“Ode to my bitch face” are the first words Olivia Gatwood speaks when she begins her performance at Colorado College one October evening. A spoken word poet, author, full-time touring artist, and Title IX Compliant educator, Olivia’s odes and other poetry are witty, heartbreaking maps to navigating girlhood. She writes and speaks about periods, puberty, and relationships. She loves pink. She’s covered in flower tattoos. She talked to the Power Thread about balancing spoken word and written work and the importance of creative collaboration.
Olivia is from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and currently lives in Boston. She is a graduate of the Pratt Institute’s fiction program. She is the author of New American Best Friend.
How did you get your start as a writer?
I started writing when I was really young. I don’t think people are necessarily born writers, but there are just those kids – everyone buys the journal for them for Christmas. Everyone knows that’s the kid that likes to write. That was me. I was always writing, anything I could – short stories, articles, anything. But I started writing poetry as a young teenager. I like rhythm, and I was really into storytelling in a playful way. Poetry seemed like a space where I could play. But I had this inkling, this feeling, that I needed to read it aloud, that I needed to control how people heard it. I was really frustrated by the idea of someone reading it wrong, which I’ve since had to learn to let go of a little bit. I would read it aloud to my friends. It was always, “I wrote a poem. Can I read it to you?” I never let anyone read it themselves.
Then, I got into spoken word. It was introduced to me because it was pretty obvious that was where I should be. I never stopped. It’s where I started making all of my friends. It was the way I learned to express myself, how to resist things that made me angry. And then it slowly became something I could use to make money. Once videos started coming out on Youtube during my last year of college, people started asking me to come perform at their schools. And so I would – I would go on weekends to different cities and perform, and then go back to school. I didn’t really think it was going to be something I did as a real, full-time job until a year and a half into it. It was always this feeling of well, this will probably be over next week or, I need to get a real job eventually. And then I gradually figured out this was my real job. And I don’t really know how to do anything else. This is what I do.
“You can’t deny what moves you.”
What launched you into writing about girlhood, puberty, relationships and period underwear?
We write what we know, ideally. So, naturally from the time I was sixteen years old, I was writing about the ways that misogyny affected me. That’s was what I was angry about, that’s what was affecting me, that’s what was heavy on my mind. Being a teenage girl and getting looked at, or getting talked to in a certain way, or getting denied certain things. In a way, I think we’re always just retelling the same story. And I think I still am. Now, because it’s my job, it’s a little more intentional and curated. I’m conscious of what I need to touch on, or the nuances I need to explore around certain topics, and so I’ll prompt myself a little more. It’s not as much of an emotional release anymore. It’s more like an assignment.
A few years ago, my friend and I formed a poetry collective, Speak Like a Girl. When we broach topics related to Title IX, we started to notice people’s ears perk up at conversations around sexual assault and consent. We started to explore different forms of education: lectures that use poetry to talk about subjects that are generally very hard for people to talk about. Poetry is engaging, it’s fun, it’s brief, and it’s a really great way to get ideas into students’ minds without them being bored or overwhelmed. We did a lot of research around what was required for Title IX education, and we wrote a show that was cohesive and followed a consistent narrative, and touched on all of these bullet points.
With the release of New American Best Friend last year, have you maintained a balance between focusing on your written work and continuing to perform spoken word?
I got my start performing. For a lot of people, getting on a stage is something that comes later. I was always very comfortable performing my work. I had submitted ten poems into this contest, and I got selected to have the manuscript published. Then it became a matter of really having to learn how to have my work be something that I felt comfortable with people holding in their hands. It had to stand up on a page just as well as it could stand up on a stage. I had to know that people were going to read it in their own way, but somehow my voice would still come across. I had never studied poetry, or taken a poetry class. I didn’t know anything about line breaks, or voltas, or stanzas. I had to learn all of that. It’s important. The way your poem looks on the page has an energy. I was met with this challenge of writing this book, and I really have to know that the things I’m putting out in the world are things I’m proud of. I don’t like mediocrity. I worked very hard to make sure that the book was well-written, accessible, performative and honest.
Then, throughout that process, I fell in love with writing in a new way. I imagine it’s like being in love with someone. It’s just you guys, and you’re in love, and then you have a baby, and you watch them become a parent, and you’re in love with them in a whole new way. It’s like wow, I’m watching you in this new light and I’m in love with you all over again. That’s how I felt about writing. Now that I have this book, I’m in love with this art form all over. Now, performance is something that accompanies me, but I’ve started to think of myself as a writer first.
“The boy says period sex is disgusting and I slaughter a goat in his living room.” – Olivia’s “Alternate Universe”
How did you go about learning some of the more formal poetic techniques?
I learn a lot from reading. I didn’t really read poetry growing up. It’s hard to find poetry when all you’re introduced to in school is Walt Whitman. Youtube is an amazing tool for finding poets, but there are so many poets who aren’t on Youtube, who are still writing and alive, who aren’t white men, you know? It can be hard to find if you don’t have the right people giving you the right suggestions. It took awhile for me to find a circle of writers. I didn’t have access to that growing up. I learned a lot from writing, from reading interviews with those writers. I learned a lot from listening to my poems and listening to how they were asking to live on the page – really considering that, and not just throwing something on a page, but really thinking about how the poem would look tangibly. It’s like a synesthesia. If yellow had a sound, what would it sound like? How does this poem look?
