Amanda Gorman's debut poetry collection "Call Us What We Carry" (Viking) feels unexpected in tone as it encapsulates the collective grief, anger and sadness felt at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. "Shall this leave us bitter? Or better?" Gorman writes. "Grieve. Then choose."
The Los Angeles native's book, stark in comparison to the uplifting inaugural poem "The Hill We Climb," focuses heavily on the lasting mental toll of the pandemic and what's been lost individually and collectively, and also serves as a history lesson.
But it wouldn't be Gorman if even it didn't also leave us feeling hopeful.
"Call Us What We Carry" imagines a day when no one again will have to "begin, love or end, alone." Still being in the midst of a global pandemic makes reading the 23-year-old's poetry collection feel a little too on the nose, but even then, it reminds us that "what we carry means we survive… where once we were alone, now we are beside ourselves."
Gorman has come a long way since her early days as a mentee in the WriteGirl creative writing program, before becoming the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history. "Call Us What We Carry" is thought-provoking and lyrical. Her poetry places readers back in the days of quarantine, back in that loneliness, and it makes us reflect on how far we've come and how far we still need to go.
"There is power in being robbed & still choosing to dance," she writes.
"Call Us What We Carry" is divided into different parts, including Earth Eyes; Memoria; What a Piece of Wreck Is Man; Atonement; and Fury & Faith. Throughout, she details the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, the 1918 influenza epidemic, world wars, the slave trade and segregation. And she drives it all home to the present and the pandemic, reminding readers that there's a lot to learn (or a lot that hasn't been learned) from this country's past responses to global catastrophes.
"The Hill We Climb," an original poem Gorman delivered at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, painted a picture of a broken nation and called for healing and unity, alluding to the pro-Trump rally two weeks prior to her standing at that lectern.
"Hearing her say those kinds of words of inspiration, but also acknowledge her place in this really complicated system" was significant and forced people to remember a "history of America that not a lot of people want to remember," writer Sofía Aguilar told USA TODAY.
Seeing Gorman reach the level of success she has and touch millions with her words makes Aguilar "hopeful."
Aguilar, like Gorman, is a former WriteGirl mentee. The two didn't cross paths during their mentorships, but WriteGirl, a Los Angeles-based creative writing and mentoring organization, helped the two find their voices and places in the literary arts.
The nonprofit organization, founded by Keren Taylor in 2001, matches more than 500 young girls annually with fellow writers to help them hone their writing skills across all genres. Each year, they also produce dozens of workshops, panel discussions and events to help young girls from inner cities find their creative spark.
Author of "Hotel at the End of the World," Dinah Berland served as a WriteGirl mentor to Gorman while she was attending New Roads School, a private high school in Santa Monica, California. Berland recalls the first time she heard Gorman recite a poem, and says she knew immediately that Gorman had "a lot of talent."
"There's no doubt in my mind that she is a model for many young people," Berland says. "The fact that she is completely committed to opening up the possibilities for social change through literature and through her poetry in particular… anyone who is committed to these ideas can make a difference through poetry."
Allison Deegan, associate director at WriteGirl, agrees. Deegan says Gorman's poetry is "a force for good in the world."
Before Gorman made history in 2017, when she became Los Angeles' first-ever youth poet laureate of the United States, Deegan guided Gorman through the college application process (she graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 2020).
Deegan thinks back to the first day Gorman walked into WriteGirl.
"She was so little," Deegan says. "We wondered, will we ever hear her speak, and then we found out she had speech challenges and I said, well, 'Let's just play it slow and let her build her confidence.'"
When the day came, standing up in front of people to share her work came "natural" to Gorman.
"Even in the earliest days, her words were mighty," Deegan says, adding that even during her early days, Gorman wasn't afraid of tiptoeing into different genres and styles of writing including fiction, songwriting, screenwriting and journalism.
Deegan, a WriteGirl founding member, says that when she sees Gorman in the spotlight, she feels like "I'm seeing all my girls."
"Gorman is a light, a beacon for all of our girls," Deegan adds.
When Gorman delivered "The Hill We Climb" on Inauguration Day, WriteGirl hosted an online watch party for volunteers, alumnae and current mentees to watch her performance.
Co-founder of Bee Infinite Publishing and former mentee Kai Adia says it was a "really powerful moment for anyone to see but especially young writers and aspiring poets."
For Adia, poetry is a "beautiful space of healing and expression," and Gorman's "Call Us What We Carry" empowers its readers to heal and express themselves – no matter how complicated or murky the feelings.
"Knowing that you can heal when you read somebody else's work is amazing," Adia says. "That's what we kind of need right now."
Adia, who was also born and raised in Los Angeles, feels a close connection to Gorman.
"I hope other WriteGirls like myself can see that we came from the same kind of bedrock, the same soil," she says. "That means we can all sprout and be these beautiful seeds and grow into these amazing flourishing beings as well because we do come from the same foundation as Amanda."
If you would like to join WriteGirl as a mentee, mentor or volunteer, go here. To donate to the organization, go here. WriteGirl anthologies, written by mentees and mentors, are also available for purchase here.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Amanda Gorman's 'Call Us What We Carry' inspires fellow WriteGirls