Most second graders like to spend as much time playing outside the classroom and as little time at school as possible. While lunch might have been your favorite class, Amanda Gorman preferred to spend her time writing. As a child, Gorman’s mother used to have to pay her a quarter for her to go to bed instead of staying up late to write. Discovering her natural draw to writing so early in her life is what allowed Gorman to develop her craft and become the amazing poet and writer that she is now. Today, Gorman is the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate for the United States. Her title, and exemplary poetry, have allowed her to meet her idols, inspire others, and launch her own nonprofit organization. At just 21 years old, Gorman’s achievements and potential are impressive to say the least. Gorman discusses the importance of activism and what it means to be the National Youth Poet Laureate in our Summer 2019 issue.
When did you begin writing poems?
I’ve been writing poems for as long as I can remember. Honestly, I should say that I have been writing in general. Obviously, I love poetry, but I am drawn to all types of writing. My mom can tell stories of when I was five or six years old and she had to pay me a quarter every day for when I stayed in bed instead of waking up at 5AM and writing. I don’t know how I got that type of energy because now that I am in college, I can barely make it to my 10AM classes. Writing was a natural caffeine for me.
So Lin Manuel Miranda is one of your biggest inspirations, right? How has he influenced your work?
For me, it is a hodgepodge of completely different writers and authors. I think Lin Manuel, what he has done with Hamilton and In The Heights as a contemporary wordsmith, seeing someone out there who you can look up to and see that people do poetry and rap was really exciting. On the other hand, I really take the time to listen to Maya Angelou because I like to study not just how poetry is written but also how it can be performed and expressed. I also love listening to the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., who people might not naturally consider to be a poet but his speeches are incredibly poetic and phenomenally performed to an audience.
For our readers who may not know what it is, what does it mean to be the National Youth Poet Laureate?
That is something that even I had to think about when I got the title. The United States has a poet laureate, I believe the current one is Tracy K. Smith, who serves as kind of a literary ambassador for that region. So as the National Youth Poet Laureate, I have the same type of position and prestige, but the idea is that the title would be finally bestowed on a young poet, just because the laureates tend to be writers who are full-fledged in their careers. Having a young laureate gives representation to younger generations that we are seeing emerge. I, as Youth Poet Laureate, took it as a pathway to speak at as many schools as possible, with as many administrators and teachers. I taught lessons and gave workshops, really trying to make poetry as accessible as possible in the American context.
Vote. You don’t have to vote for the party I stand for, you don’t even have to vote for the candidate that I personally support. The only thing I really care about is that young people get out there and vote. We have too much at stake.
Why do you think activism is important?
Activism is important because we often conceptualize change as something that happens from the top down, we think of it happening from the government or stakeholders at the top of our social-economic structure. When you look at profound change, the fast-moving change that lasts lifetimes, it often comes from the masses of people who mobilize and demand more from the government. Across the continuum of time, activism has really been that needle that has been threading the tapestry of progress. Whoever and wherever you are, taking it upon yourself to be active both in thought and action always speaks change.
What is some advice you would give young people who want to be more active in their communities?
Read as much as you can. I think you need to be informed in order to know when to act and to know who are the stakeholders, what is the problem, and what are potential solutions. That starts with the curiosity for knowledge. Young people need to ask themselves, “I post, and what now?” There is a lot of activism that begins and then ends on your Instagram home screen. I loved all the solidarity with people changing their profile picture to blue for Sudan, but at the same time, I still wondered what is next. Vote. You don’t have to vote for the party I stand for, you don’t even have to vote for the candidate that I personally support. The only thing I really care about is that young people get out there and vote. We have too much at stake.
STORY ANA SANDOVAL
PHOTOS ANNA ZHANG