Inseam: Olivia Gatwood
Welcome to inseam! This is thread arts collective's interview series that features feminist artists and professionals that are doing unique, important work in the world. Their work aligns with thread's values and we love to interview people that our readers and artists can look to for inspiration, encouragement and validation. It's been a wonderful first year for us, and we are so honored to work with so many fantastic artists. In case you hadn't heard, we are open for submissions for our 5th issue! We are closing in early October, so send us your work!
Though many of our readers may know who you are, can you sum up who you are and what you do in your own terms?
I am a Pisces sun, Scorpio moon from New Mexico with a book hoarding habit. I spend most of my time talking to teens & college students about consent and rape culture, and write poems mostly about being a teen girl.
Starting at square one, what prompted you to start writing?
My teen rage and teen heartbreak.
What have you learned through performing your poetry in the slam community? What have you learned through publishing a book of your work?
The slam community is a beautiful place to start writing. Because of its competitive nature, learning to write in the slam community means also learning that your writing can always improve, and to look at your work as actual work. It pushes you to keep creating, keep looking for new approaches, and exposes you immediately to the act of sharing and critiquing with your community.
Publishing my book was an incredible growth period for myself as a writer. I had to approach the poems with the understanding that the only control I had was what I put on a page—how the reader consumed it was entirely out of my hands. Coming out of spoken word, I had gotten used to thinking of performance as a vital part to each poem, so I had to abandon that thought, and start playing with form, making sure the rhythm translated on paper, and that the story I wanted to tell was effective.
Poetry, especially slam, demands a vulnerability that usually also begs us to open up about our trauma. What is it like to have this art, about your life and experiences, so visible? What has been rewarding to you about creating art about these challenges?
To be honest with you, most of my “spoken word” poetry (meaning, the poetry you might see on YouTube) is not my most vulnerable work, and that’s intentional. For a lot of my career as a poet, I wrote about my experiences at arms length—I wrote about the issue rather than the experience. Sure, it’s a vulnerable experience to get on stage and do anything at all, but writing my book, in which my own personal stories were in the hands of other people, was much more raw for me. That being said, the visibility is two sided. Every day I receive beautiful messages from girls and women across the world expressing empathy for my stories and I feel deeply grateful that my vulnerability has helped other people access theirs. And the other side is that I often wonder what is my own. I’ve become very protective of the things I don’t share, and think critically about what I do and don’t put out into the world.
In addition to your life as an award winning, renowned poet, you are also an educator. Many of your experiences teaching young women are documented on your twitter, for instance I found the "Cry story" game that your students' play to be a funny reminder of what I was like at that age. How has teaching young women influenced your work and your activism?
Oh my goodness, teaching teen girls has been the highlight of my entire life. So much of my own poetry is a reflection on this time period, so to be on the ground, doing work with young people who are living today, experiencing a distrust of their own bodies, a distrust of each other, of the institutions they’re a part of—and also experiencing immense joy and love and celebration with each other—is extraordinarily influential to my work as a writer. It reminds me that the experiences I seek to illuminate and unpack are very real and ever-changing. It’s good to be reminded that the audience who consumes my work is also an audience I love dearly.
In your workshops you actually utilize poetry as a tool for education, how did you think of this? Can you elaborate on how poetry can be the perfect text for combatting something such as shame or stigma?
I didn’t come up with this concept on my own, of course. Poetry, for as long as it has existed, has served as a form of communication with the masses. Whether it be through passing down stories, exchanging ideas of resistance, or illuminating all of the beautiful formations of language, poetry has always been a teaching tool. When I initially went on tour with the collective SPEAK LIKE A GIRL, we noticed the way that colleges were panicked about teaching their students consent and sexual assault prevention. What comes out of that panic is a pamphlet or an internet survey that students brush off, don’t internalize, and ultimately, nothing changes. Poetry is entertaining and engaging, which makes it the perfect tool to communicate difficult topics, topics that no one wants to talk about.
Many of my friends, and myself, are just beginning the work of unlearning shame that they have grown up feeling about their identities or experiences. What would you say is the best thing to keep in mind when actively working to unlearn shame or imposed ideologies?
That everyone has it! I, personally, am an empath, which means I’m constantly looking to feel less alone. When I see that someone else feels something I do, I immediately feel more equipped to deal with it. I think having a community that can openly talk about shame, can name it, normalize it, and then confront it, is so important.
What are you reading right now? What are you listening to?
Currently reading the novel Marlena by Julie Buntin and the collection of poems So Much Synth by Brenda Shaughnessy. I’ve been listening to a lot of SZA and Remy Ma, and occasionally revisit Ariana Grande’s last album when I’m driving fast on the highway.
Do you ever feel stumped or stuck when wanting to create? How do you combat this ?
Of course! Though I will say I feel most stuck or stumped when I feel pressured to create. Usually when I want to create, I can. That means honoring my own process and letting the poem come when it does, is how I combat it. Poems marinate inside of you before you ever write them down. Let that be the case and don’t force yourself before you're ready.
Finally, what fun/simple things do you do for self care?
Something close to the last answer. I let myself be myself. My dad taught me this—when I sleep super late, he always says “well clearly you needed it” or when I go back for thirds, fourths at dinner he says, “well clearly you’re hungry.” I think it’s really important to be gentle with ourselves and let go of the ways we’ve been conditioned to view productivity or togetherness. For me personally, if I have a deadline tomorrow & haven’t done any work on it, I need to get a full night’s sleep before I can tackle it. So staying up all night doing work isn’t the answer. Going to sleep early and waking up with a shower & coffee is. Also, I really like to go out dancing & talk on the phone.
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. Her Amazon Best Selling collection, New American Best Friend, reflects her experiences growing up in both New Mexico and Trinidad, navigating girlhood, puberty, relationships, and period underwear.
Olivia 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 Boston.