The Your Voice section of The Poet’s List showcases articles and blog posts written by poets. These pieces may or not be about poetry. Most often, they are on topics with which the poet finds passion. You can find more of these posts, here: Your Voice.
How did Amanda Gorman become the first person to be named national youth poet laureate?
She shares her story with the Race/Related newsletter below.
It’s impossible not to think of your having been a precocious child. Tell me whether there was anything early that pointed you in the direction of writing.
I grew up at this incredibly odd intersection in Los Angeles, where it felt like the black ’hood met black elegance met white gentrification met Latin culture met wetlands. Traversing between these worlds, either to go to a private school in Malibu, or then come back home to my family’s two-bedroom apartment, gave me an appreciation for different cultures and realities, but also made me feel like an outsider. I’m sure my single mother, Joan Wicks, might describe me as a precocious child, but looking back in elementary school I often self-described myself as a plain “weird” child. I spent most of elementary school convinced that I was an alien. Literally.
The worlds I mentioned, traveled between for school and home — of blackness and whiteness — seemed so foreign to me. While other students were on the jungle gym, I was writing in my journal on a park bench, or trying to write my own dictionary. I was obsessed with everything and anything; I wanted to learn everything, to read everything, to do everything. I was constantly on sensory overload. I’d hoard dozens of books in my second-grade cubby, and literally try to read two at a time, side by side.
What contributed to my writing early on is how my mom encouraged it. She kept the TV off because she wanted my siblings and I to be engaged and active. So we made forts, put on plays, musicals, and I wrote like crazy.
Who were the writers who made you first want to write? When did you decide to be a poet?
I’ll never forget being in third grade, and my teacher, Shelly Fredman, a writer in her own right, was reading Ray Bradbury’s novel “Dandelion Wine” to our class. I don’t remember what the metaphor was exactly — something about candy — but I lost my mind. It was the best thing I’d ever heard. Pure magic!
How did you discover your own voice? How did it feel to discover your own voice? Did it happen gradually? When did you get more serious about writing?
In eighth grade, I picked up Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” because I’d never seen a book with a dark-skinned, nappy-haired girl on the cover. I was enthralled, not just by Morrison’s craftsmanship, but also the content of her stories — her characters, which I’ve always called fourth dimensional. What’s more, I realized that all of the stories I read, and wrote, featured white or light-skinned characters. I’d been reading books without black heroines, which nearly stripped me of the ability to write in my own voice, blackness and all. Reading Morrison was almost like reteaching myself how to write unapologetically in a black and feminist aesthetic that was my own. After that I made a promise to myself: To never stop writing, and to always represent marginalized figures in my work.
And from that sprouted my own voice — the voice of an unashamed black woman who also by way of a speech impediment understood what it was like to be silenced, and didn’t wish this fate on any other soul. To hone my voice, I read everything, from books to cereal boxes, three times: once for fun, the second time to learn something new about the writing craft, and the third time was to improve that piece. I woke up early every day and basically did “literary dress up,” where I’d wear another writer’s voice like clothing and move onto the next one, until I’d gone through a stack of 10 different books. I wore ephemeral versions, copying their sentence constructions, verbiage, and tones. Then I’d step out of them and choose the best characteristics of those styles, until I created a voice that was mine.
This was before I started thinking about publishing, which came in early high school when I started attending free poetry workshops at Beyond Baroque and the nonprofit WriteGirl.