How to see Amanda Gorman and much more as the Festival of Books returns
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Amanda Gorman says growing up in Los Angeles shaped her path as a poet.
She recalls poetry workshops on Saturdays at Beyond Baroque, the venerable Venice cultural center: “I remember taking the bus or walking or whatever it took to get there,” Gorman says in a new interview with author Lynell George. “It was forever teenagers eating carrots and sunflower seeds, but it was such a special place. So many of my formative poetic moments happened there.”
The nation’s youngest inaugural poet also says L.A. nonprofit WriteGirl helped her to visualize what it meant to be a writer.
“I remember my first workshop … because part of their model was letting young girls partner with mentors,” she says. “The first event I went to was at the [former] L.A. Times headquarters. I was so blown away. They had journalists there, and honestly, it was like Writers Disneyland. And the Festival of Books? I went for the first time when I was 8 … and it was like one of the best days.”
Next weekend the 24-year-old poet returns to her hometown Festival of Books — as a headliner. Gorman will take the L.A. Times Main Stage to discuss “Call Us What We Carry,” our April book club selection.
Written during the depths of the pandemic, Gorman’s latest collection is a lament to lost time and the fragility of language. “I saw how important it was to tell the truth about what was going on and to believe that telling our stories is a significant part of how we move forward,” she says.
If you go: Amanda Gorman will be in conversation with Orange County poet laureate Natalie J. Graham at 11:30 a.m. April 23 at USC. The event is free.
The full Festival of Books schedule, including the outdoor L.A. Times Main Stage and Poetry Stage, is online.
Q&A: Natalie J. Graham
You may remember Graham from our September 2020 book club, “Black Poets in a Time of Unrest.” She performed “Touching the Bird,” a poem from her debut poetry collection, “Begin With a Failed Body.” Graham was named Orange County poet laureate in 2021.
Ahead of the festival, Graham opened up about her writing career, favorite poets and latest projects.
How did you find your voice?
I tell this story often but, after I’d been rejected from a poetry workshop for having poems that were “far too unsophisticated,” a visiting professor in my lit class told me I had written a “real poem.” Considering my voice as part of a conversation truly started that moment. I’ve written poems and stories since I was a child, and I understand the world through the process of writing, but that was a distinct shift. Since then, I’ve enjoyed using my voice to explore new ideas. So my voice is much more fluid and responsive to the world around me.
Did you try other genres?
Yes, I’ve written prose and poetry with about the same frequency. I just haven’t published as much fiction yet.
What are your favorite places to perform poetry?
My favorite place to perform, by far, is a high school or undergraduate classroom. Those students are the best listeners and come up with great questions. I appreciate the space to have longer conversations about process and experience. Talking about the ideas adjacent to and the process of poetry is much more exciting than pure performance to me. I want to know what the audience is thinking about it all!
Favorite places to enjoy listening to poetry?
To me, poetry venues are defined by their curators and hosts; bridgette bianca and Cynthia Briano are my favorite hosts. I love being in any space where they are at the helm. Cynthia regularly hosts First Fridays at the Rapp Saloon in Santa Monica. The lineup is always stellar and thoughtfully curated. They both do a great job of engaging their audiences and the poets that are reading.
Is there a poet who inspired your path?
The visiting poet I alluded to earlier is Sidney Wade, without whom I would not be writing. But also I can’t say Patricia Smith’s name enough. I’m always returning to her work for inspiration.
As poet laureate, where have you found your most engaging audiences?
So much of my audiences have been virtual during the time I’ve been poet laureate, so it’s hard to know in the same way that I did before. I did get the chance to host a reading where poets wrote poems in response to Nina Simone. We got a lot of love in the chat IG Live. It was exciting to see the virtual hearts and hellos.
What’s your next project?
I’m finishing a new poetry collection about villains and icons that’s mostly ekphrasis, so that’s been fun, and I’m halfway through the first draft of a novel.
More for National Poetry Month: How to find great poetry in L.A.
Literary Los Angeles
Lit City: Just in time for the festival, check out this comprehensive guide to the literary geography of Los Angeles. You’ll find a bookstore map, writers’ meetups, place histories, an author survey, essays and more.
Bookmark it: The 65 best bookstores in L.A. This is an essential guide for book people.
More festival highlights
The Festival of Books returns to USC in person for the first time since 2019 and features more than 500 authors, musicians, celebrities and chefs at indoor venues and outdoor stages. Most festival events are free.
Book prizes. On Friday, April 22, the eve of the festival, winners of the annual Los Angeles Times Book Prizes will be announced. You can get tickets here to attend.
Make a plan. The festival runs all day Saturday, April 23, and Sunday, April 24, across the USC campus and features a wide range of talent, such as Amor Towles, Michael Connelly, Lisa See, Billy Porter, Rachel Lindsay, Danny Trejo, Craig Johnson, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Alton Brown, Gregory Boyle and a special edition of the Ideas Exchange with Janelle Monáe. You can make reservations for individual panels starting at 10 a.m. Sunday, April 17.
Meet the Times staff. The festival’s Ask a Reporter stage will feature Times writers, editors and photographers discussing some of the most interesting, innovative work at the news outlet right now. Speakers include Executive Editor Kevin Merida, travel writer Christopher Reynolds, food columnist Jenn Harris, sports columnist Bill Plaschke and columnist Gustavo Arrellano hosting a podcast on the L.A. elections. Here’s the full Ask a Reporter lineup at Mudd Hall for both days.
Calling book lovers. Sign up to volunteer at the Festival of Books, cool perks included.
The day Jackie Robinson came home. In this excerpt from “True: The Four Seasons of Jackie Robinson,” author Kostya Kennedy traces the path that brought Robinson back to Dodger Stadium on June 4, 1972, for the 25th anniversary of his breaking of baseball’s color barrier, less than five months before he died at age 53. Also check out writer Ron Rapoport’s recollections: “You have your best day ever on the job and I have mine,” he writes. “Mine is the day Jackie Robinson came to town.”
How a Stanford med student wrote her heist caper. The story of why Grace D. Li turned to fiction in a crisis — and pursued two seemingly opposing career paths — has as many twists and turns as her new bestseller, “Portrait of a Thief.” Read Paula L. Woods’ interview.
How to give away billions. The New York Times offers a fascinating glimpse inside the private world of MacKenzie Scott. Mentored as a young writer by Toni Morrison, the Seattle novelist is quietly upending philanthropy since divorcing Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Scott promises to “keep at it until the safe is empty.”
Packs your books and go. California readers can now use their library cards to check out day passes for free access to more than 200 state parks.
If you enjoy our community book club. The Times has offered many book club conversations and other live journalism events free and virtual to make it easy for readers to connect with authors and newsmakers during the pandemic. Please consider supporting the new Los Angeles Times Community Fund.
Last word. Former Times Books editor David L. Ulin on how Los Angeles transformed American literature: “In the end, I want to argue, it all comes back to poetry. Los Angeles, the city’s former poet laureate Luis J. Rodriguez once told me, ‘is a great poetry town.’ He’s right, as even the briefest roster of Southern California poets will attest. [Wanda] Coleman, Lynne Thompson, Eloise Klein Healy, Amy Gerstler, Douglas Kearney, Robin Coste Lewis, Victoria Chang, David St. John, Harryette Mullen, Kamau Daáood. Their work evokes Los Angeles as a psychic landscape but also as a physical one.”
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