“The Poet Diaries”: Amanda Gorman’s View from the Catbird Seat

The following is a guest post by the inaugural National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman. This is the first in a series of monthly blog posts that Amanda will be writing during her laureateship this year. 

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, and National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman attend a reception prior to the opening reading of Smith’s 2017-2018 term, September 13, 2017. Photo by Shawn Miller.

“How does it feel to be U.S. Youth Poet Laureate?”

These words always find themselves in the mouths of both my friends and journalists. I can’t answer the question completely, but I can try to give you a peek into my life.

I tore out of my sociology research class, my multicolored pens tucked messily back into my book bag. I took the stairs two at a time, until I emerged on a Harvard walkway in fall daylight. I looked at my phone for the time (my wrist is kind of too skinny for watches or bracelets of any kind). I had a few minutes to get back to my dorm, grab my suitcase, and head to the airport for D.C.

Today was the day. It was a significant day for both the Library of Congress and Tracy K. Smith. Smith, also a Harvard alumna, was appointed the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden in June. Before this, Smith already had many laurels to her name—a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, a James Laughlin Award, an Essence Literary Award, a Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and she had been a finalist for the National Book Award. Cough. Needless to say, Smith is her own gladiator in the literary world, and now she was going to give a reading that launched the Library of Congress’ literary season.

But before she took the stage, I would read a specially written poem for the occasion.

Cue Amanda fainting internally.

On this day, September 13, I sped through TSA (for once) and looked out at the long, gray jetway stretching ahead. My hands shook with excitement and nausea. I still couldn’t believe it. I was ready to board my flight, but still hadn’t quite internalized that I would be reading alongside Tracy as U.S. Youth Poet Laureate. Heck, I still hadn’t internalized that I was Youth Poet Laureate of the U.S. in the first place.

This April, at Gracie Mansion, I was named Inaugural U.S. Youth Poet Laureate, a title which is too long to mention casually at dinner parties (I’ve tried). I was selected out of five poets chosen by Urban Word’s National Youth Poet Laureate program. Through the program, I’d served as Youth Poet Laureate of L.A. and later the West. After three years of being in the program, it was other-worldly to be the first U.S. Youth Poet Laureate, and to be invited to speak at a place like the Library of Congress.

I tried to do homework on the plane, but I was too jittery. I read over my poem anxiously once or twice, and ended up staring out the window at the clouds climbing by below, thinking, thinking. After landing at Ronald Reagan, I met up with my long-time poetry mentor, Dinah Berland, who had flown in for the occasion from Detroit. In our Lyft on the way to the historic Thomas Jefferson Building, she mentioned to the driver that I was U.S. Youth Poet Laureate. I think we got a quirked eyebrow and a smile. Since I’m the first one, people often don’t know the U.S. Youth Poet Laureate exists. I’m like a unicorn or the Lorax.

If you haven’t been to the Library of Congress, I highly suggest trying. The beautifully designed Thomas Jefferson Building, with its exquisitely daunting staircase and the Capitol building a stone’s throw away, is beyond breathtaking. I was still gaping at the view when I entered and met up with my grandmother and some pretty fantastic Library staff.

Fast forward to the event reception. I’m chatting with a D.C. friend next to some floral arrangements, and I turn around, and there. Is. Dr. Carla. Hayden.

Dr. Hayden is the 14th Librarian of Congress, and the first woman and African American to ever hold the post. I’ll give you a moment to applause and bow down.

She shook my hand with that signature warmth and we began chatting about the occasion and how she’d met my grandmother in the elevator. She spoke in her slow, careful voice that I call the almost-Southern drawl. Its soft yet brass quality reminded me of the women in my family, maybe because she grew up in Chicago where my mother was raised on the South Side.

All too soon it was time for me to go backstage with Tracy and Dr. Hayden.

Let me just say that Tracy was glowing. I’d spent the past few days re-reading her first collection, The Body’s Question, revisiting my awe of her brilliance. With her unique grace she hugged me when we met, and her skin seemed to emit light while we waited in the purpled darkness backstage. Meanwhile, I crowded anxiously next to Rob Casper, head of the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center. I kept thinking of when I was in 10th grade in my English classroom reading through Tracy’s interview with Poets & Writers. 15-year-old me had thought: One day, maybe 20 years from now, I’d love to meet her. And here I was, three years later, about to read alongside this literary powerhouse. Not to mention I was going to share the stage with two phenomenal, brilliant, strong black women who were each making history in their own right. No pressure.

