If anyone was going to write a poem called “Ode to My Bitch Face,” it would be Olivia Gatwood. Even as a teenager, she was tough: At 16, she led 20 women in a class-action sexual harassment lawsuit against her boss at a local bakery — a lawsuit that she later won. A year later, she was a vocal opponent of her soccer team’s bikini-based car washes.
Eight years later, society still harasses and commodifies women at astounding rates. But now, the 25-year-old Gatwood has a much bigger platform from which to fight back. Since 2015, she’s worked professionally as an award-winning author and slam poet. Her first feminist anthology, New American Best Friend, has sold more than 20,000 copies since it was published last year; her slam performances have over 3 million views on YouTube. When she’s not writing, she travels the country, leading workshops for teenage girls on gender equality, sexuality, and social justice. She’s still just as tough.
We spoke with Gatwood to discuss teenagers, vulnerability, and writing odes to your period underwear. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell me about when and why you started writing poetry.
I started when I was in elementary school, mostly because it was a school assignment. But then I was really drawn to it because I liked the rhythm, and I came back to it in high school as a method of dealing with my emotions. Teenagers have a lot of feelings and thoughts, but are often told that there's no space for those things to exist. But spoken word is the exact opposite. The more you can express, the better.
So many of your poems focus on being a teenager. What were you like at that age?
I was really rebellious. I was upset about the injustices that I saw in my small world: the way that the football players got brand new uniforms every year but the poetry team couldn't get funding to go to competitions. I was really passionate about things that I saw that felt unjust, which feels accurate to who I am now. But I was really different in some ways. I didn't identify as a feminist. I hung out with a lot of boys, and saw other girls as my competition. I had a lot of internalized misogyny that thankfully I grew out of.
What do you mean by that?
I said things like, "Oh, I’m not like other girls,” or “I don’t hang out with girls because they’re too dramatic.” To me, success was winning at the boys' game — being around all men and being the best at whatever they were doing.
How did you grow out of that?
I took a women's studies class, and it opened up my mind to realizing that all of this unnamable pain I had been experiencing had names — like slut-shaming, and the different kinds of sexual assault. Hearing all these other girls in the class speak about their experiences and realizing how similar they were to mine, I realized that I had spent so much time in spaces with men convincing myself that that was where I would be successful. But I never thought about where I would be safe.
The phrase “New American Best Friend” only appears in one of your poems — “The Only Thing I Brought From America” — which talks about when you moved to Trinidad as a young girl. Why was that moment so pivotal for you?
I lived there from 10-13, and it really informed the way I understood what it meant to be a girl both in and out of America — which are two very different things. I moved out of America when I was a child, and moved back to America when I was a teenager. And as you know, the teenage girl in America is this simultaneously oversexualized but also very puritanical being that's expected to navigate this virgin/whore complex consistently. There's all these horrible paradoxes that teenage girls have to navigate, at the expense of themselves and at the hands of men and consumers. Not that that doesn’t happen in Trinidad, because it does, but it happens in very different ways. I'd learned to survive in this other community, but then I came back to America and I had no idea how to exist. I had to learn how to be a teenage girl here in a way that, had I grown up in America the whole time, I would have just instinctually known.
Many of your poems grapple with those implicit rules about American girlhood. Why is it important to examine them so critically?
I think girls feel lost, and I don’t even think they know they feel lost. The job of writers is to put things into words that so many people experience but no one is able to — I try to do that as much as I can, with hopes that teenage girls will read it and know that they're not alone.
You've done a lot of work as an educator, leading seminars across the country to help girls work through some of these issues. What ideas have you seen young women struggling with the most?
I taught at a camp this summer for teenage girls, and when I asked them where any kind of hatred or dislike for their bodies comes from, they all unanimously, without a beat, said Instagram. I think that's something that's going to have to be navigated: Documenting seemingly every aspect of your life, but really not at all.
I see a bit of a parallel there: You’re saying that Instagram is problematic because it’s so curated, but isn’t poetry curated, too? Is your poetry an accurate documentation of who you are?
That's a good question. For a long time, I felt like my poetry that was on the internet was very separate from me as a person. And then I wrote a book that is really personal, and is about my life, so I think the book introduced a new kind of vulnerability for me that feels honest.
Which of your poems made you feel the most vulnerable?
There's a poem called "Like Us," that’s about being young and “experimenting with my best friend,” and thinking about who we name our first kiss to be. Often we name the first heterosexual kiss we had, as though heterosexuality is what makes it valid. But so many of us, the first person we kissed was a girl. That was an idea I learned from a Marie Howe poem, and it really struck me, because I had experienced the same thing. It was vulnerable to write because when I published the book I wasn't publically out— and even though it’s a poem about being very young, it was like coming out in a certain way. That was a pretty intense one to put out there.
One of the things that really stands out about New American Best Friend is your reclamation of parts of girlhood that many consider taboo: “Ode to My Period Underwear,” “Ode to My Bitch Face,” et cetera. How did you develop the boldness to say, "This is part of who I am, and I'm claiming that"?
I've always been a chronic over-sharer. I think my understanding of what's private has always been very different from some people's understanding of what's private. I've always written as a kind of confrontation — usually I was confronting other people or confronting systems, but it got to a point where I needed to start confronting myself and my own shame. And the way I found myself most capable of doing that was through the ode.
Have you received any pushback from people who think that these subjects should remain taboo?
I've gotten some pushback from people who believe I'm too vulgar — usually its just people not wanting to bring their daughters to my shows, which is fine. But pushback, for sure. Mostly from hardcore men's rights activist websites. I’ve definitely gone through the blocking of hundreds of people who are threatening to kill me. A lot of that is scary, but I don't think of it as actual criticism of my work. Because it's just so absurd.
What would you say to the people who don’t want to bring their daughters to your shows?
I use the word "pussy" a lot in my book, and if someone doesn't want their 13-year-old daughter being exposed to that word, I understand. But I also think that it’s important to listen to young people, and if a young girl is being moved by my work, or asking her parents to bring her to my show, I think there's a reason she's interested. And the reason is probably because she thinks her experience is being validated, and not because she feels excited that the word pussy is being said, or that she's going to go use it a million times. She's probably more likely to go home and write a poem.
What advice do you have for the young women who want to become poets?
I think there's a big culture right now of YouTube and poetry, where young people are starting to look at poets as rock stars. But it's important not to forget that poetry always starts at a place of honesty: those poems started being written in a journal, or at a kitchen table, or in a bedroom at night while you were upset.
And for young girls: Don’t try to win at the boys' game. Because you won't. And there's way more games to play than just that one.
Here's Olivia performing "Ode To My Bitch Face." Read and watch more of her poetry here.
Photo Credit: Facebook, Olivia Gatwood
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Victoria Albert is a Boston-born graduate journalism student. She covers reproductive justice, health policy, and feminism, and has written for In These Times and Alternet. She tweets at @victoria_alb3.