Ode to Olivia

An interview with poet Olivia Gatwood


in Conversations

Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Olivia Gatwood is a poet, performer, and educator. A Brave New Voices, Women of the World, and National Poetry Slam finalist, her poetry has been featured on HBO, Huffington Post, MTV, VH1, and BBC. Her latest book, New American Best Friend, reflects her experiences growing up in both New Mexico and Trinidad, navigating girlhood, relationships, class, and sexuality. Olivia is also a Title IX Compliant educator in sexual assault prevention and recovery and has performed internationally at over 200 schools and universities.
Ever since discovering Olivia’s poetry on Youtube at 16, her words have become a constant in my life. They’ve made their way into sleepovers, my irrational horror at the doctor’s office, and early-morning bus rides. They’ve helped me in times of uncertainty, encouraging me to take pride in the things I was once ashamed of. Olivia was kind enough to speak with me about her work and experience as a poet, Title IX educator, and her upcoming book, set to release with The Dial Press/Random House in 2019.

Camille DiBenedetto: A lot of your poetry, including your previous book, New American Best Friend focuses on your experience as a teen girl even though you’re in your 20s. Why do you think your experience as a teen girl has stayed so close to you and your writing?

Olivia Gatwood: You know, I wonder that sometimes. I don’t always know. It’s weird when memories stick with you and they don’t really feel like they have any significance, but I think, simply put, the reason is that I think that age is really hard for everyone. It’s naturally, pretty universally, a really potent place to write from.

But, for me in particular, my teenage years were kind of split up. I moved out of the country to Trinidad when I was ten, and I came back when I was 13, so I had kind of learned how to be a teen girl in Trinidad, and then I moved to America and had to relearn because it’s different. It’s just, like, culturally, it’s different. The expectations of girls are different, the pressures are different, and I think I was processing a lot at that age that I didn’t have language for, and now that I do have language for it, it’s been really important for me to be able to articulate it. And I think I’m also interested in writing the book I would’ve needed to read, with the understanding that there are girls like me still out there who are teenagers now, and so I’m kind of creating from that place.

CD: I’m 19 going on 20, so I think that it’s an age where I’m kind of starting to reflect back, as well.

OG: Yeah, totally. Yeah. You go back to it and you’re like, “Whoa. All these things happened.” Good and bad things.

Like, when I was a teenage girl, I didn’t have the language to understand what was happening to me all the time, and maybe was even taught that it was normal. And so then to grow up and be given language and learn that these things are violent and that you can experience trauma from things that you don’t know, that you are foreign to, and not know that you’re experiencing that violence, it’s just really, I don’t know. I’m just always revisiting it.

CD: I definitely agree with that, and I think that there’s an interesting kind of turn of events now where we’re talking about teen girls as a culture in a different manner than we always do where it’s usually two-dimensional and the virgin-whore dichotomy, and now we’re coming out with books like yours and Girls on Fire and Emma Clines’s The Girls, which you quote at the beginning of New American Best Friend.

OG: Yes.

CD: I’m guessing it wasn’t, but was this some sort of conscious decision that you made in writing your book, or did it just kind of come out that way?

OG: I think it just came out that way. I don’t think I knew, you know? I didn’t know that there was this burgeoning conversation happening about teen girlhood in a different lens until I started writing the book and then was looking for literature to inspire me, and it’s when I read Emma Cline and I read Girls on Fire. And then I became aware that this was something, and obviously those books really helped me, helped direct me. But when I first set out to write it, no, I just was telling the truth. And I think the most relatable literature comes from that. Just comes from a place of honesty. Maybe not even an awareness about what you’re saying, but just knowing that it’s true.

CD: Something very honest that you write about often is shame. Something that we all obviously have, but especially us teen girls. You write poems about your bitch face, your period underwear, and the word pussy. How did you begin writing these odes, and how have they changed the way you look at both your subject and your shame?

OG: You know, I don’t think I, again, intentionally set out even to do the ode thing. Like, writing odes for me is such a good prompt, it gets me going.

