Olivia Gatwood is a spoken-word poet known for her powerful performances and written work, through which she shares a wide range of her experiences from exploring her sexuality to overcoming fears. Gatwood knew from a very young age that she was meant to be a writer. She has since amassed millions of views on her performances and written two books. Her latest book, Life of the Party, is set to release this month. Gatwood chats about her life, her writing, and how she interprets the world around her in our Summer 2019 issue.
So I always like to start things out with a basic intro and rundown on you and your life.
My name is Olivia Gatwood, and I’m a poet and a performer and a writer. I’m from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I grew up in Albuquerque as well as Port of Spain, Trinidad. I’ve been writing forever, and now I live in California.
I know you said that you’ve been writing forever, but when did you start really writing poetry?
It’s one of those things that there’s not really a time stamp on because it feels very mystical, almost like ephemeral or something. It’s not like there was a date or a time. When I was in Trinidad actually, when I was 10 years old, we did a unit on poetry, and I was just completely drawn to it and understood it. I found the poetry that I liked which was, at the time, really rhythmic poetry. I was super into Shel Silverstein when I was little because I liked to perform it.
That’s really really cool. We didn’t really do a ton of poetry when I was young. I didn’t even start reading any of it until I was in like late high school.
It turns a lot of kids away obviously because I think we often learn about the kind of quote-unquote classics, which I think do become useful when you’re a writer, but I feel in order to give an access point for young people to get into poetry, I don’t think that’s the best way. I think, unfortunately, that turns a lot of kids off and people maybe don’t even register it as poetry but rather just another boring thing they have to read in school.
I wonder if students were only exposed to contemporary poets who look like them, poets who are still alive, what that would do for the readership.
What kinds of things inspire your work?
I approach a poem with my memories. I just try to make sure I can verbalize or articulate exactly what happened in the most creative way possible. That’s just the way that I am as a person in general. I’m not really comfortable with not having everything perfectly worded, which is both a good and a bad thing, but I kind of show up to myself and my own memories like I’m showing up to a debate.
So you’re basically showing up to your own memory like it’s a physical place. That’s really cool. So, what does your whole process look like? Is it the same every time or does it change depending on the poem?
I think it changes depending on the project usually. So for my new book Life of the Party, it was very much an isolating practice. That process was very solitary. I was writing in my kitchen usually by myself. It was a very quiet process, and it was really difficult and not a happy time in my life, but I’ve also had projects where I was able to play more and they felt more collaborative and I felt more social. I was writing in cafes, and I’m working on a novel now and writing in more populated places, so it’s different every time. Some things remain the same. I’m a pretty big reader and I think of that as a big part of my process, so I try to make sure I’m reading consistently. I definitely need to have coffee and I can’t be listening to music so there are certain things that do stay the same. I think every project asks something different from you and they’re kind of like relationships. It can be like, “Is this project more introverted? Is this project more extroverted? How do I need to interact with it?”
You mentioned your new book Life of the Party and that’s a very different tone different idea from New American Best Friend. What made you decide to delve into that darker world?
So my friend Melissa says that poetry is just an obsession, and when I was faced with writing a new book, it was really clear to me that I needed to start thinking about the next thing. It felt like a lot of pressure and it was actually really hard because I felt like with New American Best Friend I’d written everything that’s ever happened to me. I was like, I don’t have anything else to say. What do you do after you’ve written what feels like a memoir? I was like, “There’s just nothing else to say.” What was also simultaneously happening in my life at the time was, I was consuming a lot of true crime. I felt like every story I’d ever read about a girl being murdered was going to happen to me. I just had all these new phobias and anxieties, and it was really irrationally affecting my life. It took me a long time to realize, “Oh, this is what you need to write about.” Whatever is concerning you is what you should be writing about. One thing that kept coming up for me was people telling me to lay off the true crime and that I was being paranoid. I felt, “Okay, cool. Maybe I’m being paranoid but also maybe I’m being rational. If it’s this easy to find content about girls being murdered, then clearly it’s not rare and it’s clear that women and girls are a vulnerable population. So maybe I have a right to be scared and maybe it’s actually the most sane I’ve ever been.” That’s not necessarily true, but I think I wanted to make that urgent for the sake of the book being created. I wanted to debate with myself about that and so that’s how Life of the Party started to get composed.
