It’s early morning in Los Angeles and Amanda Gorman is doing what you might expect of a poet at home – pondering on her porch. “Let me know if it gets too loud,” she says, as we meet over Zoom, though it currently sounds peaceful where she is. Quietness has rather become a thing of the past for the 23-year-old. The past six months have been abuzz with media attention, after Gorman was propelled into global stardom during her spellbinding spoken-word performance at the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden. “I had a bet with one of my friends about how many new followers I might get,” she smiles. “I was like, ‘a hundred thousand max’. I looked afterwards and it was millions.”
Gorman’s recital was a defining moment of 2021. When she gracefully took to the stage in the icy January air to perform The Hill We Climb, a pertinent, powerful poem about unity, hope and social justice, she brought spoken word to an international audience with lines like, “We will not be turned around” and “For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it / If only we are brave enough to be it” reverberating across the globe. But it didn’t feel like that to Gorman at first, despite Oprah Winfrey forewarning her that “this moment will change your life”.
“It was a very limited crowd,” Gorman recalls. “I looked down and it was a little over a hundred people spaced out. So although it was something that was being globally received, it still felt like a traditional poetry reading. I remember stepping up and hearing the applause and, to my ears, it just sounded like a living room. It felt like I was getting up to recite for family.”
Speaking of family, Gorman says hers are her rock; “they keep me grounded”. She has a twin sister, Gabrielle, a film-maker, who is – unsurprisingly – “smart and creative”. Born in Los Angeles, the twins were raised by their mother Joan Wicks, a sixth-grade English teacher. They were both creative from childhood, making films and writing songs and screenplays at an early age. “My poor mom would often come into the living room and it would just be a mess.”
“I felt that children really needed LANGUAGE by which to process what has just happened to us over the past few YEARS – and that was even BEFORE I knew that the pandemic was coming”
Gorman started writing when she was so young that she needed to wake her mother up to turn on the light and reach the paper. “She had to pay me a quarter for every morning I stayed in bed.” It paid off, though. She credits practicing poetry with helping her to overcome a speech impediment. And in 2014, aged 16, Gorman was given the title of first Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles for her skill in poetry and spoken word. Then, in 2017, while she was studying at Harvard, she became the first person to be named National Youth Poet Laureate. “I think having a space in which [the youth voice] can have a microphone and conversation with literature in the world is phenomenal,” she says of the title.
Having studied sociology at Harvard, she graduated amid the pandemic in 2020. “I didn’t get the opportunity to graduate in person, which certainly was a loss. I was looking forward to having that moment with my family and my friends and my educators… I’m just still so grateful for the opportunity that I got to go to college and study what I love. I’m still best friends with my roommates to this day.”
The pandemic may have rendered her graduation a digital affair, but there are plenty more projects in the pipeline for Gorman to celebrate. Her upcoming children’s book Change Sings is out in September, followed by her poetry collection Call Us What We Carry in December – they are both already bestsellers before they’ve even hit the bookshelves. “I felt that children in this country, and in the world, really needed language by which to process what has just happened to us over the past few years – and that was even before I knew that the pandemic was coming,” says Gorman of Change Sings. “I just wanted families and guardians and children to have a narrative and a story that could function as an anthem for them.”
As for writing the poetry collection, it has been “no pun intended, a hill to climb,” she laughs. “I’m experiencing a tectonic shift in my own world. I have to express my ideas while I’m still living the fog of my life changing. I had no idea what that might do in terms of leaving its imprint on the collection.” She hopes, though, that sitting with this chapter of her life will make for a rich and deeper read.
“If I had to DESCRIBE my style, I would say that it’s how I feel on the INSIDE. I love clothing that feels young and vibrant and HOPEFUL, but also thoughtful and pensive”
“In my English classes, growing up, they always told us there are a few purposes for writing. It can describe, it can inform and it can persuade. I think that the intention of my writing is to empathize.” That makes sense, in that Gorman considers poetry to be a verb instead of a noun. “I often call it ‘poeting’ because, for me, it is to get involved in a movement. I think back to Audre Lorde, who was so wise in saying that it’s the poets who create a language for pains, emotions and solutions.”
