Olivia Gatwood has never been the kind to be short on words. She’s built her passion on the messages these words seem to bring with ease, the kind that reflect her own experiences as both a teenage and adult woman and simultaneously reflect the women who hear her story and feel inspired. The poet, performer, and Title IX Compliant educator in sexual assault prevention has found her home raising awareness to these all-too-relatable feminist issues— for example, her spoken word poem, “Ode To My Bitch Face,” has garnered over 900k views on Youtube (SlamFind). Currently, she resides as an international touring artist, and has visited over 200 universities worldwide to deliver her message of equality, strength, and hope to millions of women around the globe.
Gatwood’s love for writing goes far beyond her own age; the Albuquerque, New Mexico native recalls writing poetry when she was only in elementary school. Over the years, she developed a love for hip-hop music and free-styling with her friends at school. It wasn’t until a friend convinced her to attend a hip-hop cipher that spoken word and writing became her entire community and life.
“I think I love writing because I’m constantly trying to understand why I feel the way I do about the world and myself and the people in [the world]; I think writing is a wonderful way to answer your own questions,” Gatwood states. “I also like the constant challenge of putting the unexplainable into perfect words.”
Olivia’s writing speaks to the innocent, vulnerable teenager she once was. This ongoing message has rippled across many of her passion projects, and has sparked the creativity in her upcoming ones. She recently co-launched Say More, a podcast alongside spoken-word poet Melissa Lozada-Oliva. In 2017, she published her best-selling Amazon poetry collection, New American Best Friend, that dives into the her experiences living in New Mexico and Trinidad, and reflecting on her experience as a teenage girl. Just this month, Gatwood released her newest poetry collection, Life Of The Party. I was able to sit down with Gatwood for an interview with Make Muse, and discuss how her passion for writing has driven her career as an activist, and how other women should search for activism in any passion, interest, or endeavor they undertake.
Heidi: When did you realize that you had the power to become an activist?
Olivia: I think it was when I finally understood that there was value in writing and performing and that it played a role in the activist sphere. It can be intimidating to think about being an activist and being an organizer and I think that’s for a good reason. I think that it’s an important responsibility and started to realize that my work was resonating with people beyond just my friend group, which was really when my work started to get on the Internet and people start to vocalize the ways that it had changed them or validated them. So, that was when I was about 21.
Heidi: How would you define activism?
Olivia: I think activism is remaining in a constant state of growth and holding people around you accountable to that as well as yourself. I think activism is actively being a citizen instead of a consumer, and remaining intersectional in every way you can, which means asking hard questions and dealing with difficult truths and not backing down from those things.
Heidi: What are your top three favorite books and why?
Olivia: My top three favorite books [are] We the Animals by Justin Torez. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Wall, and Bright Dead Things by Ada Limon. The Glass Castle is the first book I read that I think was able to articulate the deeply simultaneous experience of trauma and incredible beauty that is childhood. It wasn’t just a sad story, it was also a story about cherishing memories and family and love. I think that was the first book I read that was technically a novel but used such poetic language that I think it gave me a certain kind of permission when writing prose. And Bright Dead Things was one of the first books by a poet that I don’t consider a spoken word poet, whatever that means. Ada is considered a poet who lives primarily on the page, and it was the first time I read a book by a poet where their writing jumped off the page to me, and so I think it taught me that the line between spoken word and written word is deeply thin and to stop relying so heavily on that binary. It’s visual, but I also think Ada Limon's work is really sonic and so I found myself reading her poems aloud to myself, which I found interesting because she's not technically considered a performance poet, but her work is very informative. Her language is so sensual and tangible and begs to be read aloud.
Heidi: Did any of these books inspire your published book, New American Best Friend?
Olivia: Yes, "Bright Dead Things" was an integral part of the writing of New American Best Friend because of its rhythm and its language. Justin Tara has been a staple in my mind as a writer. In terms of balancing the line between prose and poetry, The Glass Castle taught me how to tell a story. So all three of those things really stuck with me while writing.
Heidi: What do you hope readers can learn through your writing?
Olivia: I hope "New American Best Friend" teaches readers to learn about the value of small moments in our lives. The value of specific intents instead of just general intents. I hope that it does something similar that it did for me where my work can live in people's hands too. I hope that people enjoy reading it and reading it aloud to their friends.
Heidi: So, leaning away from poetry, I know you recently released "Say More," a podcast featuring Melissa Lozado-Oliva alongside yourself. How would you consider digital media outlets like podcasts as a way to bring awareness to feminist issues?
Olivia: I think that it’s looking through the lens of women and feminism because I think that it gives space for people to just talk and that's so important. I'm thinking about conversational podcasts and I think it's so important for people to get to work freely, and sometimes that means just sitting down and parsing things out. I think women haven't always been given the opportunity to do that, and I think sitting down and talking has been a really important part of women's resistance historically. With organizing and exchanging ideas and forming revolts and resisting, it all starts with sitting around and talking, and podcasts are that. On the other end, you have podcasts like Serial which are their own extremely complex form of storytelling because they feel like TV for your ears. I think the love for podcasts shows that people derive [love] from listening to each other, and I don't think that's always encouraged, and I think podcasts enforce that and I think that's a good habit.
“With organizing and exchanging ideas and forming revolts and resisting, it all starts with sitting around and talking, and podcasts are that.”- Gatwood
Heidi: If someone came up to you and said they wanted to be an activist but didn't really know how, what would you say to them?
Olivia: I would say it's important to figure out how you communicate with the world. There are so many ways to be an activist—you don't just get on stage and speak. You can be an architect that creates buildings that are accessible to all bodies. You can be a graphic designer that designs graphic ads that are inclusive and include a wide range of races and gender and abilities. You can be a lawyer and defend the rights of people wrongly convicted of crimes. You can be a doctor that doesn't gaslight your patients, and instead makes space for people who have varying experiences with their bodies. I think there are so many ways to be an activist. I think the first step is understanding how you communicate with the world, what is the thing that you understand, and how can you redirect it so that it ultimately benefits a marginalized group.
Heidi: Who do you think your audience is?
Olivia: I mostly write for young women. I think I write for my younger self, but in turn I also write for a lot of young women. I think of teenage girls and young women who feel confused and lost. I'm always trying to write a book that I needed to read. It's kind of a selfish act but I'm always trying to make up for what it was I didn't get to read, and that means that I end up writing for teenage girls.
Heidi: I know your writing speaks to many intersectional issues and feminist issues. Do you write about this on purpose in order to help women reading your content or just because it interests you?
Olivia: I think it’s a little bit of both. I don’t really work well writing assignments for poetry, so I don’t sit down like “I need to write a poem about this because people need to hear this.” I tell stories from my own life but because of my life and the things I’ve experienced, they’re inherently about sexuality and identity and class and gender. So, it’s kind of like this seamless thing where you write what you know, [and] the political comes naturally.