When President Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States, Amanda Gorman joined the ranks of such massive figures as Robert Frost and Maya Angelou, stepping up to the podium as the president’s inaugural poet. She is the youngest poet in the country’s known history, presenting at a time unlike any her predecessors have faced.
Gorman, 22, was asked to write a poem to symbolise all that Biden stands for—a poem about unity. But in the wake of four years under President Donald Trump, a time no one would describe as united, Gorman told The New York Times, “I’m not going to in any way gloss over what we’ve seen over the past few weeks and, dare I say, the past few years.” Her poem, titled “The Hill We Climb,” takes about six minutes to read.
Having inspiring a divided nation in the midst of a deadly pandemic—here’s who Gorman is and why she was handpicked for such a moment as this.
SHE WAS NAMED THE YOUTH POET LAUREATE OF LOS ANGELES AT 16.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Gorman discovered her talent for poetry when she was still very young. A third-grade teacher captured her attention with Ray Bradbury‘s poem “Dandelion Wine,” according to the Los Angeles Times, and started her on a path to spend nearly every waking moment journaling.
Quickly gaining attention with her work about race, feminism, and the struggle for civil rights, she was named the Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles in 2014, and published her first poetry collection, “The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough,” in 2015. Then, while studying sociology at Harvard University, she was named the first National Youth Poet Laureate in the United States.
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DR. JILL BIDEN DISCOVERED HER WORK.
The new First Lady was the one who stumbled upon Gorman’s work only days before the inauguration. She was watching a reading Gorman gave at the Library of Congress, according to the Times, when she asked if Gorman might read something for the inauguration. Over a Zoom call, she was told she’d been picked to present, and she’d need to be on a flight to Washington, D.C., soon.
“They did not want to put up guardrails for me at all,” Gorman told the Times. “The theme for the inauguration in its entirety is ‘America United,’ so when I heard that was their vision, that made it very easy for me to say, great, that’s also what I wanted to write about in my poem, about America united, about a new chapter in our country.”
SHE STRUGGLED TO FINISH HER POEM UNTIL THE NIGHT OF THE CAPITOL INSURRECTION.
While writing her poem, she listened to music that put her “in a historic and epic mind-set,” she told the Los Angeles Times, including the soundtracks from Netflix series The Crown, as well as the soundtrack from Hamilton. But in the weeks coming up to Wednesday, January 20, Gorman hit a roadblock. The pressure to write something so inspiring it would transform a nation, à la Abraham Lincoln‘s or Martin Luther King Jr.’s addresses, was Herculean. It wasn’t until she watched a pro-Trump mob descend on the Capitol earlier this month that she was able to finish “The Hill We Climb.”
After watching Confederate flags stormed through the seat of American government, she added the lines, “We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it / Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy / And this effort very nearly succeeded / But while democracy can be periodically delayed / It can never be permanently defeated.”
GORMAN HAS OPENED UP ABOUT HAVING A SPEECH IMPEDIMENT.
Like the 46th president, Gorman has a speech impediment she has worked to overcome. “The writing process is its own excruciating form, but as someone with a speech impediment, speaking in front of millions of people presents its own type of terror,” Gorman told the Times as she prepared for the inauguration.
She described to NPR that, as a child, she struggled to pronounce certain letters of the alphabet, such as the letter R, and therefore had to constantly “self-edit and self-police.”
When she first started performing, she worried over which words to include in her poems, fearing that she might not be able to say them correctly.
“I would be in the bathroom scribbling five minutes before trying to figure out if I could say ‘Earth’ or if I can say ‘girl’ or if I can say ‘poetry,'” she told NPR. “And you know, doing the best with the poem I could.”
She draws courage from the poets who have come before her—especially Angelou, who was mute as a child. “I think there is a real history of orators who have had to struggle, a type of imposed voicelessness, you know, having that stage at inauguration,” Gorman says. “So it’s really special for me.”
SHE INTENDS TO RUN FOR PRESIDENT.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Gorman plans to run for president in 2036, the first election cycle when she’ll be old enough to campaign. Watching Vice President Kamala Harris‘s historic win solidified her plans.
“It makes it more imaginable,” she told the Times of Harris’s election. “Once little girls can see it, little girls can be it. Because they can be anything that they want, but that representation to make the dream exist in the first place is huge—even for me.”
This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US