Inauguration Poetic Follow-Up Week 1: Amanda Gorman Makes Poetry HOT Again!

Amanda Gorman recites her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” during the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took the oath of office on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. (DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II) Used under Creative Commons license from photo author, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from Washington D.C, United States

So, I know this should have been done yesterday, but it was supposed to snow last night (and it did!) so I ended up making a last-minute grocery store run and ended up running out of time. However, the point is still true this morning.

National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman was the surprise hit of the Joe Biden/Kamala Harris inauguration last week–EXCEPT to readers of this blog, who got introduced to her magnificence early as part of my Inauguration Poetic Countdown series. Those have been some of my most popular blog posts these past few months, so I thought I would continue with a few follow-up posts. I will include the text of her inaugural poem in a future post, but before that…

Let’s talk about Amanda Gorman.

First of all, before the Inauguration happened, she had publishing contracts for two books that were supposed to be coming out in September. One was a children’s picture book, Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem, and the other was a collection of her poetry. Now, for any poet, let alone a poet of her age, to have TWO book contracts is pretty rare. PLUS, her books are being published by Penguin Random House, rather than a more obscure academic press, which is where most poetic anthologies find a publishing home. She achieved all that before most Americans had heard of her.

However, in her post-inaugural glow, her book of poetry, now named after her inaugural poem, The Hill We Climb (I remember it having a different title before the inauguration, but I could be wrong about that), is…are you ready for this?…the NUMBER ONE book pre-ordered on Amazon.

So think about that a minute. When, in the history of Amazon, has the MOST anticipated, in terms of actual, paid-for pre-orders, been a book of poetry? I don’t know for sure, but my guess would be…NEVER.

Then, on Monday, it was announced that Gorman had signed a contract with IMG Models, which is the modeling agency that represents such people as Kate Moss and Gisele Bündchen. Because, let’s face it: people loved her bold and beautiful outfit as much as her lyrical and uplifting words. She is an emblem of one of my sayings that “In a world of OR, I like to choose AND.” Why can’t she be a poet AND a model? AND an activist? AND a presidential candidate (in 2017, she announced that she wanted to run for President in 2036 when, according to the Constitution, she is old enough to be eligible for the role)? I love her AND.

Finally (so far), on Wednesday it was announced that she was writing a new poem to be recited at…ready?…the 2021 SUPER BOWL! Again, it’s like WHAT? Poetry and football? If at the beginning of last year, before the pandemic hit and we learned that life was crazy and unpredictable, someone had bet me $100 that a 22-year-old female Black poet would be featured at the 2021 Super Bowl…well, I would be out $100. And I’m a poetry enthusiast! But who could have imagined that? I think probably not even Amanda herself.

However, I want to share something that one of my friends, the transformation Vincent Genna, says all the time: ” People don’t realize how many years of work went into being an ‘Overnight” success.” Yes, Amanda Gorman is being swept forward with events that are outside her realm of power, such as the Black Lives Matter movement that is bringing African-American achievements to greater visibility and prominence. However, Amanda Gorman has been working diligently towards this goal all her young life. If she is suddenly winning fame and fortune, it is because she has earned it, not that she just fell into it.

Amanda Gorman was raised in LA by a single mom, albeit, fortunately for Amanda, an English teacher, who always supported Amanda’s writing. As a child, she had both an auditory processing disorder and a speech impediment…not optimal conditions for someone engaged in oral recitations. However, with the positive attitude that is evident in her most famous poem, by college she recognized these struggles as strengths, these obstacles as pillars for her later accomplishments. She cites as one of her inspirations a quote by Marianne Williamson that I love: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

She published her first book of poetry in 2015 (sadly no longer in print) when she was 17. She became the Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles in 2014, and the first National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017. She won a prestigious college scholarship and graduated magnum cum laude from Harvard University, where she was also chosen for Phi Beta Kappa. The lists of her other “firsts” and honors and accomplishments could go on and on and on.

So, yeah. It’s not just a random stroke of luck that she is having this moment in the spotlight.

There are two other things that I want to point out about her story that apply to those of us who don’t have her gift with language. One is that she represents the power of women supporting each other. In addition to Marianne Williamson, she says the youngest-ever Nobel Peach Prize winner, Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, is one of her inspirations. In the realm of poetry, she particularly cites Maya Angelou as an influence–who, readers of my Inaugural Poetic Countdown know, was an Inaugural Poet Laureate for Bill Clinton (read it here). Oprah Winfrey, who considered Maya Angelou as one of her mentors, has been a supporter of Amanda Gorman for some time. Most famously, she gave Amanda Gorman the jewelry for her inauguration appearance, including a ring of a caged bird–a reference to Angelou’s famous autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. And while it hasn’t be acknowledged publicly, I would not be surprised if Oprah put in a good word with Prada, whose vibrant yellow coat and red headband Gorman wore. Vogue magazine states that Prada has a strong feminist history, which is why Gorman wanted an outfit from that fashion house.

However, the link in the sisterhood that is probably most responsible for Gorman’s inaugural appearance is Dr. Jill Biden, who recommenced her. Dr. Biden–who, let me remind you, is an ENGLISH teacher–recalled Gorman’s performance at the Library of Congress, in which she wore a bright yellow dress. So according to news reports, Gorman wanted to wear yellow as a visual shout-out to the woman who probably was the biggest influence in her getting this high-profile opportunity.

Of course, Dr. Biden is an English teacher…just like Amanda’s mom. And so the sisterhood comes full circle.

The other point is that Amanda Gorman’s success illustrates what is possible when you, as Joseph Campbell put it, “follow your bliss.” In the US, poetry is not usually seen as an avenue to financial stability and national renown. I don’t know, of course, but most guidance counselors don’t advise becoming a poet as a secure career path. Most caring adults might say, sure, do what you love…but have a back-up plan. But Amanda Gorman committed herself to her passion, and look where it has taken her.

In that regard, she is a great lesson for all of us, poetically-inclined or not.

In closing, I give you this video of the poem she recited at the Library of Congress, “In This Place–An American Lyric,” that attracted Dr. Biden’s attention. She has grown and matured and developed since then, but it is still remarkable. And don’t miss the tribute she gives to her mom (as did Richard Blanco, the previous inaugural poet who had been the youngest…at 44, twice Amanda’s age):

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.       

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.

Added: Friday, September 22, 2017  /  Used with permission. Video is of Amanda Gorman, first ever National Youth Poet Laureate of the United States, performing her original poem, ‘In This Place: An American Lyric’, at the Library of Congress’ inaugural celebration for Poet Laureate Tracy K Smith on September 13, 2017.

UPDATE: In the sisterhood section, I forgot to mention that both former Secretary of State/First Lade Hillary Clinton and Ellen DeGeneres have already endorsed Gorman for President in 2036!

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