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Illustrations by María Alconada Brooks.
You probably know that there is a United States Poet Laureate, but you would be forgiven for never having heard of the Youth Poet Laureate. This country has had a Poet Laureate for nearly a century, but it took until 2017 to formally celebrate the work of young poets with an official title. It was Urban Word, one of the oldest youth literary arts organizations in America, that instituted the position, utilizing panels of esteemed writers to select a Youth Poet Laureate each year not only for their art, but also for their activism.
As Camea Davis, who oversees the program at Urban Word, says, the Youth Poet Laureateship “really came out of this idea of how do we elevate young people’s voices in the same way that the adults have access to the civic platform? Young people are writing about these really important topics, so what does that look like for them to then be in power to do something with those words?”
Amanda Gorman, 22, and Kara Jackson, 20, the first and current Youth Poet Laureates, are living examples of putting words into action. Using their platforms and subsequent book deals, they’ve championed causes from the environment to prison abolition, all while juggling college careers and newly independent lives.
Because it’s April — which, despite the covid-19 crisis, is still National Poetry Month — we called them up. Gorman, now a senior at Harvard who is finishing her final semester from her bedroom in Los Angeles, and Jackson, a freshman at Smith College who is now back at home in Oak Park, Ill., spoke to us — and met for the first time — over Zoom.
Here’s their conversation.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Madeline Weinfield: Kara and Amanda, how did you first come to poetry?
Kara Jackson: I’ve always loved words. I’ve always been into writing things. I wrote songs when I was younger and still try to now. And then I wrote poems and I would read them in middle school. I wrote really bad poems, like really emo.
But I started taking it more seriously when I got to high school because we had a really cool spoken word program; it’s one of the largest ones in the country, actually, so I was really lucky. In general, I’m just really lucky to be in a place where poetry is. This place [Chicago] is poetry. Slam started here.
Amanda Gorman: I also wanted to be a songwriter. Growing up, I thought “That’s going to be my thing.” And I definitely went through my own emo phase. But I realized I cannot sing to save my life!
But I kept writing. As a child, I had a speech impediment, so writing has always been incredibly important for me for self-expression. I remember trying to say things that people would not understand and then having to write them down. But it wasn’t until around third grade that I realized writing could even be a career for a woman.
She can publish, she can have this type of career. From then on, it became far more serious for me, rather than a Band-Aid for a speech impediment.
MW: It’s so amazing having an example in front of you. I’m thinking about my English teachers growing up.
AG: There is a special place in heaven for English teachers. There’s an open bar and a free library!
KJ: They always just got it.
AG: And whenever you read the bio of a great writer, it’s always like, “They spent time teaching English.” Shakespeare was a tutor. Lin-Manuel Miranda was a substitute teacher. Of course they were, because that’s how you become a good person. I should mention that I am biased because my mom is an English teacher.
KJ: My dad is an English teacher!
AG: Oh my gosh! We’re like the same person. My mom was also from Chicago. So Illinois has been part of my family biography, mythography for a while.
KJ: Look at us!
MW: Civic engagement is a key component of being the Youth Poet Laureate. Can you talk about what cause or causes you’ve each championed through that role?
AG: When you’re Youth Poet Laureate you can focus on any issue that you want to, but the three that I made the hallmark of my tenure were education, the environment and equality, particularly along the lines of gender and race. I did a lot of work writing poetry and doing campaigns related to the climate crisis, whether that was working with Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project or with She’s the First, an organization that helps girls access education.
KJ: For my laureateship, a lot of the things I’m thinking about relate to prisons and prison abolition. When I was starting out, I wondered, what could I do as a poet? Where do I start? That ultimately led me to places like Young Chicago Authors, for example. That group was basically my backbone. They already had a program where poets could go into prisons and teach workshops and do readings.
I feel like art and being an artist and having a title can become so individualistic. I really wanted to prioritize the people who make my art possible and made the laureateship possible. I really was thinking about collectivity, intellectual ownership and what is mine and what is not in this process.
