Under a decade ago, Amanda Gorman was still a teenage student in Los Angeles, spending her days devouring the works of Toni Morrison and furiously scribbling in her journals with the dream of one day becoming a writer. After submitting her poems to local competitions, she was named the Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles in 2014, becoming the first National Youth Poet Laureate three years later. And today, at 22 years old, Gorman steps up to her biggest career milestone yet: delivering an original poem, titled “The Hill We Climb,” to celebrate the inauguration of Joe Biden as president of the United States.
How Gorman got here feels more like fate than simple serendipity. A powerful reading of her poem “In This Place: An American Lyric,” delivered at the Library of Congress in 2017, caught the eye of Dr. Jill Biden, who contacted her last month about writing an original poem for her husband’s swearing-in ceremony. What was already a hugely intimidating task—crafting a poem that could both capture and reckon with the stark political division of the current moment—became all the more daunting in the wake of the riots that overtook the U.S. Capitol earlier this month, unfolding just as Gorman was finishing her piece.
Still, Gorman saw her reading as an opportunity to offer a balm to those suffering right now, in the way that only poetry can. “I’m not saying I’m better than anyone else, but I was called by the Bidens for a reason, and this moment has called me for a reason, so all I can do is show up and do my absolute best,” Gorman says. “That’s all I can ask of myself.”
Part of doing her best meant thinking carefully on what she would wear on the day; namely, a look by Miuccia Prada, a designer Gorman admires for her intellect and long-standing feminist leanings. But an unlikely accessory carries an especially moving backstory. Continuing the legacy of Black women poets like Maya Angelou and Elizabeth Alexander—who spoke at the inaugurations of Bill Clinton in 1993 and Barack Obama in 2009, respectively—Gorman was looking for a way to pay tribute to her predecessors.
“I have to interweave my poetry with purpose. For me, that purpose is to help people, and to shed a light on issues that have far too long been in the darkness”
Lo and behold, Oprah Winfrey, a fan of Gorman’s, got in touch. When Angelou spoke in 1993, Winfrey had sent Angelou a Chanel coat and a pair of gloves to wear for the event; to continue the tradition, she sent Gorman a pair of gold hoop earrings by Nikos Koulis and an Of Rare Origin ring to wear for her own big day. “Every single time I get a text from [Oprah] I fall on the floor,” Gorman says, laughing. It’s the perfect finishing touch to a look that came together with immense care and thought. “[Fashion] has so much meaning to me, and it’s my way to lean into the history that came before me and all the people supporting me.”
On the eve of her inauguration reading, Vogue spoke with Amanda Gorman about her whirlwind journey to one of the most prominent platforms in the world—and with two books in the pipeline for 2021, she’s only just getting started.
Vogue: I have to start by asking the obvious: How was 2020 for you?
Amanda Gorman: 2020—what a year. It was rough for all of us. As a public poet, people often don’t see the reality of my life. They see maybe a poem or a reciting and it’s great to hear that I can serve as a ray of light in [other people’s] lives. Sometimes it grabs the attention away from the fact that I, too am going through the same things and navigating darkness, as well. It was a really hard time when my school was shut down when the COVID wave in March crested. I wasn’t going to have a graduation and I wasn’t going to be able to say goodbye to my friends. But I was able to funnel that into a poem. It has been hard on all counts, but I’ve been writing my way through it.
You were named the first U.S. National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017. How have your responsibilities evolved since then, and particularly over the past year?
The climate of not only the pandemic but also racial tension in the United States and political tension have added a new layer of responsibility in my own work. It’s not enough for me, even in my own life, to just write poetry about red wheelbarrows or a tree, though I can and sometimes I do. I have to interweave my poetry with purpose. For me, that purpose is to help people, and to shed a light on issues that have far too long been in the darkness.
Arguably the two most prominent voices before you to speak at an inauguration ceremony were Maya Angelou and Elizabeth Alexander. How does it feel for you to pick up their torch?
It was such a huge honour. Elizabeth actually called me on the phone and she was so supportive and excited for me to perform, as did Richard Blanco, who also served as an inaugural poet. I’ve been lucky in that the people before me have really done their job in making me feel prepared for this moment. I did study their poems a lot and the history of inaugural poets, from Robert Frost on, to get a sense of what the core elements of an inaugural poem would be—to find something that I might enjoy hearing in my living room.
What do you think you represent as a voice for the Biden/Harris administration?
Before me, the youngest poet to have done it was Richard Blanco, who was 44 at the time. It’s important for the next generation to see. If you look statistically, the people feeling most depressed at this time [are in] my age group. It’s the Gen-Zers. To have space in such a public and important event where that youth and that generation can have a voice—I’m just so honored that I get to stand in that role.
