, lyricist and photographer Randi Ward; and poet, editor, and author of “Bone Music and Body Memory,” Joel Peckham. 

Maggie Holley, education director with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, once again hosted Friday’s competition, while Bill Lepp, host of “Man vs. History” on the History Channel, returned to host on Saturday. 

Dr. Ray Singleton performed guitar interludes in between student recitations, and Appalachian Soul Man Aristotle Jones brought his blend of folksy stories and soulful music to the stage for a five song mini-concert. 

“The enthusiasm of all the young poets, and the dedication to their craft and their art was just so surprising,” Jones told RealWV. “I’m just happy for the future of West Virginia, and the creative scene. I think they’re both in good hands with these kids.”

Willow Peyton will now compete in the Poetry Out Loud national finals, which are scheduled to begin on April 1. To learn more about Poetry Out Loud, visit wvculture.org, or poetryoutloud.org

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