She takes the stage in a bright red jumpsuit, stars dangling from her ears, and fills the room with electric energy. She decides which poem to read on the spot, choosing a personal favorite of hers, titled “Nine at the Golden Shovel,” which can be read up, down, and side-to-side. (Another poem, “What the Child Built,” is composed entirely of monosyllables but for one word: “Negro.”)
On a Sunday afternoon in downtown Los Angeles, Amanda S.C. (“Southern California,” she jokes) Gorman ’20 smiles from a podium at the Central Library. She’s there with Robin Coste Lewis, L.A. Poet Laureate, in a joint poetry reading and conversation open to their L.A. neighborhood.
“Amanda’s bio goes out of date every two weeks,” Michael Cirelli, executive director of Urban Word NYC, jokes to the small but eager crowd as he introduces her. He runs out of breath before getting through half of Gorman's resumé. “She’s a powerhouse.”
As Gorman speaks, faces in the crowd edge between tears and laughter. She’s five-foot-one, afro included, but her presence on stage is larger than life. She finishes with a piece she performed at the Library of Congress last September: “In This Place: An American Lyric.” It opens:
There’s a poem in this place—
in the footfalls in the halls
in the quiet beat of the seats.
It is here, at the curtain of day,
where America writes a lyric
you must whisper to say.
Gorman is the first Youth Poet Laureate of the United States, the founder of One Pen One Page—a nonprofit organization that works to promote youth literacy and leadership through writing and social justice education—and a self-described future candidate for the United States presidency.
There’s a poem in this person, a poem nineteen years in the making, kindled in a small Los Angeles home where a girl found a voice in a city and in her words.
Gorman’s treasure lies underneath hanging floral arrangements, a pink plastic birdcage full of odds and ends, school accolades, and a bottle of her signature Sunflowers perfume. She digs through multicolored boxes piled up next to her desk, letting papers and notebooks fall to the floor in a harlequin mess beside a three-foot stack of books and fairytales.
“A-HA! We found the jackpot!” she exclaims, triumphantly pulling out her very first journal, a purple-paged number she named Sarah and started in 2007. But there are countless other journals in her possession. One of them, aptly named Diva, features entries written in rhyme and third‑person self reflection.
In yet another journal, Gorman started her own synonym finder before realizing that thesauruses were already in mass production. “I was such a little stuck-up writer when I was little,” she laughs. Her journals are filled with poetry—lines crossed out and rewritten in green, purple, and red; verses scribbled in bleeding blue between word maps in the margins; thematic moments noted in bright yellow highlighter with explosion marks.
“When I write and read, I feel like I’m hearing myself for the first time,” she says, explaining that poetry became the medium for her voice at a young age.
Gorman, her twin sister Gabrielle, and their mother live in an apartment complex in L.A. Shrouded by birds of paradise and palm trees, the apartment has been home to the Gorman family for the past 17 years. A huge sparkling Christmas tree—which Gorman says will stay up until her birthday in March—stands in the living room. Lulu, a happy, energized gray miniature poodle, offers her belly for scratching at every opportunity.
Standing next to her bed in the room she shares with her sister, Gorman flips through the pages of Sarah until she finds a drawing of a crying face, the margins littered with negative remarks like “Nobody likes you!” and “Give up!” countered with “No! You’re a winner!” The words are written in the forceful, clumsy handwriting of a nine-year-old determined to be her best self in the face of bullying.
Gorman has an auditory processing disorder and a speech impediment which makes certain letters difficult to pronounce. The letter “r,” she says, is “the bane of my human existence.”
“Obviously I’m not an immigrant, but growing up and being born in America but feeling like I had to learn English almost like an outsider gave me a new appreciation for people who come from outside of the country,” Gorman says.
When Gorman was a kid going through speech therapy, strangers would often mistake her for a British or Nigerian immigrant. She remembers encouraging their assumptions.
“It kind of became my mini experiment,” she says. “If they thought I was from Europe, they would treat me very well, like I was a sophisticated intellectual; if I let them believe that I was from Nigeria, they’d make comments like, ‘Oh, this is how credit cards work,’ or ‘You might not know this in the village you come from.’”
Gorman doesn’t view her speech impediment as a crutch—rather, she sees it as a gift and a strength. “Every now and then there will be a little girl at an event and she goes, ‘I have an auditory processing disorder too and I sound exactly like you,’” she says.
