L.A. Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman writes her own ticket to success

By Emily Barnett

Amanda Gorman delivers a spoken word performance during last year’s L.A. youth poet laureate installation ceremony Photo by GreenBean Photography

Amanda Gorman delivers a spoken word performance during last year’s L.A. youth poet laureate installation ceremony
Photo by GreenBean Photography

Westchester’s Amanda Gorman isn’t your typical 17-year-old. A junior at New Roads High School in Santa Monica, she doesn’t use Facebook or Instagram or even have her own phone. Rather than taking selfies and gossiping about boys, Gorman prefers to focus her attention elsewhere — on the page, reading other people’s work and creating her own.

All of that reading and writing has paid off. In June Gorman became Los Angeles’ first-ever youth poet laureate.

Modeled on a similar initiative in New York, the Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate Program aims to identify and encourage young writers who are dedicated to community engagement, poetry and performance, and diversity and social justice.

“We look for someone who is not only a great poet but also a great leader. The aim was to create a platform for young poets to occupy spaces not usually inhabited by youth voices: official stages, city hall, or the public library,” said Michael Cirelli, executive director of the nonprofit Urban Word Los Angeles, which co-organized the program with the L.A. Arts and Athletics Alliance.

The program is also supported by the Los Angeles Public Library system, the L.A. County Commission on Human Relations, PEN Center USA and the Academy of American Poets.

“Amanda looks at the world with fresh eyes. Her optimism and commitment to making the world a better place is radiant and evident,” Cirelli said. “For lack of a better word, she’s just a magical kid.”

Gorman gave a reading last month with Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice, where a few years earlier she began attending workshops to develop her poetic voice.

“Amanda Gorman is wise beyond her years. Her poetry draws on deep ideas, images, stories and concerns,” Rodriguez said. “She exudes confidence in her voice, her presentation and in the social issues she considers paramount. Her presence represents the best of our youth. I’m honored to be L.A. poet laureate while Amanda Gorman has been youth poet laureate.”

Gorman, whose mother is a public school teacher, is currently wrapping up the final edits on her first book of poetry. The book goes on sale June 28, when Gorman will read from it before passing the torch to a new youth poet laureate during a ceremony at the Mark Taper Forum.

She spoke to The Argonaut in late March.

The Argonaut: How did you start writing?

Amanda Gorman: I always really liked telling stories, and I did it before I knew that was writing. I’d get pieces of notebook paper and draw pictures and maybe some lines. I just thought, “Hey, this is in my head, this would be cool” [laughs]. And then I really got into reading around third grade because my teacher was a published author, so she really pressed for us to start reading. I remember she would sit and read Ray Bradbury to us, and that was so magical to me — all his metaphors, all his characters. I was so blown away that I started reading and writing a lot, and after that it really took off.

Do you remember the first poem that you wrote?

I think it was about not having friends. I had friends in third grade but for some reason I felt very isolated because I was into writing and reading, and I really cared about what was going on in the world. And a lot of third-graders aren’t like that, so I was literally the black sheep of the herd. So I felt kind of in my own little bubble in that grade, so I wrote a poem about that.

Have you done a lot of performances?

I guess you could say I’ve done a lot since I’ve become laureate, because that comes with a library tour, and I was just at Beyond Baroque. And I’m also really into the performing arts. I like dancing, acting — I’m not good at singing, but I like pretending that I can do it. So I would do musicals, and I think that really prepared me for being a poet because I was able to get on stage and project my voice and not be afraid.

Do you get nervous when you perform?

I get nervous but I realize that it’s not necessarily negative energy, that it’s positive energy waiting to be manifested. I’m like, “Just push it all, express it all through this moment and you’ll be fine.” So then I’m able to take that as a skill and not get nervous but get excited, and change it into a really positive energy that I can use constructively.

Do you prefer reading poetry on the page or do you like to hear it being performed?

I think it really depends, because some poems are made for the page and for you to see them, and they have a very particular shape. So reading them it’s like my eyes are digging in. Some poets are more focused on eliciting emotion through tone and volume, so it depends on the poem,
I think.

Which do you gravitate toward in your own writing?

I think spoken word, because I’m very new at thinking about how poems look on the page. Usually when I wrote poems it was just for me — I wasn’t showing them to anybody; I wasn’t thinking about shape and how people will look at it. So I really connect more with spoken-word poetry, being a performing artist and someone who likes theater and dance. I’m more used to the stage than flipping through a page. It’s kind of freaking me out that when I have my book out people are going to be reading it and I will have no control over their experience, while if I’m on stage I know how to make them feel with my tone and volume and the length of my words.

Where do you draw inspiration for your writing?

