Keetha (12) wins NSP award and performs poetry at the White House

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Erica Jiang, Staff Writer

Vidhatrie Keetha (12) visited the White House on Tuesday, September 27 to represent the Northeast region of the United States as one of five National Student Poets (NSP).

In June, Keetha was notified she was an NSP winner, but had to keep it confidential until August for the official press release, she said. “It was surreal to me when I got the call from the director of the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers.” she said. “I never actually expected that I could win.”

Keetha applied for the honor after she won a gold medal for poetry in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and became a semifinalist for the NSP program. The Alliance for Young Artists & Writers along with the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a federal agency, hosts the NSP Program. 

The NSP program was created by former First Lady Michelle Obama under the Committee on the Arts and Humanities in 2012 to encourage youth poetry ambassadors. Every year, the Alliance and IMLS selects five students for the program, each representing a different geographic region of the country.

Keetha completed an additional application for the program, she said. “I submitted a few more poems, a biography, a video of myself reciting poetry, and another video talking about why I write poetry and why I wanted to serve as a National Student Poet.”

Last week, Keetha attended a formal appointment ceremony at the Planet Word Museum in Washington DC. At the appointment, Keetha read two poems for families and program alumni, she said. “It felt like a practice round for our trip to the White House.” The ceremony featured keynote speaker Naomi Shihab Nye, an American poet. “I got to know her on a more personal level, and she even helped to take pictures of me and my family,” Keetha said. 

In addition to Nye, Keetha met 27 other alumni of the program. “An alum who represented the Northeast region in the past, who was also from the Bronx, approached me with suggestions for my community service project and told me about local poetry-related organizations,” Keetha said. “Many other alumni also approached me to talk to me about my poetry. Everyone was very supportive and kind.”  

The winners went to the White House directly after the event at the Planet Word Museum. “When we walked in, there was a really nice reception with live music. Afterwards, they took professional photos of all of us with the First Lady and Ada Limón.” Keetha said. 

Later, they went to the State Dining Room where family and alumni sat at circular tables, while the press was in the back of the room with cameras, Keetha said. Each winner read one poem, chosen by the White House, to a small live audience — including Dr. Jill Biden and Limón, the 24th poet laureate of the United States.

The event was live-streamed on the White House website and shown on various news stations. “I was getting texts an hour later from my friends that they had seen me on TV,” Keetha said. “I had never done a poetry reading in front of such a large audience.” 

Giselle Paulson (12) is one of Keetha’s friends who saw her on TV. “My mom was watching TV and all of a sudden started yelling that Vidhatrie was on the news — I ran into the room and saw Jill Biden, and then Vidhatrie,” Paulson said. Paulson has watched Keetha’s talent grow since ninth grade. “This is probably one of the biggest accomplishments for any high school student to achieve, so I really feel some second hand excitement for her.”

As a NSP, Keetha must complete a community service project to spread awareness about poetry, ranging from local workshops to national programs. “For me, activism is an important part of being a National Student Poet because you have this platform that very few people do at our age — you can’t take that lightly.” Keetha is just beginning to form ideas about her project and has not arrived at a concrete theme yet, she said.

Keetha’s journey to NSP began in middle school when she started writing poetry during a poetry unit in her sixth grade English class, she said. “Before, I had thought poetry was superficial, because at an elementary level, we are only taught poetry through examples of rhyme schemes and specific sequences of words.” Nevertheless, her teacher encouraged her to continue writing, and even brought up her poetry at a parent-teacher conference. “I gained confidence to explore it personally, and started to see the value of poetry,” Keetha said.

Keetha’s interest in poetry deepened as she saw connections between art and activism, she said. “In my classes, we’ve learned about the significance of poetry in the political world and how it’s important to various revolutions, as well as activism,” she said. “That’s what motivates me to explore the intersection of poetry and activism.”

Keetha likes to incorporate descriptions of the natural world into her poetry, and is inspired by mythology and folklore, she said. “My family is from India, and a lot of Indian cultural poetry is intertwined with mythology, if you think about epics.” To Keetha, poetry is a unique way of telling stories by blending oral and written traditions, which cannot be done in prose, she said. “Poetry can be anything. It can be a speech, song lyrics, epic poems, anything, so I really like pushing the boundaries of what form my poetry takes.” At the moment, Keetha mostly explores free verse and prose poems. 

A thoughtful and outstandingly strong English student, Keetha’s writing is excellent in every genre, English teacher Jacob Kaplan, who taught her in ninth grade, said. “She’s a really talented storyteller, she was really good at creating vivid, surprising images,” he said. “I was struck by that from the beginning.” 

Entering tenth grade, Keetha already knew a lot about writing, English teacher Rebecca Bahr said. “She’s been writing since a little girl so she just vacuums up all that she reads on her own and anything you give her,” she said. For a project on the Odyssey, Bahr asked students to write an epithet and insert themselves into it. “She named her epithet ‘Creative Vidhatrie,’” Bahr said. “She took all her projects to the ninth degree, it was a pleasure to get anything creative from her.”

Kaplan was not surprised to hear about Keetha’s award and is incredibly proud of her, he said. “It’s easy for creative writing talent to go unrecognized. It’s not always a readily commodifiable thing, so I think it’s wonderful when institutions recognize this,” Kaplan said. “I really hope it encourages her to keep writing.”