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Feminist Poet Olivia Gatwood’s Badass Journey from Spoken Word to Print

As a child, Olivia Gatwood knew she was a writer, but didn’t think she wanted to pursue writing beyond individual pleasure. In fact, she didn’t even know being a writer, or a poet, was a possible career path. 

In a recent interview with New York Minute Magazine, Gatwood said “I’ve always been a writer since I was young, I was writing stories and comics and had journals—any possible medium through which I could tell a story. I just wanted to tell a story. But nobody really tells you that you can be a writer for a living.”

Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Gatwood started to pick up speed with her poetry when she was 18 years old. She was featured on an HBO special titled “Brave New Voices”, and that was the first time she ever got an email from someone saying her poem meant a lot to them. 

Gatwood claims that she still cannot believe she works as a writer, and said, “I still don’t really believe this is my job—but as soon as I was spending more time a week doing poetry professionally than waitressing, it all came together. Writing was always just an obvious fact of my life. I didn’t know any other way to communicate with the world.” 

She began to write poetry at an early age and claims that age 17 was when she really began to dip her toe into the themes of feminism and women’s struggles within her poetry. 

“When I was 17 and learning about feminism for the first time I started writing about it. My politics were evolving and I was beginning to understand empowerment—differently than I do now, but it was then that I really started to find my voice,” she said on establishing her footing within the realm of feminist poetry performance.

Though Gatwood currently has published collections of her poetry, she started out doing spoken word performance and told NYMM, “Performance is how I started doing poetry first and foremost. It’s how I learned poetry—having it stand alone on the page came later. I don’t really think there should be a distinction between spoken word and on the page—any poem that can be read out loud is spoken word.”

Gatwood became well known on both YouTube and Tumblr, where some of her work began to circulate early in her career. One of her first widely circulated poems is titled “Ode to the Women on Long Island“.

When asked what story she aims to tell through her poetry, Gatwood said, “I try to tell stories that ideally make girls feel less alone. I don’t have a desire to be the voice for all young girls or a certain generation— I have no desire to be a spokesperson. In telling my own story I hope that girls everywhere will feel as though they have something to relate to.”

Gatwood’s poetry generally traverses her own memory and lifetime and often makes significant statements about sexual assault prevention and recovery. 

“The most potent source of inspiration is my own memory,” she said, in regards to her creative inspiration. “I’m really inspired by the things that don’t seem to leave me no matter how insignificant they seem. If a memory is nagging at me or if a feeling hasn’t left me, it probably means there’s a story there and I should be writing about it.”

Her poetry often reflects on her own personal experiences of girlhood or womanhood and resonates with many of her readers. When asked about her rise to feminist activist she claims that naturally the topics she writes about become political, without her intentionally approaching them as such.

“When we think about the body and sex and desire and queerness, it becomes political. When I think about writing about my memory—a memory riddled with sexual assault and my sexuality, it becomes political. I didn’t set out to be a voice for feminism exactly. But when we tell the truth and we’re honest that often becomes political. We have to be careful about saying that something is feminist just because a woman is doing it.” 

When asked what advice she would give young writers, Gatwood said, “Know there are many different ways to make this happen. There are MFAs, grassroots writing collectives, the YouTube performance route, the Instagram route, and many different ways to do poetry now. Look at the poets you love and understand how their careers blossomed.” 

“And my other advice is to study. Read more than you write. A lot of this work is done alone, on the backend, in silence. It is not all Instagram and pretty book covers. A lot of it is simply very isolating work. Doing that work and being real with yourself is important. The opportunities will follow,”
Though poetry is Gatwood’s first love, she received her undergraduate degree in fiction, and When You Are Honey, her debut fiction novel about a young woman who moves to Silicon Valley and starts to experience what it means to be constructed in the male gaze in the wake of technological advancement is set for publication in early 2022.

Featured Image by Olivia Gatwood

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