Olivia Gatwood has received international recognition for her poetry, performances, and work as an educator in sexual assault prevention and recovery. She is the author of the poetry chapbook New American Best Friend and has had her work featured on MTV, HBO, and the BBC, among others. Her poems have appeared in such publications as Muzzle, Winter Tangerine, Poetry City, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and The Missouri Review. She is from Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In her forthcoming poetry collection Life of the Party (Penguin Random House), Olivia Gatwood writes about the bones left undiscovered—undeniably neglected—from crime scenes ever too familiar but rarely spoken of: women’s bodies bruised from the violence of men, violated yet still soft to the touch. Gatwood successfully utilizes poetry as a medium to peel away at the reality that popular media keeps from us: the most tragic crimes happen inside homes, perpetrators the men we hold closest and trust most. Gatwood dares us to probe into our own intentions as connoisseurs of infamous true crimes, desensitized to the abuse. When will we stop ignoring the crimes that still happen in our very neighborhood, our very own homes?
Elizabeth Ruth Deyro: In your author’s note for Life of the Party, you explain that the book was birthed from pondering poetry’s stake in the conversation of violence against women. What prompted you to question this, with poetry specifically in mind?
Olivia Gatwood: I struggled a lot with the idea of writing poems about a genre. I thought maybe deconstructing true crime as a phenomenon was better suited to an essay, something more direct with more room to explain myself. But what I came to understand was that poetry digs for the emotional truth and that is what was missing for me in so many of the dead girl stories I was reading. That’s what left me hanging. I kept feeling like, “Okay, we have the facts. What about everything else that’s left over?” The only way to answer that question is with a poem.
ERD: You refer to Life of the Party as “a book of poems about true crime,” which is quite literally meant, as the collection features poems inspired by women’s frustratingly common encounters with violence often overlooked and forgotten. How did you manage to overcome the possible triggers? In what days did writing this book affect you personally?
OG: When tasked with describing this book from a craft perspective, I have often called it a “poetic memoir of my fear.” I spent a lot of time with my triggers during the creation of this book, which means that when they showed up, I didn’t attempt to overcome them. Instead, I leaned into them. I believe all (or most) literature is born from a place of curiosity. So I was in a constant state of feeling afraid, and instead of running from that feeling or trying to soften it, I held a magnifying glass up to it, tried to figure out where it was born, then write from the beginning.
ERD: The thoughtful curation behind Life of the Party is perhaps its staple characteristic—easiest to detect and appreciate. You move from poem to poem with a trusty thread, make sure that narratives are tightly knit and sequenced purposefully; no piece felt out of place. I am especially drawn to the bracketed story told in parts, injected in between poems throughout the book. The stylistics of this particular narrative greatly helped the book progress, but I would like to know more about the concept behind this specific aspect.
OG: I call the small, bracketed poems “The Babysitter Poems.” I really didn’t know how they would live in the book, though I’ve always liked when a side narrative is woven through a collection of poems. It helps me feel grounded to reunite with something familiar as I read. But when I wrote these poems, I was really just trying to get this story out of my brain, because I knew ultimately it would be important for the book, but I could only seem to tell it in small bursts. It’s by far one of the most personal, convoluted, and violent memories in the book, and it’s a story I wanted to be extremely careful with, to honor the girl I knew and loved. So the poems came out in a way that demonstrated the feeling I had while writing them. A sort of scared but intentional smallness. A footnote, a whisper. The brackets were implemented later as a more visual indicator that the reader is back here, with the babysitter.
ERD: Four poems were about Aileen Wuornos, who was the only person whose name you used to title selected pieces. Wuornos was a female serial killer who suffered from sexual assault prior to her crimes. Did learning about her story and her case influence, to any extent, how you wrote the book?
OG: I’ve always been kind of obsessed with Aileen Wuornos, if only for the ways my relationship to her story illuminates the incredible possibility for empathy. When I read and later watched her story, I didn’t see a person who was killing people in a fetishistic and stylized way. I saw a woman who was discarded and abused by every man she’d ever encountered, family members and strangers alike, and whatever had been wound tight inside of her to keep her going eventually unraveled and continued to unravel in a more premeditated way when she saw the momentary power she got from it. I saw a woman who I could have been. I saw a woman who I could have been friends with. My understanding of Aileen’s violence isn’t meant to undermine the lives of the men she took, but I do want to complicate a reader’s understanding of what it means to be a “serial killer.” “Humanity” is a word that comes up a lot when I think about Aileen—so much of the narrative around her sought to make her out to be a man-killing-machine, a woman who was simply motivated by misandry to shoot and kill innocent fathers. Her story was spun by the media to meet the demand for “Woman Gone Mad” horror stories, cloaked in concern and hysteria. I want to dispel that narrative and instead present a woman who was, more than anything, trying to survive. I think also, I want to name that Aileen was not just a woman who murdered. She also became a murdered woman, at the hands of the state. When Aileen was on death row, she did an interview in which she said something along the lines of, “Seven men tried to rape me, so I killed seven men. If a hundred men had tried to rape me, I would have killed a hundred men.” I’ve never been able to get that out of my head.
