The following is a guest post by the inaugural National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman. This is the fourth in a series of monthly blog posts that Amanda will be writing during her laureateship this year.
As we enter the first few weeks of 2018, new beginnings, ideas, and conversations are on the brain. I definitely enjoyed one of my first events of the year, which was in partnership with the Library of Congress, the California Center for the Book, Urban Word NYC, the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Los Angeles Public Library. The City Librarian of L.A., John Szabo, opened the event, which was called Poets Laureate: From L.A. to D.C. It featured a performance from L.A. Youth Poet Laureate Mila Cuda, and a reading of poetry by myself and Los Angeles Poet Laureate and National Book Award Winner Robin Coste Lewis. To top it all off, we had a conversation on poetry and laureateship with Rob Casper, head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress.
In the realm of new beginnings, at the event I read some new poems I’ve written throughout the fall and winter, many of which deal with matters of race, gender, sexual assault, nature, and the multigenerational complexities of the African diaspora—which is why it was a particular pleasure to read alongside Robin. She’s a fellow Angeleno and Harvard alumna. Moreover, she openly regards “black joy” as her “primary aesthetic”. While her work is rooted in the literary tradition of the African diaspora, she also has a degree in Sanskrit and comparative religions, which often appears in her work, notably her poem “On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari” (from Voyage of the Sable Venus). Her poetic contributions also interrogate the constructions of beauty and the historic influence of the black female figure. She writes that this work “is challenging. It would be great, for example, if I were the kind of poet who could just write a poem about eating an apple.”
And in many ways I have to agree. This past Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which not only had me thinking about new beginnings, but also the continuous struggle for civil rights. Speaking personally, it isn’t easy when your poetic voice is called to expose the black female experience and the multifaceted influence of that identity on history and art. During our panel in L.A., we discussed whether our laureateships had changed our poetry, and for me my answer was yes and no—no, in that there are the lifelong literary values which I have, and will always continue to embrace, including diversity of voices, styles, rhythm, and lyricism. Yes, because in being U.S. Youth Poet Laureate my conception of the purpose of poetry is always expanding and evolving. I’m always asking: Which voices are being left out of this poetry? How can I include them? How can my poetry inspire? How can I use my platform to bring new and important issues to the forefront of the conversation?
Even if I don’t always find the exact answers to these questions, it’s still important to ask them. As Robin and I discussed at the event, the laureateship is a phenomenal opportunity for public service. I firmly believe that in order to be the best public servants and poets we can be, we must constantly think of new ways to approach and embrace our positions. We must remember our past—which MLK Day helps us do—while also striving to create new legacies for the future. What will your new beginning be?