Amanda Gorman, whose recitation of “The Hill We Climb” at the 2021 inauguration made her America’s most famous poet, has never met a mountain she couldn’t scale.
Amanda Gorman already knows you want her to save the world. “Young people are expected to rescue everyone, even when we’re struggling to rescue ourselves,” she tells me in the same clear, strident voice she used to deliver her poem “The Hill We Climb,” which she performed at President Biden’s 2021 inauguration.
Gorman is probably the most famous poet in America. She is the woman who, at 22, became the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history when she delivered that call for unity on the steps of the U.S. Capitol a mere two weeks after militant far-right factions stormed the building in an attempt to prevent the election from being certified. She would go on to become the first (and so far only) poet to deliver a poem during the Super Bowl—another performance that would help thrust her into the stratosphere of the public imagination.
We’re talking on a sunny day in July. Gorman, now 24, is at her home in Los Angeles; I am in Brooklyn. She is wearing a grey zip-up sweater, her flawless brown skin shining brightly, dappled by the green shade in the outdoor courtyard where she’s seated. Occasionally, as we speak, she stops and raises her eyes to the sky; she’s distracted by a hummingbird floating by. It’s an idyllic scene beamed at me through my laptop screen, like those visions of a technocratic green utopian future that were popular in sci-fi films in the early aughts, back when the future seemed exciting.
“When my mom was growing up, she was told by the elders around her, ‘Go change the world.’ And in my generation, we’re told to go save the world. It’s completely different stakes.”
The overall response to Gorman’s success, especially from people older than her, has been that she is a symbol of hope—a promise of something better than the division and violence in 2020. But, Gorman points out, “When my mom was growing up, she was told by the elders around her, ‘Go change the world.’ And in my generation, we’re told to go save the world. It’s completely different stakes when you look at those two sentences. The world that I and so many other members of Gen Z are living in is one of emergency, is one of destruction.”
If the members of Gorman’s generation are expected to rescue all humanity against extraordinary odds, “it’s not something we can do alone,” she says. “No sustainable and worthwhile future is ever built by one. It has to be built by many.”
She’s talking about reaching across generations—something that is central to her work. Wherever she writes, she stacks copies of books by the authors she sees as her forebearers: James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange. “I like to give myself a source of historical power,” she explains. “And then it’s all ‘cross fingers’ from there.”
She was raised by her mother, Joan Wicks, in West L.A., alongside her twin sister, Gabrielle, now a filmmaker. Gorman was drawn to writing at an early age. Dinah Berland, who mentored Gorman through the L.A. literary organization WriteGirl, says, “It was clear that Amanda was curious about the path to becoming a successful poet, and I had no doubt that she could get there.” Gorman’s interest in art was matched by a passion for politics. But she sees poetry as part of political work. Poets, she says, “are working with a few syllables. We get the fewest amount of stones to throw to make the most impact. How can I say the most by saying the least?” She has stated, often in interviews, that her ultimate goal is to become president of the United States.
But for now, she is a recent Harvard graduate with the bestselling poetry books The Hill We Climb and Call Us What We Carry. This success comes as poetry itself has seen a renaissance; according to the National Endowment for the Arts, 28 million adults read poetry in 2017—the highest readership recorded in 15 years, with those aged 18 to24 representing a large part of that audience. Poets like Gorman, Danez Smith, Rupi Kaur, and Patricia Lockwood all loom large on the cultural landscape, aided by the ease of sharing poetry on social-media platforms like Instagram and TikTok.
But, says best-selling children’s book author and MacArthur-anointed “genius” Jacqueline Woodson, the transmissibility of poetry is just part of its appeal. “I think of this as the keening generation,” Woodson says of Gorman and Gen Z. “The poetry lives inside the keening, and they know this.”
Gorman also has an acute sense of the visual possibilities
of being a public intellectual. Think of the now-iconic yellow Prada coat and red headband she wore at the inauguration. In this, she’s like the writing giants who came before her: people like Joan Didion, Maya Angelou, and even Zadie Smith—all women writers who understood fashion as another language to play with. “As much as possible, I try to include my physical person in conversation with the beliefs that I hold,” she says. “There is a real joy and power that comes with being intentional with our aesthetics. It goes beyond looking ‘pretty.’ It gets into looking our fullest selves.”
First and foremost, though, Gorman is a lover of words. I ask her what terms she’s currently in love with, and she offers long haul. “It sounds so boring,” she says, laughing, “like I’m moving cross-country. But I think so much of what’s happening in the world—the attacks on women’s rights, you choose which disaster—the idea of being in it for the long haul is really important to me.
“Oh!” she adds, as the light continues to fall around her, “also go vote. Put that in before everything else.” She does, after all, still want to be president one day.