Alaskan artists find inspiration in Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem

Christy NaMee Eriksen of Juneau (left), Jen Stever of Anchorage (top right), and Makayla Blewett of Anchorage (bottom right) shared their thoughts on the 2021 inaugural poet Amanda Gorman. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

One of the most celebrated moments of President Joe Biden’s inauguration featured a poet named Amanda Gorman. Gorman is one of only a handful of poets to perform at a presidential inauguration. At age 22, she’s also the youngest.

Her identity as a young Black woman and the poem she read captured people around the world, including in Alaska.

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Christy NaMee Eriksen is a poet, teaching artist and organizer in Juneau. “Of course, it’s super exciting for us to see a Black and Asian Madam Vice President be sworn into office. But to see a young woman of color be invited to such an important event, and then to see her really move the audience by reading her poem, that felt extremely special to me.” (Christy NaMee Eriksen)

Juneau-based poet Christy NaMee Eriksen said her social media was flooded with reactions to Gorman’s poem after the inauguration.  

“That was one of our favorite parts of the inauguration. Right? Nobody’s really quoting anything Joe Biden said. Everybody is quoting the poet.”

Listen to Christy read her poem ‘#FamiliesBelongTogether’:

Even more than the reaction, Eriksen said it was the representation that felt most special to her — that Gorman was invited, listened to, and applauded. Eriksen, who is Asian-American, said Gorman’s identity sent a powerful message.  

“Anytime I see another young woman of color be given a large stage and use it to speak a truth that resonates so deeply with the experience of her community, it’s empowering,” she said.

That representation resonated with Anchorage poet Jen Stever, too. 

Jen Stever is a writer and poet based in Anchorage. “The main message of the poem, it’s one of hope, which is a hard position for a lot of people of color to have, especially after the last five years, but also after the last 500 years. Our country has always been kind of two steps forward, one step back, I feel like the last few years have really felt like several steps back. And now, as this poem kind of says, you know, we can rebuild, reconcile and recover, move into a phase of stepping forward again.” (Jen Stever)

Stever woke her two-year-old daughter to watch the inauguration Wednesday. As an Iñupiaq woman, Stever identified with Gorman as a person of color, a woman, and an emerging writer. Watching Gorman and Kamala Harris take the stage as the world watched was significant, she said.

“Having my daughter see those things as well. She’s young, but she’ll hopefully live in a world where there aren’t these ceilings, because these women are kind of shattering them,” Stever said.

Listen to Jen read her poem ‘Ch’atanhtnu’:

18-year-old Makayla Blewett said watching Gorman perform reminded her of the first time she took the stage. Blewitt is a graduate of Bartlett High School in Anchorage and now attends the University of Nevada.

Makayla Blewett graduated from Bartlett High School in Anchorage and is currently a student at the University of Nevada. Gorman’s performance reminder her of her own experience performing poetry. “It’s so nerve wracking, being so vulnerable in front of everyone to see. But it was worth it for the amount of people that messaged me telling them like telling me that they didn’t feel alone. So that’s why I do it. Not for any other reason, just so that other people know that they aren’t alone in the world.”

Blewett said at her first performance, she was really nervous, shaking, and nearly backed out. But the supportive reaction to her work inspired her to keep going. So, she could imagine how Gorman may have felt at the inauguration. 

In Gorman, Blewett said she recognized herself. 

“It was breathtaking, I started getting teary eyed,” Blewett said. “Especially seeing someone so young be able to do it, it was amazing.”

Listen to Makayla read her poem ‘Can You Hear Me?’:

Eriksen said Kamala Harris gave women of color something to aspire to: They could be there, serving in the most powerful offices in America.

“But when Amanda Gorman read her poem, I feel like we were there,” she said. “I feel like we were in the audience, we were in her poem. When people say that they were moved by her piece, I think it’s true. I think we were transported there.”

Eriksen, who is also a teaching-artist and organizer, said she hopes that Gorman’s poem and the powerful reaction to it encourages more people to invest in the arts. 

“Art is like the sixth sense. It gives us more information than just what we can see and what we can taste and what we can hear. We get to experience the world more deeply,” Eriksen said. “We have a lot to gain from supporting art and supporting artists. Amanda Gorman expertly showed us that in the delivery of her poem.”

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