Poet Amanda Gorman on the power of writing for social change

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For the 2021 Power of Women issue, Variety spoke with several women in the entertainment industry who use their voices to benefit worthy causes. To learn more, click here.

When Amanda Gorman was 5, she would get her mother out of bed early in the morning to buy her a pen and paper so that she could write.

“She actually had to pay me a quarter for each day I stayed in bed rather than waking her up so she could sleep eight hours,” recalls Gorman, now 23. “And then I could write later.”

It was the mother of Gorman, a sixth-grade English teacher, who told her young daughter that her voice was her superpower.

“Can you imagine that as a girl with a speech impediment it sounded like an oxymoron? And as I grew up, I understand that, as always, my mom was 100% right. My superpower is my voice.

When Gorman was 14, her mother enrolled her in the non-profit creative writing and mentoring organization WriteGirl to help her overcome her disability and gain confidence in her job. Gorman has fond memories of the adult female mentors she was paired with at the time: “They gave me reassurance that I was not an aspiring writer – I was a writer.”

Gorman has never stopped writing, and her own experiences at WriteGirl have inspired her to give advice to other young artists. His poetry earned him enormous recognition as a young adult. She has already made history books as the country’s first national poet laureate and the youngest poet to recite her work during a presidential inauguration, joining an elite group of legendary poets like Maya Angelou and Robert. Frost to have that honor.

If you’ve heard Gorman’s charismatic six-minute reading of his transcendent poem, “The Hill We Climb,” on unifying a divided and struggling nation, during the inauguration of President Joe Biden, you might very well believe that she will keep her vow to become president of the United States. (She plans to run in 2036.)

Her desire to become president dates back to when she was 11 in math class, talking about what she wanted to change in the world. “My math teacher looked at me and jokingly said, ‘Well, you should run for president.’ I said, ‘You know what? You’re right!’ … It has become my ambition and my goal. It gave me the idea that I not only want to participate in society as a poet, but also as a politician.

Gorman says the country is ready for “a new kind of leader”, one who will rule with a “poetic spirit” and “cultural imagination”.

Gorman displays many of the characteristics of a born leader – a meteoric intelligence, deep compassion, and an uncanny ability to connect with the masses. Although small in stature, she is an imposing figure, wise beyond her years and a fervent activist concerned with the social ills of the world, be it racism, sexism, police brutality, the climate crisis, the human trafficking or cruelty to animals. Yet she maintains an optimistic outlook on life and humanity.

“It’s pretty easy when you turn on the news to see a vengeful, scarred and poisoned world,” she says. “That’s what makes the headlines, the headlines. … But as much harm as I can see, there is much more good. I just have to make myself want and open up to seeing it. This will, she explains, is what inspired the last line of her inaugural poem: “For there is always light, if only we are brave enough to see it.” If only we were brave enough to be.

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Bravery is the attribute she most admires in her mother, who raised her, her twin sister and their younger brother as a single parent in the Westside of Los Angeles: “She instilled in me the value of speak for oneself, especially as a woman. . “

In elementary school, when Gorman stood up to a bully, she said, “I would come home and tell my mom and we would party.

Although still sympathetic to her daughter’s passion for writing, Gorman’s mother feared that pursuing a career in poetry was risky because it was too unstable. “My mom always wanted me to support myself and support myself while doing what I loved the most,” says Gorman.

Her mother and all her family were convinced that she would become a scientist. “I was a very geeky, nerdy kid with a microscope, looking at petri dishes, doing experiments and still having my head in a science textbook,” she says. “What I explained to them was that I ended up being a scientist – just a social scientist,” says Gorman, who studied sociology at Harvard and graduated with honors in 2020.

She first became interested in social issues at New Roads, a progressive private school in Santa Monica that she attended from Kindergarten to Grade 12. Gorman says New Roads was a “social and ecological minded” institution that supported multiple expressions of intelligence. “It challenged me to think critically. I would say it really sparked my kind of questioning about the world from a young age.

In his recently published children’s poetry book, “Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem,” Gorman writes on societal themes such as not being afraid of change and using the power of the voice to make changes “big or small” in the world, in communities and above all in oneself.

“I often have the impression that when people are afraid of change,” she says, “it is not necessarily the change that we are afraid of. It is helplessness. It is helplessness. It is the feeling that we have no agency to control the changes that are taking place.

One of the main changes Gorman says he has experienced is how his relationship with his own voice has evolved over the years.

“I had a lot of shame, a lot of guilt around the fact that I had a speech impediment,” she says. “I felt like my voice was that scar that people could hear. As I grew and developed a stronger relationship with my own identity, I came to recognize that it is a strength and what I have experienced as a person with a disability has rather given my super power, which is my ability to connect and talk with other people.

Another significant change that Gorman underwent in her young life was the shift from anonymity to stardom, which she describes as “terrifying in many ways not to feel in control of your own image or self. voice”. Whenever she feels like she is “in a storm or a hurricane of attention or visibility,” she recalls, “I always have the most control over myself over. anyone else. ”

To keep her feet on the ground, she thinks of another great piece of advice from her mother: “She always quotes me from ‘Hamlet’: ‘To your own self be true.’ If you stay true to yourself, then whatever kind of wind blows against you, you become the oak that never moves.

Gorman first realized that she was a writer at the age of 8: “I recognized that what I was doing was a profession in itself. She tells the story of an “amazing” third-grade teacher named Shelly, who was a published writer. “When I understood, ‘Wow, this is something women can do – they get paid for it; they can live on it – I realized it was not just a job. It was a vocation.

Gorman, a self-described perfectionist who rewrote “The Hill We Climb” 22 times before she was satisfied, says she always does a ton of research before writing a word. “I try to find an opening and a story that can serve as a window to what I write. If there is anything that makes me incredibly frustrated, confused, or devastated, I try to follow this trail of research into the past and use it to create poetry for the present and the future.

Her favorite writers are Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Langston Hughes, and among the new generation of “genre-defying” poets, Ocean Vuong and Eve Ewing.

In addition to a special edition of his inaugural poem published last March and which debuted at # 1 on the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller lists, Gorman has written two books. of poetry to be published this year. “Change Sings” is out this month, and “Call Us What We Carry: Poems”, which she describes as “a lyrical rumination about the past two years we’ve been through because of the pandemic,” will hit the shelves. bookstores on December 19. 7.

This month, Gorman signed a three-year contract with Estée Lauder to be its first Global Changemaker. She will represent the company’s flagship beauty brand in advertising campaigns and conferences and will also organize Writing Change – a grant package worth $ 3 million – to promote literacy among girls and women.

Gorman says the three issues that are most important to her are equality, education and the environment: “I think these three really meet at the intersection because they literally affect us all. Each of us lives on this planet. Each of us goes through some kind of educational experience. And each of us deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.

Milestones

2017: Named First National Youth Poet
January 2021: Becomes the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history
March 2021: Special edition of his inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb”, is published
September 2021: The first children’s picture book, “Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem”, is published
Agreement signed to become Estée Lauder’s first Global Changemaker
December 2021: A collection of poetry on the pandemic, “Call Us What We Carry: Poems” to be published


Styling: Jason Bolden; Makeup: Joanna Simkin / The Wall Group; Cover: Dress: Gucci; Earrings: Sterling King; Look at 2; Top, skirt, shoes: Louis Vuitton; Earings; Wasée jewelry


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