Olivia Gatwood has been calling bullshit and educating through poetry for years now. She is a touring poet and educator, offering workshops on Title IX compliance, community building, and creative writing. Her first collection, New American Best Friend, was released in March. The work explores girlhood and memory, class and sexuality, place-making within and outside of your own changing body and world. If you haven’t read it, it’s what you should read next.
This summer I interviewed Olivia Gatwood over our separate brunches (about a thousand miles apart). You can read below!
Katie: So first of all, New American Best Friend,
OG: Thank you!
KC: I remember, I was probably seven or eight, and a bunch of my friends were biking around the neighborhood, and we found this pair of like, pink lacy underwear that was sitting in a tree–
OG: Oh wow,
KC: and I remember just the shock, and the worry, and all of the questions we had, and,
KC: Reading your book left me with the same feeling, of that just absolute stickiness
OG: Yeah, if I were you and I had that memory I would write a poem about it.
KC: Yeah it’s uh, it’s been rattling around there for a while.
KC: But that same kind of stumbling upon something that just doesn’t leave…. so I don’t know, I always like to know the journey behind and sort of within a book– so how did it start?
OG: Um, you know, it kind of started with what you were saying about memory. Like, this obsession, I would have… I was kind of obsessed with like, this small handful of memories, mostly from around the age thirteen that were moments that had just sort of inexplicably stuck with me throughout my life. The one that’s coming to mind to reference is like, you know, my best friend putting in a tampon for me. And just, like, always just having that, as…I don’t know! I don’t know what struck me about it and I guess that… you know, I didn’t… so anyway, I was kind of like, I had this small handful of memories that I was mulling over constantly, and wrote those poems and then from that came remembering more and remembering more and eventually like, I just, I became sort of obsessed with like remembering, remembering girlhood and my body, instead of trying to tackle that topic as like a PSA or as like, the poem that says everything. I started to think about it in terms of like how has this consistently showed up in my life, how has my intimacy with my female friends showed up in my life, what are memories that you know, exhibit this or how has queerness showed up in my life in these small moments, how has class showed up in my life in these small moments. And so I just kind of, I don’t know, my brain just became a space for that all the time, um, for like two years. So, then, you know, New American Best Friend was born.
KC: So what was the, what was the process like? How did you step in and step out of those memories?
OG: Um, you know, I think that a lot of it was well, at first it started out as just like, they already, you know, the poems were already kind of marinating inside of me for a really long time. So they were pretty easy to write at first because it was just a matter of writing them down and then when I started to think about… because I didn’t initially start writing it with the idea that it would turn into a book. And then when I started to think about it as a full on project, um it was often like a matter of having conversations of realizing that like, these moments in my life when I said them out loud were simultaneously universal and also deeply specific to my own life. Um, and to be honest I don’t know if I ever really stepped out of them. I just kind of, was living in them all the time. And like I, I was, you know I went back to my old neighborhood and I walked around, and I don’t know. I just don’t think I ever stepped out. I think I just lived in it.
KC: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s one thing that really struck me throughout it. Is even if you didn’t know Johnny or Elise or Jordan, those were the names that just stuck, but it’s like there was someone that could’ve been that person…that space was filled. And I think throughout the book, you place a reader so tightly within a memory that it feels… it just was so vivid.
So I guess, how have you been moving like, since you finished the book? How have you moved into the next thing? Or do you feel like you have kind of been continuing along a similar vein?
OG: You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. Like, I think that a part of me um, a part of me is really, really fascinated. I think a part of me is always going to be really fascinated with the age 13 in particular. From the moment like, I remember being 13, and being fascinated with being 13. Like, I was thirteen when the movie Thirteen came out.
KC: Oh man,
OG: Do you remember this film?
KC: Oh yeah
OG: Yeah, and I remember watching it and being like “whoa!” like that is so my experience of the world. Like being in friendships where one of the girls was really rebellious and brave and maybe sort of overly sexualized and probably dealing with a lot of trauma but was confronting it with such intensity and strength and then the other girl is more timid and shy and maybe like kind of a goodie two shoes and gets pulled into this life. And then it’s like, there’s all these feelings of fear and maybe even like bullying but there’s also this intense intimacy that borders on romance. Anyway I watched that movie when I was thirteen and was in one of those friendships and was still able to be like, “wow this is me, this is my life” and so I think that in a way I’m always going to be fascinated with that time period. Fascinated because of my own experience and fascinated because the more I talk to other people about it the more I realize that it’s such a universal, it’s such a common experience, navigating how to transition from being a child to being basically an object. Like, I just, so that being said I don’t know that I’ll ever stop writing poems from that period, but I have been transitioning out of it. Because I know that New American Best Friend was definitely its own little world. So I’ve been focusing a lot more on like, understanding my… the current architectural landscape of my adult emotions and life. I’ve been writing a lot about love, which has been really an interesting experience because I think that for so long I kind of really wanted to… and this goes back to being a teenager… I really wanted to come across as the most chill girl, you know, like just too cool, and not having too many emotions, and not being jealous, and not being affected by anything. And I’m just not that, you know. I’m a deeply emotional being. And for my writing recently I’ve been writing a lot about the way that I experience love and passion and intensity as an adult. So, yeah that’s kind of what I’ve been moving into– which chronologically makes sense, you know. I graduated from New American Best Friend and now it’s like time to write about like, the last five years of my life instead of something from like, ten years ago, you know?
