Amanda Gorman has had quite a year. The former National Youth Poet Laureate stepped onto the stage at President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ Inauguration on Jan. 20 and seized the world’s attention with “The Hill We Climb,” a stirring piece about the promise of America. Soon came a recitation at the Super Bowl; a deal with a modeling agency; the release of her Inaugural poem in print; a co-hosting gig at the Met Gala alongside Billie Eilish, Timothée Chalamet and Naomi Osaka; and the publication of her debut picture book, Change Sings.
Amid it all, Gorman also completed a timely poetry collection, Call Us What We Carry, coming Dec. 7. In seven sections and through poems that often experiment with form, the book sets out to tell the story of the COVID-19 pandemic from a collective point of view, with Gorman exploring the grief, hope and wisdom that come from a period of shared tragedy. She’s keenly aware that the pandemic is still ongoing, and figuring out how to wrestle with that became “one of the greatest challenges.” She used the emotions she was feeling in real time—the grief, the anger, the confusion and the fear—to power her writing.
Here, Gorman speaks to TIME about her writing process, her choice to incorporate a personal moment of pain in her work and the most valuable lesson she’s learned from her unprecedented year.
In February, when you spoke with Michelle Obama for your TIME cover story, you talked about how girls of color are not treated like they have staying power and how you have to tell yourself to stand firm in the conviction that what you’re doing matters and will last. Looking back on the year and all of its many shades, has that feeling remained? Or evolved?
All of us have what I might call touch trees. They say when you’re lost in a forest, one thing you can do is to identify a tree that you will revisit as you wander and try to find your way back. For me, this year has really meant identifying my touch trees, nourishing them and revisiting them. One that I’ve returned to a lot has been that poetry matters. And that might sound kind of basic, but so much of my life was spent internalizing these ideas that, one, poets only counted as dead, old, white men, and, two, that the poetry done today by people who look like me couldn’t be as important—that it was cute, but not necessarily a craft or a calling. I try to remind myself that poetry is significant and always will be, and the work that I am doing has some bearing not only on my own life, but on the lives of others. So it’s important to keep going.
The world first met you through your poetry at the Inauguration, then you went on to do so many other things this year. How does it feel to be releasing this collection, coming back to your biggest calling?
It does feel a bit surreal, honestly, because for so many writing sessions it felt impossible. There was this voice in the back of my head telling me it wouldn’t be finished, that I had bitten off more than I could chew. I gave myself no small task, lyricizing a global pandemic experience. I’m just excited for people to see more of my poetry and different sides of my poetry that haven’t been seen before.
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I want to talk about the dedication. It reads, “For all of us both hurting & healing who choose to carry on.” Can you tell me a little bit about the meaning there, and who you want to reach with this collection?
When I was writing the book, I knew I didn’t want to dedicate it to one specific person but rather to a collective, a community, which for me was really at the core of the book. I wanted it to not be about the singular but the plural, because so much of it is about what it means to go through a pandemic together.
On that note, you use the word “we,” rather than “I,” throughout the collection. Why did you make that choice and what are you hoping the reader will take from that?
When I first started writing the book, it was almost like the narrative voice had multiple personalities. One sentence would begin in the first person “I” and then move to the plural and all of a sudden it would be “we.” What that signified for me is that while I was tapping into an experience that I’ve personally had with the pandemic, at the same time, there were so many doors and bridges and openings to connect with other people—that that pain was my own, but it also didn’t solely belong to me. So my decision to use “we” as much as possible in the book was really to honor that. With something like a pandemic, the emphasis for me is the pan in that word, meaning all.
I was honestly surprised by how much the collection focused on the pandemic, just because, imagining you living through it and all the things you experienced while writing, if I put myself in your shoes it just sounds exhausting. I can imagine wanting a break from it.
Thank you for mentioning that. It was one of the greatest challenges. I felt that it was really important, while we were still in the fog of war, to take some time to look around and try to interrogate what [the pandemic] means. The fact that I was feeling exhausted, strained, scared were all realities that needed to be put into the book.
I want to talk about one poem in particular, “The Truth in One Nation,” which really stood out to me. It starts out describing an upsetting incident from this year, when you were followed home by a security guard who didn’t trust that you lived in your building. How did it feel to write about that event, and what did you discover in the writing process?
Yes, it was informed by that incident—but it was built on the foundation that that incident is actually not an isolated event but a pattern that I and other African Americans experience for a lifetime. This is why I wrote in the pluralistic voice: the problem wasn’t the incident itself. The problem was that it was expected. I was trying to rupture the normalcy by which we as Americans experience violence and death, the ways in which we have become desensitized to our own destruction. I wanted to revisit that pain and that terror, because it has to be known about again and again and again to keep our humanity. What happens when we allow ourselves to feel outraged, grievous and mourning over the loss of life in our country? Those types of emotions are what lead us to act.
What did you feel while writing the piece?
There was just deep grief, deep rage. In that section, rage and fury are something I talk about a lot. There was also kind of a heart-splitting love. There’s a line in there: “There is no love for or in this world / That doesn’t feel both bright & unbearable, / Uncarriable.” I was trying to capture what it feels like to love fully. In many ways, that opens you up to loss and vulnerability, but at the same time, it can also widen you for compassion and for change.
What’s your greatest lesson from the past year?
The importance, especially for women, to identify and listen to your inner voice. We all have these instincts that tend to process faster than the conscious mind might be able to. And as things go by so fast, I’m depending more and more on my instincts as a guiding principle. Maybe later I’m able to look back and say, “Oh, these were all the signifiers of that decision before I made it.” But in the moment, I have to be able to think [on a gut level] about what I want for myself and my career. That’s been helpful because as I say no to so many opportunities that come my way, I think of it as saying yes to my instincts and saying yes to my values.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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