Bathed in spotlights and donning a thick, silver peacoat and pearls at the crown of her head, a star took the Super Bowl LV stage: a young, Black, female poet.
After a year of unprecedented times, an unprecedented performance only makes sense. Amanda Gorman, shortly after delivering the inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb” for President Joe Biden, became the first poet to perform at the nation’s annual football game. In the fall of 2020, she was asked to write a piece to celebrate the three honorary captains — different types of essential workers — participating in the Super Bowl’s coin toss.
“Let us walk with these warriors, charge on with these champions and carry forth the call of our captains,” Gorman, the first National Youth Poet Laureate, recited before the game. “We celebrate them by acting with courage and compassion by doing what is right and just, for while we honor them today, it is they who every day honor us.”
After her first-of-a-kind performance, the 23-year-old bard spoke to comedian Trevor Noah about the power of this unusual fusion of art and sport.
“These are the moments I strive for in my lifetime, which is to bring poetry into the spaces that we least expect it, so that we can fully grapple with the ways in which it can heal and resurrect us,” Gorman said.
So far, Gorman has been 2021’s go-to occasional poet, or someone who writes a poem for a specific event. With her rising fame has come rising accolades. Michelle Obama and Lin-Manuel Miranda have sung to her their praises, TIME featured her on its cover, and Gorman topped best-seller lists immediately following the inauguration, selling nearly 215,000 copies of her inaugural poem in one week. This attention indicates the nation’s newfound or revived appreciation for poetry.
Gorman’s popularity, like her poetry, encapsulates both the hope for an improving, less racist country, and the fact that our country is still suffering from not only COVID-19, but a racial pandemic. A security guard followed her home because she “looked suspicious” until Gorman let herself into her building. Black trans women are violently killed across the country. The police officer who knelt on the neck of George Floyd, sparking a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, is not yet in prison for murder.
In between her race, gender and youth, she became a household name, and poetry rose to national attention. Poetry sales went up, and after Gorman performed at the inauguration, there was a 24% increase in poetry events on the event management website Eventbrite. This continues the poetry resurgence seen in 2018 after the rise of Rupi Kaur and other poets who found fame on Instagram, when more than one million poetry books were sold in the UK.
Publications jumped at the chance to talk to Gorman, who said she hopes to pursue a career in politics and perhaps become president, about the power of this craft. Although poetry thrives in intimate communities and in education, the art form rarely garners mainstream attention. Perhaps Gorman reminded the U.S. of the political and cultural power of language to unite and ignite.
Look no further than Los Angeles for a robust poetry scene that encapsulates just that. In fact, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle visited a virtual poetry class hosted by LA-based non-profit Get Lit, which brings literacy to the youth with poetry. Evidently, LA is a historically and contemporary literary city from which to learn the power of poems.
Los Angeles’ Poetry Scene
Rhiannon McGavin — once a Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, a title first held by Gorman — Zariya Allen, and Belissa Escobedo shared their slam poem “Somewhere In America,” which made finals at the national Brave New Voices poetry slam and was subsequently featured on the Queen Latifah show.
Before reaching the national stage, Allen and McGavin learned about poetry through Get Lit after the organization visited their high school, the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA). Allen said that, in a world of short text messages and COVID-sparked distanced relationships, people who engage with poetry in spaces like school can learn slow and meaningful communication.
“I do think that there’s this like, yearning for deepness and, especially amongst kids and children, [they] should be allowed to be reminded of that,” Allen said. “But, it should be taught in that way, not even so mechanical, but that concept of looking into deeper meaning.”
It’s this emotional depth with which listeners resonate when poetry earns national recognition, as with both “Somewhere In America” and “The Hill We Climb,” especially in what Allen calls a world of normalized apathy.
“Because [poetry is] so romanticized at this point, it’s not something that’s commonplace all the time,” Allen said. “So, when it is done at that high level, I do think it allows people to genuinely return to a sense of sensitivity or imagination that they’re not always tapped into.”
McGavin learned about poetry through the Los Angeles Drama Club, far before Get Lit became the only extracurricular activity she did outside of high school. Poetry is an important facet of education, McGavin said, despite its low financial benefit in our capitalist society.
“It’s what we as humans around a campfire billions of years ago would do, it was poetry and songs and chants and prayers,” McGavin said. “To deny that feels like a form of cannibalism.”
While Get Lit targets young people, L.A. has and always has had a robust poetry scene for people of all ages. Past her years of youth poetry slams, McGavin now works at Not a Cult, an L.A.-based publisher that released her last poetry book, Branches, and will release her next this summer.
Daniel Lisi, the co-founder of Not a Cult, said he felt inspired by the world of poetry during his first job at Write Bloody Publishing, a poetry publisher based in Portland. There, he heard orators like Buddy Wakefield and Anis Mojgani speak their work.
