Amanda Gorman in Los Angeles, on June 11, 2021.
Kennedi Carter
March 2, 2022 10:27 PM EST

For Amanda Gorman, the hardest part of writing poetry isn’t mastering rhythm or conjuring powerful images. Those things come naturally to the writer, who became the youngest Inaugural poet in U.S. history last year. No, the hardest part of poetry, Gorman says, is letting herself speak at all. “Girls have spent so much of their lives being told to be seen and not heard, and you can see how they might bring that fear to the page,” she says, speaking from her home in Los Angeles. “So the core aspect of any conversation I have with someone who wants to start writing is: How do you stare at the monster of fear, know that it’s there, but not let it take up so much space?”

Gorman, 23, was lucky enough to have the “seen and not heard” message debunked early by a mother who monitored the messages she and her twin sister were consuming. When they would watch episodes of America’s Next Top Model, their mom would pause the show to break down the gender politics at play. A speech impediment that Gorman lived with until she was 20 also helped her gain the confidence to speak up, she says. She noticed how high school and college classmates would speak over her, and she understood that it wasn’t a reflection of her intelligence or worth. “It was actually occurring at this cross section of my gender, my race, and my disability,” she says.

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Gorman hopes to use those lessons, and the flurry of media attention she has received in the past year, to encourage more young women and people of color to express themselves through art. And part of that mission means leading by example, embracing the qualities that make up her identity. “The type of leadership that I like to participate in really leans into my femininity,” she says. “Things like empathy, compassion, listening, tenderness, sharing power—you risk being called ‘too emotional,’ but I like to lean into those characteristics because we need to see more of that in the world.”

The poet brews herself a cup of chamomile tea, explaining that she relies on rest—not caffeine—to maintain her frenetic schedule. (“If I could do one thing in this life,” she says, “naps are where I belong.”) Last year, Gorman published three books: The Hill We Climb, a hardcover edition of her Inaugural poem; the picture book Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem; and Call Us What We Carry, a collection of poetry covering everything from the pandemic to school shootings to the climate crisis. The writing is rousing, the voice of a young woman who is at times overwhelmed by the mess of the world she is discovering, but never defeated by it. That style has led many to dub Gorman a symbol of hope for a better future—an idea bolstered by her repeated promises to run for President someday after she becomes eligible in 2033.

But Gorman doesn’t want to be a repository for other people’s hopes. It gives her “deep worry” when people, particularly older generations, suggest that she and other inspiring young people will save the world. And she voices her presidential aspirations in large part, she says, to normalize the idea of a young Black woman seeing that as a possibility, so that others might do the same. “When you read my work, honestly, the last person that I want you to put hope in is me,” she says. “The great responsibility I feel is to get people to put that power and that hope in themselves.”

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Write to Ciara Nugent at ciara.nugent@time.com.

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