Poet Olivia Gatwood on the Art of Writing and Performing Poetry [INTERVIEW]

Olivia Gatwood is an internationally recognized poet and author of “Life of the Party” and “New American Best Friend”. Her poetry performances and workshops held at over two-hundred schools and universities, and videos online, have reached millions of viewers. Olivia has also worked as a Title IX Compliant educator in sexual assault prevention and recovery.

Olivia was a guest on The Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast, below is an edited version of the interview. Listen to the podcast for the full interview.

Olivia Gatwood

James Morehead: I first read “Life of the Party” a couple of years ago. To prepare for this interview, I listened to the audiobook version while on a road trip to L.A. It was so interesting hearing the poems performed, and then going back to read them in your book. “The Lover as Tapeworm” is a good example, which is visualized as a concrete poem. How do you approach turning poems into performances? And how does performing a poem influence what you write?

Olivia Gatwood: “I think sometimes those two genres, spoken word and written word, are seen as two different mediums. And I think there’s ways in which they can be. Certain poems require a performance, poems that use different elements of sound, poems that take on a certain persona and require a specific voice. 

“But I think actually at it’s best, one poem that’s read both ways functions symbiotically, and is experienced differently, but is still just as exciting and engaging in both forms. I’ll use some examples: ‘Ode to  Women on Long Island’, utilizes voice a lot: I’m doing an accent and I’m doing a persona. I struggled with how to translate that on to paper and what I had to accept is that some amount of it was going to be lost. Not everyone knows what a Long Island accent sounds like. So what I did instead is I made it clear that those parts where I do the voice of the women on Long Island were italicized and separated, just to communicate to a reader that a different speaker is present.

“‘Lover as a Tapeworm’ is very much a poem that exists on the page first and foremost because it’s formatted in the shape of a tapeworm. It’s long, it’s thin, there’s one to two words on each line, and that was just me being really playful. Strangely enough I wrote the poem in that form first and then when I started to read it aloud, I would read it in that way too. I read it like I was falling from line to line.

“I think it’s really valuable for us to understand that writing a poem and having it exist on the page, and performing a poem, offer different things, but no poem has to be exclusive to one form. It’s just about recognizing that there’s going to be things you lose, and there’s going to be things you gain, in each form, and really trying to approach them differently and just figure out the best way for the poem to exist in that specific space.”

James: I recommend for anyone who bought “Life of the Party” to buy the audiobook and listen to it! “Life of the Party” starts with an Author’s Note that is so much more than a note, it’s an essay on violence against women, the biased lens of true crime, and the shared fear that both instill. You weave in the tragic stories of a babysitter and Aileen Wuornos into your book. How did you approach editing your poems into a cohesive narrative? Many of the poetry books I’ve read recently are more collections than they are narratives.

Olivia: “That order is very important to me, I think, because I have always felt more like a storyteller than anything else. When I say that, I don’t mean, necessarily, a storyteller as in my profession, or my medium, but I think of things in stories. I think of memories, of my life, very chronologically, I am always thinking of ‘what led to what’. I think that’s how my brain works.

“Additionally, when I was writing this book, maybe because of that and because of the nature of the content, I really had to go back into my life and go on an investigative journey about my relationship to fear, my relationship to this genre. What parts of my fear were a product of media? What parts of my fear were a product of my own life? So I did have to go back to the beginning. I think it’s valuable for any poet to think about how to best unfold their poems, because poems can be sporadic. You absolutely don’t need to order poems in a certain way, but I do think it’s a fun challenge. I think sometimes people assume poetry collections don’t need that, or poetry collections don’t require that.

“Laying out your poems can, in some ways, honor the project in a way that maybe poets don’t always get credit for, in a way that novelists do. I was writing pretty chronologically already so I did what many poets do, when they’re ordering their poems, and printed them out, and laid them on a tiled floor. That ended up being too big, so I put the titles on Post-It notes, put them up on my wall, and then I could just play, you know, rearrange them. 

“Every day I would look at it and think, ‘oh no, that poem shouldn’t go there’ because it was also about what poem was leading into the next, what it sounded like, and what a reader would experience. Am I hitting a reader over the head too much with this idea and maybe I need to relieve them a little bit? Maybe I need to give them some light, maybe I need to leave them on a note of hope.”

