Portrait of a Girlboss: How Amanda Gorman Became the First Youth Poet Laureate of the West (and caught Michelle Obama’s attention!)
It bears mentioning that the first time I tried to schedule an interview with Amanda Gorman, we had to work around her trip to the White House to meet with Michelle Obama (nbd). Then there’s the fact that aside from hanging out with FLOTUS, Amanda is presently finishing up her first semester as a freshman at Harvard. She’s also the founder of the youth literacy and activism organization One Pen One Page, and prior to that she served as the first Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles and a United Nations Youth Delegate while also promoting her first book of poetry, The One For Whom Food is Not Enough. All of this before being old enough to buy herself a drink after a long day of being living proof that Whitney had it right: The children are our future, indeed.
Born in Los Angeles, Amanda was raised alongside her older brother and a twin sister, who is presently enrolled at UCLA as a film major. Their mother, a sixth-grade teacher, fostered creative curiosity in her kids with a highly effective (albeit unusual) method: They were only ever allowed to watch The Munsters and The Honeymooners. “Whenever my friends came over, they were like, ‘Why is your television screen in black and white?’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about? This is what everyone's screen is like,’” she said, laughing. But it was this imperative to “make their own fun,” as Amanda puts it, that set her on an insatiable path for reading and writing.
After serving as the first Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles in 2014, Amanda was recently appointed the first Youth Poet Laureate of the (entire) West. She talked with Girlboss about the responsibilities of an artist confronting social injustice, the struggle of being taken seriously as a young woman with big ambitions, what it was like meeting Michelle (spoiler alert: she almost fainted), and what aspiring activists and artists can do to make an impact during turbulent times.
At 18, most of us are still in peak acne-battle mode. You, on the other hand, are a rising star in the world of poetry and founded your own organization. And you've been building on these ambitions for years. Has it been difficult trying to galvanize people who are inevitably older and more experienced than you?
It got to a point that if I was emailing people or contacting people, I would not tell them my age or say where I went to high school. I tried to leave it out as much as possible. Then I'd sit down in these meetings [in Washington D.C. and LA] and people would see me and be like, "Oh. She looks 12." [laughs]. I look so young. But it can also work in my favor when people see what is being done and they realize that it's such a young person doing it. I always like that shock value. I've talked about this with a lot of people from marginalized groups: People might hear your story and expect you to be from a certain place or a specific identity, but nothing is better, at least in my opinion, than breaking through those barriers and going, "Actually, I did start this nonprofit when I was this young. I did write this narrative and I am an African-American female.” I think there's a lot of positive shock value in that.
So: Michelle. Does she literally sparkle IRL, or is that just a part of our collective imagination?
There are no words. That was amazing. Michelle Obama...every time I say her name, it's almost like I'm saying a spell from Harry Potter [laughs]. There's magic that comes with her name. Anyway, she started this program at the White House called National Student Poets with Scholastic. They're basically honoring a handful of poets from around the United States. She invited me and four other poets to come to the White House for a poetry event where young poets did a reading. It was really great to see the First Lady’s vision for providing a space for young people to share their voices and their narratives. She was so funny and so kind and so down to earth.
I'm so surprised I didn’t faint, because when I walked into the room and I saw her, my brain just stopped working. I took a step back. Someone was behind me. They're like, "Do you need to sit down?" And I was like, "I think so." She walked up to me and said, "Hi." I pulled what Ralph Kramden does in The Honeymooners. He does this a lot where he goes, "Homina, homina, homina!" because he has nothing else to say. I did that and I just sputtered out, "I love you!" I was just so overwhelmed. It's like standing next to a goddess. I can't even.
You’ve come of age in an era where police brutality against the black community and race relations in general are being discussed on a scale that it hasn’t really been discussed before, and the work you do, whether it’s poetry or community outreach, addresses that. Do you feel like there is progress being made?
That's a very interesting question. Police brutality and a lot of the issues facing people of color today are so complex that tracking progress is a very nuanced issue. I do think that there has been progress in the galvanizing of people across a wide spectrum, where we have people in the streets or in schools or on social media saying "Black lives matter," or, "Hands up, don't shoot." I think there's a specific power in that. But I do think that in the direction that we're moving, there is a bit of danger in the sense that a lot of policies haven't been really firmly redone and re-imagined for the revolution that we need in law enforcement and incarceration as we see it. I think that's one of the problems.
Loretta Lynch, the Attorney General, has done a lot of great things with her community policing policies, but I'd also say, from the movement of the front lines that we're seeing, I think a lot of the POC community is frustrated because, for example, Black Lives Matter was started by three black women. We rarely say the names of the black women who were killed and brutalized by police. That's not to say that their lives matter any more so than black men, but there is definitely a hole in the discourse and conversation we're having about racism. We're leaving out important points about the intersection of sexism and racism. Why is it that we chant the names of men, but no one is in the street or few people are in the street marching for the lost lives of daughters and mothers?
We’ve seen books like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me emerge as important cornerstones in this cultural conversation. As an artist yourself, what role do you see art playing in matters of social justice?
I think those two pieces that you mentioned are very important to the paradigm. [They’re examples of how] art can enter into the conversation in a way that perhaps other media cannot. I think my role as an artist is to think of the creative ways in which I can engage a wide variety of people in this conversation of prejudice and social change and microaggressions and responsibility. I think there's an interesting and powerful component of art in that it might not often be didactic. Meaning, for example, that when you read Citizen, it doesn't necessarily feel like you're in class, sitting and listening to your history teacher point a finger at you and make you feel this immense amount of shame and confusion and doubt. Rather, these art pieces take you on a journey through the experience in the narrative of people who are suffering in this country today.
That's what I really want to do in my life--not necessarily create a lesson plan, where you sit down and listen to me say why I'm right and you're wrong. I don't want to be self-righteous in my work. I want to be critical and open and vulnerable.
On that note, what’s in store the next couple of years? School, obviously, but after that?
That’s exactly what my mom wants to know [laughs]. Right now I'm trying to balance school [and my appointment as the Youth Poet Laureate of the West] at the same time. That's what I'm very focused on right now--using my platform to see how I can initiate conversations, help out with community projects, and really focus on the people around me. Right now I'm also an ambassador for the School of Doodle, which is an online platform for teen girls. I'm really excited to be working with them and to be promoting this message of confidence to defend girls in my generation.
Any advice you can pass on to girls similarly looking to pursue their passions and really just go for it?
There's a lot that I wish someone had told me as I struck out on this path. If I was going to say one thing, it would be that you shouldn’t let anyone make you feel like an imposter. Because what you're doing is real. It's very possible for girls in this generation to receive a lot of critique and a lot of judgment. There’s a double standard. There's a lot of self-doubt. A lot of asking "Do I belong here? Do I deserve this? How do I compare to others?" All from the girls themselves. I would say if you really want to get things done, if you really want to accomplish your goals, you have to keep going even in times of immense self-doubt. That doesn't mean you don't question yourself and you don't critique the methods you're using, and you can change your route, but never change the overall journey that you're trying to accomplish. You can change the avenue or the street you're on, but never forget the ultimate destination.
-interview by @deenadrewis