Amanda Gorman's fellow laureates are tuning in for Super Bowl LV -- but for poetry over pigskin
Updated 5th February 2021
Amanda Gorman's fellow laureates are tuning in for Super Bowl LV -- but for poetry over pigskin
For three young scribes, the star of Super Bowl Sunday won't be Patrick Mahomes or Tom Brady, no matter how many touchdowns they throw. No, they'll be tuning in for Amanda Gorman.
The 22-year-old Los Angeles poet brought a moment of peace to a beleaguered nation when she delivered her stirring poem, "The Hill We Climb," at President Joe Biden's inauguration two weeks after the Capitol riots. She's now been tapped to perform on perhaps an even bigger stage Sunday.
Meera Dasgupta, Pat Frazier and Kara Jackson aren't football fans, but they'll be tuning in. As Gorman's successors in the National Youth Poet Laureate Program, they're keenly interested in seeing their peer serenade the nation again. For these activists and lyricists, the moment couldn't be bigger.
"I think it's doing the work of forcing people to acknowledge poetry as a valid source of commentary and reflection and scrutiny. ... I'm hoping it forces people to invest and acknowledge Amanda as integral to spaces they didn't think poetry was a part of," Jackson told CNN. "Maybe poetry is relevant everywhere, and it's relevant during a football game."
Added Frazier, "I'll be super happy that someone who looks like me is up there on that stage. ... The spirit of this moment is going to empower so many young people throughout the world."
Gorman's performance has cast poetry into a long-desired spotlight, said Shanelle Gabriel, interim executive director of Urban Word NYC, which administers the National Youth Poet Laureate Program. Urban Word is capitalizing by connecting more young people to poetry slams, open mics, writing workshops and other programs, she said.
"Amanda Gorman is such a powerhouse," Gabriel said. "Our young people deserve the grandest platforms for their perspective and stories. We hope that this is an awakening for others, especially those in positions of power, to consider supporting organizations that cultivate and champion youth voices."
'My words had given her a voice'
Meera is the reigning national youth poet laureate, and at 16, was the program's youngest honoree. She's long enjoyed writing but only recently turned her talents to poetry.
In elementary school, she would turn in 50-page papers with "the margins completely darkened," she recalled. Teachers would tell her she didn't need to add annotations, "but it was something that I liked to do." Reading was another favorite pastime.
"It was not only an escape from reality, but it allowed for a multitude of realities to pour into my hands," Meera, now 17, said.
Her poetry education as a youngster consisted of Shakespeare's sonnets and the like. She didn't understand the medium's power, she said, before discovering slam poetry and spoken word, and it wasn't until the Queens, New York, native joined her Stuyvesant High School speech team as a sophomore that she realized she could write her own poems.
She attended a workshop in Jackson Heights for Climate Speaks, a spoken word program for young authors, and delivered her poem, "Happily Ever After, the End," a confluence of childhood memories and her end of innocence regarding climate change.
Her debut effort earned her a finalist spot, and following her performance at Harlem's Apollo Theater, an audience member helped her realize the potency of her art.
...Once upon a time/The smell of popcorn wafting through the air/The movie Rio began to play/Where mystical, blue, feathered birds spoke/The impossible was possible/And the worst problem in the world/Was running out of M&Ms/Little did I know that Blue was dead/His species wiped out/Life losing to greed/The magic wore off/The veil lifted/Wildfires crackling/Smoke darkening/Children asphyxiated by a cloud of debris/No more movies, only cable news...
"My words had given her a voice; it was something that she had always wanted to talk about and express her viewpoint on," Meera recalled. "I kind of saw myself in her eyes, too. Emotions can move people in ways that facts cannot."
Meera didn't choose poetry; it chose her, the South Asian American teen said, giggling infectiously at how cheesy it sounds -- but pointing out it wasn't until she became a wordsmith she learned she was named after Mirabai, the 16th-century Hindu mystic poet.
Gorman is a role model for Meera, she said. When her English teachers (yes, she has two) let their classes watch the inauguration and Gorman's recital, it confirmed something Meera already knew: Gorman was not there for herself.
"As a young person, she's continued to find ways to make sure that not only her voice is heard. She's uplifted so many communities with her. It's an entire neighborhood she has brought up with her," she said.
Scrutiny and 'a forging of identity'
Jackson and Frazier are best friends and both live in the Chicago area. They met five years ago during a poetry apprenticeship, Louder Than a Bomb Squad, which borrows its name from the 1988 Public Enemy song. When Jackson was named the 2019 national youth poet laureate, it was Frazier, the previous year's winner, who bestowed her with the honor.
"Both of us are pretty hyper-aware a lot of our life paths are intertwined," Jackson, 21, said.
While you can hear something akin to Public Enemy rhymesmith Chuck D's fiery cadence in their verses, Jackson's and Frazier's styles are quite different.
Frazier's late grandmother wrote poetry. Frazier started out as a songwriter before transitioning to poetry. Fittingly, Frazier grew up in Ida B. Wells Homes, named for the journalist and civil rights leader, before their demolition a decade ago. As a youngster, Frazier was timid and "wrote letters to tell people things I was not confident enough to tell them and kept (the letters) to myself."
"Everyone was on the computer all day, and my generation was not invited to pay attention very much," the Columbia College cinema directing major said. "Writing was the first space where I was invited to pay attention. ... Something in me wanted to feel gratitude for the things around me, and writing was a space for me to do that unapologetically."
Frazier, who is nonbinary and uses the pronouns they and them, received their mom's permission to ride the bus in seventh grade and took the opportunity to explore the Chi. You can hear their familiarity and love for their hometown in the beat-style verses of "I Am Windy City." Frazier told an audience at the Library of Congress they wrote the ode "because people throw dirt on Chicago so often that I feel we might end up under it."