Historically, people have seen writing poetry as a solitary occupation. But for poets of your generation, being able to share your poetry in public feels equally important, right?
That was always a difficult question, particularly for me growing up with a speech impediment, which I only overcame a few years ago. The idea that I would have to recite this poem in front of other people was daunting, but also a really powerful and important and beautiful part of it too. The oration of poetry, I consider to be its own art form and tradition. Before you had [written] language systems you had oral language systems, where truths are passed down by word of mouth.
How are you preparing yourself to stand up and read in front of the tens of millions of people who will inevitably be watching?
I’m almost like, is there a preparation for that? For me, it’s getting familiar enough with the poem, but I don’t want to bang it over the head to the point that, when I get on stage, I’m a robot. I still want it to be from the heart, so it’s practicing, rehearsing, but also making sure that inside me, it lives there. I try to approach reading in front of millions of people as I would reading in somebody’s living room. I’m trying to make this as special as I can for the American people, given that it’s a virtual reading. I want to challenge myself to imagine that closeness.
“Oprah actually got in contact with me, and we’ve been in touch for a while now. Every single time I get a text from her I fall on the floor”
I imagine you will want to deliver something that resonates with everyone, although the nation feels so divided right now. How are you negotiating that?
The difficult thing about writing a poem like this is that you want to write it for a country, but you also want it to be accessible. You want it to be representative of all the colors and characters of people who might be watching it. Preparing for that [involved] reading the previous inaugural poems and trying to focus on what they do well. I’ve also looked to Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass, who I love as a writer, or Martin Luther King, and the ways in which they used words to communicate the ideals of the nation in elegant rhetoric that [never] felt as if it was locked away in an ivory tower.
The title of the poem is “The Hill We Climb.” How does that reflect how you set about distilling this messy and turbulent moment in American political history into something poetic?
It was an incredibly daunting poem to write. As I was talking with Elizabeth and Richard, they were very honest in saying, “Look, you’re giving a recital in an inauguration that is unlike any other.” There are all these different kinds of layers of stress that are on the American people right now. It was a hill I had to climb in itself. I wrote it with the idea that this isn’t the moment to say, “Ding-dong the witch is dead,” and dance on the grave of Trump. It’s a real opportunity to unite the people of the United States and focus our gaze on the future, and the ways in which we can collaborate and move forward together. I’m not gonna lie and say that I’m not scared. But I’m gratified in the fact that courage isn’t the absence of fear, but acting despite that fear. There comes this knowledge and this faith that I was made for this moment. Not in an egotistical way, not in saying that I’m better than anyone else, but I was called by the Bidens for a reason, and this moment has called me for a reason, so all I can do is show up and do my absolute best. That’s all I can ask of myself.
Not to distract from the weightier significances of the moment for you, but I know you’re wearing Prada. How did you arrive at the look you chose to wear, and what about it felt right for you?
It’s Vogue, so let’s talk fashion [laughs]. I am weaving my own type of symbolism into my outfit, and it’s really special and important to me to deliver these nuggets of information and sentimentality as I’m reciting the poem. Oprah actually got in contact with me, and we’ve been in touch for a while now. Every single time I get a text from her I fall on the floor. She was like, “I’m so excited that you’re doing the poem,” and she’s been really supportive because she knew how nervous I was about going. She said, “I bought the coat and gloves that Maya Angelou wore when she recited her inaugural poem. I’d love to continue the tradition with you and bring something to your outfit.” I was like… [gasps dramatically]. Oprah also bought me some jewelry which you will get to see when I’m performing. One thing I can say is that I’m pretty sure I’ll be wearing a ring that has a caged bird, to symbolize I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I’m also wearing a yellow coat, which is my own nod to Dr. Jill Biden, who was the one who recommended me in the first place, and I’m so honored by that. She said, “I saw this video of you and you were wearing yellow and I loved it.” I’m glad we can talk about the fashion, because it has so much meaning to me, and it’s my way to lean into the history that came before me and all the people supporting me.
How are you planning to relax and celebrate after the ceremony?
I think I’m going to be on a rollercoaster for a while. I’m in the front seat of a Ferrari right now. But I’m looking forward to absorbing everything that will happen afterwards, [and] definitely journaling about it, writing more poetry about it. I’m coming out with a poetry collection later this year, so a lot of this will be processed in that work. My children’s book also comes out in September. It’s called Change Sings. I wanted young readers to have the opportunity to see themselves represented in books as real change-makers, leaders, and people with the potential to make a difference.
This story was first published on Vogue.com.