This sounds so not profound, but it’s like I just needed a way to enter a poem and I also needed to get over some of these feelings that I was having. Some poems come from a really intentional place and some poems truly are just self-care. So, when I wrote “Ode to My Bitch Face,” it was a lot more inspiring to me to imagine the bitch face as a character because I needed to communicate what it looked and felt like and why it was important. The best way to approach that was to characterize it and humanize it.

Beyond that, like with “Period Underwear,” I wrote that intentionally because I was feeling shame around it, and I was like, “Look, you’ve got to figure out ways to see this thing as beautiful,” so naturally a praise poem does that.

I didn’t expect to be recognized for odes or anything like that, but over time the odes just became my favorite form of poem to write. I think it’s so fun. I think it’s such an important challenge. And I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel shame about things anymore. I mean, of course I do, and new things come up all the time, but I’m much better at conversing with shame. I’m much better at seeing it and naming it and feeling it and then getting through it because it’s not foreign to me anymore. It’s just very obvious.

CD: I think it says something to come at a poem and not exactly have the intention yet. Something comes out of it. I think that’s, again, a different experience.

OG: Sure. Yeah, absolutely.

CD: I know that when I write, certain things mean more to me. So, for example, certain pieces that just were more important for me to write than others, kind of like you were saying about the odes, and they’re almost necessary. What has been one of the most important or necessary poems to you?

OG: That I’ve written?

CD:Yes. It doesn’t have to be a quick fire answer.

OG: No, that’s okay. “Backpedal” was really important, both in that it was the first poem I wrote for my collection, and I think that poem taught me a lot about the poems I want to write, and it also told a story that I kept very close to me for a long time, and it was freeing to open it up to the world. And I think it also connected me to people in really interesting ways because everyone takes something different from it because there’s so much happening in it. It’s a poem about being a girl around a bunch of boys. It’s a poem about violence. Like, experiencing violence as a teen with boys. It’s about violence done, overt violence. It’s about murder. It’s about my hometown. It’s about misogyny.

You know, it’s about so many things, and so everyone, I think a lot of poems, like, every, okay, this sounds, I sound so stupid. Every poem juggles with multiple themes, but some poems are much more in one direction and overt, and that poem, I think, goes in a lot of different directions throughout, so everyone that comes up to me after I read it takes something different from it. Some people are like, “Oh, you know, I had that experience with boys,” or “I also lost a friend.” That’s been an interesting connection point for me. It’s just that poem has taken me so many places that I wouldn’t have expected.

CD: How do you choose which poem you would like to perform versus which ones kind of stay more on the page? So, you both have “Backpedal” on the page and for performance. How do you make that decision?

OG: When I explicitly make the decision, it’s usually when I’m reading a room. Some of my poems are very personal and I’m not just going to share them with any audience.

CD: Right.

OG: Some performances ask for certain, like maybe literally ask, but also a room is asking for something when you’re in it, and sometimes the room isn’t asking for a certain poem. I think I intentionally make that choice, then, based on the theme of an event, the city I’m in, the audience size, the audience enthusiasm, my own personal mood. But then in terms of when I’m writing, I don’t ever make that choice. My understanding is that every poem will eventually be read aloud. But I think the ones that I end up doing the most are the ones that I simply just have the most fun reading aloud. Like, some poems are much more rhythmic than others, and I like reading those poems aloud. Some are really long and I wouldn’t necessarily want to perform those all the time. But, like, “Bitch Face” is super rhythmic so it’s super fun to do. But I always write with the understanding that everything will end up on a stage just because it holds me accountable to creating work that is fun to listen to.

CD: Based on not reading the room, but who’s in the room, you’re also a teacher. You teach writing, performance, community-building, and Title IX workshops. In these workshops, how do you bring poetry into the conversation?