ERD: Your work fervently tackles women’s experiences with verse penned in such an unapologetic and vulnerable manner. You also are a staunch feminist outside the realm of poetry. Are you ever afraid or uncomfortable of being labeled as the face of or “spokesperson” for contemporary feminist poetry?
OG: I don’t really want to be a spokesperson for anything. I feel gratitude for the fact that there are people who look to me to help them understand how to look at specific issues, or people whose minds I’ve changed or expanded with my own critique of the world. I have people who I look to for that. But the idea of being a spokesperson feels reductive and unrealistic. An example: I posted on Instagram recently a photo of a patch that my friend made for me that reads “Abolish All Prisons.” I wrote a little caption about why the prison industrial complex is white supremacy. I got a ton of super generous responses from readers who felt the same, or hadn’t considered it and were excited to learn, but what struck me most were the amount of comments that to some degree said, “I liked you when you were just talking about feminism, but this is just too far.” I’m like, is this not feminism? Are women not in prison? Are women not affected by their partners and brothers and fathers and children going to prison? Are women safe within a government that doesn’t give a shit about victims’ rights? A government that gives white men rapists three months of community service and black men with petty amounts of weed twenty five years? So if I disappoint my readers who saw me as a “spokesperson” for feminist poetry because I am attempting to think beyond solely gender, then a “spokesperson” isn’t about the person speaking at all. It’s about the idea that everyone else has of that person and holding them to that. Beyond that, when it comes to whiteness specifically, it’s clear that being a spokesperson is about maintaining a sense of comfort for a white audience. And I have no interest in the fragility of that whatsoever.
ERD: How do you think Life of the Party is different from your debut book, New American Best Friend, in terms of your writing style?
OG: I think the style of my writing has remained consistent in that I am a storyteller first, I write from memory, and I love the use of dialogue in a poem. This collection has several odes, like New American Best Friend. In both books, it was instrumental that the collection functioned with a clear, chronological arc. I imagine the biggest difference is the “maturity” of the content. I put maturity in quotes because I don’t really believe that conversations about violence done to the body should be delegated to a certain age group, since people of all ages experience it, but I don’t know that people would purchase Life of the Party for their twelve year old nieces the way they did with New American Best Friend. I think that’s okay, though. While writing it, I imagined all of the young women who’d reached out to me at the release of New American Best Friend and realized all of them had matured, too. I like to think of my work growing up in tandem with its readers.
ERD: You have been writing since you were eleven years old. What drove you to begin? How did you become involved in the literary community?
OG: I’m not actually sure where on the Internet it says I’ve been writing since I was eleven, but I probably said that in an interview as some kind of rapid fire answer. [Laughs] Not to get too woo-woo about it, but I think I’ve always been a writer, in that as soon as I had the tools (literacy, language) to practice it, it was how I asked questions about the world. I remember being eight years old at the library computers, writing short stories in the word processing program and not even understanding why or what my goal was, just that I had an urge to invent a life that wasn’t my own. When I think about the way I process emotions, it makes sense that I’m a writer. I have to say everything out loud and put it into words that feel accurate and intentional before I can begin to work through whatever it is that’s bothering me. I’m really good at arguing and therapy. For better or for worse.
I’ve been a part of numerous literary communities, from the groups of kids I would cypher with at house parties in Albuquerque to the poetry community in Brooklyn. I came to all of them because that’s where the writers were and that’s who I wanted to talk to.
ERD: You found your footing as a poet through spoken word poetry. From your perspective as a performer, how does it augment the experience of poetry?
OG: In the same way that I’ve always been a writer, as soon as I started playing around with poetry, I had an innate urge to perform it. I wasn’t a performer as a kid; I was actually pretty shy and much preferred reading to myself, but whenever I wrote poems, I felt like I needed to read them aloud to anyone who would listen. So when I learned about spoken word, it felt like it had been invented for me. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never felt so quickly like I understood exactly how to do something. I care a lot about rhythm and I think often what makes a piece of literature or a performance difficult to listen to is when the listener can’t dance with it. I don’t mean literally dance to it, though that’s cool too, but that the ear is in sync with what it’s being given and can move alongside it with ease. So anyway, I think all writers of poetry should read their work aloud to get a sense of who the poem is and how it moves, even if it’s just to themselves alone in their room, even if the poem never leaves the page. The work suffers when it falls flat on a stage.
ERD: You are vocal about championing sexual assault prevention, an important and relevant advocacy in today’s sociopolitical climate. What do you think is the potential of poetry, or art as general, to emancipate women and marginalized folk?
OG: I think instead of thinking of art as prevention or rescue, we should be thinking of it as harm reduction—the opportunity for historically ignored or appropriated stories to be told with accuracy and care and for the readers of those stories to feel like there’s a part of the world that belongs to them. Half of me knows that poets have been an instrumental part of the resistance forever, and half of me feels useless against facism. I think I started writing poems hoping to rile up the people who were predisposed to hating my work. I felt like I was doing something important when I made misogynists mad on the Internet. Of course, that part of me isn’t gone, but it stopped being the sole motivator of my work. I was spending all my energy thinking about men who hate me. What a waste. I found so much more reward when I started writing for girls who needed to read stories in which they saw themselves.
ERD: What sets your work apart from other books that convey women’s experiences with violence and harassment?
OG: Just that this is my own story and my own memory of what happened. So everything and nothing at once.