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Words of inspiration from an inaugural poet

Amanda Gorman speaking from a podium during her Distinguishe Speakers Series address.

Amanda Gorman was the final speaker in this year's Distinguished Speakers Series. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi


Published March 28, 2024

“The fact that this poem, that five minutes, could be that threatening that they’re revoking it from schools — it says something to how it speaks to the bedrock of America. ”
Amanda Gorman, inaugural poet and activist

The rainy weather didn’t deter a sold-out crowd from showing up for poet and activist Amanda Gorman’s appearance Tuesday night in the Center for the Arts to close the 2023-24 edition of UB’s Distinguished Speakers Series. And for their perseverance, audience members were rewarded with a night of inspirational, humorous and engaging dialogue.

Gorman received critical acclaim for performing her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at the 2021 presidential inauguration. She is one of only six poets to ever do so and, at 22, was by far the youngest — the next youngest person, Richard Blanco, was 44.

In addition to her legendary performance at the U.S. Capitol, she has performed at the Library of Congress and Lincoln Center. She is the first National Youth Poet Laureate; the first poet to grace the cover of Vogue magazine; and the first poet to perform at the Super Bowl.

“We conclude another terrific season on an incredibly high note,” President Satish K. Tripathi said in his introduction of Gorman. “It’s been a little over three years since this evening’s speaker enthralled the world. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and only weeks after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Amanda Gorman delivered an electric performance of her poem, ‘The Hill we Climb,’ at President Biden’s inauguration. In five minutes, and with 723 words, Ms. Gorman managed to capture the moment and captivate millions with her message of hope, resilience and healing.”

Gorman received a rousing and enthusiastic round of applause as she walked on stage and joined the evening’s moderator, Cristanne Miller, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Edward H. Butler Professor of English.

“Thank you all so much for such a warm welcome to Buffalo! I had no idea upstate New York knew who I was! Thank you for stroking my pride and my ego,” Gorman joked.

Amanda Gorman, sitting on stage with moderator Cristanne Miller during her Distinguished Speakers Series visit.

Cristanne Miller (left), SUNY Distinguished Professor and Edward H. Butler Professor of English, moderated the Q&A portion of the evening. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

Gorman said that while backstage, she had looked through Miller’s new book, “The Letters of Emily Dickinson.” Miller and Gorman spent a few moments talking about their love and admiration of Dickinson before moving onto the questions awaiting Gorman — most of which were submitted previously by audience members and covered topics ranging from overcoming a speech-and-hearing disorder in her youth to the power of poetry and social justice movements.

“Poetry is the language of revolution. I point out that there’s a reason that, at the base of the Statue of Liberty, there’s a poem and not an essay, and that is not to detract from prose, but just to say there’s something incredibly unique about poetry, which demands us to participate in envisioning our best selves,” Gorman said. “There’s an inherent engine behind poetry, which localizes us around the language that in and of itself is representative of activism. It is not latent; it is not static; it’s voicing the deepest versions of ourselves to improve the world.”

When asked which of her poems is her favorite, Gorman replied it’s “The Hill We Climb,” but probably not for the reasons people may think.

“I’m most proud of it because it’s my most banned poem. I never thought I’d be cool enough to be considered among the Toni Morrisons and James Baldwins and the Margaret Atwoods of the world. I’m like, the Instagramable one — and they’re all taking me so seriously.”

“The fact that this poem, that five minutes, could be that threatening that they’re revoking it from schools — it says something to how it speaks to the bedrock of America.”

Gorman says she reads the notorious poem differently each time she recites it — partly because of the environment and occasion, but also because of a speech impediment.

“Part of what causes my speech impediment is having an auditory-processing disorder, which means you hear things differently — sound is distorted, and that changes as your brain is wiring itself on how to develop speech. Even though I’ve gone through speech therapy, I still have a brain that’s wired to hear all the different versions of what someone might have said.”

Gorman gave the example that if someone said, “go sit on the couch,” a person with an auditory-processing disorder heard a couple different versions of that, including something along the lines of, “go hit the cow.”

“It was really confusing when I was a kid because I wasn’t always able to distinguish what I was hearing. I heard it as it was, but I was also hearing all the different versions of what it could be.”

Gorman says that process carries over to writing words and also when she’s speaking.

“I write whatever my brain is telling me to write, but when I speak, it comes out in different lattices and rhythms.”

Political ambitions

Gorman says she always wrote as if someday she might be writing a poem for an inauguration.

“I think I have always had a little bit of grandiose delusion in my life,” Gorman recalled. “I remember being a little kid and my mom was like, ‘where do you get this optimism from?’ Because every single time there was a raffle or some kind of drawing, I was always at the front of the line because I was sure I was going to win it.”

That same optimism is still guiding Gorman, who says she will be running for president of the United States in 2036.

“It’s not a dream; it’s a plan!” Gorman proclaimed. “My hashtag for my campaign is going to be #coAMANDA in chief.”

Humility accesses humanity

Gorman finished the night reading from her collection “What We Carry.”

“It deals with the pandemic, it deals with history, it deals with divisiveness, but more so it deals with how we move forward in spite of all these,” Gorman said.

“When I write my poems, I try to keep in mind that humility is how to access the humanity.”