The breakout star of yesterday’s inauguration ceremony wasn’t the new president or vice president, nor was it Lady Gaga. Arguably, it was 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, a Harvard graduate and the first National Youth Poet Laureate who captivated the world with the commanding recital of her poem, “The Hill We Climb.”
Gorman was first introduced to GBH audiences when she appeared on Open Studio with Jared Bowen last spring and performed “The Miracle Of Morning,” an ode to the victims of the pandemic that she wrote while finishing her senior year at Harvard.
In that interview, Gorman shared that, like President Biden, she too faced a significant speech impediment growing up. The daughter of an English teacher, she fell in love with writing poetry as a form of creative expression and also as a way to overcome her speech challenges. “For me, I learned how to speak by writing poetry,” she said.
In particular, she struggled vocalizing the “r” sound, but found a creative way to overcome that challenge. She noticed that rapping along to the rapid-fire lyrics in the hit Broadway show Hamilton (“Excuse me, are you Aaron Burr, sir?”) was actually the perfect solution.
“If I can rap, if I can do those poetics at that speed, and with those intonations, that was helping me figure out how to say those sounds,” she said, adding that without poetry, she may not have been able to overcome her speech impediment. “Written text, spoken word, poetry, really helped me find my voice in more ways than one.”
Watch: Gorman discusses overcoming her speech impediment.
Hamilton even made its way into her performance at the inauguration as she implored “history has its eyes on us" — a line featured in the musical. That caught the attention of Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who praised Gorman on Twitter. “Thx @Lin_Manuel! Did you catch the 2 @HamiltonMusical references in the inaugural poem? I couldn’t help myself!” she tweeted back at him later in the day.
In everything she writes, Gorman said she observes the world around her to capture a certain moment, even dark moments like the pandemic or political division. “What do humans do when they are scared and alone and isolated from the rest of the world?” she said. “Often, it’s telling stories that matter.” Her ability to absorb her surroundings was vital for writing her inaugural poem, which she finished over the last two weeks after the siege at the U.S. Capitol.
“Her words, her vision, how she’s looked at this country — I think it’s really propelling us forward as we think about what she gave us yesterday,” Bowen told host Joe Mathieu today on GBH's Morning Edition, reflecting on his conversation with Gorman last summer. “The poise comes from the fact that she just observes. She’s just extraordinary on all levels. “
Watch: Bowen discusses Gorman's inaugural poem.
Gorman graduated from Harvard last spring, remotely, after the pandemic forced her home to California. “I’m the descendent of a slave named Amanda. So that type of trajectory of my family being property, to generations later me graduating from a place like Harvard — that speaks to such a larger legacy than myself,” she said. “And just because I’m not in an auditorium, it doesn’t belittle that accomplishment in any way, shape, or form.”
Gorman said in the interview with Bowen that she was excited to introduce poetry to new generations in unexpected places. “What’s been really fulfilling for me in the literary community, [is that] I can participate in what it means to re-imagine what it is to be a poet,” she said. “We’re breathing rare air. To be a poet now means so much more than what it once did.”
That vision could also lead her to political office. Gorman told Bowen that she has ambitions to run for president in 2036; what began as a joking suggestion from a teacher is now a fully-laid plan. “People act like I’m joking,” she said. “I’m dead serious. Why wouldn’t I be?”
Watch: Gorman talks about her presidential aspirations.
Watch: Bowen's full interview with Gorman from May 2020.