... Chiraq turned churches into resale gun stores/Chiraq a trap song sirenade sung into the wrong ear/Chiraq city of lost/Boys under the hood/Chiraq could never/Take my face value of royal flush into the Chicago River/My leaning Sears Tower of pizza/My Heineken and soul food gout feet tap dancing barefoot with my hot-headed friends/My confetti fleshed comrades/Come, break bread with me
Asked about their pride in Chicago, Frazier stopped the interviewer. Pride is an interesting word, they said.
"What I recall about the neighborhood, I recall having so much shame of where I was from -- the fact that I lived in a project. I was unable to appreciate what it was while I was there," the 22-year-old told CNN. "A lot of me writing about Chicago is me desperate to remember it ... writing about the places I came from, desperate to not lose those places and desperate to make them permanent."
Jackson, too, has been writing most of her life, both songs and poems, though her middle school sonnets were "emo and weird," she said, and she didn't take the craft seriously until joining her high school's spoken word club.
She lives in Oak Park, just outside Chicago, and doesn't feel she speaks for the city like Frazier can. Her work centers on her lineage -- generational and collective trauma, the women in her family, her father's Southern upbringing.
"It's more a duty I feel to speak to my lineage as someone who is testifying and creating these poems as testament to my people and how they lived," she said. Chicago and the South are "reduced to certain things and certain stereotypes. I feel it's my duty to rectify those reductions and to tell a full story of the South that's missed and obscured by these generalizations and lack of attention and love."
There is too much room for death in this poem. Somewhere, there's a body writing itself into the ground. Sometimes it's not about the coffin wood. It's all about the blood in this poem. Here the dead live where the page breaks. Grandma unbuckles her shoes and leaves them under this poem. In this poem, death comes with a glass of water. We find Auntie here. She was never lost, but looking for a poem to die in...
Poetry's relevance lies in its accessibility, in "the quality of light" with which it allows us to scrutinize our lives, the Smith College sophomore said, paraphrasing Audre Lord's 1985 essay, "Poetry Is Not a Luxury."
"One of the oldest practices of scrutiny we have is poetry. It's unlike all other art forms. It's so innate in terms of articulating ourselves," she said. "It lends itself to any class. ... You can write a poem down on a napkin. You can write a poem on the notes in your phone. You can write a poem down anywhere. I think that's why it continues to be a relevant form of scrutiny."
Meera calls poetry "a forging of identity" and says while it's often considered performative, it can be a "visceral personal experience on vulnerability, too." The high school senior loves to combine education and experience, as she did when she tapped the lessons of her college-level gender studies class in writing, "explaining brown girl feminism to a white man on the e train."
"It allowed me to express an emotion that I felt and wasn't able to consolidate immediately," she said. "You can really write a poem about anything. You look up and see a clock and can talk about time and the future. I see a chair and you can talk about a seat at the table. If you choose to step into new perspectives, you'll discover so much."
'Young poets are not here to play'
Watching Gorman on Inauguration Day, Frazier couldn't stop processing what had happened during the Capitol riot, "and then this young Black woman does a poem in proximity to where just a few weeks earlier there was a White supremacist coup. I kept remembering the bravery and ferocity," they said.
Frazier considers Gorman a sort of mentor, and the inauguration poem reminded them, "OK, you have something to say, and it deserves to be heard no matter who is outside the door threatening to kick it down."
Jackson, too, was inspired. There "wasn't a better person for that gig," she said, especially considering Gorman would like to be inaugurated as President of the United States herself one day.
"I know that that's super possible," Jackson said. "It's always great to see a Black woman actualizing her dreams. I'm happy for Amanda, happy for the state of poetry. I'm also meditating on the fact poetry is so integral to America and our story."
Even if they won't be decked out in Chiefs or Bucs gear and laying seanotes on the over-under, the writers are stoked to tune in for the Super Bowl -- Frazier from Chicago's Roseland neighborhood, Jackson from Oak Park and Meera from her newish home in Oswego, New York.
They're excited not just because Gorman represents what every poet can build but also what they can tear down.
Frazier sees the poetry world as dominated by ageism, which Gorman threatens to obliterate, while Meera sees the Super Bowl as a social construct representing "so many standards of identity" in America's infrastructure, from the machismo of the game itself to the sex symbols taking the field as cheerleaders and performers.
Watching Gorman knock down barriers "leaves me hopeful the youth are becoming the future, and every day is an aspect of the future," the 17-year-old said.
Jackson, who delivered a 2019 TED Talk, part of it in verse, sees the Super Bowl as a space not only associated with masculinity but also White supremacy, she said, noting the vitriol aimed at Colin Kaepernick and other players who kneeled in protest of police violence and the backlash to Beyonce's 2016 Black Lives Matter-inspired halftime show. It's interesting, she said, that Black women will be out front for this year's big game -- in addition to Gorman, Jazmine Sullivan will perform a National Anthem duet, and H.E.R. will sing "America the Beautiful."
"I'm interested to see those forces collide and intersect," Jackson said. "I see it as interrupting a certain singularity and notion we have about that space. ... It will force us to realize the autonomy of Black women."
As much as Frazier admires Gorman, they wouldn't necessarily want to follow her same path -- for one, their politics vary considerably -- but they're eager to see how Gorman's message is received around the world.
"Amanda performing at the Super Bowl in front of the whole wide world," they said, "it really makes a statement that young poets are not here to play. We are not here to pretend. We are not here to be under the shadow and wait.
"There is no time for anymore waiting. We have things to say, and we have to say them now."