Former National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, shown in an OBSERVER file photo from 2017, shared her thoughts in this exclusive archived interview.

SACRAMENTO – Amanda Gorman, the nation’s first youth poet laureate, was introduced to the nation this week with her inspiring delivery of the poem “The Hill We Climb” during the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Ms. Gorman, however, is not new to Sacramentans as she is the granddaughter of longtime Sacramento resident Bertha Gorman.

The younger Gorman was in Sacramento in 2017 sharing her love of writing and self-expression with area girls attending the “Life’s A-Maze-N Summit.” Ms. Gorman, then 19, shared her pioneering role and how she’s using it to spark self-expression in other young people during this exclusive OBSERVER interview (republished from the September 28, 2017 edition).

Q: Do you remember your first poem?
A: I had a lot of “untitled” poems I wrote in 3rd/2nd grade, and a lot were about feeling like the black sheep of the herd. I wasn’t in the ‘clique’ at my school and got along better with teachers than I did students my age.

Q: You’re the first? How does that feel? Any added pressure?
A: There’s a lot of added pressure being the first of anything. It’s the same with this position, but there’s also a lot of freedom and improvisation for this role; I get to define my laureateship as I go, because no one has been there before to set limits or expectations.

Q: What’s your goal for the role?
A: My goal is to expand the reach, space, and access youth from across the country have in the literary and art world.

Q: What’s been the highlight of your time as youth poet laureate so far?
A: It was a dream come true to speak at the Library of Congress this Wednesday (Sept. 13, 2017). I got to read an original poem of mine to open for Pulitzer Prize Winner and U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, who is my idol. Being on stage with two other talented, intellectual women (Tracy and the Librarian of Congress Dr. Hayden) was absolutely magical.

Q: How would you describe your style? What do you write about?
A: I’d describe my work as pulling heavily from the literature of the African diaspora, including Toni Morrison and Yusef Komunyakaa, while also existing in the realm of the newest lyrical poets. I want my poems to be rhythmic, layered with alliteration, and so when I heard ‘Hamilton’ it was like — this is what I’ve been looking for.

Q: As a youth poet laureate, you got a book deal?
A: When I was named LA Youth Poet Laureate I got a book deal with Penmanship Books, and that collection of poetry came out in 2015, “The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough.”

Q: In this role do you get to interact with young people across the country?
A: Yes! This summer (we went) on a national tour, visiting literary spaces and speaking with young writers and change-makers around the country. I’m so honored that in this role I get to meet inspiring young people from all over, from D.C. to LA.

Q: What does the future of poetry look like? Promising?
A: The future of poetry is very bright. Some say that ‘poetry is dead’, but I’ve never believed them. The poetry celebration at the Library of Congress I read at was packed and sold out — people are still willing to show up for poets.

Q: Given what’s going on in this country right now in terms of race/racism/activism, are young people expressing their feelings through poetry/spoken word?
A: Definitely. I think we’re witnessing a new wave of young poets, for whole social justice activism is integral in the personal literature. Whether on the page or on the stage, young people are using their words to create pieces that address the disparities in our world.

Q: One of the beautiful things about poetry/spoken word is how people take it and make it their own, stretching the boundaries of what it is and what it can be. How have you made poetry your own?
A: I’ve made poetry my own by refusing to be limited by any normative expectations. As a young person with a speech impediment, it was already a challenge for me to do spoken word. But I did it anyways. I wasn’t going to let that stop me, because my poetry and my voice is my own to create.

Q: You attend Harvard?
A: I’m a sophomore; I’m the class of 2020.

Q: How did you decide on Harvard?
A: Really I decided on Harvard by thinking about what mattered most to me and going with my gut. Harvard is a pretty diverse school for an Ivy League, not to mention their writing department is out of this world. I liked the idea of experiencing the east coast, especially in a historical city like Boston, and when I visited campus I looked around and said: “This is where I’m supposed to be.”

Q: Are there many young women of color at Harvard?
A: There are a lot of women of color at Harvard. I love it. What’s more, a lot of the time they are in the leadership positions for clubs and groups on campus, which is great to see.

Q: Any “Dear White People” moments?
A: Totally. I had Dear White People moments growing up, going to a private school, so it isn’t so new to me. What I’ve learned to do over the years is perfect the ‘Sam White’ look, which is the easiest way to stare down a cisgender White guy in class who’s about to say something really problematic.

Q: What’s your major and what’s your ultimate career goal?
A: I’m concentrating in sociology with a secondary in English. My ultimate career goal is to become a public servant, hopefully President. I want to continue writing and hope to have some more books out there, including fiction and memoir styles.

Q: What do you get out of being able to mentor/inspire other young girls of color? Do you see yourself as a role model?
A: What’s funny is usually after one of my talks, the students in the room thank me, when I feel like I should be thanking them. It is the soul, strength, and spirit of girls of color that continues to inspire and rejuvenate me. I walk out of a room of confident young Black girls and feel reenergized, ready to take on the world with them. A lot of people have told me, young and old, Black or not, that I’m their role model. I take that very seriously. When you have groups looking up to you, especially young girls who are so vulnerable to the messages the world sends out to them, it’s your responsibility to radiate some light in that darkness.

Ms. Gorman’s one-year team as the National Youth Poet Laureate ended in April 2018.


By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer