Updated at 7:34 p.m. ET on December 19, 2021.
Seven years ago, I did a poetry reading at New Roads School, in Santa Monica, California. The students were incredible. They were funny, they were incredibly smart, and they asked the sorts of questions I had not been asked before. But one student stood out in particular. She was ebullient and curious and thoughtful. One of her teachers shared with me that she had recently been named the Los Angeles youth poet laureate. Her name was Amanda Gorman.
Last year, like millions of others, I watched Gorman step behind a lectern on the steps of the U.S. Capitol—where just weeks before a violent mob of insurrectionists had attempted to overturn the results of the presidential election—and deliver an inaugural poem that transfixed the world and transformed her life.
She has since published her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” as well as a children’s book, Change Sings, both of which were instant No. 1 New York Times best sellers. She has been on the cover of Vogue, Variety, and Time. She has read a poem for the Super Bowl. She has Oprah’s phone number. In her new book, Call Us What We Carry, her first full-length poetry collection, Gorman grapples with how the coronavirus pandemic has reshaped our lives and further exacerbated America’s already deep inequality, how the racial reckoning of the past year is in conversation with history that preceded it, and what it means to live in a world where the climate crisis hangs like a dark cloud over everything we do.
I recently spoke with Gorman about her new book, her new life, and whether she could have ever imagined that she would be in the place she finds herself. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Clint Smith: What has this year been like for you? You became perhaps the most well-known poet in the world in a matter of minutes. Also, like all of us, you’ve been living through a pandemic. How is your spirit?
Amanda Gorman: Thank you so much for checking in. Looking back at the year, I think I am existing in this liminal phase when everything that I knew about my life and how I was living is changing. Not only due to the pandemic, but also to the visibility that I received after the inauguration.
I try to approach that as a gift or an opportunity in my writing. That is to say, if I am experiencing something such as the pandemic alongside millions of other people, I think that’s a real opening for poetry to do the work that we need to connect us, to push us forward.
The moments where I was feeling most alone and separated from my fellow human beings— perhaps due to fame—I [would remember] that I was not alone, because I was experiencing so much of the loss, of the grief that comes with this pandemic, alongside other people, even if I didn’t know them, even if we never met. I was part of a larger contingency, and my work and writing could serve that.
So the year has been wild and crazy and overwhelming, but I always think of poetry as home for me. It really brings me back down to earth, which I’m grateful for.
Smith: Did you write most of this book during COVID, or is this work that you had started beforehand?
Gorman: Nearly every single poem in this new collection, save for maybe three, was written in 2021, in a three- or four-month span.
It was a really prolific period of creation for me. Not because it’s easy. I’m sure you’ve heard from so many interviewers and things asking you if writing during COVID was “easier” because you’re maybe at home more, you’re not doing everything, you’re kind of isolated. I was like, “COVID is not a writer’s residency.”
If anything, I found that as I was writing, I had more writer’s block, because I was bringing more grief and concerns and questions and baggage into the writing room. And so I wrote a lot. COVID just made writing feel all the more urgent for me, and all the more necessary. So, yeah, most of these poems are new and born out of the experience of the pandemic, but I think also just the larger racial reckoning that I think we’re having, not only in the United States but around the world—the sociopolitical crisis that we find ourselves in.
Smith: One of the things that’s interesting about the collection, as I was making my way through it, was, like, the heterogeneity of the pieces. You play with form a lot in this book in ways that were new and unexpected and exciting for me. There are text messages and checklists and poems in the form of flags and poems that require you to turn the book on its side to read them. Tell me about this experimentation.
Gorman: One thing I set out for myself when I was writing the book is—I think to have fun is not necessarily the most precise word, because it was a kind of grievous, arduous process, but more so to have freedom, to have boundlessness in the book, to really be able to give myself a full range in which I could engage with the written word.
So many people’s first interaction with my writing has been through the oral tradition. But as someone who grew up with a speech impediment, I spent so much more of my foundational training and writing on the page, because that was where I felt safe, that was where I felt heard, because it was a space where you wouldn’t necessarily know that I had this disability.
So trying to figure out how I want to approach the written word through different shapes, different forms, was more of a homegoing to me, back to where I started my language journey.
I also just wanted to disrupt my readers’ perception of what qualifies as poetry, what poetry looks like. I wanted them to literally look at the pandemic experience anew, and that means turning the page on its side or upside down, that means playing with shade or having you fill in the blanks in a hangman poem. Hopefully, one of those moments will be a kind of aha or eye-opening moment for my reader by which they see things in a new light.
Smith: For many people who pick up your first book, or for many people who will pick up this collection, it may very well be the first poetry book that they’ve ever purchased and read. Do you think about that as you’re writing? If so, how does it shape the process?
