Amanda Gorman & Our Laureates Across the Pond – by Laurs Oakley

Inspired by Amanda Gorman’s incredible reading at the 2021 inauguration of President Biden, Laurs takes a look at the laureate programs we have in the UK.

It seems I am not the only one in awe of Amanda Gorman and her poem, The Hill We Climb after her reading at the U.S president’s inauguration. The world has woken up to a new poetry genius; Gorman’s two books have shot up to number one and two on the Amazon best-seller list, Malala Yousafzai praised and quoted Gorman’s poetry, Hilary Clinton wants her for president in 2036 – she has quite literally set the world alight. And no wonder! It takes serious skill to be able to express our desperate hopes for the future with such ease.  

As if that isn’t enough, Gorman has broken records as the youngest inaugural poet in U.S history and as a young, black, talented woman proudly standing on an international stage, there’s no doubt that she deserves the accolade. Not that Gorman is a stranger to achievement, of course! A cum laude graduate of Harvard, Gorman has already written for the New York Times, been invited to the Obama White House, spoken across the U.S including at the Library of Congress and Lincoln Centre, and was the National Youth Poet Laureate, all by the tender age of twenty-two! 

What is a Laureate? 

According to the Cambridge Dictionary a laureate is ‘a person who has been given a very high honour because of their ability in a subject of study,’ for example, an excellence in poetry at a young age. Like a Booker Prize Winner, the accolade will not disappear once your term is up, Gorman received the honour in 2017 yet is still considered a National Youth Poet Laureate. Often laureates are asked to perform certain duties relevant to their subject of study, such as inspiring other young people to write poetry or have a specific piece of work commissioned as part of the honour. The National Youth Poet Laureate program in the U.S. however, which Gorman won, is aimed at identifying and celebrating the brilliant young poets of the country, offering them opportunities to develop their craft as well as a means to expand their platforms as poets. 

Who is the Youth Poet Laureate in the UK? 

Though the UK does not have a national youth poet laureate we do have the Young People’s Laureate for London. This accolade is a key project of Spread the Word, a writer development agency that supports the development of London’s new writing talents. The laureate scheme aims to give young Londoners a voice through poetry as well as raise the visibility of poetry in the capital, and at a national and international level. Cecilia Knapp is the current Young People’s Laureate for London and, like Gorman, Knapp already has a wealth of achievements to her name including having written for Vogue and being a former resident artist at The Roundhouse. 

Do we have any other laureates in the UK? 

Simon Armitage is our current national poet laureate. According to the position is only honorary, and the poet can choose whether to produce poetry for national occasions. Armitage will receive a stipend of £5,750 a year and (for some reason I find this humorous) 600 bottles of sherry to celebrate! I’ve yet to find out why the term is so long – ten years! – so would love to hear if any laureate nerds have the answer? I must note, Armitage does have a brilliant subsection on his website titled ‘Poet Laureate Poems’, including one named ‘Lockdown’, which certainly demands a perusal! 

The Waterstones Children’s Laureate is a much shorter two-year tenure and is currently held by Cressida Cowell (author of the How To Train Your Dragon series). This position appears to require more proactivity than the poet laureate and Cowell has already created a charter list defining her key aims as Laureate. Three aims to note are; every child must have a right to be creative for at least fifteen minutes a week, every child has a right to see an author event at least once; and every child has the right to have a planet to read on! 

What about those of us who aren’t quite at Laureate level yet? 

The Poet Society’s online platform for poets aged 25 and under includes challenges and competitions, features new writing from young poets, links to writing groups and shares the latest news from the writing world. Their tips and advice page is particularly helpful for those of us who are just starting to make our way into the world of poetry, including tips on how to read, write, edit, and perform poetry.  

Neon Books has a brilliant list of writing competitions for UK entrants, both for poets and fiction writers alike. But watch out for that entrance fee! There are many competitions you can enter for free and you need not pay over £20 (save it for your own bottle of sherry!) One competition to highlight is The Creative Future Writer’s Award, a fantastic development program for underrepresented writers of both poetry and short fiction. 

And, don’t forget us! Check out the links below to our Instagram and Twitter pages where we’ll be hosting writing prompts and sharing some of your amazing work online before the festivities of the festival begin. 

Final Thoughts: 

Do you think we should be a UK Youth Poet Laureate at a national level too? Perhaps we might find another Amanda Gorman hidden in the depths of Manchester or in the Scottish Highlands, away from the city of London that much of our culture seems confined to. That being said, Amanda Gorman is truly in a league of her own. I doubt there will be another like her for quite some time, so I shall leave you with her genius. And what a genius it is! 

Final lines of The Hill We Climb: 

In every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country,
our people, diverse and beautiful, will emerge, battered and beautiful.
When day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

About the Author – Laurs Oakley

I am currently doing the MA in Creative Writing at Surrey and am adoring spending all my time with books and words, what a joy! Alongside being very studious, my favourite book to read is The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, but I also love to get my teeth into dark dystopias, both to read and write. If I’m not at a laptop or in a book, I’m dancing, improvising, performing in very cheesy musicals (or dreaming up a world where such a thing can happen), and overseeing this festival’s Twitter and website! Find me on social media @oak_laurs

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