KC: How has that been working within… so I think I was mainly introduced to your work through Spoken Word. And then it was really interesting to read pieces that sort of existed on the page. So how have you balanced sort of those very related, but sort of separate forms of creation?
OG: You know, I’ve been, ever since writing… you know I started writing through Spoken Word and so for a long time I was writing with the intention of reading it aloud on a stage. I’m in a place now where I exist in a middle ground, you know, like my– hold on there’s some hyper masculine motorcycles driving by. I perform for a living, and so I know that anything I write is ultimately going to hit a stage and I know that, but I just like, I think that one thing I learned writing New American Best Friend is I love, I really, really love to write. I don’t know that performing is actually my favorite thing to do. I think it’s just the vessel that got me here. I love, I just love to write. I have fun when I’m doing it. So, um, I’ve been focusing a lot more on just allowing things to live on the page with the understanding that eventually they will be on a stage. But not writing them with that intent necessarily.
KC: So, I guess a good cap would be, so what is next? What is sort of your, where are you heading towards?
OG: Well, you know, it’s interesting, actually. Because I’m in Minnesota right now because I’m recording an audio book.
KC: Oh cool,
OG: I’m recording New American Best Friend as an audio book.
KC: Oh man!
OG: That’s an interesting kind of middle-ground between the performance and the written word, because I do… because my roots are in Spoken Word, I do firmly believe in like, controlling your work in terms of controlling the way people hear it. And so, I’m doing an audio book with New American Best Friend and it’s going to be musical, there will be musicians and vocalists on it. Because I want to know what the project sounds like. And I want to know, I want to control the energy of it, and I want to give people another opportunity to experience it in a new way, in my way, as much as I totally value people experiencing it in their own ways. So there’s that, and then, you know, um I’m continuing with the tour stuff. I still teach Title IX compliance and education, sexual assault prevention on college campuses with poetry. I’m working on a new collection of poems, and yeah, you know I think it’s like, really interesting this conversation we’re having because I have been like, grappling a lot with what does it mean to graduate from having spent the past two years so obsessed and living in this, in this world of my memory, and then now it’s like, “Okay I’ve written all the memories,”
KC: I get that.
OG: So what do I do now? So, I’ve been having a lot of fun figuring that out, honestly, been writing a lot of sad love poems. And it’s been
OG: It’s been really cathartic, and also feels like I’m getting to know myself as an artist in a new way and that’s pretty, that’s a pretty cool experience.
KC: Alright, anything else that you want the people to know?
OG: Yeah, I guess just look out for this audio book. I don’t know when it’s going to come out, probably sometime in the fall. But oh, yeah, yeah I think that’s it.
Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Olivia Gatwood has received national recognition for her poetry, writing workshops, and work as a Title IX Compliant educator in sexual assault prevention and recovery. As a finalist at Brave New Voices, Women of the World and the National Poetry Slam, Olivia is an active member of the slam poetry community and has been featured on HBO, Verses & Flow, Button Poetry and Huffington Post, among others. Olivia has travelled nationally to perform and teach workshops on gender equality, sexuality, and social justice at over 70 colleges and 30 high schools nationwide. She is a former member and co-founder of SPEAK LIKE A GIRL and was an Artist in Residence at the Chatham School for girls, alongside celebrated leaders such as Venus Williams and Gloria Steinem. Online, her videos, including Manic Pixie Dream Girl and Ode to My Bitch Face have gained over 3 million views collectively. Olivia believes in girl-power. She currently lives in New York City.
Katie Clark is an Interviews Editor for Vagabond City Lit and an undergrad in the Pioneer Valley. Katie’s most recent work can or will be found in Spilled Milk, Tinderbox, and Five:2:One Magazine. Their chapbook our own soft is available from Nostrovia! Press. You can find Katie on Twitter @octupiwallst.