Gorman: It’s a deep privilege and it’s also frightening at times. I want to do justice to the art and I want to welcome people into the tradition while also remaining authentic to who I am. The way that I approached that in writing is, I didn’t change my topic—what I wanted to say, or what I wanted to address—but I tried to, at least at some point, in the words of Adele, go easy on my reader [laughs], even if I wasn’t going easy on myself.
That doesn’t mean I was sanitizing my writing, but that I was coming at the book with the assumption that everyone who was reading this was going to be an intelligent human being but they might not know the full depth and details of whatever I was talking about. Like, if I was writing about, let’s say, the Chinese Exclusion Act, I’d do so without the presumption that every single person had learned about this in their educational experience.
I was at a book reading once—I was in the audience—and I remember that one of the people asking a question told the author, “I feel like you care about me when I’m reading the book.” And that type of tenderness, that type of love, was something that I wanted to come through when I was writing the book. It was something that I reminded myself of every day, because I knew so many people would be coming to poetry for the first time via me.
Smith: How do you think of your relationship to a sort of poetic lineage? And how do you fit into a larger both Black intellectual and literary tradition but also a sort of larger American literary tradition, and a larger tradition of American letters and poetics?
Gorman: I find my poetic lineage so important. I’m always thinking of, particularly, a Black feminist tradition of the Toni Morrisons, the Maya Angelous, the Phillis Wheatleys, the Rita Doves, the Lucille Cliftons, the Gwendolyn Brookses. I feel like I am just trying to do them proud.
I also think the class of poets that I exist in currently is just as important to me. This might sound weird but the yous, the Clint Smiths of the world, the Elizabeth Acevedos, the Jacqueline Woodsons, the Tracy K. Smiths—I consider you to be cousins, if not sisters and brothers. And we haven’t always met or been in the same state or writing program, but I still feel a type of camaraderie.
I definitely don’t consider myself as someone who sets out to “do something we’ve never seen before, completely different.” If anything, I try to echo really old, ancient sentiments, just in the now, and I think that in itself is something that is different and unique.
Smith: I think we’re definitely cousins.
Gorman: Poets from another mother!
Smith: How old were you when you started writing? And how did your speech impediment shape the way you approached and thought about your writing?
Gorman: I want to say I was like 5 or 6 when I started writing. At the time, I was writing little children’s books for myself to read, which were horrible [laughs], but that’s when I started. I didn’t know writing was a profession until I was 8 or 9, and I was like, “That’s awesome.”
And my first kind of memory of the speech impediment? I had it ever since I can remember, I’d say ever since I started speaking. For most of my young years, I didn’t know there was “something wrong” or “different” about me, because I have a twin sister and she also had the same speech impediment. For me, it was the world I knew. It was the language I was surrounded by.
It wasn’t until, I want to say, I was like 6 or 7, where kids get a little bit meaner, when their barbs or insults become a little bit sharper, that I realized, Oh, the way that people see and hear me is different from the way I view and hear myself. What that did for me, I think, is it rerouted my experience of poetry. Although I wasn’t on the poetry stage, I fell in love with the sound of words through speech pathology. I was in and out of speech therapy for most of my life. And what that did for me was force me to look at language, sounds, cadence, pronunciation actually as an access point of healing and recovery, because I was doing the work of learning English time and time again. I was completely fluent and eloquent in it, but it was really breaking down every single sound and how it’s made, how is it different, how does the mouth work?
And so I think my personal style as a poet sees poetry as an instrument of pathology. I think that’s why you see a lot of alliteration and rhyme in my spoken-word poems, because it was me being in 11th grade with my speech therapist doing road, road, road over and over again. Red, red, red. Rat, rat. Building up in complexity to blend words such as president, brave, Harvard, et cetera. And so I carry that with me in everything that I write.
Smith: Pivoting to your new collection specifically, where does the title Call Us What We Carry come from?
Gorman: When the book was first announced, I think it was something like ‘The Hill We Climb’ and Other Poems.
Smith: I remember that. And what was the journey from that title to the title you have now?
Gorman: I was writing the collection, which at the time I had really no poems for, when the book was announced, and I was just trying to see if maybe there was a universe in which there was another title that worked. I was kind of just in bed writing scraps of thoughts and poems and I was thinking about something I learned in biology in high school, which is about how the human body was not only the cells that carry my DNA, but how so many types of microorganisms exist on me as well. I remember my teacher was saying, “You are not you. You are we.” I was really confused at the time, and it wasn’t until I was writing this collection, and how as an individual I feel part of a multitude that is experiencing these past two years, that I landed on this idea of, Oh, this book that I’m writing as me is also me writing to and with and from a we. So I changed the title and then I also changed the voice for a lot of the book.
