Can you be a poet if you have speech and auditory processing issues? The nation’s first Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, is living proof that you can.
Gorman has always had a love for words. However, the path to becoming a poet wasn’t easy.
Both Gorman and her twin sister were born prematurely. Their mother, Joan Wicks, feared they might have physical and developmental issues because of their birth complications.
Despite these challenges, her mom says she was inquisitive and a bit of an “overachiever” from a young age. “She had trouble expressing herself,” her mom says, “but she was always advanced in her thought.”
Gorman learned to read later than other kids. But once she knew how, she became an avid reader and writer.
She attended a private school where she received to meet her needs. At first, she wasn’t a fan of the help she was receiving.
“I'm so stubborn,” Gorman confesses. “I refused to use the accommodations. My mom pushed me to use the extra time on my tests.”
Over time, she grew to appreciate the extra help. And though her speech and auditory processing issues were always present, Amanda didn’t allow them to be a stumbling block in her life.
“My challenges were always, just for me, something that was reality,” she says. “But I knew I had strengths, too, especially with words and writing.”
As a young child, Gorman wrote her own stories. Then, in third grade, a teacher introduced Amanda to poetry and metaphor for the first time. Because of her communication issues, she was entranced by the power of poetry to express ideas.
Maya Angelou became an inspiration for her. After reading Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she felt a special connection to the iconic Black poet.
“I felt like Maya was me growing up,” Gorman says. “She overcame years of not speaking up for herself, all for the love of poetry.”
Some kids with learning and thinking differences can have a hard time with the language of poetry. But Amanda did not. Poetry came naturally to her, and she was soon writing a lot of it.
In high school, Gorman was encouraged by one of her mentors to apply for the new Youth Poet Laureate initiative in Los Angeles, where she lived. The program was started by Urban Word, a literary arts and youth development nonprofit.
The application required her to submit poems, and she sent in several touching on themes of social injustice. The poems struck a chord, and in 2014 Gorman was named Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate. In 2015, she published her first book of poetry, The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough.
Last year, Gorman was named the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate by Urban Word. (The honor is a youth version of the National Poet Laureate, which is selected by the Library of Congress. This year, a second National Youth Poet Laureate was also named.)
“Being a Youth Poet Laureate is similar to being a Poet Laureate,” she explains. “You bring your youth into the platform of poetry. You’re not just an ambassador for poetry. You’re making sure young voices are represented in the field of literature.”
Today, in addition to working on her poetry, Gorman is a student at Harvard.
Of Gorman’s many accomplishments, her mom says she’s most proud of her daughter’s strong sense of justice. Her mom sees her strong empathy for others, a trait she’s had from an early age.
“Amanda is clear with her ethical core, she stands up for herself and others,” mom Joan Wicks says. “It wasn’t always easy with her challenges, but she’s learned to build people up.”
Looking back, her mom marvels at what her daughter has been able to do.
“Every child has a gift, it just has to be discovered,” she says. “Where there’s a deficit, there’s a place where the child makes it up.”
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Photo credit: Anna Zhang
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Tara Drinks is an associate editor at Understood.