What do you like to read? I’m always wondering what poets read!
One of my favorite writers is Ada Limón. She just came out with The Carrying, and I loved her other books, especially Bright Dead Things. She was a huge, huge factor in my learning how to write poetry that was strong on a page. Her work is so playful and performative, even though performance isn’t a huge aspect of her work. But it is so fun to read aloud. I admire her so much. I love Ross Gay. I love Maggie Nelson. She’s a great example of someone who has lived in fiction and memoir and poetry, and all of them feel very true to her.
I just got really obsessed with this writer – I’m writing a book about true crime – and I use the phrase ‘dead girls’ a lot in my book. I wanted to know what other literature was out there that used that phrase, poems in particular. So, I Google-searched “dead girl poem,” just to see what else was being said. And I came across a 2008 poem called “Dead Girls” by Kim Addonizio. I read the poem and was blown away. It was everything I had wanted to say. I ordered her book, got it two days later, read it in like, forty-five minutes, tore it to shreds, immediately wrote ten poems. I haven’t been that invigorated by a writer in a minute.
Speaking of your new book, can you tell me more about it?
My friend Melissa says that poetry is just obsession. I think it’s good to become obsessed with things when you’re writing. Writing is all about focusing in really intensely on one small thing. That’s where you come up with descriptions that are sensual and innovative and worthwhile. New American Best Friend was kind of an obsession with adolescence. But when I was done writing it, I still felt stuck in that, and I wanted to write about this age group and time without rewriting my first book. Then, I had to figure out what else was living in my body that was prominent, and how I could tie them together. I kept coming back to the fact that I am a huge consumer of true crime. I’m also deeply afraid all of the time. I became kind of obsessed with the media’s obsession with dead girls, and with girls being murdered. And the fact that it exists in every single genre, that most of it is very sensationalized but also feels very real. My book is about the presence of dead girls in my own life: of girls I know who’ve died, about small forms of violence that lead to death or perpetuate a culture that honestly supports the murder of women. It’ll be out in about a year!
Changing gears – you performed a poem about the color pink last night, and I’ve seen some awesome photos from a shoot you did in an all-pink outfit.
As a kid, I was always drawn to the color pink. I wanted everything pink, all the time, even though my mom didn’t raise me to really embrace the feminine (pink shouldn’t be a “feminine” thing, but socially, it is). And then because of internalized misogyny, for a lot of my life I pretended I wasn’t into pink. But you can’t deny what moves you. I’m still always drawn to pink. I’ll order food because it’s pink. I’ll always order a strawberry milkshake just because it’s pink. I just love pink! I feel like it’s powerful, and it’s playful, and it evokes a wildly different emotion depending on what shade it is. When it comes to branding yourself, you have to really listen to those instincts, and that was mine. So, I did a photoshoot and the photographer asked what colors I liked, and I told her I was really into pink. She suggested I find a pink pantsuit. I found these two different pieces at two thrift stores that happen to be the exact same shade. So weird. So then I ordered a pink jumpsuit from Big Bud Press. Love! I’m trying to figure out where to wear it – anywhere, I guess. Realistically, wear it to the coffee shop. It’s like a mechanic’s jumpsuit, something you’d work on a car in. But, it’s pink!
Olivia, what makes you feel powerful?
My friendships make me feel really powerful – investing in them like I would a romantic relationship and learning to love my friends wholeheartedly. I think it’s something that women are taught not to do, and for so long it’s something I was conditioned not to do with other women. I think resisting that makes me powerful. On my own, writing a poem and then looking at it and knowing that it’s honest makes me feel really powerful. It’s easy to dress up a story and make it more beautiful than it was, or make it end pretty. And when I look at something I’ve written and know it’s true, and that it happened, and this is what I believe, not being unsure of myself in that makes me feel really powerful.
I really found myself through collaborating with other people. I think it’s a really scary thing to go off on your own, not to say you shouldn’t do that. But I think a good first step is collaborating: finding someone who’s in the same position as you and saying, hey, let’s try to start something. Let’s make a movie together; let’s write a show together; let’s start a meetup, or a book club. Collaborating is empowering. I think it makes you braver because you’re accountable to someone else. You have two brains working on one thing. I think that can then empower you to go off on your own. With that, especially for younger girls, my advice that I always give teenage girls is don’t try to win at the boys’ game. I spent so much of my life trying to be one of the boys, and trying to be the best girl in the room. And when I finally let go of that and let myself work with other women, and let myself see what other women had to offer me instead of thinking of them as competition, I got so much better at everything I did. I got better at being a friend, I got better a being a person, I got better at being an artist, I got better at being a businessperson. Make your own game, and team up with people in your community. Build together, learn together. That way you have that toolbelt, and you don’t have to do it all yourself.