At 18, Amanda Gorman made history when she was named the nation’s inaugural Youth Poet Laureate in 2017, a post that she felt had been a lifetime in the making. For Gorman, who published her first collection of poetry at 16, this literary honor afforded her a big open door — and a world stage.
“I’d been waiting for this moment to be able to connect with the youth around the country and to have a position where I could both be an activist in a community role, but also a writer.” In the years since completing that year-long post, Gorman continues to do all that. While a college student, she was commissioned to write a poem for Harvard President Larry Bacow’s inauguration.
Now 22, the sociology major, honor student and accomplished poet will graduate in May from Harvard University. But just as she was about to make her much anticipated glide into the finish line of her senior year, Harvard sent her and thousands of its students packing due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was March 11, a day that will live in infamy,” says Gorman of the day that her campus shuttered and the threat of the coronavirus suddenly felt frightening and big. Gorman is now in her native Los Angeles with her mother, sisters and miniature poodle, sheltering in place, writing, planting an indoor garden and studying for final exams. She returned from campus to a city that’s now a hotspot for the COVID-19 outbreak. Outside, across Los Angeles, infection and death from the coronavirus continue to take an uneven toll, especially on those who are Black.
Last week, though, Gorman used her gift of voice and lyricism to speak to a nation, reeling from a pandemic, about hope, love and courage. She performed “The Miracle of Morning,” what she considers her most important poem, for “CBS This Morning” at the Los Angeles Central Public Library.
As this year’s National Poetry Month comes to a close, Diverse spoke with Gorman about crafting her latest poem during a crisis, her writing life and what the future holds for the young woman who’s been heralded as “the next great figure in American poetry.”
For many writers, the writing process necessitates a kind of isolation and solitude. Does the presence of the pandemic and this unprecedented crisis impact the writing process for you?
Gorman: That’s an interesting question. And you’re totally right, in that writing requires a certain amount of self-separation. At the end of the day, you have to sit down and get the words out. In a way, being on lockdown has been conducive to that. I also think that in some ways, it has challenged me to be more digitally connected with my fellow writers.
I run a group at my school called Lit Lounge where we get together, write, share our writing and discuss important things to know as writers and as poets. I really wanted to continue the group, especially now that we are all scattered around the world and sheltering in place. Connecting digitally has transformed my experience as a writer from being one in isolation to being one of community and camaraderie.
This pandemic has upended life as most of us knew it. As a young writer and as a student, what kind of images and feelings are you experiencing and how did you channel those into a poem for the nation?
Gorman: As I was writing the poem and trying to think of images and words and language, I was also trying to think of a visual and linguistic rhetoric that all spoke to love. It really just came organically out of the things that I was seeing and recognizing as positive and worthwhile and inspiring during this time.
I’m pretty lucky that in my room I have a window. So, while I was writing, I could look out into the street and really try to internalize what I was viewing going on out there.
Talk a bit more about the writing and making of “The Miracle of Morning.” Given the reason it was written, did it add to the pressure of producing it?
Gorman: The idea for the poem happened before I was sheltering in place. So, when we decided to make it [the performance video], we had to be very decisive, strategic and sanitary about the way we filmed it. You mentioned pressure; I can definitely say, I never felt quite the anxiety about writing a poem as I have with this most recent one. That’s because the emotional and communal stakes were higher than anything I had ever seen.
To be called forth to kind of be a vocal hope during a pandemic that’s also influencing my own life, in its own way, was frightening and scary. It’s the thing that you don’t want to get wrong. It’s a poem to get right. I wasn’t sure if I was capable, but I just swallowed my doubt and trusted in the words, trusted in the power of language and wrote the thing. It’s really affirming to see that people have enjoyed it and it has touched them in some way.
Talk about how long it took to write this poem and where you wrote it?
Gorman: Between two and three days. I spend a lot of time, whenever I write, researching the topic. I spent a lot of time doing research on what I call the emotionality of the pandemic. I was thinking about what people were saying, what their concerns were, their hopes and wishes. I also researched my other favorite pieces of writing that spoke to hope. I spent a lot of time rewatching Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning” [speech], and rereading Shakespeare’s sonnets just because they have a phenomenal twist at the end that makes me see things in a new light. I was doing research on the ways in which writers have been able to reframe darkness into hope and how I could marshal those tools and instruments into this kind of poem. That took a day. And then I vomited all of my ideas out. The second day was spent honing and solidifying it, then sending it to CBS. I must have emailed them every hour with a new single word tweak or line.
What role did place play in writing such an important poem?
Gorman: When you’re sheltering in place and writing, the place becomes very important. I wrote [the poem] when I was at the park. I decided to spend my outdoor time separate and alone, but watching other people who were coming into the park. I was suffused with this imagery around me of separate, but close, distant, but together. That was really important in funneling the sensation for the poem.
During COVID-19, you wrote a poem to help comfort the nation. What poems or poets and writers have you turned to for solace and inspiration during these challenging days?
Gorman: It’s been a myriad of sources, from Oprah Winfrey’s Instagram account to Michelle Obama. I’ve also been reading a lot of Black feminist literature. If you’re looking for someone who has every reason to be pessimistic but finds very vocal and convincing reasons to be hopeful and angry, look to Black feminists. I’ve been reading Audrey Lorde and Toni Morrison’s essays. They leave me rejuvenated by the history that I am a part of: Black women standing the test of time and loving and caring and making change, even during crises. I also watch Netflix like everybody else and try to get a good laugh.
What advice would you offer others who are struggling to find their voice, especially now during this coronavirus outbreak, when so much around us has been stilled and is silent?
Gorman: Find your voice before someone hides it for you. So many people call themselves aspiring writers. I don’t believe in that. They are writers. You don’t need to be published, you don’t need to be a laureate to have a voice or to use it. Now, more than ever, this is the time to put your thoughts, your stories and your narratives out there. People need them. Don’t underestimate the power of a shout in the silence.
I thought that I would save this question for last. What does the future hold for Amanda Gorman, the soon-to-be college graduate?
Gorman: Ceremony or not, I’m looking forward to getting my diploma and my degree. I’ve worked hard for it and my family has invested so much time, energy and money into it. I’m really looking forward to the moment when I can say I did this [graduate from Harvard University].
I also have two books forthcoming with Penguin-Random House so, I’m really excited about that, and to have them out in the world. And to just continue writing. This will be the first time in my life that I will be a full-time writer and not a student at the same time.
Can you say a bit about your book project?
Gorman: Sure. I can tell you about the first one. It’s called Change Sings; it’s a children’s anthem. I’m speaking to the times that we live in. I wrote it way before COVID-19 happened, but I felt like children of this generation deserved something that spoke to them about what it means to be a member of this global community, in a time that can feel so dark and so challenging. My childhood dream of writing for children is coming true.