“Something is happening here that I’ve never seen before in any other industry or any other group of professionals or people, and it just hooked me immediately in terms of the power of it,” Lisi said. “That instilled in me that level of intentionality behind literally everything that I do.”
Lisi leads Not a Cult with that same intentionality, publishing works from writers with an array of intersectional identities and personal experiences. One of those writers is Salvadoran poet and fat activist Yesika Salgado, who has reached a level of fame not only in L.A., but nationally and virtually.
“Los Angeles is a bedrock of invention,” Lisi said.
Angelenos tend to start their poetry careers at Da Poetry Lounge (DPL), which has hosted open mic nights at Greenway Court Theatre on Fairfax since 1998. In fact, Salgado was a part of DPL’s 2018 SLAM team that won 2nd place at the National Poetry Slam competition.
DPL still hosts their weekly Tuesday open mics on Instagram Live, keeping the L.A. poetry spirit alive even during COVID. Poets sign up to perform one-by-one, splitting vertical screens in half with the charismatic host on top and the slamming poet on bottom. As they speak their truths, hearts and applause emojis dance as viewers comment and show their virtual support.
Beyond Baroque, a thriving literary arts center based in Venice, similarly shifted its poetry programming to be Zoom-friendly, offering free and intensive workshops to the community. The organization has a rich history; not only is Gorman an alum of its Student Poets Program, but Beyond Baroque began its workshops in 1969, inspiring Beats, punks and scholars alike.
Jimmy Vega is Beyond Baroque’s operations manager & workshops coordinator. Raised in Watts, Vega said he feels inspired by the rich history of L.A. poetry. He noted Watts-based Wanda Coleman, known as L.A.’s “unofficial poet laureate,” as a particularly poignant figure.
“The fact that I’m so connected to and work for Beyond Baroque now has meant a great deal,” Vega said. “Now, I’m part of the Beyond Baroque history, if you will, so it’s great to kind of represent the center, but also be a poet from L.A. and talk and engage with other poets specifically from L.A.”
The city’s literary efforts not only have a rich history, but a bright future. In the summer of 2020, California’s first Black-owned poetry library came to life: the Sims Library of Poetry. Its founder, Hiram Sims, began sharing the gospel of poetry with his students, carrying his books in a suitcase. When the collection outgrew his bag, it finally found a brick-and-mortar home in Inglewood.
“With a library dedicated to only poetry, we’re here to stay,” said Mimi Lam, the Sims Library manager. “This is like a permanent space where poetry can live, so we actually have a mural that says ‘Poetry Lives Here.’”
After the pandemic is over, the Sims Library will provide access to poetry books beyond those prioritized in school, available to anyone in L.A.
“We read about Langston Hughes, but we really only read a select amount of authors in our English curriculum. We don’t really expand to even contemporary poets. It makes it feel like poetry is dead almost. I thought like, do poets even exist anymore?” Lam said. “There are poets out there that look like you, that reflect your community, and it’s more than just the books that we read in class.”
This literary vivation is not contained to L.A. proper. The Poetry Lab is a Pomona-based poetry community that first got its start in Long Beach. Its co-founder, Danielle Mitchell, participated in her first open mic at The Ugly Mug in Orange. No matter where a person is in Southern California, one can find people gathering around language, despite the status of the 405.
“Anybody who says it’s like super segregated isn’t really correct in that sense, because people will move about,” Mitchell said. “What you have is the limitation of like getting somewhere in person on a weeknight in traffic.”
In these spaces — open mics at small cafes, literary community centers, poetry books — is where we can learn from those who choose to paint pictures with words.
“Poets are, as a general group, I would say — and I have to say that I can really only speak for poets in the United States — but they are some of the most woke people of any group that I’ve ever encountered,” Mitchell said. “They are always on the forefront of everything that you might call [politically correct]. This is because they are innovators of thought and culture, and they’re also observers.”
Engaging with the L.A. poetry community is a fruitful, but possibly overwhelming, experience. To unite this sweeping scene, the Los Angeles Poet Society (LAPS) was founded in 2009, hosting workshops and showcases to connect poets from Downtown Los Angeles, Venice, North Hollywood, and more. Before becoming this greater network, the society had humble beginnings.
“It started in Venice, literally at the boardwalk on a crate. It’s like, step up to soapbox and share your truth!” said Jessica M. Wilson, an East L.A. poet and founder of LAPS.
Anyone had the chance to step on that soapbox, whether a beginner or veteran poet. Some community spaces, such as Da Poetry Lounge, may seem intimidating because more experienced writers and performers frequent the spot. LAPS tries to share opportunities fit for everyone.