It wasn’t a huge shift, because most of the poems or the thoughts or the verses, they had what I call multiple personalities. They would begin with an I, and then there would be a we and an I, and then a you, and then a they, and then all of these kind of exist in the we. They’re all part of it. I changed the singular voice of some of the poems to a more collective voice, and then I changed the title as well.
Smith: One of the most compelling sections of the book is the series of poems about climate change. I’m curious, how does the natural world shape you and shape your writing, and how has the ongoing destruction of it done so?
Gorman: The idea that public health, society, and the planet are interconnected isn’t a new one, but I also don’t think it’s an idea that we talk about enough. When I was writing the book, I really wanted to utilize the natural world in my poems, which is something that I’ve done ever since I was little. I think there’s a lot of metaphors about trees and water and the ocean and the sky in the poems. I think I was doing that not just because it’s important to my own voice, but I think it’s so important that we put—especially as poets—language and rhetoric around nature in conversation with the very status of that nature that we’re talking about. If I’m talking about trees or the sky, I have to talk about pollution in the air; I have to talk about climate change.
It’s something that I think is so important—and at times frustrating—to me, because when we think about “nature poetry,” I think traditionally it’s a very kind of white, male, hegemonic tradition of old white men on benches thinking about existentialism, and it’s completely removed and isolated from any kind of real profound question about race, equality … life. So I wanted to honor those intersections, which I think are a lot of times whitened or erased when we look at nature poetry, because we’re not looking at it from the perception of the marginalized, who typically are the people who are tending the earth, who are [planting] the crops, who are being removed from the land.
Smith: As you know, I am really interested in place. How physical place and, specifically, physical place that is tied to a historical moment or a phenomenon shape the way that we experience a place and, subsequently, understand history.
You have this poem “War: What, Is It Good?” and you have a series of lines that say “There is no such thing as a gentle war / There is no peace / That can’t be flung aside.” For me, I read those lines and I just kept thinking about the precarity and fragility of our current moment, and more directly, I kept thinking about you standing on the Capitol, delivering the inaugural poem just weeks after the violent uprising at the Capitol.
In my own book project, I had so many moments where I was standing on a plantation or standing inside of where slave auctions happened or standing on a Confederate cemetery or standing in a prison that was once a plantation and standing in these places that have this very acute relationship to a historical trauma. You did that but for a historical trauma that wasn’t centuries before, but one that had happened a few weeks before. As we learn more and more about that day and what happened, we learn more and more about what could have happened and what many of those people wanted to happen and how even more violent it could have gotten. That’s a long way of asking: What was that like for you? Just in your spirit and in your body to be in that place in that moment after. And how did your presence there fit into the story of that moment in some ways?
Gorman: Oh God. How much more time do we have? You could have written a book about it. It’s interesting that you say the importance of being in this place, because, ironically, the poem that made me the inaugural poet was my poem “In This Place (An American Lyric)” that I wrote several years ago, which Dr. Jill Biden saw online and which made her want me to be the inaugural poet.
So what gave me entry into that space was a poem that I had written about holding space. Looking back at the inauguration, it can be kind of bronzed over because it went well. I got a lot of visibility and notice and positivity. But at that moment, I will say that I was very terrified about stepping into a place that had been desecrated by forces that would like to destroy me, that would like to ruin everything that I am and stand for.
One thing I don’t talk about a lot is that when I was going to the inauguration with my mom, we actually had a plan in place if there had been a shooting or anything. Now, D.C. was very safe and locked down and everything like that, but based off of what we had just seen happen in the very same location where I would be standing and reciting, we weren’t [assuming] that Black, brown bodies were always going to be safe.
So I, as a corporeal, physical person, was really scared to go to D.C., to go to the Capitol building, and to hold space in that location. I ended up doing it and I ended up still being safe. But one thing I had to do in going into that location was recognize that I was terrified and use that fear as a source of power and hope in my poem. I had to say to myself, I am so scared of what could happen. I’m also so scared of failing and not doing well for my people, my race, my gender, my art. But I also recognize that there’s something so much greater on the other side of that terror. If there wasn’t, I wouldn’t be called to do this. If there wasn’t, I wouldn’t be on this plane. If there wasn’t, I wouldn’t be going up to this podium while a few days ago I had been questioning if I needed a bulletproof vest to show up.
I think sometimes our terror is a great kind of flag to symbolize a type of love or greatness. The fact that I was so afraid, that I knew there was a reason that I was tapping into every well of courage that I had to show up into that space. Because the space needed to be revisited; that space needed to be revamped and it needed to be reconciled with. And I thought one of the few and also most fervent ways we have to do that is with poems.
This article originally misstated the amount of time that passed between the January 6 insurrection and President Joe Biden's inauguration.