Courtesy of David Bazemore

On April 30,  UC Santa Barbara Arts & Lectures hosted renowned inaugural poet Amanda Gorman at the Arlington Theatre. As a part of the Justice for All initiative — which invites leaders from across the world to speak on systemic injustice — Gorman was invited to speak on her poetry and social activism. 

As a bustling crowd of UCSB students and Santa Barbara community members filed into the theater and the lights dimmed, UCSB Arts & Lectures Director of Public Lectures & Special Initiatives Caitlin O’Hara introduced the host of the night, cultural travel writer Pico Iyer. After a few words of praise and admiration for Gorman’s work, Iyer invited her onstage, followed by  loud enthusiastic applause from the audience. 

“Quiet down please, you’re gonna make me cry,” Gorman said as she approached the podium.  

Gorman explained the rules of a live poetry recital and proceeded to read a poem from her book “Call Us What We Carry” called “Fury and Faith.” Gorman’s style of presentation and rhythm mesmerized the audience as she read the inspiring poem addressing social justice and resilience. 

“As a poet, I feel that you hate me,” Gorman said in a joking manner to the audience after they remained silent for the entire reading. In an effort to reassure her, they made thunderous noise to show their appreciation for Gorman and her poem. After getting permission from Gorman to be loud, the crowd would continue to energetically cheer throughout the night. 

Gorman joined Iyer on the couches set up center stage for their conversation on Gorman’s poetry and activism. 

Iyer referenced Gorman’s use of “ancestors” in her poems and inquired about the meaning of the word in Gorman’s life. She responded by referring to “ancestors” as broad terminology that could mean blood familial ties or literary and political ancestry that “aims to continue a legacy and ensure that stories get told.” She touched on the Black American experience of trying to trace back family lineage and running into cold trails. Because of these challenges, she has taken to claiming prominent Black figures like social activists and authors to be her ancestors since their stories and work have led her to who she is today. 

While discussing self-exploration as a young child, Gorman recalled that she was not introduced to Black authors and creators, rather she found Toni Morrison’s work while scanning the library shelves and being drawn in by the cover a Black girl that looked like her. She then jokingly mentioned calling philosophers Plato and Homer her homeboys since she spent hours reading their work and considers them her friends. 

“You were such a silly and fun kid and then you learned how to read,” Gorman said when quoting her mom.

She then shared her family’s disappointment to see her pursue poetry when she used to want to be a scientist as a child. 

“I see poets as scientists of people,” Gorman said. “It’s a channel of humanity through literature.”

Following Gorman’s impactful statement, Iyer asked for her thoughts on how to begin healing the world.

“Poetry is a state of being, not static,” Gorman said. “Social movements are orchestrated through words.” 

Gorman emphasized that writers and activists have to be mindful of the words they’re using. She mentioned civil rights activist and poet Audre Lorde and her work which communicates through words that speak across divides. 

“[Writers have to use] words that are worthy of the moment and worthy of a better tomorrow,” Gorman said. 

Poet and activist Amanda Gorman (R) speaking with host of the evening, essayist and novelist Pico Iyer (L). Courtesy of David Bazemore

Shifting the conversation to a more personal topic, Iyer asked Gorman about her frequent use of word play in her poems. Gorman revealed that she has an auditory processing disorder that made learning language as a child difficult and continues to impede the way she hears — like she is underwater and one word can be drowned out by six other words. She writes down the six other things she heard and turns it into a poem.

“You’re hearing the disorder be used as a strength in my writing,” Gorman said.

“It’s funny, you’re throwing yourself into the belly of the beast,” Iyer said as he brought up her use of alliteration in her work.

“Poetry is a state of being, not static. Social movements are orchestrated through words.”

Before she touched on alliteration, Gorman told Iyer she really loves conversing with other writers like him because they really understand her work and come prepared with the literary references. It was an endearing moment that encapsulated the relationship Gorman and Iyer had developed throughout the night. 

Gorman described using alliteration in her poems as a way of proving her self worth, as she tends to use sounds that she struggles with. Listening to the “Hamilton” soundtrack, especially “Aaron Burr, Sir” helped her learn and practice difficult sounds. The audience erupted with laughter as she revealed that she is a secret theater kid. 

“I want to be defined by how I face the incomparable,” Gorman said in lieu of talking about her disorder, which has also manifested itself into stage fright. 

“Courage is a muscle,” Gorman said and she resiliently continues to exercise that muscle through public speaking. In a similar light, Gorman has used the African American tradition of reciting words as an avenue to which she could access speaking and refers to it as a “gift from my people.”

One of the most impactful moments of the night — and there were many — was when Gorman touched on her experience at Harvard University. She recalled being denied access to poetry classes not because of talent, but rather faculty racial prejudices. 

“We didn’t know what box to put you in,” Gorman said as she quoted a faculty member. The crowd responded with enraged disapproving sounds. 

When she eventually made it into a poetry class, she encountered more subtle racism and prejudices from classmates. While receiving criticism from one classmate, he continuously called her work “too confident.” Because she was not allowed to respond in the way she wanted, Gorman persistently asked what he meant by his comment, going as far as asking if he was still referring to her work or her as a person. He eventually realized the undertones and significance of his comment and took back his criticism.

“Harvard didn’t know what to do with me, but I knew what to do with Harvard,” Gorman said as she finished the story. 

After transitioning to the topic of social reform and climate change in the United States, Gorman implored the audience to not only vote, but also not to give up. She described the feeling of burning out and feeling helpless due to the “lack of legislation that has been passed.” While emphasizing the need to fight, she reminded the audience the importance of taking a break and giving themselves the grace to heal from the burn out. 

“The planet cannot be saved by a dying people,” Gorman said. 

While reflecting on her experience after the presidential inauguration, Gorman shared her realization that poetry is more widely accepted than she originally thought. She did not know what would come after she presented her poem, but she did not expect people to respond in such a huge and positive way to her words. It was encouraging for her to see that type of response because it meant her dreams were becoming accessible for others, including young girls.

“[We’re] not manufacturing hope, but practicing it,” Gorman said as one of her closing lines, before she stepped up to the podium once more to recite the titular poem of her book, “Call Us What We Carry.”

The poem encapsulates the themes of the book and her feelings as the COVID-19 pandemic came to an end. Through her passion and expressionist reading, Gorman inspired the audience to snap and make encouraging sounds which she refers to as “dark chocolate noises.”

The evening concluded with a very deserving standing ovation from the audience as Gorman exited the stage. It was an insightful night into the mind of an inspiring young poet who will continue to make a positive impact on the world. She even voiced the possibility of running as future president of the U.S. in 2036.

This appeared in the May 9 printed version of the Daily Nexus