OG: You know, with my Title IX workshops I didn’t really use poetry. For Title IX lectures I use my own poetry as bullet points, as speaking points, but for writing workshops I think it’s really important to read as much as you write, so we spend a lot of time reading in my poetry workshops. I usually will be tackling a theme through a form, so if we’re tackling shame as a theme and we’re writing, what’ll happen is I’ll bring in poems that are odes, but also poems that function as odes but don’t call themselves that. So, like, praise poems. Maybe they don’t say an ode to whatever, but they’re functioning from a place of praise.

CD: Right.

OG: I think it’s really important to read a lot and to know how to read. To be approaching reading as a writer is a much different experience, so I like to watch students develop that skill. I like to watch students read authors that they’ve never heard of, read poems that they didn’t think that they would like, and maybe read poems that they don’t like and be able to name why.

CD: We’re doing that as well in my creative non-fiction course right now. How did you even begin teaching Title IX?

OG: I started teaching Title IX after I graduated college. I went on tour with another poet and we noticed as we toured colleges just as poets that people’s ears were perking up when the conversation went around sexual assault. Perking up meaning it was reaching an audience. In a really, I think, surprising way, and also learning simultaneously that part of that reason was because those conversations weren’t happening on college campuses, and when they were, they were happening in really toxic ways. We took it upon ourselves to create a lecture that was engaging and fun and interesting and also accurate and really kind of stern that teaches students about sexual assault in a way that they wanted to pay attention to. So we just did a lot of research around what kind of education was happening at the time, and we reached into our own work, and just started opening up that conversation.

CD: In these workshops for Title IX, do you see anyone’s reactions change where they had come in with a certain mindset about Title IX and sexual assault and then left with a different sort of facial expression or let you know that their opinion had changed?

OG: It is really interesting to see that happen because you realize that the education we receive around sexual assault is so wrong. I mean, like, of course sexual assault is violent. People who commit acts of sexual assault are often being very violent, and regardless of intention the impact is always violent. But if someone is raised to believe that alcohol is an integral part of having sex, if someone is raised to believe that it’s weird to ask someone if they want to have sex, then that’s how they’re going to function in the world thinking that they’re doing the right thing. It really shakes things up when you walk into a space and you say, “Hey, everything you’ve learned is wrong. Everything you know is wrong.”

It freaks people out, you know, and I’ve seen people go into those states of panic and feel really, like, “Have I committed this kind of violence? Well, wait a second. What am I supposed to do now?” I mean, they’re 20, 21, and they think that they’ve got sex down, which, you know, they don’t, and not only do they not, but they also potentially are causing a lot of harm. That’s a lot for someone to stomach and to deal with.

CD: Right, and education is really the only way to get there.

OG: Yeah.

CD: You teach a certain way, and you kind of talked about this in your TEDx talk, which is one of my favorite TED talks.

OG: Thank you.

CD: And you kind of talk about how you focus on the details. Can you speak a little bit more about this and why exactly we seem to find each other in the small moments?

OG: I think it’s counterintuitive to think that the specific is universal because the idea is that you can cover more with your, like, if your blanket is bigger you’ll cover more. I actually don’t think that’s how it works. I think that humans are really sensual beings and if you can tap into people’s senses you can trigger their own memory. The way things smell and sound, the way things make you feel. There’s that quote. I don’t remember who said it, but someone said: “People won’t remember what you did, they’ll remember how you made them feel.” I think that that’s incredibly true. When writing, the point is to make people feel something. So, I think the best thing to do is to tap into the moments that have stuck, clung on to you, clung on to your brain because they made you feel something. I think generalizing is a really lazy move and I guess it has the potential to get spread widely. I think that’s what a cliché is, but I think it’s much more interesting to go smaller and see who you can find along the way.

CD: And you use a lot of details, obviously, in your book New American Best Friend. Was this a conscious decision? Did you, again, come to the conclusion that these details were important before or after writing the book?

