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Lincoln Celebration Calls Poetry Out Loud Winner Back to Washington

Sept. 15, 2008 — After winning the national 2008 Poetry Out Loud competition in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, V.I. teenager Shawntay Henry will return to the capital Sept. 22 to perform at "Rise Up and Hear: An Evening of Poetry Honoring Abraham Lincoln's Legacy."
The 16-year-old Charlotte Amalie High School junior, by far the youngest voice, will appear with some very lofty company: former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky, actors Sam Waterson and Joan Allen, widely recognized poet Kevin Young, Poetry Foundation President John Barr, and Steppenwolf Theatre Artistic Director Martha Lavey.
The evening is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, partnering with the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and the Poetry Foundation.
On Monday, Henry said she was "kind of more excited than surprised" by the invitation.
The National Endowment for the Arts "called me at home, inviting me and explaining what the performance was," she said. "I just said 'yes!' and handed the phone to my mother to take care of."
Now the evening is just a week away.
"I'm a little nervous because it's been awhile since I was there before," Henry said." I have to make sure I'm still the same Shawntay, upholding my standards."
Though busy with preparations, Henry hasn't lost sight of life as usual for an active high school student.
"Wednesday and Thursday I'll be at the Community Foundation for our PSAT classes for the Junior and Senior Angels program," she said.
Henry is remarkably poised for her years. She appears regularly at local events, most recently at the Grandparents Day celebration at Emancipation Garden.
"I love performing," she says. "I'm not shy."
Henry's voice evoked Lincoln in the Poetry Out Loud competition in her recitation of "Frederick Douglass" by Robert E. Hayden, which she will again recite at the Lincoln event, along with a second poem.
"They sent me a list of poems to choose from," Henry says. "I chose 'Lincoln' by Leonard Mason. Here's the first line: 'This, his last speech composed between theater and deathbed, is still to be heard.'"
NEA Chairman Dana Gioia explained the connection between the 16th president and poetry.
"Abraham Lincoln's standing as one of our country's greatest presidents is undisputed," she said. "A great lover of poetry, it is not surprising that Lincoln's legacy has inspired our nation's finest poetic voices. The NEA is delighted to present this evening of poetry in celebration of this great man, 'gentle, plain, just, and resolute.'"
Though Lincoln's poetic nature is most evident in his speeches, he took turns at writing poetry, as well, the evening's program notes. Lincoln has been immortalized by many of poetry's leading voices, including Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay, whose work will be read by the evening's star poets and actors.
The evening begins at 7 p.m. at the Sidney R. Yates Auditorium at the Department of the Interior. The performance is free and open to the public, with seats available by email.
For a look at the activities in the bicentennial celebration — which include "Dinner with the Lincolns," a "Civil War Enactment" and, for the more formally inclined, a "Civil War Ball" — visit abrahamlincoln200.com.
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