Photograph by: Holy Smoke Photography; Cover art by Fabio La Fauci
The spoken word poet, activist, writer and touring performer, Olivia Gatwood believes poetry is meant to live off the page. What inspires her is the very foundation of patriarchy. An educator in sexual assault prevention and recovery and a finalist at The National Poetry Slam, she uses the power of her voice to convey aspects of womanhood one merely neglects. Fear, violence and trauma is internalised by every woman and Olivia’s poetry dwells into all things a woman does, and doesn’t do. After the success of her first book New American Best Friend, she is about to release her second collection of poetry Life Of The Party which deals with the violence faced by women and society's way of romanticising it. It’s about dead girls, the aftermath, healing and recovery.
Excerpts from our conversation with Olivia follow:
What is your earliest memory of storytelling?
When my parents got a desktop computer in the late nineties, I would sit in front of it for hours at a time, writing what I called “novels” which were actually just ten page short stories with no paragraph breaks and probably terrible spelling and punctuation. I loved writing stories about girls who solved neighborhood mysteries—girls who were, in my brain, some version of me. My mom would take me to the office supply store where she would get me small binders, at which point I would print out the stories, make a cover design out of clip art, and turn them into the closest thing to a real book that I could make. I loved everything about books- The artistic aspect, the construction aspect, the emotional aspect. I loved escaping into a world that felt similar to, but a little more fantastical than, my own and then being able to hold that world in my hand in the form of a tangible, hardcover object.
How does memory and poetry come together for you?
I just try to tell the truth. I try, very hard, not to shy away from the uncomfortable fact of my own emotional landscape which includes the inconsistencies of my memory and therefore trauma. I don’t care to show up fully formed to a poem, nor do I hope to walk out of it that way either. Girlhood and sexual assault cannot exist in summary, so as an artist, I think it’s important to let go of the desire to explain them with precision and instead explain them with honesty.
“Even when I am not writing about the dead girl, I am writing about the dead girl. Maybe I am tired of hearing people talk about the murder of girls like it is both beautiful and out of the ordinary. I want to know what it means to survive something. Does it just mean I get to keep my body?”
What inspired Life Of The Party?
My own fear was the driving force behind this book. It’s obviously not uncommon for a person to be afraid of being murdered. But as I started to consume more true crime, I noticed how my fear was significantly affecting my everyday life, preventing me from entering space that should feel benign. And so the obvious solution seemed to be that I should stop consuming true crime. But I was also highly aware that these spaces were not safe, I had proof they were not safe, from dozens of cases in which women were attacked or murdered inside of them. Parking garages, for example. Running trails. So I set off on a kind of an emotional investigation in which I sought to understand where my fear came from, what of it was mine, and what of it was the product of a media that sensationalizes dead girls. Furthermore, what of it was useful and what of it was not. Beyond that, I wanted to challenge true crime as a genre, one that so often romanticizes cis, white women murdered by strangers and ignores the women who are most likely to be victims of homicide—trans women of color and indigenous women. Life of the Party bounces back and forth between my own narrative and the narratives inside the media I’ve consumed intentionally—I wanted to illustrate how it felt in my brain to be unsure of what was mine and what was the hands of something I’d read or watched.
How do you practice your talent?
Reading is by far my most valuable tool when it comes to inspiration and sparking myself to write. That’s not the most exciting answer, but it’s the truest one. Nothing gets me more than a hearty word used in a way I hadn’t considered it to be used before. So, read more than you write and listen more than you speak.
The Life of the Party US Tour starts soon and will continue through the month in twenty five cities. Then a UK Tour which has yet to be announced. I’m also working on a novel and learning how to surf!
Text Priyanshi Jain