Dr. Hayden stepped out of the wings to address the crowd. Soon it was my time to step out on stage.

People don’t usually believe it, but my heart is always dancing in my throat before I perform. This time, it felt like it was a grenade waiting to explode. Taking a deep breath, I looked out at the crowd, and began reading my poem “In This Place (An American Lyric).”

I don’t remember much of my performance (I’m always too body-mind numb to), but getting a standing ovation at the Library of Congress was pretty spectacular. Those are the types of moments I slip into my pocket as salvation for when I’m stressed out about a Gov exam. After I performed, Tracy glided onto the stage, and gave a fantastic reading.  

Glamorously, after the event I got some Papa John’s cheese pizza and called my teary-eyed mom, who had watched the livestream from her classroom in Los Angeles. Munching on my greasy meal, I tried to articulate how it felt to meet Tracy K. Smith and Dr. Hayden, to be the first-ever Youth Poet Laureate of the United States reading at the Library of Congress for the first time in history. It was both revelatory and sobering to think I’m descended from a slave named Amanda, who would’ve been punished for reading and writing. It’s a sensation beyond description. I closed my eyes and put the feeling in an imaginary glass jar. This, I whispered to myself, this is what it feels like.

National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman reads her poem, “In This Place (An American Lyric),” at the inaugural reading of Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, September 13, 2017. Photo by Shawn Miller.

 

In This Place (An American Lyric)

There’s a poem in this place—
in the footfalls in the halls
in the quiet beat of the seats.
It is here, at the curtain of day,
where America writes a lyric
you must whisper to say.

There’s a poem in this place—
in the heavy grace,
the lined face of this noble building,
collections burned and reborn twice.

There’s a poem in Boston’s Copley Square
where protest chants
tear through the air
like sheets of rain,
where love of the many
swallows hatred of the few.

There’s a poem in Charlottesville
where tiki torches string a ring of flame
tight round the wrist of night
where men so white they gleam blue—
seem like statues
where men heap that long wax burning
ever higher
where Heather Heyer
blooms forever in a meadow of resistance.

There’s a poem in the great sleeping giant
of Lake Michigan, defiantly raising
its big blue head to Milwaukee and Chicago—
a poem begun long ago, blazed into frozen soil,
strutting upward and aglow.

There’s a poem in Florida, in East Texas
where streets swell into a nexus
of rivers, cows afloat like mottled buoys in the brown,
where courage is now so common
that 23-year-old Jesus Contreras rescues people from floodwaters.

There’s a poem in Los Angeles
yawning wide as the Pacific tide
where a single mother swelters
in a windowless classroom, teaching
black and brown students in Watts
to spell out their thoughts
so her daughter might write
this poem for you.

There’s a lyric in California
where thousands of students march for blocks,
undocumented and unafraid;
where my friend Rosa finds the power to blossom
in deadlock, her spirit the bedrock of her community.
She knows hope is like a stubborn
ship gripping a dock,
a truth: that you can’t stop a dreamer
or knock down a dream.

How could this not be her city
su nación
our country
our America,
our American lyric to write—
a poem by the people, the poor,
the Protestant, the Muslim, the Jew,
the native, the immigrant,
the black, the brown, the blind, the brave,
the undocumented and undeterred,
the woman, the man, the nonbinary,
the white, the trans,
the ally to all of the above
and more?

Tyrants fear the poet.
Now that we know it
we can’t blow it.
We owe it
to show it
not slow it
although it
hurts to sew it
when the world
skirts below it.

Hope—
we must bestow it
like a wick in the poet
so it can grow, lit,
bringing with it
stories to rewrite—
the story of a Texas city depleted but not defeated
a history written that need not be repeated
a nation composed but not yet completed.

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
to breathe hope into a palimpsest of time—
a poet in every American
who sees that our poem penned
doesn’t mean our poem’s end.

There’s a place where this poem dwells—
it is here, it is now, in the yellow song of dawn’s bell
where we write an American lyric
we are just beginning to tell.

(This poem was first published by Split This Rock.)

__________

You can watch Amanda Gorman read “In This Place (An American Lyric)” as part of 22nd Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry Tracy K. Smith’s inaugural reading via YouTube.

The National Youth Poet Laureate Program is an initiative of Urban Word, an award-winning youth literary arts and youth development organization, in collaboration with local youth literary arts organizations across the country; and championed by the leading national literary and arts organizations, including the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities, the Academy of American Poets, Poetry Society of America, PEN Center USA, Cave Canem, and the Library of Congress.

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