Amanda Gorman: Using Your Voice Is A Political Choice

May 14, 2021
Originally published on September 7, 2021 12:55 pm

Part 3 of TED Radio Hour Episode The Artist's Voice

Poet Amanda Gorman has often been asked to write poems that aren't "political." In her 2018 TED Talk, she explains why her writing inherently carries messages greater than her words.

About Amanda Gorman

Amanda Gorman is the first youth poet laureate of the United States. She is best known for her performance of The Hill We Climb during the 2021 presidential inauguration.

Gorman published her first poetry collection at age 16 and has since performed at the Obama White House and for Hillary Clinton, Malala Yousafzai, Lin-Manuel Miranda, among others. In September 2021, she is set to debut her first children's novel, Change Sings.

Today, she writes for the New York Times newsletter, The Edit, and serves as a board member of 826 National, the largest youth writing network in America.

Gorman received her bachelors degree in sociology from Harvard University.

This segment of TED Radio Hour was produced by Janet W. Lee and edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. You can follow us on Twitter @TEDRadioHour and email us at TEDRadio@npr.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. So far, we've talked about dance and film. And now let's talk poetry. In January, a young poet stole the show at the presidential inauguration in Washington, delivering a soaring poem and becoming pretty famous in the process. That poet is Amanda Gorman. But Amanda was thinking about the intersection of art and politics well before this year. In 2018, she gave a TED Talk all about The Artist's Voice and how, for her, poetry and politics are inseparable.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

AMANDA GORMAN: I have two questions for you. One - whose shoulders do you stand on? And two - what do you stand for? These are two questions that I always begin in my poetry workshops with students, because at times poetry can seem like this dead art form for, like, old white men who just seem like they were born to be old - like, you know, Benjamin Button or something. And I ask my students these two questions, and then I share how I answer them, which is in these three sentences that go, I am the daughter of Black writers who were descended from freedom fighters who broke their chains and changed the world. They call me. And these are words I repeat in a mantra before every single poetry performance. In fact, I was, like, doing it in the corner over there. I was, like, making faces. And so I repeat them to myself as a way to gather myself.

Most of my life, I was particularly terrified of speaking up because I had a speech impediment, which made it difficult to pronounce certain letters, sounds. And I felt like I was fine writing on the page. But once I got on stage, I was worried my words might jumble and stumble. What was the point in trying not to mumble these thoughts in my head if everything's already been said before? Poetry is interesting because not everyone is going to become a great poet, but anyone can be and anyone can enjoy poetry. And it's this openness, this accessibility of poetry that makes it the language of the people. It's this connection making that makes poetry, yes, powerful, but also makes it political.

One of the things that irritates me to no end is when I get that phone call - and it's usually from a white man - and he's like, Amanda, we love your poetry. We'd love to get you to write a poem about this subject, but don't make it political, which to me sounds like I have to draw a square, but not make it a rectangle or, like, build a car and not make it a vehicle. It doesn't make much sense (laughter) because all art is political. The decision to create, the artistic choice to have a voice, the choice to be heard is the most political act of all.

Poets have this phenomenal potential to connect the beliefs of the private individual with the cause of change of the public, the population, the polity, the political movement. And when do you leave here, I really want you to try to hear the ways in which poetry's actually at the center on most political questions about what it means to be a democracy. Maybe later you're going to be at a protest, and someone's going to have a poster that says they buried us, but they didn't know we were seeds. That's poetry. You might be in your U.S. history class, and your teacher may play a video of Martin Luther King Jr. saying, we will be able to hew out of this mountain of despair a stone of hope. That's poetry. Or maybe even here in New York City, you're going to go visit the Statue of Liberty where there's a sonnet that declares, as Americans, give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free. So you see, when someone asks me to write a poem that's not political, what they're really asking me is to not ask charged and challenging questions in my poetic work.

And the thing about poetry is that it's not really about having the right answers. It's about asking these right questions about what it means to be a writer doing right by your words and your actions. And my reaction is to pay honor to those shoulders of people who used their pens to roll over boulders so I might have a mountain of hope on which to stand so that I might understand the power of telling stories that matter no matter what, so that I might realize that if I choose not out of fear, but out of courage to speak, then there's something unique that my words can become.

It might feel like every story's been told before, but the truth is no one's ever told my story in the way I would tell it as the daughter of Black writer who are descended from freedom fighters who broke their chains and changed the world. And one day, I'll write a story right by writing it into tomorrow on this earth more than worth standing for.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: That was poet Amanda Gorman. You can find her full talk at ted.com.

On the show today, how art can be a tool to help us make sense of ourselves and the greater world around us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.