New Roads alum Amanda Gorman is America’s first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate
By Bliss Bowen
When last The Argonaut spoke with her — in 2015, when she was a precociously articulate and insightful 17-year-old junior at New Roads High School in Santa Monica who didn’t use social media — Amanda Gorman was an avid reader and writer enjoying her tenure as Los Angeles’ first youth poet laureate. That was the year she published her first book of poetry, “The One for Whom Food is Not Enough.”
This past April, Gorman was named the country’s first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate. Unlike her peers at Harvard University, where she is now enrolled and working as a peer adviser and fellow, Gorman spent her summer visiting literary spaces in Boston, Chicago, Hawaii, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. in an effort to “expand the reach of the laureate program nationally.” While traveling she also worked on a VR exhibit — one of the “new and cutting-edge types of storytelling” exciting her interest — and expanded her personal and artistic understanding of the United States.
“The U.S. is so vast, not just in terms of its land mass but in terms of the different cultures,” says Gorman, who still calls an LAX-adjacent neighborhood home. “I’m so grateful because the L.A. Youth Poet Laureate position deeply prepared me for this role. Los Angeles is such a wide and diverse city; you can find dozens of different cultures on the same street. It’s that fantastic. So I already knew what it was like to try to bridge different cultures in poetry.”
Poised and given to beginning answers with “Mmm, mmm-hmm,” the self-described “big history buff” started as a songwriter. Discovering poetry and creative writing helped her overcome a speech impediment that inhibited her ability to communicate: “I realized my speech impediment didn’t matter on the page; what really mattered was my inner voice, not my outer voice. …
“I am invested in the idea of poetry being inclusive and democratic — meaning that poetry is for the people and of the people and by the people. It’s something that’s alive. It’s something that’s ever changing and evolutionary, rather than something that’s stoic and rigid. As we continue to break the boundaries of what’s considered traditional poetry or prestigious poetry, we’re beginning to see phenomenal writers come to the forefront, whether in terms of their identity in being a voice that is rarely heard in those types of worlds, or the style of writing really reflecting some type of background that we don’t necessarily see often.
Shifting approaches to language are causing widespread changes in approach to poetry, but Gorman does not believe that will change people’s ability to communicate through verse.
“Not to get too political here, but I think of poetry or the poetry community as this nice little country that we like to call home, and just because different people with different languages come in, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the country doesn’t stand for the same exact values. Different voices, languages and cultures can change the expression of poetry, can change its appearance, but the essence of poetry — what makes it brilliant, beautiful, timeless — stays the same. Whether you’re reading Shakespeare or Maya Angelou, there’s something there that ties them together, even if they’re presented differently.”
Speaking to this writer in 2015, then-L.A. Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez predicted that we would hear more from Gorman: “She seems like a powerful voice, especially for young people.” Indeed. She’s currently preparing to deliver an original poem at the inaugural reading by new U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith at the Library of Congress.
“I’m really excited to be part of that,” she says, “because it sets this historical precedent that young people can occupy these prestigious spaces, and we deserve to be there and we deserve to have our voices heard.”
Along with her stirring writing, Gorman’s work with her One Pen One Page nonprofit was an integral factor in her selection as National Youth Poet Laureate. Asked how integral community activism is to her creative self-expression, Gorman grows notably enthusiastic.
“I always say that my relation to myself as a writer is completely intersectional with my relationship to myself as an advocate. As a poet I want to bring to the forefront stories and narratives that have gone untold or unheard. For me, a great way to begin that is through community activism — being on the ground, working with local leaders to effect some type of positive change. I always tell myself, I don’t want to just do right, I also want to write.”
Amanda Gorman will open the inaugural reading by 22nd Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith at the Library Of Congress at 7 p.m. EST (4 p.m. locally) on Wednesday, Sept. 13; the event will be live-streamed at youtube.com/LibraryOfCongress.
“We the people are brave enough to love this country’s creed
We the people love this country enough to question its misdeeds
We the people question enough to build upon this foundation
We the people erect an improved hilltop of a nation
Indivisible by where we come from, or who we are born
We the people are those who let freedom ring
So that no matter how we love, talk, pray, or mourn
This America too is ours to build and ours to sing”
— Amanda Gorman, “We the People”