NEW YORK (NEW YORK TIMES) - About two weeks ago, poet Amanda Gorman was struggling to finish a new work titled The Hill We Climb.
She was feeling exhausted, and she worried she wasn't up to the monumental task she faced: composing a poem about national unity to recite at United State President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration.
"I had this huge thing, probably one of the most important things I'll ever do in my career," she said in an interview. "It was like, if I try to climb this mountain all at once, I'm just going to pass out."
Gorman managed to write a few lines a day and was about halfway through the poem on Jan 6, when pro-Trump rioters stormed into the halls of Congress, some bearing weapons and Confederate flags.
She stayed awake late into the night and finished the poem, adding verses about the apocalyptic scene that unfolded at the Capitol that day.
At 22, Gorman is the youngest inaugural poet ever in the United States. She is part of a small group of poets who have been recruited to help mark a presidential inauguration, among them Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco.
But none of her predecessors faced the challenge that Gorman did. She set out to write a poem that would inspire hope and foster a sense of collective purpose, at a moment when Americans are reeling from a deadly pandemic, political violence and partisan division.
"In my poem, I'm not going to in any way gloss over what we've seen over the past few weeks and, dare I say, the past few years. But what I really aspire to do in the poem is to be able to use my words to envision a way in which our country can still come together and can still heal," she said. "It's doing that in a way that is not erasing or neglecting the harsh truths I think America needs to reconcile with."
Gorman fell in love with poetry at a young age and distinguished herself quickly as a rising talent. Raised in Los Angeles, where her mother teaches middle school, she would write in journals at the playground.
At 16, she was named the Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles.
A few years later, when she was studying sociology at Harvard, she became the National Youth Poet Laureate, the first person to hold the position.
In a year that's beginning with a major milestone, with her appearance at the inauguration, Gorman is set to reach a much larger audience with her work.
In September, Viking Books for Young Readers will release her debut poetry collection, also titled The Hill We Climb, which is aimed at teenage and adult readers and will include the inaugural poem.
Her debut picture book, Change Sings, with illustrations by Loren Long, comes out on the same day.
Still, while she has been in the spotlight before, she had never performed her work for a televised audience numbering in the tens of millions, as a prominent part of a line-up that includes Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez.
"No pressure," Gorman said with a laugh.
To prepare for the event on Wednesday (Jan 20), she practiced reading the poem over and over, to the point where she felt confident that she would not stumble over the words.
"The writing process is its own excruciating form, but as someone with a speech impediment, speaking in front of millions of people presents its own type of terror."
"Now more than ever, the United States needs an inaugural poem," Gorman said. "Poetry is typically the touchstone that we go back to when we have to remind ourselves of the history that we stand on, and the future that we stand for."