OG: No, I think it was pretty subconscious. I’m a storyteller and I love to tell stories. It’s really important to me to tell stories in the way I remember them, so I often, I include probably too much detail when I’m telling stories. Like, details people don’t care about but feel important to me. And so I don’t think I knew that, like, it was one of those things where it’s like, “Oh, maybe no one’s going to care.” Like, “No one will probably care, but I want this to be in here.” And then it’s like, people do care. They cling on. Do you know how many people have come up to me and been like, “Oh, I blacked out after putting a tampon in like Tina’s mom?” It’s really wild how you can connect to people like that. You can write a poem that says, ”“Periods suck. LOL,” and yeah, hella people agree, but when you write a poem about being blacked out after using a tampon, the interactions are so much more interesting but also deeply unexpected.

So, no, I didn’t think that that would happen. I didn’t know that any of this would matter. I guess we never really do. And then it did.

CD: Yeah, I mean, for me, I’m just thinking off the top of my head, like, certain details from your poems that stuck with me. Like “At the Owl.” I never thought about tipping before that poem, and now because of that poem I make sure I always tip at least 20%. So I mean, I think it depends on, again, the individual and what kind of detail sticks out to them.

OG: Sure, absolutely. Yeah, everyone gets reached differently, you know, and that’s really interesting to me as a writer because it’s something I’ve experienced as a reader. It’s cool to see people have that experience with my work.

CD: Right, have both sides of it. You just finished a tour for your previous book, and this book, New American Best Friend, focused on issues such as adolescence, girlhood, class and sexuality, and your new book, from what I know, is called Who Are You Always Dressing Up For? and is set to release through Random House in 2019. On tour, you mentioned a bit that your muse or inspiration for this book is true crime. Could you speak a little bit more about this?

OG: Yeah. The book actually, the title is changing. I need to change that on my website and elsewhere. But the book is a little bit is, yeah, the title stopped feeling like it was it, but I can’t tell you the new title yet.

CD: That’s okay.

OG: So it’s untitled, however, yeah, it is about true crime. I consume true crime really heavily, you know, and I’m not sure why because it may be really unhealthy. It’s a genre that’s devoted to the murder of women and girls, and I see myself in it a lot. Reading that or watching that so heavily cannot be good for you. I don’t think it’s good for me, but I also am really curious about why I love it, why so many people love it, and also why so many women love it. Women consume true crime exponentially more than men do. So I guess any question I have about the world or any question I have about myself, my instinct is to write about it so I can figure it out, and I just used this book to figure it out.

I want to bring poetry into that conversation because true crime is happening with every genre, right? Short stories, essays, documentaries, movies, podcasts. And I just found myself wondering what stake poetry has in that conversation and what happens when we look at a genre like this and we say, “This is how this makes me feel. This is what this does to me at night.” The book kind of juggles my own experiences and also the presence of homicide in the public sphere.

CD: I’m interestingly enough, just kind of getting into true crime. I just listened to a podcast by The Australian called The Teacher’s Pet, and I’m on a different podcast now, Up and Vanished, about a beauty queen pageant who was found likely to be murdered in 2005, and it’s just kind of, like, I’m getting on that path where I can’t really stop myself. And I’m sitting here and I’m thinking about it and, you know, I remember in class when you’d go around the room, in French class, say, in a different language, what’s your biggest fear? And everyone would say, “Oh, I’m scared of heights. I’m scared of drowning.” I would say, “I’m scared of being kidnapped and murdered,” which is a much more, for me, at least, tangible and real fear because it’s kind of all around us.

OG: Yeah, absolutely. And what’s crazy is, like, my mom is always like, “Olivia, that’s not going to happen to you. It’s so rare.” And I’m like, “How can it be rare if you can literally Google search ‘woman murdered in’ whatever city you’re in and there will be pages of articles in the last ten years?” You know, like, it’s not rare. And, yes, women are more likely to be murdered by their husbands and boyfriends. And also, yeah, I’m afraid of that too. I think we need to stop gaslighting women into believing that their fear is somehow irrational when it’s like, nah, dude, it’s not safe to be in most places when you’re a woman alone. So, no, it’s not crazy. And, yes, it is crazy, like, it is almost unthinkable, but just because it’s unthinkable doesn’t mean it’s not super real.