You mentioned your friend Melissa. That’s Melissa Lozada-Olivia. You recently started a podcast with her… What kind of sparked that idea, and are you glad you decided to go into that?
It’s actually like the only time in the history of the world that someone has commented on a social media post and said, “You should do this,” and then I did it. Someone was like, “You should start a podcast,” and Melissa and I are both two people who talk a lot and we also listen to podcasts. It was natural that at some point in our careers, we would start one. But figuring out what it was going to be about was the hardest part. Unless you have a very clear idea, I think a lot of people start podcasts and don’t know what they’re trying to talk about, so I guess the point of “Say More” is that we do a lot of interviews and we get asked a lot of the same questions and we know each other the best of anyone and we know what to ask each other. Like an interviewer isn’t going to know that I cured a yeast infection by shoving garlic up my vagina. Melissa knows things about me that an interviewer wouldn’t know, so we interview each other about the things the other one’s obsessed with or that shows up in the other one’s life a lot that has nothing to do with poetry, as a kind of break from talking about poetry. It’s the one time that we get to sort of indulge and talk about things that feel irrelevant to maybe everyone else but feel very relevant to us. We also have guests on and we interview the guests about something they’re obsessed with that doesn’t really have anything to do with what they do for a living.
That’s a really good idea for a podcast. Now I have to know where the garlic idea came from.
It wasn’t an idea of my own, it’s something that’s been used for a really long time. Garlic is a natural antifungal and so that’s a natural cure to yeast infections. But I did it out of necessity because I was teaching at a summer camp and had a really bad yeast infection from doing water sports and didn’t have access to a CVS or a pharmacy, so I just went on to the camp kitchen and looked up natural cures. I went to the camp’s kitchen and asked if they had any garlic and just put a clove up there and I left it in overnight. You peel it and poke holes in it and put it up there and then you take it out, and it’s really gross and then it was gone.
That is so crazy. I have never heard of that.
It doesn’t work for everybody and if you’re allergic to garlic, don’t do it, but I don’t really trust Monistat. I don’t really trust anything pharmaceutical companies are telling me to put up my vagina. I just feel like the whole world of quote-unquote “feminine hygiene” is just really fucking weird, so I try to stay away from it.
You’ve gained a pretty significant following on your social media and whatnot, how do you decide what to share publicly and what to hold for yourself?
I don’t really have a rhyme or reason to it, but I do consider myself a pretty private person on the Internet, though it might not look that way. I think there’s an illusion of transparency almost which isn’t to say that the things I’m sharing aren’t honest because they are, but again, I think the idea of branding kind of freaks me out and it’s something that I have to be really intentional with because it freaks me out.
The surge of lifestyle bloggers or whatever that exists right now I think has made it so that any aspect of your life can be a brand. I feel, personally, really very sensitive about that, and so I try not to post too much about my relationship in terms of the identity of my partner and where we live and what our house looks like. I don’t go live on Instagram really.
I’m really intentional about what I say because you have to remember that a lot of people are listening. I make sure that everything I post is something I can stand by, and if it’s not or if my thoughts change, it’s also something that I can have empathy for myself for and be like, “Okay, I’ve since grown and changed and here’s why and how…”
I just try not to be too frivolous, and that’s a personal choice because I do feel really safe knowing that my house is my house and it’s not decorated so that I can then post a picture of it on Instagram. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with Instagram influencers—believe me I wish my house looked like an Instagram influencer’s house—but Instagram just does something bad to my brain so I have to be really careful about how I use it.
I totally get that.
It really complicates my the idea of something being genuine. If I’m having an instinct not to post something, I don’t. Like, my partner isn’t a public figure at all, and every time I have posted about him or tagged him he gets a ton of new followers. It’s very weird because it’s like they’re only following him because he’s my partner. On one hand, I think it’s just out of a place of excitement and love, and he’s also a really talented artist and I get why people would follow him, but at the same time, it’s really weird.