MW: Amanda, did you feel a sort of pressure or expectation by being the first Youth Poet Laureate? And Kara, were you very aware of inheriting a position that’s still new?
AG: The answer is heck yes! I definitely felt an enormous amount of pressure, not necessarily imposed by anyone else, but internal. If you are the guinea pig for a platform for young people, specifically a title that’s now been held by young people of color, you understand the weight of setting a precedent and giving that platform its legitimacy. It’s kind of like that age-old saying of having to work twice as hard to get half as far.
So, all of those pieces of my identity made me grapple with the fact that this was a huge opportunity, not necessarily for myself, but for the amazing poets who would follow after me. I did not want to mess it up.
I definitely gave it my all. And it was actually a really big relief when I was able to hand it off. I think everyone is expecting you to be this drama queen, like, “She’s losing the crown!” But it was more like, I was able to do this. I survived. I thrived. And someone else is shedding that light elsewhere. It was a fantastic moment.
KJ: I’m grateful for the lineage aspect, particularly as black laureates. And I also think it’s really important that the second laureate [Pat Frazier] was gender-nonconforming and black. That intersection is really important.
AG: The adult Poet Laureates, they’re phenomenal, whether we’re talking about Tracy K. Smith, Juan Felipe Herrera, the list goes on and on. But I think it’s a particularly complex situation when you’re the Youth Poet Laureate because you’re typically juggling school, you’re juggling having this platform while also being challenged on account of your youth. It creates this layered effect when you’re not only fighting to defend your own title, but you’re fighting to continue the life that you led outside of it.
For example, one of the most fascinating things that would happen to me is I would be announced as Youth Poet Laureate, and I would perform my poem, and people would come up to me and ask either (a) Is that a real poem? or (b) Did you write that poem?
I can’t imagine someone coming up to Juan Felipe Herrera and saying, “Is that a real poem? Did you write that?” There are these questions of authorship.
I think that’s also a challenge that we have to face as Youth Poet Laureates.
KJ: Yeah, definitely. It’s the youth aspect of the laureateship. I feel a lot of the situations I’ve been in have just been really ageist. Also being black and young and having the audacity to have a career and assert my title — I think it makes people upset that I can be like, “I’m a laureate, and I’m 20.”
I think there’s just, in general, a weird hierarchy that comes with age — people not believing in your work or believing that you’re capable of producing something, not believing in your professionalism or that you do deserve to get paid for the work that you’re doing.
AG: I think the change starts with the representation, similar to how I mentioned how important it was to me to see a woman who had a writing career. One of the most fulfilling things about being a poet is getting to see my words touch others. I get tons of girls who write to me or come up to me after I recite my poetry saying, “I have your same exact speech impediment and I’m writing poetry. Thank you for sharing your story.” Moments like that are the most exciting because the momentum doesn’t end with me. It’s just being generated through me. And I get to watch this new generation take up the mantle and continue those conversations.
Hope flocks to the poet
Like female ants rallying round
Their queen, black bodies
Carrying histories three times our size.
We will be here,
We will be heard,
Hark the poets
In a long ring of resistance.
We are brown as a plum pit
And smooth as red river clay.
Our color is no longer anatomy
Nor aesthetic but an arsenal. Holy.
Wholly, and simply, our own.
first a black woman wins over her car motor
a game of who can make the most noise.
then pigeons ask the sky for lunch.
they do not know where bread comes from
just that it comes like rain. there are windows on the highest floor
where a man slices the ac and prepares to make it behave
little boys make an alphabet of their sweat
fighting words are ponds under their shirts
and didn’t danny say this if where he is moving?
or maybe a little farther down where a dog falls
for the trick of his tail and gets spit everywhere.
teenage girls read their fingernails for filth,
pick at the frayed parts of themselves in the shopping glass.
home is always what’s unbearable to someone else
isn’t that why morrison made milkman travel to virginia?
and why that couple doesn’t seem to mind the heat
though it threatens the clasp of their hands.
I am waiting to feel terrible
in this sun. thought the fire would take me
but fire was taking a stroll too.