Olivia Gatwood was a name I stumbled upon in a vast sea of slam poetry videos on YouTube. Out of the hundreds of videos of finger-snapping and rants over love, loss, oppression, and identity, it was her name that stuck, long after my fiery infatuation with spoken word poetry had mellowed to a flicker. I always gravitate back to this opinionated, curly-haired woman who writes about Manic Pixie Dream Girls, resting b*tch faces, period underwear and stories of girls putting in tampons for their friends.
Her writing reflects a wave of feminism which has a ferocious insistence on reclaiming femininity with unwavering pride. Olivia doesn’t spend time clarifying that pink isn’t every woman’s favourite colour, she would much rather illustrate through poetry the beauty and loveliness of pink, and how there cannot be shame in loving something that is beautiful. The idea behind reclamation is to tell-off the patriarchy, by stripping away the shame, weakness, and unimportance that it attaches to womanliness.
“Imagine, the teen girls gone from our world and how quickly we would beg for their return.”
By writing about girlhood, Olivia advocates for the fact that stories of girlhood are in fact important enough to be given a name, to be archived and shared.
I have had a love affair with Olivia’s poetry and with her determined conviction to speak to the teenage girl in me or in any woman. And in all their might, those words have loved me back too, by bringing me tales of valiant and interesting women in a world that has only ever painted us as meek and doe-eyed, and by bringing pride to places that had only known shame. Olivia tells me how uniquely wonderful the friendship between two teen girls is and I recall all of those moments of unbelievable intimacy that I had taken for granted. She tells me about the careless trust she places on old period underwear and my mind wanders back to every red splotch, together with the vicious scrubbing and the unnecessary hiding. She talks of the profoundness of female rituals and suddenly nothing about my existence as a teen girl is mundane to me. With her poetry, every mundane experience of girlhood evolves into a sacrosanct ceremony.
“I had never pined, so badly,
for denim to slip down her lower back,
upon taking a seat,
to reveal the fuzz along her spine,
that which she likely wished to remove,
begged her mother for hot wax like we all did.”
Olivia paints a collage of details, she doesn’t tell you that queerness is a beautiful thing, instead she makes you feel a thousand flapping butterflies for a girl’s fuzzy lower back, and by the end of it you have felt that queerness is indeed a beautiful thing, you don’t have to be told anymore. It’s not a poem of some gigantic struggle for LGBTQ emancipation. Instead, it is one that combines the smallest of elements, eliciting the most primitive, the most human of responses, and establishing connectedness in the process. The constant non-linearity in her writing is what sets her apart from the surge of spoken word poets, whose poems are more declarative in form. Olivia will let her words find you at a leisurely pace and gradually engulf you.
In a world of excessive interaction with content, it is easy to become desensitised to words. Words, as they are, fall short in being able to evoke fury or love or even solidarity. What then, induces one to drop one’s thoughts and feel something? Olivia speaks to that desensitised reader/listener through the entangling net of stories that she weaves. She reminds one that poetry isn’t a dish to be served on a platter but rather a recipe to be navigated through, half the fun lies in disentangling the net that the author weaves. Quite unlike the Rupi Kaur brand of poetry. For Kaur gives a perfectly fitting feminist message, but that’s it. Her poetry exists merely on the surface, there is nothing to delve into, to be submerged in. This narrative moves forward in a straight line, such that there is no space left between the lines, which is also the space where the magic happens.
“The last time we made love you asked me if I was scared,
I think you wanted me to say yes”
Subtlety is also Olivia’s distinguishing quality. Even in poems with darker undertones, in stories of pain and abuse, she often speaks about the abuse without ever outrightly addressing it. And strangely enough, the indistinction encapsulates the very nature of abuse itself, to be so subtle that we wish to ignore it. How abuse isn’t usually isolated and identifiable, but it’s in words, actions and behaviours interlaced with all else, how it is indistinguishable to the extent that it almost resembles normalcy. She brings out the imperceptible fears that lurk within us. Olivia gets the grey nature of things.
“The boy doesn’t ask if he can choke me, so I pretend to die while he’s doing it”
She is the curator to the museum of all our stories, some lost and some broken, what’s different is the light that she uses to guide us through them. A light of pride. She leaves one with not only the feeling that poetry is magical but that being a girl itself is so so wondrous and sensationally beautiful in nature. Olivia is about the details, about the fears and insecurities in the experiences of girlhood, and the understanding that from the smallest instances emerges the greatest solidarity. Being a girl can be a constant struggle for selfhood. Everything teenage girls do and are is under constant attack and ridicule. And that is precisely how patriarchy is structured, that even a single moment of uninterrupted female existence is unendurable for them. And to that, she says, f*ck you.
“When the boy said, he liked my hair the other way, I shaved my head instead of my p*ssy.”
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