Virginia Beach teen wins big at national poetry competition

Akhei Togun
First place winner: 17-year-old Akhei Togun of Virginia Beach, Virginia. (WTOP/Michelle Basch)

Ahkei Togun
First place winner Ahkei Togun during his winning performance of “Bereavement” by William Lisle Bowles. (Courtesy National Endowment for the Arts/James Kegley)

First place winner: 17-year-old Akhei Togun of Virginia Beach, Virginia. (National Endowment for the Arts/James Kegley)
First place winner is 17-year-old Akhei Togun of Virginia Beach, Virginia. (National Endowment for the Arts/James Kegley)

Second place winner: Marta Palombo from Georgia. (WTOP/Michelle Basch)
Second place winner is Marta Palombo from Georgia. (WTOP/Michelle Basch)

Third place winner: Nicholas Amador of Honolulu, Hawaii during his performance. (National Endowment for the Arts/James Kegley)
Third place winner Nicholas Amador of Honolulu is seen during his performance. (Courtesy National Endowment for the Arts/James Kegley)

The 53 competitors of the 2016 Poetry Out Loud National Finals. (National Endowment for the Arts/James Kegley)
There were 53 competitors in the 2016 Poetry Out Loud National Finals. (Courtesy National Endowment for the Arts/James Kegley)

(1/6)
Akhei Togun
Ahkei Togun
First place winner: 17-year-old Akhei Togun of Virginia Beach, Virginia. (National Endowment for the Arts/James Kegley)
Second place winner: Marta Palombo from Georgia. (WTOP/Michelle Basch)
Third place winner: Nicholas Amador of Honolulu, Hawaii during his performance. (National Endowment for the Arts/James Kegley)
The 53 competitors of the 2016 Poetry Out Loud National Finals. (National Endowment for the Arts/James Kegley)

WASHINGTON — His powerful onstage performance just earned a 17-year-old from Virginia a national championship.

November 29, 2020 | (Teta Alim)

Akhei Togun of Virginia Beach won the 11th annual Poetry Out Loud National Poetry Recitation Contest and its top prize of $20,000. He recited “Bereavement” by William Lisle Bowles in the final round on May 4 at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium.

Second place went to 18-year-old Marta Palombo from Alpharetta, Georgia, and 15-year-old Nicholas Amador of Honolulu followed in third place.

November 29, 2020 | (Teta Alim)

High school students choose a poem from a list of more than 900, memorize it and recite it as part of the contest created by the National Endowment of the Arts and the Poetry Foundation.

Competition begins in individual classrooms with winners moving on to compete in their school, in their state and then on the national level. Students from D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands can also take part.

Last year, Togun earned an honorable mention at the national competition, so this year he worked to improve.

“I felt like I wanted to go out with a bang, because I’m a senior,” he told WTOP after his win. “So that didn’t necessarily mean being No. 1; it just meant, to me, leaving it all out on the stage and being the best I can be.”

Togun says he was already involved in acting when a teacher assigned him to take part in Poetry Out Loud.

“They were like, ‘Wait a minute, you’re really good.’ So I kept moving forward,” he said.

“I started to build a passion for it myself and every year excluding my sophomore year … it was just like I want to do it, I’ve got to do it when it’s Poetry Out Loud season. For me, it was just like sports.”

For competition he likes to choose at least one fun poem, as well as one that reminds him of a personal experience.

“The first part of the job is to learn the words,” he added. “After you learn the words, it’s just letting them flow out of you in a way that resonates not only with you, but again with the audience.”

Togun writes his own poetry and urges anyone unfamiliar with the art form not to be afraid of it.

“I do believe that there’s a poem for everyone. So I would say for people who may doubt poetry right now: maybe you just haven’t found your poem yet,” he said.

He will attend The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City for acting, but he’s not sure exactly what he wants to do yet.

“I’m just letting God pave the way,” he said.

November 29, 2020 | (Teta Alim)

Watch Togun recite “I’m a Fool to Love You” by Cornelius Eady at the 2016 National Poetry Out Loud competition, May 3, 2016:

Like WTOP on Facebook and follow @WTOP on Twitter to engage in conversation about this article and others.

Get breaking news and daily headlines delivered to your email inbox by signing up here.

© 2020 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up