Looking back in history to help inform and improve future race relations
Poet Amanda Gorman on how she prepared for Inauguration Day
Judy Woodruff: And now to a young voice poised to speak to the nation.
The poet who will present a new work at the inauguration this week is quite accomplished, and yet only 22. She sounds many of Martin Luther King's themes and follows in the footsteps of poets, including Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Alexander, and Richard Blanco.
Jeffrey Brown talked to Amanda Gorman as part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.
Amanda Gorman: While we might feel small, separate, and all alone, our people have never been more closely tethered, because the question isn't if we can weather this unknown, but how we will weather this unknown together.
Jeffrey Brown: In her poetry Amanda Gorman explores topics such as race and marginalization and often American history, as in a reading at the Library of Congress.
Amanda Gorman: There's a poem in this place, a poem in America, a poet in every American who rewrites this nation, who tells a story worthy of being told on this minnow of an earth.
Jeffrey Brown: She was named the nation's first youth poet laureate at age 19. Now she's part of history on a monumental stage. How did she feel when the invitation came?
Amanda Gorman: A lot of screaming, a lot of dancing around my apartment. But, after that, I mean, it's such a huge honor to be able to participate in such a historic moment.
Jeffrey Brown: She spoke to us Friday from her Los Angeles home, where she continues to work on her inaugural poem, titled "The Hill We Climb."
I asked what she most wanted to convey in these divisive times.
Amanda Gorman: I began writing the poem in early January, I want to say.
And then, as I was around halfway through, we had the insurrection at the Capitol. And I don't want to say that my poem took a drastic left turn, because it was already going towards a location, but those events just solidified for me how important it was to have a poem about unity and the new chapter of America in this inauguration.
Jeffrey Brown: Who are you reading to? Who are you speaking to?
Amanda Gorman: That's kind of the challenging thing about writing an inaugural poem. You're speaking to everyone, but you don't also want to speak for everyone.
So, for me, it's trying to make a poem that is both robust, but also accessible to anyone who might be watching, that they can feel that they are represented and well-established in this poem. So, it's a really difficult dance to do.
Jeffrey Brown: Gorman grew up in L.A., raised by her mother, a teacher, and with two siblings, including a twin sister.
She had a speech impediment as a child, and not only overcame it to perform as a poet, but, at 16, started her own youth literacy program, One Pen One Page, to help and encourage others.
Amanda Gorman: One of the most rewarding moments of my career is when I'm speaking to a child who tells me they have the same speech impediment that I had to overcome and that they're going to keep writing or sharing their voice after hearing my story.
So, it's a huge aspect of who I am. Writing wasn't just a form of expression. It was a form of pathology by embarking on spoken word over and over and over again and reciting my poems. No matter how terrified I was, because I had the support of others, I was able kind of to slowly climb my way to the place I am at today.
Jeffrey Brown: It's something, it turns out, you share with the president-elect, with Joe Biden.
Amanda Gorman: It's also something I not only share with the president-elect, but with a previous inaugural poet, Maya Angelou, who also was mute growing up.
So, there's a lot of historicity in overcoming that.
Jeffrey Brown: What is the power of poetry for you?
Amanda Gorman: Ooh.
The power of poetry is everything for me. Poetry is -- it's an art form, but, to me, it's also a weapon, it's also an instrument. It's the ability to make ideas that have been known, felt and said. And that's a real, I think, type of duty for the poet.
One of my favorite writers, Audre Lorde, has said, there's no new ideas, just new ways of making them felt. And that's what I try to do.
Jeffrey Brown: She's written for a July Fourth celebration featuring the Boston Pops Orchestra.
Amanda Gorman: Today, we gather, so our founders' words do not go diminished.
Jeffrey Brown: A tribute to Black athletes for Nike, an inauguration at Harvard, from which she's a recent graduate. A children's book, "Change Sings," and a poetry collection will be released this year.
And she has some high political aspirations of her own.
I saw in an interview where you said that you yourself wanted to be president at one point.
Amanda Gorman: Yes.
Jeffrey Brown: You even pinpointed the year, I think, huh?
Amanda Gorman: Yes, 2036, because that would be the election year in which I will be old enough to run, so...
Jeffrey Brown: You're getting close now, at this point.
Amanda Gorman: Getting close.
Amanda Gorman: I feel like I should just, like, tap Joe at the inauguration, and be like, I will be back. Let me know how this goes for when I come on.
Amanda Gorman: But, honestly, it began -- I remember being really young, and, as I am today, very passionate about social issues.
And a teacher said to me, kind of maybe half-jokingly, "Well, you should become president."
And I was like, that's not a joke. Let's do it.
So, definitely doing it, hashtag #commandainchief.
Jeffrey Brown: For now, though, she's focused on her poetry.
Amanda Gorman: Let each dawn find us courageous, brought closer, heeding the lights before the fight is over. When this ends, we will smile sweetly, finally seeing, in testing times, we became the best of beings.
Judy Woodruff: Look forward to hearing her poem on Wednesday.