I get it from writers who inspire me and challenge me, like I love Maya Angelou. And Ramya Ramana, she was last year’s NYC youth poet laureate. I reached out to her when I got the title, and hearing about her work and her experiences inspires me.  Things I hear about that cause me pain or happiness I like to write about. I know if I’m thinking about something for more than a day I probably should write about it.

Take me through your writing process.

There are times when I sit down and I’m like, “I have to write poetry now.” So I sit down and get tea, and I listen to the soundtracks to movies. Depending on what type of mood I’m trying to go for — if I’m going for a very depressed, self-reflective feel, or if I’m going for an uplifting feel — I’ll choose specifically what composers I want to listen to.

Writing a poem takes me a really long time. If I’m doing it straight through, maybe three hours, but I’ll probably work on it and after a week revisit it and edit it. I like working during the daytime. Seeing light really helps me. Then there’s a second version, which is when I just wake up and I’m like, “Oh, I have to write this idea down.” Or I’m on the bus and I get an idea, so I can’t really get my music and my tea and get all set up. Sometimes it just comes.

What do you write about, and whom do you want to reach through your writing?

So far the themes in my book are family, colorism, racism, sexism and activism — a lot of isms in that — and I try to reach people on many diverse levels. So if I’m writing a poem about being a black female, I don’t want to just reach black females; I want people to be able to relate to being the other or the non-conformist. And I’m trying to reach people who are open to thinking in new, different ways and to hearing young people’s stories. I think this program is really groundbreaking because LA hasn’t had a youth poet laureate before. I think that really shows that people want to hear a youth’s voice, and that’s what the audience must be willing to do when they open my book: to be like, “OK, she’s young but she deserves to
be read.”

What is your favorite part of the writing process?

Looking back on a poem and saying it’s bad. That seems like a really negative thing, but then it tells me that I’ve grown, because after I wrote it I’m like, “This is the best thing ever! I can’t write anything better than this, this is great.” And then a week later I may come up with something that is at a higher level. It’s like, look at how much I’ve grown.

How do you feel when you’re performing in front of a crowd?

I feel like I don’t see them. When I’m performing, my mind goes blank and it’s just a really close, personal relationship between me and my words. It’s like me being in a room full of all these people, but actually it’s only me and the poem who are dancing and sharing the spotlight. So I just really make sure that I embrace my love for words and come back to the reason I write, which removes me from the situation of having pairs of eyes watching me, tons of people judging me — it just puts me squarely within my work.  And I think that’s really beautiful.

Have you ever been judged?

The funny thing is that for the laureate commencement event I thought they were going to judge our performances. So of course the night before I was freaking out, I barely got any sleep. And then I come to the event and they’re like, “We already know who the laureate is, and we’re not going to choose from the performance.” And I think that was actually good, because it took away a lot of the stress.

So I haven’t really been judged, no. But I had the scariest moment of my life leading up to that performance thinking I was going to be judged.

What do you hope to achieve as youth poet laureate?

What I want to achieve is to propel this program and set the expectations high to prove that youth voices do matter in this city, and also in the world.

Does it bother you that poetry is under appreciated and that very few people can make careers out of it?

I wouldn’t say that it necessarily bothers me, but it just is a constant challenge that you have to break past. And I think that although poetry is underrepresented and not a lot of people focus on it, people who are very committed to writing continue writing despite the money or the impediments they may face as a writer. It’s very difficult to be one, especially if you’re female and especially if you’re colored. But if you have that passion, that won’t bother you. It will be like walking through the rain but not feeling it.

So it’s more of a personal ambition.

Yeah, it’s my personal ambition to overcome that, and to help other people overcome that on my way. I think that’s a really great thing in the L.A. writing community — we’re always helping each other out and telling each other about new events. You’re a much stronger writer working with other people and sharing your knowledge and sharing these possibilities than standing alone, I think.

Who’s your favorite poet?

Like I said, Maya Angelou. I’ve been trying to research a lot of other poets so that maybe I have something different to say, but every single time it comes back to Maya Angelou. I think that’s because she was not just a phenomenal poet, she was a phenomenal person in that she still inspires so many people, and I feel this connection to her. After she was raped she went mute for a couple of years, and I had a speech impediment for most of my life. I really resonated with that — finding a place of expression through poetry.

If it were possible to speak to her, what would you say?

I’d probably just say a very sobbing, wholehearted thank you. And I’d try to put as much emotion as I could into it, and I’d probably give her a hug and say: “Thank you from the bottom of a skinny, black, colored girl’s heart.”

Amanda Gorman tweets as @amandascgorman.

The L.A. Youth Poet Laureate Program is taking submissions in April (National Poetry Month) from 14- to 19-year-old poets. Visit urbanword.org for more information.