Gorman’s high school, New Roads School, is an independent, non-traditional institution where teachers conduct class in bungalows and waive grades entirely. The school values creativity and social justice, Gorman’s 10th grade English teacher Alexandra Padilla explains.
“I feel like she came into me 10th grade and she was already a writer,” Padilla says with pride. “She was the kind of student that makes you a better teacher because you’re thinking, ‘OK, what’s Amanda gonna think of next?’”
“There’s nothing I could throw at her that she couldn’t tackle,” Padilla adds. “She’s like a firecracker—a once-in-a-career kind of situation.”
Gorman says she is grateful for having attended the school, which she says shaped her critical thinking skills. But her experience wasn’t always entirely positive. During her senior year at New Roads, the Gorman girls, as Amanda and Gabrielle were often called, staged a revolt.
Their English class’s syllabus, they felt, sorely lacked the diverse narratives represented by the students in the classroom, so the twins wrote parodies of Disney songs about the lack of representation in their curriculum and presented them one day in class.
“I just stood up and said, ‘How many people feel represented in the books that we’re reading?’ and like two people raised their hands,” Gabrielle says.
“Whenever I speak about diversity it’s like the girl who cried race. It’s bigger than just, these two black girls are—” (here, Gorman uses air quotes) “‘upset,’” she says. “At one point [my sister and I] were some of the only black people in the school. My family accounted for the demographic.”
The sisters’ favorite movie, to this day, is “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and not just because of their mutual love of Jim Carrey. They say they relate to the title character’s feelings of isolation.
The Gormans trace their creativity and activism to their mother, who only let them watch 1940s sitcoms like the Munsters and the Honeymooners, one of which includes a character that Gorman cites as the first feminist TV icon.
“If I wanted to watch regular TV, I’d have to make a social justice argument as to why,” Gorman explains, recounting the methods by which she successfully convinced her mother to let her watch “The Cheetah Girls.”
The Gormans share their apartment with a small army of elephants. The figurines are everywhere: in wood, porcelain, and plastic; adorning counters, hanging in paint on the walls, crammed on shelves between books and baby portraits.
“Elephants represent empathy, and they never forget,” Gorman says. “And they’re matriarchs, so we love that.”
Gorman’s life is steeped in symbolism. She says she feels deeply connected to bodies of water, which remind her of home.
I first meet Gorman at the 3rd Street Promenade on an unusually cloudy Santa Monica afternoon. Gorman hugs me hello and immediately compliments my bright yellow shirt—it’s her favorite color. We walk down the iconic pier, where a sea-salt popcorn-and-sardine breeze picks up to chill us in our sun-ready California clothes.
Despite the cold, Gorman’s energy is endless. “I’m simultaneously five and 97 years old, like an old lady in Dora the Explorer’s body,” she laughs.
The fog over the water is so thick it masks the ocean from view. Gorman tells me that she loves to write close to water. Before every poetry performance, she pays homage to one of her favorite movies, Disney Pixar’s “Moana,” whose titular heroine is similarly drawn to water.
Gorman says she loves the song “I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors),” when Moana sings about her connection to those who have come before her. Describing how the animated character touches her necklace, Gorman pauses to touch her own neck, where a diamond dewdrop hangs.
“This necklace was given to me by my grandmother, and so before I go onstage, I amend the ‘Moana’ lyric so that it fits my story," she says. "It goes, ‘I am a girl who loves my family, I am a girl who loves writing, and it calls me. I am the daughter of black writers, we are descended from freedom fighters, who broke chains to change the world.’”
In Cambridge, Gorman sits on the bank of the Charles and pretends to hear the familiar lapping of the Pacific as she writes. But for the most part, when she’s at Harvard, Amanda the Poet takes a break.
“There’s the Amanda Gorman on campus, then there’s the Amanda Gorman who’s off,” she explains, telling me she isn’t too involved in the Harvard poetry scene largely because she doesn’t have the time. The Leverett sophomore is constantly on the move, traveling across the nation to attend conferences and poetry readings. (This past week, while other students shopped classes, Gorman traveled to New York City to speak at Revlon’s Live Boldly campaign launch.)
When school is in session, Gorman separates her title as National Youth Poet Laureate from her work and life as a Sociology concentrator.
“A lot of people are like, ‘Why aren’t you doing English?’ Because I want to learn something new!” Gorman exclaims. “I spent the last few years as National Youth Poet Laureate, writing and reading, and I have a lot to learn with English, but I also feel like I want to take a risk and jump out there with something that isn’t poetry-related.”