“Anybody can write a poem, all you gotta do is express yourself,” Wilson said. “And just be you, you know, talk like you talk. You don’t have to be like that person in the book and have the iambic pentameter, in the right rhyme scheme. Just express, let it out. All it takes is just to be honest and write.”
Poetry and Education
The L.A. poetry scene’s impact is felt beyond the confines of Southern California. Gabriel Cortez, a poet and the director of programs at San Francisco-based literary non-profit Youth Speaks, started his poetry journey at Get Lit, just like Allen and McGavin. Through the L.A. organization, he participated in an iteration of Brave New Voices, hosted by his current employer.
“It immediately became like, how do I do that, how do I make more spaces like that?” Cortez said.
After moving to the Bay Area for college, Cortez found Youth Speaks once again, as a professional. Through their workshops and in-school programming, the organization allows young people to speak their truths and learn storytelling techniques so that they may find freedom through language.
“Education isn’t pouring into empty vessels. Education is about bringing out what lies already within and affirming that,” Cortez said. “Our young folks are deeply literate and are constantly performing. The way in which they talk in their community is the poem. We’re just here to say, yo, that’s tight. Let’s spend a little time on that.”
Throughout Youth Speaks’ educational efforts, the organization emphasizes liberation, so that all voices (Black, brown, AAPI, queer, trans, low-income, etc.) may become free, aligning with the ethos of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In a non-profit space, this focus makes sense. But, what about at extremely expensive, exclusive, predominantly white educational institutions? Marcus Clayton, an Afro-Latino PhD candidate at the University of Southern California’s Literature and Creative Writing program, asks questions about minoritized voices like this often.
“Are we working toward getting our voices heard, [or] are we working toward assimilating into academic voices and leaving our communities behind through that avenue?” Clayton said.
Just trying to have their voices heard at an institution like USC is a political act.
“The very act of existing in these spaces is a form of protest against that idea,” Clayton said. “Since it’s not the status quo, since it’s not white America, even now, like being a writer of color, being a queer writer, being anything outside of the norm is going against the conventionalities of art and writing in general.”
Outside of a university setting and in K-12 education, the canon is still largely cisgender, white, male, and dead. Most kids end up engaging with the likes of Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, deemed classic American poets. But, many more voices exist in the history of poetry, despite not getting the same amount of attention.
Kerrin McCadden, a poet and high school english teacher based in South Burlington, Vermont, addresses this issue. Not only does she just include poetry from the past ten years, but she features a variety of identities in her English curriculum, using poetry to break out of the overused, traditional academic writing forms.
“I’m really interested in, how do I help people write books?” McCadden said. “And, they’re never going to write a book if they think the only way they can write is by writing a leaf paragraph in a five paragraph essay. I construct the poetry curriculum to try to teach as an antidote to five paragraph essay obsession.”
Working with kids at an even younger age, third grade teacher Pamela Lester from Overland Park, Kansas, used to have more freedom with what poetry she could share with her students. Her class used to host a poetry cafe at the end of the school year, where kids would perform poems they had written for their parents.
“They’re very simplistic poems, but it helps them kind of see the writing side of poetry. They read a lot, and then they write them, so it kind of connects that writing and reading piece together. We try to make fun ways that we can expose them to poems,” Lester said. “But like I said, the new curriculum we have, I don’t think it does as good of a job tying in poems.”
Besides her recent national appearances and her involvement in the greater poetry community, Gorman reached heightened fame thanks to her virality on social media (at the time of this writing, her Instagram had 3.7 million followers; her Twitter, 1.6 million).
After their performance of “Somewhere In America” was published on YouTube, Allen and McGavin similarly blew up online.
“I can’t always say that social media is the best platform for poetry, but it has become one for the spoken word, and in that way, it’s been allowed to survive,” Allen said.
Social media moves extremely quickly, and most traditional forms of poetry require time for explication and reflection. Instapoetry, or short poems meant for sharing online, combats this idea with a new genre of the craft.
“When you ask somebody, oh, when do you read poetry, when does poetry come into your life, it’s usually like weddings or funerals, these big moments of grief and happiness in a person’s life,” McGavin said. “Poetry is absolutely necessary for that, but I think in the last 10 years we’ve seen a kind of unhitching from those events that has allowed poetry to just leak into everyday life, where you can be reading poetry on your phone while you wait for the bus stop.”
Instapoetry become more widely known thanks to Rupi Kaur, a writer now with 4.3 million Instagram followers and three best-selling poetry collections. Her work includes qualities that represent Instapoetry at large: simple language, short stanzas, and often romantic or empowering in nature. In fact, her style is so defined, that it has become a template for parody.