CD: Right, yeah. So, you read a couple of poems on tour. Would you be able to speak about a poem that kind of, you’ve worked on or are working on as a part of this kind of true crime muse or inspiration?

OG: Yeah. One poem I’ve been working on that I was reading on tour that was really interesting to me to see the experience of the audience was, so, another footnote about true crime is that it focuses almost exclusively on the murder of young, cis, white women who are ironically at the least highest risk of experiencing a homicide in this country. I think it’s really intentional that true crime doesn’t illuminate the stories of black and brown and trans women being murdered because it tells us that there really is a hierarchy to be mourned and that it’s a privilege to have your body looked for.

CD: Yeah.

OG: And so one thing I started to do was write found poems made up of language from articles written about different murder cases to showcase the kind of coded language that existed in these articles, and how so often the words they use to describe these women just meant or to show the difference between the words they use to describe white women and the words they use to describe black and brown women. How white women’s deaths are often a tragedy and black and brown women are often blamed for their own deaths. I wrote a found poem based on People Magazine’s coverage of JonBenét Ramsey’s murder, and it’s just made up of lines that showcase this sort of language, like, that say, like “important” and “attractive” and “beautiful” and “tragedy.” All of these words that ultimately, truly just boil down to her being a white girl that people deemed beautiful.

So, that’s been an interesting undertaking, and also I’ve been really interested to see the reactions of the crowd. We were in all kinds of cities, and it’s a difficult conversation, and it’s a hard truth.

CD: I mean, I think that definitely circles back to, in essence, the Title IX with sometimes there are just certain things we don’t think about. I remember last year, you know, I have always grown up in a pretty diverse neighborhood, but I took a Race and Racism class that changed my perspective. I had been educated about it and it was presented in a way that no one was like: “Oh, why don’t you understand this?” It was kind of like: “This is the information. Now you have the information. You need to make the correct connections and decisions,” and that’s where it clicked for me.

OG: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, that shows that I think education is really important and obviously it’s also labor. Not everyone wants to do that labor and I totally respect that. Do the labor as teaching, I mean, but I think that when we are given information, yeah, we have a choice about what to do with it. We can no longer claim that we’re ignorant to it. It never hurts to just be more widely aware of all of the nuances, you know, and all of the ways that we carry privilege in the world even when we’re scared and even when we’re victims.

CD: How has the writing of this book been different from New American Best Friend?

OG: A lot more research. I’m not just going based off of my own personal experiences. I’m doing a lot of research. It’s a big cultural conversation right now, so I’m keeping up to date pretty heavily with what kind of literature is being put out there, what kind of conversations are happening, to make sure that I’m both up to date in my own knowledge and perspective and also just keeping an eye out on what’s been said, what’s being said, and what’s not being said. So it’s a much more Type A process, I’m finding. It’s less writing what I feel and more, I think, intention. But it’s fun. It’s cool. It sometimes feels like a science project or something.

CD: Mmhmm. Yeah, I just had a recent experience where I wrote an article and I had to do a lot of research for it, but it’s different when you have this intense interest in the subject versus when you don’t.

OG: Yeah, totally. It’s like a thesis project that I assigned myself, which is fun, because I hate homework.

CD: Exactly. Any sort of advice you have for teenage girls or young poets or murder, true crime enthusiasts?

OG: Yeah. For teenage girls, my advice is don’t try to win at the boys’ game. Make your own game instead. My advice for writers is to read more than you write and listen more than you speak. And my advice to true crime fanatics, is don’t let anyone tell you your fear is irrational, and stay angry.

CD: That’s good advice. •


Feature image by Melinda Lewis.


Camille DiBenedetto is a writer from Philadelphia, PA. She studied Creative Nonfiction Writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and recently finished two years of service with AmeriCorps as a post-secondary advisor in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This fall, Camille plans to backpack across Europe, read lots of books, work on her memoir, and collect an absurd number of postcards.