What you probably know about Olivia Gatwood: she’s a nationally recognised and best-selling poet whose poems, including ‘Ode to My Bitch Face’ and ‘Ode to the Women on Long Island’ have over 3 million views online. What you might not know? Gatwood has travelled to perform and teach workshops on gender equality, sexuality, and social justice at over 70 colleges and 30 high schools in the United States.
In this interview, Girls & Glory talk to Gatwood about the communities that inspire her work, and how it feels to talk about your period underwear to a sold-out audience.
Tell me about your journey to where you are today – a nationally recognised poet and Amazon best-seller, amongst many other things.
When I was younger, poetry was always the way I knew how to communicate with the world. There’s always a kid everyone buys the journal for and I was that kid. But I started seriously writing poetry and thinking of it as a part of my identity when I was in high school. I liked it because, as a teenager, I had a lot of feelings and a lot of thoughts, but was living in a world that told me, as we often do to young people, that those feelings and thoughts weren’t valid. Slam poetry was the one place that told that me not only were my opinions valid, but encouraged. I gravitated towards it because slam poetry allowed me to have these thoughts, and to say them out loud and with purpose. I’d never seen a space like that before. It was my community, where my friends were, what I did on the weekends, everything. I went to college but was pretty aimless in what I wanted to do.
Ultimately, poetry was the one thing that stuck, so when I figured out a way to merge it with education and empowering girls and women, it kind of became my dream job which I’ve been doing for three years now.
What influences your poetry?
Poetry is beautiful because within the genre there’s a lot of blending and a lot of mixing. But I write a lot from a place of rage. When I feel sad, I don’t have any creative energy. I am motivated by things that make me angry. Anger is many emotions in one, an umbrella emotion. Ultimately writing from a place of so many different feelings.
When I think of rage, I don't think of it as synonymous or interchangeable with anger. Anger feels like an emotion that stems from a very specific instance. So like, a petty interaction with a person in my life might make me angry. Someone cutting me in line at the post office makes me angry. But rage feels like a galaxy compared to that. Rage is something that lives in the body and heart, and manifests in a multitude of ways, some of which don't even resonate to the outside world as "rage." For instance, I don't think people think of poetry as a rage-inspired act. But it is. It's an act of resistance, and I think resistance comes after a long-lived rage. That being said, I think all of my poems come from that place. Whether it's about a former lover or toxic friendships or death or puberty or violence. All of it seeks to resist something that is causing me pain.
Your confidence in spoken word, both to perform and talk unashamedly about the typically “sensitive” topics you cover in your poetry is astounding. Has this also been a journey of self?
It’s taken a little bit for me to feel comfortable talking about certain things, but probably not the things people expect. I’ve always been a pretty chronic over-sharer and I grew up in a household where my mom was a sex educator. It has never been taboo for me to talk about the body or sex because I grew up around someone who talked about it so openly. For me, more of the things that I work harder to be vulnerable with on stage is things like mental health, family stuff. My idea of what’s personal is quite different to what other people might think, but there are certain aspects of my life I keep separate from my performance.
Your work has been described as “girlhood illuminated”. How do your experiences of girlhood and femininity play into your poems?
Girlhood and teenage-hood is what inspires me. That time was my muse, especially in writing this book (New American Best Friend). I see it as a time in my life that was almost like a ghost story – so many things happened but it seems so far away and so spooky. I figured writing it would help me believe in it and help other people believe in the value of it. I think it’s a time in our lives when we don’t always know, because we’re so young, what we’re surviving or why we do the things we do. But then we look back when we’re older and think, “wow, I went through that and I’m still here." I look back at myself when I was young and it’s really validating to me to know that I was a different human, but I’m also still that person in so many ways.
Tell me about the work you do in sexual assault prevention and recovery.
I tour colleges nationwide and talk to students and young people about consent and rape culture. The lectures I perform tie in with my poetry and I involve it heavily in my workshops and lectures. Poetry itself is an accessible and exciting way to learn about difficult things and I think people need that with sexual assault education. What they’re getting now is boring pamphlets or PowerPoints. They need to learn, in a way that is invigorating, is that sexual assault is an issue they should care about and that everyone is affected by.
Any advice for young girls wanting to get into poetry? What did you wish you’d know?
For young girls pursuing anything, it’s really important to not try and win at the boys game. I spent a lot of time when I was younger trying to be the only girl in a space and the best girl in a space, and saw other women as my negative competition rather than healthy competition and community. So, I spent all these years trying to win at the boys game until I realised that this game isn’t something I’ll ever win at because I’m not one of them. When I realised this, I started to put myself in communities, women that I saw myself and my poetry in, and I really started to win in a different way, win as in feel full.