The 22-year-old reflects on her past and looks ahead to her future: "I spent a lifetime thinking about the power of language, and what it feels like when that power is withheld from you"

By Jason Sheeler
March 03, 2021 08:30 AM
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amanda gorman
Amanda Gorman
| Credit: Djeneba Aduayom

Amanda Gorman is rambling a little bit. It's wondrous.

The former national youth poet laureate — who, in an "only in 2021" twist, was the most talked-about person at an inauguration that also featured Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez — is talking shop.

"For me, words matter. The words that are coming to me lately are 'light' and 'kindness' [and] 'growth,' " she tells PEOPLE in this week's issue spotlighting Women Changing the World.

"I get frustrated sometimes," Gorman says, "but writing poetry is a process. So how do I communicate progress — momentum — in something that's just a few words on a page?"

She pauses. "I'm not sure if that makes sense."

Not at all: She makes a lot of sense.

When Gorman ascended to the podium on Inauguration Day six weeks ago, a red satin headband clasping her braids as a crown, the 22-year-old Los Angeles native was a recent Harvard University graduate and, thanks to Instagram, something of an It Poet.

By the time Gorman returned to her seat, as the words from her poem "The Hill We Climb" echoed from the marble of the Capitol to the grass of the National Mall, she was on her way to becoming a national obsession. "Afterwards, my mom [middle school English teacher Joan Wicks] and I, we were just quiet backstage," she says. "We knew our world had changed in six minutes." 

It had. "The day after the inauguration, I got off the plane in L.A. and my sister was there," Gorman says. "She was singing and holding my dog in the air like The Lion King."

• For more from PEOPLE's Women Changing the World Issue, featuring Camila Cabello, Naomi Osaka and Sofia Vergara along with everyday heroes, subscribe now or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.

Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman
Amanda Gorman recites a poem at Joe Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20.
| Credit: Rob Carr/Getty

A few days later, Gorman was signed to IMG Models and her three forthcoming books hit the top of Amazon's chart before they had even been published. Two weeks after the inauguration, she read a poem at the Super Bowl.

"I spent a lifetime thinking about the power of language, and what it feels like when that power is withheld from you," Gorman says now. Born with a speech impediment and diagnosed as a child with auditory processing disorder, she was often alone at recess, writing in her journal. "There are memories in my mind in which I recognize that my voice was being othered — being asked from a young age, 'Where are you from?' and, 'You talk funny,' " she says. "People were so incessant on trying to pin down why I was different from them."

She began to incorporate movement into her everyday speaking to help herself be understood. Her focus on how she spoke shifted emphasis onto what she wanted to say. Her weakness became her superpower. As she stood before President Joe Biden in January, her hands danced a delicate ballet set to the rhythm of her work.

Gorman says she's not surprised that poetry is now cool, because "it's always been cool to me." And she's never wanted to be anything but a poet. "But for so long, it's been the sole arena of dead white men. Now, because social media can be used for good and bad, it's entering a new era of accessibility."

Meanwhile, she's harnessing her words' power in an entirely new way.

Gorman has already informally declared her candidacy for president for the 2036 ticket and she counts Hillary Clinton, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Oprah Winfrey as mentors.

She used to have one kind of idea of her political future, though that may have changed. "When I was at Harvard, I thought I would have to go down this kind of more orthodox path of 'Okay, so I'll go to law school and then maybe I'll run for local public office,' " she says. "Now I realized that perhaps my path will be a different one, that it might be performing my poetry and touching people that way, and then entering public office from a platform that was built off of my beliefs and thoughts and ideas." 

And she has a network of women politicians there for answers and support when the time comes for her to seek her own political future. "I think that will begin with just discussions with them and really absorbing their wisdom," she says, "and then seeing how I can make that leadership and that path my own."

As Gorman knows, words beget action.

"Often we talk about the world being in our hands," she says. "But Ocean Vuong has a great quotation: 'The world is in our mouth.' "