By Erin Herriford
LOS ANGELES — More than a year after she read a poem at the inauguration of President Joe Biden, Amanda Gorman appeared at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at USC on April 23 to discuss her latest work.
“What We Carry” is a collection of poems that dives into the isolation and political unrest felt during the two-year long COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m so lucky and fortunate to be writing at a time that I think we’re experiencing a poetry renaissance,” Gorman told fellow poet Natalie Graham during a conversation on the main stage of the book festival before a crowd of about 100 people.
“I feel like poetry really is the language of the people,” Gorman said. “To me, it’s no coincidence that you see a poem on the base of something like the Statue of Liberty. I think how we grapple with our toughest questions, as … a nation and as a world is through the power of words, they can be used as both as weapons and also as instruments of hope and change and healing.”
A native of Los Angeles, she grew up with her single mother, an English teacher in Watts, and two siblings including a twin sister.
Gorman was 22 when she read her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration. Two weeks later, she read another of her poems at Super Bowl LV. Since then she has become the first national youth poet laureate and published her second book of poetry.
“I wanted to write a book that made people feel loved,” Gorman said. “That was my core thing. If someone reads this book and feels loved … then I will have accomplished the greatest goal in poetry.
“It’s my guiding principle. I think love will always be the thesis statement of my work.”
Gorman cites fellow poets Clint Smith and Eve Ewing as inspirations for her work.
“Sometimes I feel like poetry can be like being stuck on the 405 in traffic,” Gorman said. “You know you’re getting somewhere and you know where you’re going … but are you going to make it?”
Her new book also explores the emotions of the pandemic, alluding that COVID has provided an appropriate setting for the exploratory threads that can be found in her book.
“I think The COVID-19 pandemic left many of us tongue-tied, stunned and simply trying to stay abreast of the frequent changes,” she said.
In researching how to format her book, she drew parallels from letters written during the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918, stating that “I want my poetry to be an arrival in time.”
She said drawing on history was especially important for her and that she wanted to explore different parts of the American psyche and utilize them as guardians for her work.
Grief is the starting point for some of Gorman’s work.
“If I can enter this deep, dark place, that also means I can reach the light, that also means I can reach the hope because I will have gone through the valleys, so the mountaintop will be all the more clearer,” she said.