James: There are moments that are exquisitely beautiful, such as “Girl” , moments that are raw and unflinching, like “Ode to my Bitch Face”  moments of humor, especially “Ode to the Women on Long Island” and moments that are brutal, such as “”Body Count: 13” and “Mans / Laughter”. How do you know you are getting the balance right for readers? When, as you mentioned, to give a sense of hope?

Olivia: “I think that ultimately I had to touch base with myself because you can’t write a poem just for the sake of digestibility. I mean I guess you can, but you’re not going to write the best poem. For my own self care, I had to start writing some lighter poems because ‘Life of the Party’ is very heavy, it’s a snapshot into a difficult time in my life. 

“It was really hard to write that book, and I was already in a dark place. I was swallowed by the world of true crime because I was researching it, I was reading it even more than I did before, and I was thinking about it so critically. I had to be really aware of how I felt when I was experiencing the book.

“I saw something recently that made me a little nervous, but was the tough love I needed to hear: if you are reading back a part of your book and you’re feeling bored, it’s not because you read it a million times, it’s because it’s boring. I’m writing a novel right now and I’ve probably read it over 200 times. I do think my experience of the novel is different than a first time reader, but I also think there’s no harm in holding yourself to that standard because it’s really invigorating. No matter how many times you’ve read something you wrote, if it’s really good, reading it again always feels good. 

“I had to have that same process with the book, where if I’m reading and feeling this is hard and heavy, maybe I need that moment of lightness.”

James: After performances you are very generous and spend time with your audience. What have you learned from readers who have been affected by these themes and your poetry? In my case after hearing your performance in Berkeley I thought about being mugged by a group of kids when I was ten, a very traumatic experience, and thought about how I could capture that experience in a poem, which I did for my first book. Writing that experience down was very difficult.

Olivia: “I think that writing the poem down releases something from you, and it doesn’t mean that that thing is gone, as you know. But I do think being able to verbalize something helps you understand it. I think that when you understand something it becomes less scary, or you have a more distant relationship to it. My therapist describes trauma as an event that is over, but your brain hasn’t told you it’s ended. So your brain has convinced you that it’s still happening, and I thought that was a really simple and beautiful way of describing it. 

“I think, sometimes, writing the poem can teach your brain that it’s ended. Ironically, while you’re writing the poem, it’s happening, while you’re writing it, you’re in it again, and then it’s there on this piece of paper, and that event is a part of my past now. I think that the book functioned that way for me, when I finished it I was able to move on from that time in my life. I’ve heard similar things from readers. I think the feeling of fear, and the feeling and the experience of violence is so common and universal, that no matter how different the experiences it pulls similar things from us.”

James: I saw you perform in Berkeley before the pandemic and was blown away both by your performance and the lean in attentiveness of the audience. You could hear a pin drop except when the audience was given permission to laugh! How did you learn to hold the audience’s attention, what mistakes did you make as you found your voice?

Olivia: “That’s a good question. The Berkeley show was so amazing, and one element of performing that can be really exciting, and that’s also really hard, is your audience matters. An expert performer will perform the same no matter what, but when you feel good and when something’s being given back to you, it becomes more of a conversation. It’s just good to be validated. It’s scary to get on stage and when you feel like no one’s there, you feel people aren’t listening or you feel like they don’t get it, that would affect anyone. The Berkeley audience was particularly engaging, excited, funny and attentive. And that contributes.

“I was not a public speaker. I was not a stage child. I was very shy for a long time, very self-conscious. I was an athlete, I was not a performer in any way. And then I started writing poetry and it just felt so instinctual to read it aloud. It wasn’t that I wanted to be on a stage, it wasn’t that. I wanted people to listen to me. It was like this: I have to read this aloud because there’s a way it needs to be read and if I’m not the one reading it, then it’s going to be read wrong, which I had to let go of when I started writing books. 