Gorman had been embraced by the fashion world prior to the inauguration, but the sunshine-yellow Prada coat and silky red headband she wore on stage turned her into a style icon overnight. “I love playing with ways in which I can celebrate my Black heritage through fashion, so I made the intentional choice to wear my hair natural, to wear braids, to wear a headband as a point of pride.” How does she define her own style? “It’s like describing your own voice,” she laughs. “But, if I had to describe my style, I would say that it’s how I feel on the inside. I love clothing that feels young and vibrant and hopeful, but also thoughtful and pensive.”
“There is something unifying in us being YOUNG and fresh-faced but, at the same time, we have BECOME somewhat emblematic of our industries. We are the new GENERATION – and you’d better watch out”
Following her history-making performance at the inauguration, Gorman has landed one of the biggest fashion gigs of the year: co-chairing the Met Gala 2021 alongside Billie Eilish, Timothée Chalamet and Naomi Osaka. “The closest analogy is feeling like Cinderella going to the ball,” she says of the invitation. “Anna Wintour took the time to ask me over Zoom; I was not expecting that at all.” Having felt previously that the connection between fashion and poetry was often overlooked, she was honored to be asked. “I think this is really groundbreaking. I’m even more enthusiastic to see all the other writers and poets who may grace that red carpet in the future. And I hope that, when you see my look, you can feel what I’m saying loud and clear.”
Still, the whole experience is very surreal for Gorman – and I can sense her nervousness. “Co-chairing with Timothée, Naomi and Billie – it feels like being a freshman at a party with seniors. You know? Like I just arrived here,” she shares. “My life has changed quite recently and they are all at the top of their game, and so I’m just absorbing what it means to be able to stand beside their greatness.” The group has been communicating virtually, and Gorman says they’ve all been so kind that she feels a strong sense of camaraderie. “There is something unifying in us being young and fresh-faced but, at the same time, we have become somewhat emblematic of our industries. We are the new generation – and you’d better watch out,” she smiles proudly.
“Before I think, ‘Should I run for OFFICE or should I do this campaign?’, it starts for me with sitting down and writing the QUESTIONS. What is it about this office that needs to be CHANGED? What institutions need to be revitalized?”
I wonder if she still dreams of becoming a future US president, as her Instagram bio used to say. “When I went to college, a lot of people expected me to study English. In fact, I studied sociology to learn about institutions,” she says. “I wanted to learn about modes of government. I wanted to also specifically study the ways in which movement has successfully influenced the powers and politicians that be.”
It’s clear that whatever political ambitions Gorman holds within her, she doesn’t plan on shooting her shot just yet – though the cadence, self-assuredness and command with which she speaks would certainly make her a convincing candidate. She plans to inspire change and start conversations through her writing, first and foremost. “Before I think, ‘Should I run for office or should I do this campaign?’, it starts for me with sitting down and writing the questions. What is it about this office that needs to be changed? What institutions need to be revitalized? And then communicating that through poetry,” she says. “Because I think that’s where the impetus for transformation is first named.”
Reflecting on her new-found celebrity status, Gorman feels that the most striking change is the lack of anonymity. “I think so often writers are not only used to, but dependent on the sensation that we can go out amongst life and not cause any ripples. That we can watch and observe nature or humanity and that we will be an unrecognized piece of it, and we can write that in our stories,” she says, looking back at her past life, when she was able to watch people in love, families and couples holding hands – and feed those connections into her writing. “[Now], if I go to a bench or park and bring my journal to write, you can bet people are going to say, ‘I think that’s Amanda Gorman’.
“Finding out how to be a fly on the wall, when I’ve actually become the bull in the china shop, is new,” she sums up, thoughtfully. She might still be getting used to it, but Gorman will undoubtedly keep making waves – whatever she does next.
Amanda Gorman’s new poetry collection, Call Us What We Carry, published by Penguin Random House, will be out December 7, 2021
First Time with Amanda Gorman
From feeling the power of poetry and overcoming fear to walking the red carpet and seeing the global reaction to her inauguration speech, Amanda Gorman looks back on some of her most memorable lifetime firsts…