Amanda Gorman: An Evening of Poetry and Conversation with Pico Iyer

Photo courtesy of Ariana Duckett.

Ariana Duckett

Copy Editor & Senior Staff Writer

Amanda Gorman is no stranger to making history. In 2017, she was recognized as the first National Youth Poet Laureate after being the Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate in 2014. She is one of very few poets who has been invited to speak at a presidential inauguration, and at President Biden’s 2021 inauguration, recited her famous poem “The Hill We Climb.” The poem visits themes of hope, grief and resilience, crucial during the tumultuous pandemic era during which she crafted it. She also became the first poet to perform at the Super Bowl in 2021. Amidst all this, Gorman regularly discusses her work on a variety of news and government organizations, continuing to publish groundbreaking poetry and a children’s book, and giving presentations around the country about her work.

In February, I received a text from a friend that Gorman was coming to Santa Barbara for an interview. She would be one of several speakers for the Justice For All speaker series that UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) Arts & Lectures has been hosting this school year. I was pleasantly surprised at the thought that such an esteemed writer, especially from my generation, would be in town. 

On Tuesday, April 30 at 7:30 p.m., in the dark coziness of the Arlington Theater, Gorman and her accomplishments were introduced not once, but twice, by a presenter and Gorman’s interviewer, Pico Iyer — himself an acclaimed essayist, novelist and screenwriter.

Gorman began with a tutorial on hearing spoken word poetry, in which she encouraged the audience to engage with her poetry performance with snaps, American Sign Language applause, or satisfied noises. The reading came from her recent collection, “Call Us What We Carry,” which explores similar topics to “The Hill We Climb” — a poem that is included in the collection. Gorman explained that the collection was originally going to be named after “The Hill We Climb.” Nevertheless, the poetry she recited at the beginning and end of the interview was fresh and thought-provoking, with conversation between Gorman and Iyer being humorous all while raising important questions about the United States and its people.

Both Gorman and Iyer spent time at Harvard, she as an undergraduate and he as a professor in the English department. Iyer admitted that the department had felt “stuffy” during his time there, and Gorman revealed that during a writing workshop a fellow classmate told her her work was “too confident.” Groans rippled through the crowd as she said this, and Gorman continued to say that she persistently asked the student what made the work “too confident.” Finally, she asked if the writing was too confident, or if she seemed too confident. Ultimately, the student rescinded his previous statement and admitted it had been a dumb thing to say; she agreed, “Yeah, it was.”

Gorman revisited her career before and after the presidential inauguration, discussing the auditory-processing disorder she has which makes it difficult for her to both discern what others say sometimes and for her to pronounce the letter R. She revealed that she sometimes uses the sounds and phrases she thinks she hears other people say as prompts for her writing. She also delved into her childhood, mentioning how she and her siblings were only allowed to watch “The Honeymooners” as a child because, as her mother later told her, she and her siblings always seemed so much happier and more fulfilled when creating art than watching television. When Iyer later asked her a question that had been submitted by an audience member about her thoughts on social media, similar themes arose about using social media apps wisely — a process she could have learned from her mother limiting her TV show options — and not letting social media use you. This, like many stories she told that night, resulted in much applause.

Gorman is the ninth of eleven speakers in the Justice For All series, whose purpose is “illuminating a wide spectrum of systemic injustice.” Though her poetry has many messages of hope, she and her readers must grapple with the pain of the world they inhabit, and address the intense and powerful issues around them. Readers too must grapple with their own strength and ability to persevere, if only they’re brave enough to see it.


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