MOORHEAD — If I wasn’t watching the inauguration live and instead looked at my Facebook feed later to see what happened on Wednesday, Jan. 20, I would have thought the news of the day was that Amanda Gorman inspired America with a poem she read to the nation.
Sure, Kamala Harris made history as the first female, first African American and first Asian American vice president of the United States. And Bernie Sanders wore mittens and looked grumpy. Oh yeah, and Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president.
But really, Gorman stole the show with a spirited performance of her uplifting poem, “The Hill We Climb.”
The 22-year-old’s words didn’t just help usher in the Biden administration — local poetry enthusiasts and educators believe she helped poetry reach a broader audience.
“I really think so. I definitely think there will be more people sharing the love of poetry,” says Maria Modi-Tuya, a Fargo-Moorhead writer.
Then a senior at Fargo North High School, she represented North Dakota in the 2018 national Poetry Out Loud National championship in Washington, D.C., making it to the finals.
“I was so happy to see her up there. The work we do is so powerful,” Modi-Tuya says, referring to seeing Gorman read. “Poetry is healing. It helps you understand the complexity and chaos in the world and helps make it beautiful.”
Modi-Tuya first got hooked by poetry during a speech class in high school.
“It gave me a lot of confidence to be in front of people,” she says.
She’s now studying communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead but also studies verses.
“Poetry is my tool, my power that keeps me going when things are tough,” she says.
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Rebecca Meyer-Larson teaches poetry and speech at Moorhead High School and was teaching online from the school’s basement during the inauguration. When she finished class and climbed the stairs, her phone blew up with text messages from students, teachers, parents and even her own mother. The messages were all the same — “Wasn’t that amazing?”
She watched Gorman’s reading and understood what everyone was talking about.
“I don’t know if there’s a more important message for kids,” she says, referring to the poet’s line, “And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us / but what stands before us.”
MeyLar, as students and parents call her, says Gorman’s poem will resonate for years, and she sees using it as a teaching tool in classes.
“You can’t teach this poem without teaching the time,” she says, adding that over the last two weeks, since the violent insurrection at the Capitol, it’s been hard teaching students that “their voices matter.”
PBS posted a lesson plan for grades 6-12 exploring the message and impact of “The Hill We Climb.”
“It showed us how much we need words to heal, how much we need art to heal,” Meyer-Larson says. “There’s a collective yearning in our nation now for that healing. That’s why art matters. That’s why words matter.”
Gorman’s words have resonated not just with poets, but also with purchasers. The day after her iconic reading, she held the top two spots on Amazon’s bestseller list — and those books won’t even be published for months.
At the Fargo bookstore Zandbroz Variety, they had received a call looking for works by Gorman the day after the inauguration.
Castle Danz, whose family owns and operates the store, says the buzz around a poet isn’t unheard of, but it’s rare.
“I don’t have a lot of people around me who share the love (for poetry),” Modi-Tuya says.
That may be changing.
Kelly Sassi, a professor of English and education at North Dakota State University and director of the Red River Valley Writing Project, says Gorman’s words are already having an effect on educators.
“I work to prepare future English teachers, and I have seen how many of them who are now teachers are reacting to Amanda Gorman's poem. She reminds us of what every teacher knows — we have as much to learn from our students as they have to learn from us,” she says.
“Every year in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, I see how youth voices reflect the most important issues of the year's events, and Amanda's poem did that spectacularly… She renewed my belief that words are for more than just tweets, they are tools for connecting us, lifting people up, and spurring us on to do what is right and good in this country.”
“There is finally light being shown in this world of darkness,” Modi-Tuya says. “She opened the door for people to understand themselves in a brighter light. It was the perfect time for her.”