So switching gears a little bit, you have definitely mastered the art of taking small moments and making them sort of universally relatable. Is that something that you kind of learned how to do? How do you know what moments will make a good poem or a good story?
Well, thank you. Yeah, that’s something I definitely want to do. I mostly came to poetry through spoken word and was in competitive spoken word and was often writing poems that tackled really huge issues and were functioning as almost PSAs for some giant concepts and issues and systemic problems. When I started to work on my first book, my friend Megan really worked with me through understanding how to talk about these big issues with very personal stories.
We’re seeing that now with the abortion laws that are getting passed or abortion bills that are getting passed in these various states. A lot of people are coming forward and sharing their personal stories of getting abortions, and that’s a perfect example of instead of writing a PSA about why these abortion bills are fucked up it’s “this is the face of a person who’s gotten an abortion and why.” I don’t think I fully understood that when I first started writing because I kind of wanted to change the world. I had this really teenage urgency, but as I said, my friend Megan taught me that it can be so effective when we zoom in and put a face to something instead of just bullet points.
Do you have a favorite poem that you’ve ever written? Or I guess a favorite poem at all?
My favorite poems that I’ve written change a lot. I go back to different poems as I grow and get older. I can look back and relate to the poems I’ve written in different ways, which is interesting. I have a poem called “Dry Season” in New American Best Friend that hasn’t really gotten that much attention because it’s a poem about the climate in Trinidad. But what’s interesting is that I wrote it when I was just trying to tell a story about Trinidad and girlhood. Lately, I’ve been getting a lot more into environmentalism and climate change and thinking about how that shows up in literature. I reread it from where I am now and was like, “Oh this is a poem about climate change. This is a poem about the lack of water and wildfires,” and I hadn’t realized that when I was writing it. I just was writing about what I knew at the time, and so that’s a poem I’ve been loving that I’ve written.
So you just went on tour right? Is that the first time you’ve ever been on tour?
I did the Alternate Universe tour last September and then I’m about to do the Life of the Party tour this September. I’ve kind of been on and off tour for four or five years now, but that was the first tour I did that felt like I was a punk star, which was amazing and has been my dream for a long time. I was just touring colleges in different parts of the country, but that was my first really organized and themed tour that I’ve ever done.
What’s the tour experience been like?
I personally love it. Everyone has different experiences with it. It’s definitely the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done, it’s really emotionally tumultuous, and it requires immense work from your brain and heart. You’re performing every single night and when you’re not performing you’re trying to get to the next place. So you’re kind of never not working, but at the same time, you’re with a group of people who ideally you are vibing with. You’re all kind of this well-oiled machine. You get to be on stage every night and meet people in different cities that know and love your work which is always surreal.
For me, personally, I am a person who functions really well when I always know what’s next and when I always know that there’s something that I can look forward to. You’re never bored on tour. You wake up and you know exactly where you’re going that day. You’re constantly moving, and I work really well in short bursts of that. I can get kind of antsy when I’m not moving fast enough. It kind of distracts you from your own brain which, maybe a therapist would tell you isn’t healthy, but for me sometimes just being distracted from the quiet of my brain.
I understand how people kind of lose their minds. I know what I’m doing in a month and a half, and I know people go on nine-month tours which are wild, and you know that’s what’s fun. It’s long, but it’s an incredible experience and it’s so surreal. You’re just like, I just can’t believe this is my life. I love it.
When did you realize that you could actually make a living out of your poetry and performing?
I’ve been doing it now for five years full-time, and it’s something that over and over I’m learning that I can still pay my bills with it. I’m surprised by it all the time, and I think part of that is because I don’t get paid in a consistent way at all. I don’t get paychecks from anyone; I get paid based on the work I do. I’m kind of a freelancer, but I get paid from writing and I get paid from performing. I have written commercials, like there are all these different avenues that I can access revenue in and a lot of that is based on my relevance in the world and the demand for my art. So that can be kind of a confusing experience because you always feel like you’re about to lose it. I’m never really that comfortable.
There have been several moments where, like when I got my first real book deal or when I sold out my first venue, you’re like, “Oh wow, people want to see me and people care about my work, and I’m going to see a fiscal reward for that. That’s a really cool thing to see happen.
