Last week, the Poetry and Literature Center staff was fortunate enough to meet and chat with Amanda Gorman, the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate appointed this past April. Since she was already in D.C. for a speaking engagement, we leapt at the opportunity to get to know Amanda, show her around the Library, and learn more about the Youth Poet Laureate program.
Tell us a little about your background as a poet.
For me, my work as a poet always intersects with my beliefs as an organizer and an activist. They could never be mutually exclusive. Growing up, I had a speech impediment, which taught me early on to think of unheard voices. I originally wrote short stories and novels as a kid, and it was always difficult to insert characters like me into the narratives. I just didn’t see many people like me—black, female, low socioeconomic status, speech impediment—reflected in the stories being told around me, and that limited my mindset as a writer. Thank goodness I was able to break through that barrier, and by the end of middle school I was interrogating oppression and marginalization more thoroughly in my work. I drifted to poetry, and began to find my voice there in my high school, which was very driven by a social justice pedagogy. I continually strive to help give volume to untold stories through my art and activism. I want to write with passion, but purpose as well.
What was the application and appointment process like for the National Youth Poet Laureate?
That’s an interesting question, because I’ve been in the Youth Poet Laureate program for a while, ever since I was L.A. Youth Poet Laureate in 2014. So while there was one application for National Youth Poet Laureate, the journey seems a whole lot longer. Around a year ago I got a phone call from the nonprofit Urban Word, which runs the Youth Poet Laureate initiative, asking if I’d be willing to be Youth Poet Laureate of the West. I of course accepted, and from that learned that the Regional Poets were finalists for the national title, which meant I was in the running for the National Youth Poet Laureate position. Throughout the rest of the year I traveled with the other regional poets, who are each phenomenal writers. I sent an 80-page manuscript of poetry, my curricula vitae, a video of myself, and an essay describing my work as Western laureate to a panel of judges. This April, I found out that I was one of the top two finalists, and finally at Gracie Mansion in NYC I was named National Youth Poet Laureate. I’m mentally taking a deep breath! It’s been a long and exciting path, since I first got into poetry when I was little, to my L.A. Youth Poet Laureate tenure, to now.
What are you charged with in this new position? What sorts of outreach do you have planned throughout the coming year?
Because I’m the inaugural National Youth Poet Laureate, a guinea pig if you will, the exhilarating and terrifying part is that I help carve this position to my liking. It’s a lot of freedom and a lot of responsibility. What I’m focused on for my tenure is extending the reach of the Youth Poet Laureate program and its energy across the country. I’ve had fantastic experiences in Southern California, because I was raised there and served as laureate there, but now I want to spread that same foundation to the rest of the U.S. This summer I organized a national tour, because I wanted to interact with literary communities in the West, Pacific, Northeast, South, and Midwest.
I also want to help safeguard and promote the arts as much as possible, so I’ve been working with a couple of art and literary organizations to help establish literacy as a fundamental right. I’m also organizing a writer-led fundraiser for civil rights and arts programs. I firmly believe that young people’s access to art and literacy is more important now than ever.
What is most exciting or meaningful to you in this role?
I’m very excited to help show young people that they belong in a literary world which sometimes might exclude them for their age, gender, race, etc. It always means so much to me when I can be part of the process of one student realizing their powerful, poetic voice; and what’s more, that that voice deserves to be shared with the world. For example, I lead workshops around the country on how youth can uncover their true voice, and that’s always a fulfilling journey to be part of. Now that I’m National Youth Poet Laureate, I’m grateful that I can take that work to a national level and help make more room for passionate young writers across our country’s literary community.