Amanda Gorman Is Speaking Out and It’s Pure Poetry

In November of last year, Amanda Gorman went on MTV to deliver her “State of the Union” address. Standing at a podium in a sparkly, coral dress, Gorman leaned into the mic and began reciting her poem: “History doesn’t wait / It doesn’t reach out / Change only comes to those who speak out / So I did.” Gorman wasn’t addressing the nation as president (although she does plan to run in 2036), but rather as the nation’s first-ever youth poet laureate. The title, awarded to Gorman in April 2017, was a trailblazing role and one that Gorman seemed born to play.

As a spoken word poet, she’s used to taking center stage and using her work to speak out on topics like oppression, feminism, race, and marginalization. But in this new role, she made a point to take some time to sit back and listen to America’s youth. During her year as youth poet laureate of the US, she went on a summer tour to visit libraries and schools across the country. She also focused on bringing poetry into places (like MTV) where it isn’t typically seen.

Gorman has now passed the year-long tenure to another talented young poet, but her career has only just begun. As a sophomore at Harvard, Gorman still performs frequently across the country, all while maintaining a 4.0 GPA. Here we talk with Gorman about what it was like to be the first-ever youth poet laureate, what inspires her as a writer, and what happened when she finally met her hero, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

B+C: What was your greatest accomplishment of the last year?

Gorman: I got to meet Lin-Manuel Miranda last month, and I’m sorry, it doesn’t get much better than that! I was asked if I wanted to perform a poem honoring him and also Dick Van Dyke — they were both receiving an award — and it was kind of like, “Duh,” with a capital D-U-H, exclamation mark! I didn’t bring world peace. I didn’t find a cure for cancer. But I have to say, getting to meet Lin-freakin’-Manuel Miranda literally makes me feel like I have an armored shield on my chest. He is such an idol, especially with what he did with Hamilton, really revolutionizing the way in which stories can be told. That is always what I’m aspiring to with my own work as a poet.

B+C: Speaking of celebrity run-ins, back in 2016 you were invited to the White House to meet Michelle Obama. What was that like?

Gorman: When I got there, I was looking out and I saw the White House lawn. I remembered Michelle Obama’s Democratic National Convention speech, where she mentions looking out at that lawn and seeing her daughters play in the house that was built by slaves. I’m the descendant of slaves, particularly one further up the line whose name was Amanda as well, and I was just having a full-circle moment. Meeting with the first black First Lady as a descendant of slaves, being honored for writing when my ancestors would be prosecuted for doing the same thing, I was literally about to faint from just the majesty of it.

B+C: There’s often this idea that poetry is archaic and boring. What do you think of the relationship between young people and poetry in 2018?

Gorman: I think there’s something in the way in which poetry is taught in the classroom that gives it a characteristic of being old and this kind of medieval form that only has one shape and one voice. Growing up, I wasn’t always really deeply exposed to young writers, writers of color, or writers that were women. What’s really exciting, especially now with technology and the digital age, is there’s a lot of access and exposure that instantly happens when you have spoken word poets who can get millions of views online. You have poets posting their work on Instagram, and that becomes shareable and accessible. So poetry is no longer just siphoned to an exclusive realm, but it really can be by anyone, for anyone. It’s really the art of the people, and I think younger generations are really the ones who are taking that, running with it, and doing really phenomenal things.

B+C: How do you think poetry and performing have affected your confidence and your self-esteem?

Gorman: You know, I think it’s a dual relationship. My poetry is all the more self-assured and profound when it’s coming from a place of security rather than a place of doubt. That’s not to say that I don’t question myself, but being a performance poet, being a spoken word poet is 80 percent about body language. It’s about convincing people that my words deserve to be heard before they even hear my voice. If I’m going to pursue my art, if I’m going to continue doing that which I love, then I have to love myself. I have to be confident enough in myself that I can compel other people to love my work as well.

B+C: What do you do when the writer’s block hits?

Gorman: My game plan changes depending on the situation, but what I’ve been doing recently is reading memoirs, letters, or essays by mostly women writers who struggled with the same thing. I read about how they knocked down those barriers. There’s this one essay I’ve been reading and rereading. It’s called “Thoughts on Writing: A Diary,” by Susan Griffin, in the collection The Writer on Her Work. There’s a line where she says, “This experience renders a precise meaning,” and I just repeat that to myself. This experience of having writer’s block, this experience of suffering, this experience of doubt, has a precise meaning through my writing. I might not see it yet, but over time and with work and with perseverance, that meaning will make itself clear to me.

B+C: What is the biggest struggle for you in your work?

Gorman: Being a full-time student [at Harvard]. I’ll be traveling to Colorado, California, New York City… but I also have a paper due that’s not going to write itself. I hope that challenge doesn’t sound too self-centered, but I’m trying to be honest about it because I don’t like to pretend I’m someone I’m not. What I can say is that I’m someone who’s in love with poetry and sharing it with others, and I’m also someone who’s in love with learning and being a student.

B+C: What’s on the horizon for you?

Gorman: Finishing my last two years at Harvard and graduating. My life is a mosaic of many different things. I’m really taking the time to focus on my writing. I’m working on some book ideas, and I’m hoping that I can turn those out before I go back to school and have more essays due. That’s definitely something that’s on the horizon for me. Also, probably stalking Lin-Manuel Miranda.

B+C: What do you say to other young women who are your age or maybe your age when you started, who have big career dreams but aren’t sure how to go about achieving them?

Gorman: I don’t believe in an aspiring anything. I don’t believe in an aspiring writer, an aspiring director… If you want to go do it, go out there and do it. If you want to lead your community, if you want to be a scientist, that’s something you can desire to do, but it’s also something that you can get started on right now. Don’t hesitate, don’t wait. Don’t aspire. I’m trying to find something that rhymes with this to make it sound cooler. Oh, maybe like, “Don’t aspire, achieve!”

Written by: Cortney Clift

Design by: Yising Chou

Photos courtesy of Anna Zhang and Amanda Gorman

“Future Women of America” is a multimedia project spotlighting 15 young women under 20 who are making bold moves. Click here to see all the trailblazing women and girls featured.