What’s the most memorable interaction you’ve ever had with a fan?
There’s been a ton. So in “Ode to the Woman on Long Island,” I talk about a girl who was murdered while jogging. Her cousin wrote to me and told me that she was a big fan of my poetry, and she knew I was talking about her cousin even though I don’t say the girl’s name. She just knew, and she was right. It was the girl that I was talking about, even though girls are murdered while jogging all the time.
That was pretty surreal, but you know I think it’s really exciting when fans come up and they have the book dog-eared and lines are underlined and written in. It’s cool to see myself and people who come up to me, and I’m like, “Oh, wow. I’ve done that to an author and now people are doing it to me.” I think those stay with me for a long time.
So I talked to Blythe Baird last week and she told me I had to ask you about what you do when people say they “stan” you.
Blythe and I had a really interesting conversation recently, and I want to have her on the podcast to talk about fandom in general. She practices fandom in a very classic way. She’s a fan of Demi Lovato, and she knows everything about Demi Lovato. She knows when she was born, and she probably knows her blood type.
For me, I’ve never been a fan like that. I don’t know what that means. Maybe that means I’m apathetic or unimpressed, but I don’t feel like that. I’ve definitely loved artists, but if I see someone I recognize in public I don’t go up to them. Mostly because I’m just kind of awkward, but I don’t become that obsessed with people so it’s very surreal when people feel that way about me. I don’t know how to identify with it. Sometimes it feels like, “Do you mean that or are you just saying that?” I get very existential about it; it doesn’t make sense to me. I feel very grateful for it, but I don’t have empathy for it because I don’t feel it about anyone.
So going back a little bit to your sexuality, have you had experience with people saying things about your being with a man now as opposed to being with a woman?
I’m sure people have said it behind my back or maybe people have feelings about it, but I haven’t seen anything about it. I anticipated it happening, to be honest, but I do want to be mindful of the space I take up in queer conversations and that is not to say that me dating a man now makes me not queer. I’m very aware that I’m still queer, and I’m very comfortable in that. But at the same time, I’m also aware that my relationship absolutely benefits from straight privilege and I benefit from straight privilege every single day. I notice a huge difference in the way that I’m received in the world with my partner. It’s very clear that there is an immense privilege in that, and there are parts of me that feel at times erased.
There are parts of me that feel kind of pushed aside, but, at the same time, I’m much more aware of the violence I’m not experiencing. I want to be really mindful of that when it comes to being a spokesperson for queerness. I’m not gonna announce that I’m dating a man, and I’m also not gonna take up a ton of space talking about how I’m still queer. I don’t want to justify it in either way. I don’t want to justify dating a man, and I also don’t want to justify being queer. I’m just living my fucking life.
I imagine for some readers they see less of themselves in me and in my relationship, but my relationship isn’t for them to present themselves into. I can still talk about awareness, and I can still talk about sex and my experiences. That kind of goes along the lines of why I don’t want to brand anything because everything is evolving all the time, and I don’t want to put a stamp on anything. But I want to be really mindful of the privileges I have in being in a visibly straight relationship.
No one has said anything, though I imagine people have said things and I’ve just not heard them. I think that maybe there would be backlash if I was taking up a certain amount of space. I’ve definitely seen and felt that way about people. I think part of why there’s not is because I’m trying to be mindful of that, but I also think people are becoming much more aware of queerness as something that exists despite that. There’s not one sort of holistic way to be queer, and it doesn’t have to look a certain way. I guess maybe I’m just not opening up my sexuality for conversation.
What advice would you give to an aspiring poet or especially a spoken-word poet?
I think with spoken word, something that was missing for me for a long time was reading. Because it was spoken word, I didn’t feel an urgency to read and study the craft on the page as much. My writing got so much better when I really started to take time reading poems and understanding how to build a poem and not just build a performance.
I learned so much from poets that don’t perform. I learned so much about telling a story and art and language, and I read those poems a lot to myself. I performed them to myself and tried to figure out why they’re working on the page and out loud, so I think that is the advice I would give. Read more. Write and read everything. Take anything you read—fiction, memoir, or poetry—and you’ll find a poem anywhere you look.