But like New Roads, Harvard classrooms have also brought a share of adversity. In one poetry class, Gorman says she faced criticism from white male classmates for being unable to understand Latin. In a panel discussion after her L.A. poetry reading, Gorman spoke of another troubling experience in that same seminar. A white male classmate accused her of being “too strong and too self-assured,” she says.
“What frustrates me to no end is that when a woman of color dares to speak up, she’s framed as emotional or too domineering, and I’ve been called that,” she explains. “Basically what he was voicing was that he felt threatened by me and by me being a self-assured black woman. And I told him that, and he was like, ‘Well, when you put it that way’— but I said, ‘You put it that way.’”
Gabrielle, thinking back to her sister's high school years, notes that it wasn’t rare for men to be intimidated by Amanda.
“She was that girl who everyone knew and respected, and she never tried to change herself to earn that respect—everyone supported her for being herself,” Gabrielle says.
“I proudly call myself a bitch,” Gorman tells me. “It’s a survival mechanism.”
In the greater world of poetry, Amanda works against its traditional conception as a realm that keeps its gates closed to all except the “non-political.” She struggles with the idea that poetry is mostly focused on nature and romance.
“I am very honest in saying that that type of conception of poetry is actually rooted in white supremacy,” Gorman says. “The personal is political. The fact that you have the luxury as a white male to write all your poems about being lost in the woods, that you don’t have to interrogate race and gender, is a political statement in and of itself."
"Saying that the type of writing that interrogates the very real issues of gender, of race, of the economy, isn’t real or is not poetry is actually a way to safeguard the European and Western clutch over poetry,” she adds.
Gorman wrote “In This Place: An American Lyric” for her performance at the Library of Congress last September. The performance commemorated the inauguration of Tracy K. Smith as Poet Laureate of the United States. Gorman stood proudly next to Carla Hayden, the first African-American woman to be named Librarian of Congress.
“A trio of literary black women on stage—it doesn’t get much better than that,” Gorman recalls with a rueful laugh.
I ask her if she’d been nervous.
“Oh my goodness, my knees were shaking,” she says. “I was so stressed and done by the end of it, I just went to the back and took my shoes off—and I didn’t know that they would call me back out onstage, but they did, and so I walked onstage barefoot!”
Dinah Berland, an L.A.-based poet who has mentored Gorman for three years, attended the event as her guest. When Berland talks about the experience on the phone, her voice betrays a smile.
“Oh my goodness. They were spellbound,” she says. “She takes so many risks, one after another—going to places she’s never been, applying for things that seem far-fetched, taking a leap of faith in herself. She really has the capacity to inspire in such a joyful way.”
When I ask her if many poets have the same capacities as Amanda, Berland laughs. “Great poets do,” she says. “Her work is adventurous, thoughtful, and big.”
I ask Gorman what it means to be National Youth Poet Laureate over a chai tea latte at the Starbucks on 3rd Street.
“Everybody asks me this and I never have a good answer,” she admits, smiling before slipping into silence. After a moment, she answers.
“We don’t always recognize we’re living history because it’s the present. What reminds me is that, being the first Youth Poet Laureate, I’m living and making history at the same time, and I want to do something that I’m proud exists in the tapestry of history when I’m a grandmother, when I’m a great grandmother, when I’m dead and gone,” she says.
Before meeting Michelle Obama at the White House, Gorman waited by the window of a green room overlooking the White House lawn. She recalled the former first lady’s speech at the Democratic National Convention last year about waking up, looking at that very same lawn, and seeing her black daughters play outside of a house built by slaves.
“It was a really emotional moment for me, as I’m a descendant of slaves, and my great great great grandmother was a slave named Amanda who could neither read nor write,” Gorman says.
Ultimately, Gorman sees her role as National Youth Poet Laureate as being “a deliverer of the torch.”
“I am standing on the shoulders of people who broke their backs to get me here so that I could see farther—God forbid I throw this shot away,” she says. “I want to climb the next hilltop, I want to go to the next valley, so that someone else doesn’t have to.”
The last stanza of “In This Place (An American Lyric)” beams with Gorman’s hope: in her own words, she’s only just getting started.
There’s a place where this poem dwells—
it is here, it is now, in the yellow song of dawn’s bell
where we write an American lyric
we are just beginning to tell.
—Magazine writer Elida Kocharian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ElidaKocharian.