Author Olivia Gatwood‘s debut collection of poems, Life of the Party, was a hot ticket at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, and was published by Random House last month. In addition to being an accomplished poet both in spoken word and on the page, Gatwood is also a Title IX Compliant educator in sexual assault prevention and recovery, and her new collection interrogates issues of the body and sexual trauma. The Millions spoke with Gatwood about the process leading to her first published collection, the distinction between poetry and spoken word poetry, and the importance of feminism and politics in art—and asked for a recording of her reading a poem from the collection as well.
The Millions: Was there one poem, or a few, in this collection that was harder to write than the others? If so, is there a story behind that you’d be willing to share?
Olivia Gatwood: The Babysitter poems and the No Baptism series were both really difficult for a variety of reasons. One, because they both unfold throughout the book, so I had to consider their narrative arc of the specific series as well as within the individual poems and how I would weave them in conversation with the other poems in the book. But also because they are both deeply vulnerable, personal stories that, to be honest, I don’t remember quite well but affected my life in significant ways. I felt like I was investigating my own life, forming a hypothesis based on what I remember and how I felt, then throwing my findings into the hands of other people.
TM: Do you distinguish at all between slam and written poetry in your work? Do you write differently when a poem will be published in print before it’s spoken, or vice versa?
OG: Slam poetry is a competition in which I am no longer active. The only distinction I make between spoken word and written word is that one is spoken aloud and one is not. When a poem is read aloud, no matter where or in what way, that poem is spoken word. I know that seems obvious, but I think a lot of people (often those who don’t perform) enforce this very strict boundary between spoken and written word in order to preserve some understanding they have of what makes something “literary”. Which is often just rooted in racism and misogyny. Anyway, I do think it can be important for poets like myself who were brought up in slam to learn how to consider their work on the page—can your poem still stand up for itself when you’re not there to give it life? That came later for me and when it did, it drastically changed the way I understood my craft. I think poets who haven’t historically performed their work should challenge themselves to do the inverse, too. Now when I’m writing, I’m considering both (performance and page) equally and in constant conversation. I don’t want people to rely on me to read my poems aloud to them. But also, when people come to my shows, I want them to leave feeling like that was exactly how they needed to experience it.
TM: How did you work to strike a balance between the more traditionally lyric verse in your book and the more prosaic?
OG: I studied fiction in undergrad so I think it’s pretty natural for me to tell stories in prose. I love how much permission poetry gives me to write a story, to honor the form that it takes despite genre. I wish I had a more concrete answer but that’s really it. I write the poem how it’s asking to be written and rarely do I try to sculpt it into something else.
TM: This collection mines personal experience very explicitly, in ways that would seem to encourage readers to see its author as the speaker in many of its poems. Do you see yourself as a “confessional” poet? Why or why not?
OG: I don’t really know what it means to be “confessional.” To be honest, I just had to google it. Okay so it means the poet uses “I” versus I guess, writing about what is happening outside of the self. In that case, I’m extremely confessional. Or maybe just a narcissist.
TM: In addition, this collection is strongly feminist and takes a stand against patriarchal values and the representations of domestic violence in pop culture. Do you see yourself as a “political” poet? Why or why not?
OG: All poetry is political. Even the freedom to be indifferent is political. Poetry by white, cis, straight men that doesn’t explicitly talk about politics is political because white, cis, straight men feeling unburdened enough to not talk about politics is political. So yeah, I’d say my work is political.
TM: Which poets working today whose work you see as similar to yours do you most admire, and why? Similarly, what poets do you see as writing very different poetry from yours whose work you admire?
OG: Melissa Lozada-Oliva and I are super close friends and came up alongside each other in poetry—I admire her work so much because she is bending genre in really interesting ways. She’s merging comedy and poetry and performance and challenging her audiences to come with her, which they are. I see a lot of similarities between my work and Kim Addonizio‘s. When I came across her book, I read every poem aloud to myself and was overcome with how much of myself I saw in it. I’m endlessly inspired by Ada Limón. Discovering her work taught me more about writing than any class I’ve ever taken. Same goes for Lucille Clifton, Ross Gay, Kristin Chang and Carrie Fountain. I love Remy Ma, Amy Winehouse, Lorde. All of their work is super different from my own, because of genre but also lyrical content, but I turn to their work and their careers for guidance all the time.
TM: What did you find to be the hardest part of putting together a book of poetry?
OG: Building a clear, narrative arc with a bunch of soundbites that you didn’t write in chronological order. Every wall in my house had poems taped to it.
TM: What can you tell us about the poem you chose to read and why you chose it?
OG: I chose this poem because it functions as a kind of retroactive disclaimer for the entire book. It explains something explicitly that I think I’m trying to explain all along.