Amanda Gorman will be reciting an original poem at this year's Super Bowl, one of many notable appearances she’s made and will be making in 2021 since reading her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Originally slated to publish in September and available for pre-order, Gorman’s books — “The Hill We Climb” and “Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem” — turned into Amazon bestsellers overnight following the inauguration, and are now set to release on March 16, Penguin Random House reacting to their high demand with one million copies each, six months ahead of schedule.
While Gorman, 22, set the record as the country’s first ever youth poet laureate (and as the youngest ever poet laureate to read at an inauguration), here influences likewise include trailblazers, from Maya Angelou to Audre Lorde, some of them also counting significant firsts across their accomplishments. Civil rights activists, feminists, Pulitzer Prize winners are all on Gorman’s list of influences, as are other record setters like Phillis Wheatley, the first published African American poet, and artists outside the poetic circle like Kerry James Marshall. As Gorman will be reciting new work at the 55th Super Bowl, we took a closer look at some of the Black poets who came before Gorman and whom she's recently highlighted as having shaped her work.
We are striving to forge our union with purpose. To compose a country committed to all cultures, colours, characters, and conditions of man
From “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman, Youth Poet Laureate
Gorman told Harper’s Bazaar she’s “always deeply admired” Maya Angelou, fitting in this context as Angelou too was an inaugural poet. “Seeing Angelou’s star in the sky made my faraway dreams seem all the less remote.”
Angelou, an iconic activist, poet and author, worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. In 2010, former President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“And Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou
While Angelou’s most famous literary work is her autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” we wanted to feature her poetry. This collection of Angelou’s poems includes “Phenomenal Woman,” which former Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton noted was more than the title of a poem. “It was who she was,” Clinton said of Angelou in a 2017 documentary.
Gorman also mentioned Audre Lorde among her influences, referring to Lorde as a “pioneering feminist” and noting, “It’s always great to have an intersectional tome on hand.”
In addition to authoring multiple collections of poetry and longer prose, Lorde contributed to feminist theory, critical race studies and queer theory. She was also a professor and activist. "Sister Audre reminded us that the only way out of the madness of racism, homophobia, and sexism is to come together,” said poet and civil rights activist Sonia Sanchez, another Gorman influencer.
“Sister Outsider” by Audre Lorde
Gorman named “Sister Outsider” her favorite book by Lorde. It features essays and speeches inspired by Lorde’s lived experiences as a Black lesbian woman, poet, activist, cancer survivor, mother and feminist.
When Michelle Obama asked her about poets she draws inspiration from, Gorman mentioned Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa.
Komunyakaa, whose “Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth” is set to publish in March, “is already a legendary figure in American poetry, beloved for his subtle ear and unflinching confrontations with the traumas of the past and present,” NPR reported. Komunyakaa has received multiple accolades for his work, including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Award, and currently serves a senior faculty member in New York University’s creative writing program.
“Neon Vernacular” by Yusef Komunyakaa
Winner of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, also earned the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, which awards the world's largest monetary prize for a single collection of poetry. The poems in the collection revolve around Southern culture, Black resilience to white supremacy, blues and jazz and more.
Sonia Sanchez was another poet Gorman noted to the former First Lady. Angelou had this to say of Sanchez’s work: “This world is a better place because of Sonia Sanchez: more livable, more laughable, more manageable.”
Sanchez is a poet and longtime activist with more than a dozen published books of poetry and a significant and pioneering figure in the Black arts movement. She’s earned the Robert Frost Medal for her distinguished lifetime service to American poetry and is credited with fundamentally helping shape education around Black culture throughout the country.
“Shake Loose My Skin” by Sonia Sanchez
This book includes poems from six of Sanchez’s other poetry collections, spanning more than 30 years.
“I love Black poets,” Gorman told Obama before listing the poets above, her list ending with Phillis Wheatley. “I love that as a Black girl, I get to participate in that legacy.”
Wheatley, an 18th-century artist and storyteller as well as poet, documented life in the colonies, religion and slavery — "one of the best-known poets in pre-19th century America." Despite being kidnapped and enslaved at eight years old, Wheatley went on to become the first African American and the second woman to publish a book of poems, “Poems on Various Subjects: Religious and Moral.”
“The Poems of Phillis Wheatley” by Phillis Wheatley
Pulling poems from her first book, this selection of Wheatley’s work provides a glimpse into her classical New England upbringing and devotion to Christianity. This edition also includes letters Wheatley wrote and a biographical introduction by one of her descendants.
Tracy K. Smith
Four years ago, Gorman read her poem “In This Place (An American Lyric)” at the inauguration of the 22nd U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, the poem an homage to those who paved the way before her, including Smith. As well as serving as poet laureate, Smith had won a Pulitzer Prize for her work below and teaches at Princeton University.
“Life on Mars” by Tracy K. Smith
While Smith has published four collections of poetry, “Life on Mars” is her most recognizable work, winning her a Pulitzer Prize in 2012. Smith “shows us through these poems how to think and feel our way through these big ideas. It's wonderful that her poetry can be so big and sprawling in its themes, and at the same time laser-focused in its words,” wrote Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden in a 2017 statement.
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