Hardworking Houston teen Kechi Mbah applied the constrictions of the pandemic to expanding her creative side.
The 17-year-old’s poems that explore making the known “strange” and chronicle her culture as a Nigerian-American have earned her recognition as one of five 2021 National Student Poets, a program supported through the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers which represents The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Mbah will represent the southwest region.
“My whole junior year [I] was in quarantine,” she said. “I would say that COVID has allowed me to grow a lot as a writer. I didn’t start writing poetry for the page until the quarantine.”
Oral poetry was Mbah’s initial love, but the slam competitions she excelled in were halted during the pandemic. After her younger sister wrote a short story for competition, she decided to follow suit and submit a poem leading her to discover the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Scholastic is the longest-running and most prestigious scholarship and recognition program in the nation for young artists and writers. Harris County Department of Education is the regional supporter for the Awards, judging thousands of Houston-area entries from teens in grades 7-12.
Scholastic Art & Writing Awards judging continues at the national level, and Mbah’s work was singled out among 10,000 Medalist entries from students in grades 10-11. As one of 40 semi-finalists, she was invited to submit additional entries and was selected as one of the five elite National Student Poets.
HCDE Regional Scholastic Art & Writing coordinator Andrea Segraves cited Mbah’s incredible achievement.
“We are exceptionally proud of Kechi,” she said. “She was selected as one in five National Student Poets from over 300,000 overall submissions. What an incredible honor.”
After being appointed as a Student Poet in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 21, Mbah will serve as a literary ambassador in her community and join service projects, workshops, and public readings. She will also receive a $5,000 academic award.
Mbah, a rising senior at Houston ISD’s Carnegie Vanguard High School, learned of the top honor through a surprise Zoom call from IMLS Director Crosby Kemper on July 28 as she left her dentist’s office. With half her face anesthetized from the numbing shot, she did her best to exhibit her elation and a broad smile.
Excerpt from “My Great-grandfather Had Nine Wives” by Kechi Mbah (Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Gold Medalist, 2021 National Student Poet) My great-grandfather's squinting eyes drew haze over the horizon belonging to my great-grandmother, creating a painting of African sun. She was a woman of the earth///the earth made woman of her dirt laced fingers and sand peppered knees spoke love to corn and cassava praying only to the god she held within her bosom. At the rise of afternoon pestle etched callous as she pounded fufu into brown freckled mortar. Like all men------- my great-grandfather admired. His yellowed eyes enchanted by her flat nose and cow belly plump lips to her skin peeled ripe from ebony and hips swept wide for birth to the sweet smell of a hardworking woman. So he grew chest and three goats to bring back to her village and she agreed to be his seventh wife.
Ideas for her poems stem from a dual process of writing, she explains. A notebook helps her collect the ideas and revisit them later.
“A lot of my poems are narrative-based whether it’s about my culture or history of my family or ancestry or current events,” she said.
A story about her great-grandfather living in pre-colonial Nigeria is told through the poem “My Grandfather Had Nine Wives.” In addition to doing her research, she collected anecdotes and history from her parents.
Mbah also likes to write about applying new perspective to common subjects or ideas. An example is explaining soccer through basketball terms or the letting go of emotions with a poem entitled “Red-Eyed Woman.”
When not writing, Mbah is active with soccer as a member of Carnegie’s varsity team. She is also an avid reader and a STEM enthusiast.
“When I go to college, I want to major in industrial and mechanical engineering and minor in creative writing,” she said.
Mbah points to her sophomore teacher Clarissa Fischer as the big supporter who encouraged her to pursue and write poetry. Eventually, Fischer helped her establish the poetry club at her school.
She also acknowledges English teacher Rachel Bohenick for sponsoring her poetry through the regional competition with Harris County Department of Education and family and friends who support her creative efforts.
Trustees will recognize Mbah’s achievements publicly at the Aug. 18 HCDE Board of Trustees meeting scheduled at 1 p.m. HCDE begins accepting entries for Scholastic Art & Writing Awards each September, and entries are judged by December. To enter, judge, or support the Awards, contact Andrea Segraves, Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Regional Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.