“I have been performing poetry since I was 16. It became a matter of practice, of getting on as many stages as possible. Getting comfortable with the sound of your own voice. Getting comfortable with your breathing patterns. Reading your poems aloud to yourself as much as you can. I used to read them aloud to myself in the shower, and when I was driving, just to memorize them like songs. I really started to hone in on it, especially improvising and holding an audience throughout a show, when I started speaking at college campuses and doing lectures, because I had to think on my feet. 

“I think the first thing is faking it until you make it. When you asked about mistakes, my biggest mistake has been feeling those nerves, and then letting them take over my body and instead recognize what looks like fear. Your head is down, your voice is quiet. Don’t do those things even if you’re feeling nerves. Lift up your head, raise your voice. Use your hands. It’s a dance. It’s a performance. I actually do have stage fright, but I realized so much of what makes stage fright worse is when we show it. Over the years I’ve learned the signs of stage fright and how to hide them.

“And I think the second thing is, trusting yourself, recognizing that you know the answer, that you are an expert in this topic. That’s why you’re here. That’s why you’re up there speaking because you understand it, and just answering the question. Even if there’s not an actual question being asked, just showing up for the assignment and really trusting yourself, not worrying about what the right answer is, what people want to hear, but having a conversation with the audience.

“I think that can be worked on by talking to yourself. I talk to myself all the time, I talk to myself while I’m driving. I rehearse conversations because I have social anxiety and I need to know what to say. Coaching is valuable, improv classes, theatre classes, open mics, any opportunity to get practice around people who are practicing makes a huge difference.”

James: Sometimes when I’m writing, in particular when I’m in love with an idea, I’ll step back and question if I’ve found the poetry in the idea. Your poem “If a Girl Screams in the Middle of the Night” has such a powerful idea with beautiful passages. What is your approach to finding the poetry in an idea?

Olivia: “That poem was actually really different for me because it’s kind of surrealist. I don’t think I let myself lean into surrealism enough in my life as a poet because I was always taught that everything needed to be very serious and autobiographical. I still love autobiographical poetry. I love poetry, conversely, that is really straightforward and tells a very simple story.

“For that poem in particular it was letting myself have an imagination. It could have been just a metaphor, or it could have been written as a simile, instead of literally saying that her scream was sold to a thrift store and sent to a landfill. I lived it as if it was an actual story. I think it’s important to just challenge yourself as a poet and move away from ‘this thing is like this other thing’, and instead ‘this thing is this’ and pushing people to have that imagination. Pushing people to get weird. Pushing people to dive in.

“I know that there’s poetry when I just can’t stop thinking about it, when a memory is nagging at me, when a story is one that won’t leave me. I recognize there’s something here. The way I approach that is by really diving into the sensory experience because usually, for me, that’s where the poetry is. I try to build out the scene in a sensory way. That’s a complicated answer. Again that’s a good question but I haven’t rehearsed it to myself yet!”

James: Finally, I’m waiting for your novel in anticipation of cracking the spine for the first page. I’m curious how poetry has influenced your prose. I’m thinking of Canadian author and poet Michael Ondaatje. His novels are clearly influenced by his skill as a poet. Are poetic devices finding their way into your prose?

Olivia: “One hundred percent. This novel has been the hardest thing I’ve ever written because I realized one thing poetry doesn’t teach you is how to finish a sentence. Finishing sentences and the transitions are the hardest. I have to explain how this person went to the bathroom. That’s so boring. How do I make that Interesting? Something I’ve learned by reading novels that aren’t written by poets is that the author accepted that those lines are boring. But my favorite novels are the ones where there are no boring lines. It’s not necessarily flowery and over the top, but that every word feels considered, which I think is something you learn in poetry. 

“So often, poets are my favorite novelists and I love that. I love when poets write novels.  My novel, one hundred percent, has poetic devices. I don’t know how to think without thinking in simile and metaphor. I don’t know how to describe things without describing it in a sensory way. 

“Hopefully that resonates with people, but that’s the only way I know how to write.”

James Morehead interviewed Olivia Gatwood for The Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast. James is the Poet Laureate of Dublin, California and author of “canvas“.

Interested in appearing on The Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast? Submit your poetry for consideration: https://viewlesswings.submittable.com/.

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