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SMA Sophomore, Belise Nishimwe, Wins Oregon's Poetry Out Loud championship


"This is everyone’s victory,” said St. Mary's Academy sophomore, Belise Nishimwe, after being announced winner of Oregon's Poetry Out Loud championship early last month at the state's capital in Salem, Oregon. Belise was one of nine regional finalists who competed at the state Poetry Out Loud event at Salem Public Library and will advance in the national Poetry Out Loud competition in Washington D.C. at the end of April with over 50 other students from across the country.

Extremely passionate about social justice and law especially as it pertains to immigrants and their rights, Belise was born and lived in a refugee camp in Tanzania until the age of five, when she and her family moved to America through Catholic Charities. Now a U.S. citizen, she has dedicated herself to be someone who can create a platform that gives voice to immigrants and refugees and the representation they need.

“I want to represent refugees and immigrants in a good light. I wanted to do Poetry Out Loud because when I was younger I wanted that representation that I rarely ever saw. I wanted to see other immigrants like me participate in a variety of activities and succeed, so that I could know that I could achieve that too,” said Belise.

The poems Belise presented at the state contest were: “Love’s Philosophy” by Percy Bysshe Shelley; “If We Must Die,” by Claude McKay; and “Worth” by Marilyn Nelson.

“When I listened to Belise deliver poetry to a silent room I recognized her genius is a combination of skill and courage,” said Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford, who attended and presented at the state contest. “Poetry comes up from the earth through her voice to the world.”

“Belise’s poise, power and presence make her an outstanding representative for Oregon at the national contest,” said Deb Vaughn, Arts Commission arts education/Poetry Out Loud coordinator. “We are thrilled to watch her shine among her peers in Washington D.C. next month.”

"While other competitors recited their poems with polish and flair, Belise performed as though the poet’s words were her own.  This is a very difficult thing to accomplish – especially with poetry from the 19th century.  Belise’s performance was impressive, but I am especially proud of the way she has navigated her wins with grace and humility, choosing to “share” her victory with other immigrants and refugees who may not have had the same opportunities as she.  In this way, she embodies the values of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary,” described SMA librarian, Ellie Gilbert, who also helped prepare Belise for the competition.

Poetry Out Loud is a national recitation contest for high school students, organized in Oregon by the Oregon Arts Commission in collaboration with the NEA and the Poetry Foundation. Participants memorize and present poems, practicing public speaking skills while exploring the complexity of poetry.

To watch Belise's award-winning poetry recital, click here.