Amanda Gorman tells Michelle Obama the mantra she recites to herself before a poetry reading
Amanda Gorman is opening up to Michelle Obama. The 22-year-old inaugural poet covers the latest issue of Time, and, in an accompanying conversation with the former first lady, discusses her process, experiences and hopes for the future.
Gorman made history at President Joe Biden’s January inauguration when she read her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” and became the youngest inaugural poet ever.
Whether preparing for the inaugural reading or another performance, the Harvard grad always recites the same mantra to herself, which is inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Moana track, “Song of the Ancestors.”
“That song goes: ‘I’m the daughter of the village chief. We’re descended from voyagers who made the way across the world.’ Something like that. Sorry Lin,” she quips. “I really wanted something that I could repeat because I get so terrified whenever I perform.”
“So my mantra is: ‘I’m the daughter of Black writers who are descended from Freedom Fighters who broke their chains and changed the world. They call me,'” Gorman continues. “I say that to remind myself of ancestors that are all around me whenever I’m performing.”
In addition to her mantra, Gorman prepares for a performance by “stepping into the emotionality of the poem, getting my body and my psyche ready for that moment,” a process that includes “a lot of the night-before performing in the mirror.”
Gorman’s pre-performance routine is largely regimented because she finds public speaking “daunting.”
“Speaking in public as a Black girl is already daunting enough, just coming onstage with my dark skin and my hair and my race — that in itself is inviting a type of people that have not often been welcomed or celebrated in the public sphere,” she says. “Beyond that, as someone with a speech impediment, that impostor syndrome has always been exacerbated.”
Gorman no longer sees her speech impediment as a weakness, though.
“Now I really look at it as a strength because going through that process, it made me a writer, for one, because I had to find a form in which I could communicate other than through my mouth,” she says. “And two, when I was brave enough to try to take those words from the page onto the stage, I brought with me this understanding of the complexity of sound, pronunciation, emphasis.”
Despite her preparations, at the inauguration itself, Gorman was more concerned about the practicalities of the day than her actual performance.
“I was living in two spheres of my mind. There was the ‘Wow: Joe Biden’s speech was amazing. Lady Gaga just killed it,'” she says. “But at the same time, 66 percent of my brain was dedicated to questions: ‘How am I going to get up to the podium without tripping? My hands are cold. Am I going to be able to flip these pages because my fingers are going numb?'”
Gorman needn’t have worried, as all of her careful preparations helped her deliver a powerful reading at the inauguration, one that she hopes gave “the American people some access” to herself. That hope, Gorman shares, was inspired by a speech the former first lady once gave.
“A lot of the inspiration for that came from your speech at the DNC in which you said, ‘I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,'” Gorman tells Obama. “.. Whenever I’m writing, I’m looking at the history of words. The specific history of words in the Inaugural poem was: We have seen the ways in which language has been violated and used to dehumanize. How can I reclaim English so we can see it as a source of hope, purification and consciousness?”
The former first lady was “profoundly moved” by Gorman’s performance, praising, “The power of your words blew me away, but it was more than that.”
“It was your presence onstage, the confidence you exuded as a young Black woman helping to turn the page to a more hopeful chapter in American leadership,” Obama says. “I have to say I felt proud too; you’ve always had so much poise and grace, but seeing you address the whole country like that, I couldn’t help thinking to myself: Well, this girl has grown all the way up. It made me so happy.”
The former first lady’s compliments make Gorman admit, “Every time we meet, I secretly hope you forget me because then I get a clean slate. But you being the amazing person you are, you always remember.”
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Ahead of her performance at the Super Bowl pregame show, as well as the release of her books later this year, Gorman hopes that people remember that “poetry and language are often at the heartbeat of movements for change.”
“Never underestimate the power of art as the language of the people,” she says.
Inauguration 2021: Amanda Gorman Makes History With Moving Poem
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