Slam feminism with a true-crime twist in latest from poet Olivia Gatwood
Back in the fall of 2013, before Trump and #MeToo, I first encountered Olivia Gatwood’s poetry at a Lower East Side poetry slam, which she won. To someone with a newly minted degree in English from a small liberal arts school isolated from a flourishing poetry scene, I wondered whether poetry could escape the academy and do something in the world. Of course, I’d read Allen Ginsburg and Sylvia Plath, but had the activist tendencies of these midcentury poetic masters faded into navel-gazing formalisms? Another, admittedly more snobby, part of me wondered: Did the politically minded, confessional slam poets have the poetic chops?
On her way to winning that slam in 2013, Gatwood performed a poem called “At the Owl.” It’s a poem about being a “diner lady” where steely waitresses turn their bones into tools. But the poem pushes further than portraiture of coworkers: “This is the makeup for the $2.13 before taxes,” Gatwood said, rooting us in this particular moment, the aftermath of the 2008 crash, “as if the people dining out … are being more viciously affected by the recession than those working to fill those bellies.” Gatwood did what I worried couldn’t be done—combine successful aesthetics and urgent politics: She turned the gritty pain of waitressing into a comment about the particularly soul- (and body)-crushing impacts of unfettered capitalism crossed with unrestrained patriarchy.
Gatwood’s debut collection, Life of the Party, which follows her 2017 chapbook, New American Best Friend, taps into the triumph of well-wrought slam poetry: sharp, personal images that say something meaningful about our messed-up world. Specifically, Life of the Party investigates violence women face and the ways that violence turns into stories. In an author’s note, Gatwood writes: “This is a book of poems about true crime. It is also a book of poems about the many small violences a person can withstand. … This book is, in part, a memoir of my fear and how it was planted in me as a child, then perpetuated throughout my adult life.”
Gatwood’s attunement to these genres’ faults and opportunities allows her to play poems off of one another, metafictionally, in ways that make the parts greater than the whole. For example, in a series of three poems—“No Baptism,” “Addendum to No Baptism,” and “Addendum II to No Baptism”—the scene of young girl getting blisters from a metal slide functions for a discussion about poetic memoir: “When I tell the story of the slide / at parties, or poetry readings / … I leave out the ending.” The question of whether to reveal the more upsetting ending—that a neighbor invasively touched the girl’s body with the pretext of healing those blisters—turns, in the third poem, into a further question about the truth of that memory itself: “I should also mention that I don’t know, / if his hands ever touched me, though I thought they did.” The poems reflect one another, so that one might ask: What else has been strategically omitted or added? How much of what is presented as certain is actually uncertain? In memoir, where faulty memory is explicitly conceded, how does the audience know what’s true? Three aphoristic lines on the facing page mark either a conclusion to the final poem or else a new, very short, one: “memory, too, / lives in my body / not my brain.” In other words, whether or not facts correspond perfectly to reality, they do faithfully match what the body feels.
The book’s metageneric exercises also extend beyond memoir. “Aileen Wuornos Takes a Lover Home,” which references historical true crime, keeps from slipping into that genre: “I don’t want to talk about the men / who tried to kill Aileen / or how she killed them first.” Instead, Gatwood writes a third-person love poem, because Aileen “wanted to talk about love.” Recognizing Aileen’s humanity means telling Aileen’s story in the mode that Aileen herself wanted the story told: not crime, but romance. That juxtaposition between crime and romance, and Gatwood’s distillation of Aileen’s feeling into short-lined couplets, makes for some simply beautiful sections: “the police listened to Aileen talk about love. // About her right arm. Her left arm. / Her breath. Her breath. Her breath.” This same genre-bending also appears in Gatwood’s several odes, a recurring form. These odes take on a variety of mixed tones like ironically ominous, athematic frustration, or cleverly fumbling, as in, respectively, “Ode to My Favorite Murder,” “Ode to My Bitch Face,” and “Ode to the Unpaid Electricity Bill.”
Gatwood’s self-conscious play with literary form sometimes toes the line of overbearing explication, like a magician over-narrating their tricks. Why cheapen the talky, hilarious “Ode to the Women on Long Island” with the redundant anaphora “I want to write a poem for the women on Long Island”—we know it’s a poem. But when the technique works, it works spectacularly, as in “When I Say That We Are All Teen Girls,” where repeated, explicit comparisons of things to teen girls offers a humorous reimagining of both the assorted things Gatwood references and also teen girls themselves: “What is more teen girl than my dog, Jack”; “the mountains, oh, the mountain, / what teen girls they are”; and “Pluto, teen girl, and her rejection / from the popular universe.”
One of the book’s best genre-testing experiments comes in the form of “small, bracketed poems” that Gatwood called in an interview “The Babysitter Poems.” Each of these poems, scattered throughout the book, reads as a short lyric, but together they form the story of an adoring younger girl’s obsession with her older babysitter, and then the babysitter’s tragic adulthood observed by the younger girl. Set against the more obvious politics of the other poems, this series takes on a quiet potency. In one poem, the two girls watch and discuss Titanic, as if allegorically discussing their own stories: “when the ship split in two i asked her if this was a true story & she said yes. When jack froze against the wooden door i asked if this was a true story & she said no. but if there was no love story, she said, it would just be a movie about a bunch of people dying.” As in the “Baptism” sequence, art’s redemptive truth, imprinted not on the brain but on the body, helps eclipse reality’s harshness. Behind the babysitter’s tragedy lies the story of an adoring girl whose “favorite pastime is watching the babysitter put her hair into a ponytail”; just the same, behind this book about violence lies a book about love.
LIFE OF THE PARTY. BY OLIVIA GATWOOD, PUBLISHED BY DIAL PRESS TRADE. OUT ON 8.20. $17.
Max is a PhD student in English and American literature at BU. Previously, he worked at the NGO GiveDirectly, an organization that sends cash transfers, no strings attached, directly to extremely poor families. In 2014, he studied and wrote poetry in Wellington, NZ on a Fulbright scholarship.