People flock to Instapoets like Kaur for their accessibility, relatability and uplifting energy. Critics call Instapoetry capitalist and lacking artful complexity. Regardless of which side of the argument one takes, this distinction between “real” poetry and Instapoetry seems to imply a lacking quality or legitimacy when a poet primarily posts their work online.
Isabella Preisz was a proud Instapoet who sold over 10,000 copies of her self-published book 7,300 days. When the poet began studying creative writing at USC, this accomplishment was written off during a meeting with a professor.
“They were like, yeah, cool, great. But, I just could feel this feeling of like, it’s not academic enough. It’s just Instagram poetry, it’s just something that you wrote as a 19-year-old,” Preisz said. “I felt so much shame for so long that I wasn’t being accepted by this academic community.”
After immersing herself in the academic world of “real” poetry, Preisz said she still respects those who primarily come to social media for the art form.
“Being graduated two years out, I feel like this Instagram poetry identity is something that I miss. I miss that feeling of being free enough to just be a poet and post on Instagram,” Preisz said.
Chase Yi of Philosopher’s Stone Poetry, a L.A.-based poetry community, is a bit more critical of the writing found on social media, distinguishing between the work Rupi Kaur and that of e. e. cummings and T. S. Eliot.
“Poetry is a book you need in your lap. You need to take time to sit down and read it, open it up, really think about it, not something you just double tap once and then reshare,” Yi said. “That’s not it, it requires a lot more of yourself, to be a human being to understand other people.”
To which McGavin said, to each their own.
“When people complain about Instagram poetry it really just sounds like someone complaining about [Young Adult] books. It’s not for you, then, don’t read it,” McGavin said. “There can be like different registers of where people want to plug poetry into their lives.”
Regardless of how one feels about Rupi Kaur-types, social media has proven its ability to unite a community of poets and poetry-enthusiasts. Lisi, whose press has published both McGavin and Preisz, has noticed an influx in people seeking out a space for poetry.
“I would say that the pandemic revealed that there’s actually far more of a community that exists and has a hunger for this kind of literary fellowship that already exists and that our authors have been responsible for cultivating,” Lisi said.
. . . . .
Although poetry does not persist in the mainstream to the same level as film or music, the craft can still offer the general public, not just the poets and the poetry nerds, value.
First, this sense of community persists when writers and readers or listeners congregate. Poet George Abraham began their journey in high school, when a classmate saw them writing poetry on the bus and asked them to attend a spoken word club meeting after school.
“There’s this weird view in the world that writing is something that happens privately, and it’s a function of the private introspective mode, but oddly enough, my love for poetry came from the opposite,” Abraham said. “It came from community and came from just being alive with artists and excited with artists and getting me through like being a depressed high schooler who hated the world.”
Second, engaging with poetry requires and strengthens one’s intentionality. Poems’ words are each carefully chosen, thoughtfully picked for their ability to convey a message or emotion. Clayton said that this detailed approach to language use can impact other parts of one’s life.
“That translates into other forms of communication, like, how can you interpret how this politician is trying to pass this law, how can you interpret how this job interview is going, or what have you,” Clayton said. “Poetry does a lot to help people understand what’s not being said, what the space around them means to the words it’s encapsulating. It does a lot to make people think in a way that they don’t normally think.”
This level of intention can also influence those engaging with poetry in their personal lives, in a fast-paced, results-oriented world. Even when in a community space, Cortez reflected upon the inherent intimacy of the writing and reading process.
“Even if we’re in workshop with other people, there’s still an inward looking that’s required,” Cortez said. “It’s you sitting with yourself in a moment where that’s not always visible or always celebrated. It’s important to have that conversation with the page in your notebook that maybe no one else will see. You need that, just for your own mental health.”
Despite the values of poetry, its importance — as with all arts’ importance — must be weighed in comparison to what humans truly need. Imani Cezanne, a Bay Area-based poet and educator, said that basic human needs and the liberation of Black people should come first.
“There’s this organization that is trying to move money from the police force to defund the police and move it into the arts. And it’s like, okay, or we can take the money from the police and feed people, right, we can take money from the police and clothe people, we can take money from the police and clean some shit up,” Cezanne said.
Though sometimes called an activist, Cezanne does not consider herself one. Writing poetry is not revolutionary, since nobody’s material condition ever changes just because of poems.
“These poet activists swear they’re doing something by publishing something in the New York Times,” Cezanne said. “Well, who cares about that because poor Black kids aren’t reading the New York Times, and so they don’t get to be inspired by how beautifully you articulated their pain. They’re just in pain and that’s where that’s where my attention and focus lies.”
Maybe, after this revolutionary work is done, our focus can lie purely on poetry.
“Once we all have somewhere to live, we can poem all day!” Cezanne said.