Olivia Gatwood. Photo by Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2019

Olivia Gatwood. Photo by Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2019

The London sky scowls then splutters as Olivia Gatwood steps out of a taxi and into a small French cafe near The Strand. 

She is wheeling a large navy suitcase behind her, as people blink hopelessly at the heavens and cower beneath their umbrellas and the rain crashes, thick and loud, against the pavement. 

Sitting down at a rickety metal table, the 27-year-old poet from Albuquerque orders a bowl of onion soup and a glass of water, and we begin.

Did I get these details right? Was it actually raining that hard? Or am I, as Gatwood writes in her debut collection, trying to “hand over a tale / as perfect as a clean and burped infant”?

Life of the Party is a book about the messy and often violent business of growing up as a woman in a world riven by male cruelty. It is also, formally speaking, an exercise in verisimilitude, a retelling of a life from infancy to young adulthood in a series of carefully rendered memories. The poems are by turn exhilarating, funny and disturbing. But they are always precise. 

‘I’d say 90% of the stories in the book, other than name changes, are true,’ she confirms. 

These include early moments of self-identity, sisterhood and sexuality, often compromised by malevolent, older male figures. It is on this topic in particular that Gatwood’s commitment to the act of recollection has more than just an artistic motivation.

‘I think women are often gaslit into believing that what happened to them isn’t true,’ she says. 

‘That way, that they will convince you that you’re lying, that your memories are wrong.’ 

A pivotal moment in her life came when Gatwood, aged 16, decided to report an employer for sexual harassment.

‘I didn’t know what I was doing and it ended up turning into a cross action lawsuit for five years, and over those five years I was interrogated,’ she says.

‘Trying to remember a conversation you had years ago... you need to remember every single word. That was a really insane moment in my life. When I started I had no idea what I was getting into.

‘So I’ve always been really adamant about remembering things exactly as they happened as a form of protection and self-preservation.’

Gatwood and the other female co-workers involved in the case eventually won. It freed her to move to New York and pursue her career as a performance poet, something decidedly more feasible in the US than it is in the UK.

Photo by Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2019.

Photo by Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2019.

Her introduction came when Gatwood was 13 and a performance poet visited her school. Inspired, she spent the next three years writing and honing her delivery in private before finally going on stage. After winning slams throughout high school, she found herself in a national youth competition which aired on HBO. Meanwhile, her YouTube videos were steadily recruiting legions of young, female fans attracted to her authenticity and truth-telling, two characteristics which define celebrity in the 2010s as much as glamour and enigma did 50 years ago.

'They’re usually 19 or 20-year-old girls,’ she says of people at her shows, which has just included a tour of the UK, ‘and usually in some kind of funky clothing. Not too funky, but a lot of them have pink hair and some piercings. They’re really similar to how I was when I was that age, only cooler.’

After decades in the cultural doldrums, poetry is finding resonance with young people again - thanks, as with everything else, to social media. I wonder what she makes of ‘Instapoetry’, the movement led by the likes of Rupi Kaur which is often credited with turning Gen Z onto verse.

‘Young women who have made empires out of their Instagram poetry deserve to be recognised for that,’ she says diplomatically. 

‘I think it’s cool - people who are writing about their feelings and their bodies and puberty or whatever are probably paying their parents' mortgages.'

‘But I also think that, as much as everyone needs to start somewhere, sometimes I read [Instagram poety] and it feels like pop music. I like pop music, but some of it sounds like it could have been churned out by a machine, and our ears are somehow trained to enjoy it.’

Like most people in their 20s and 30s, Gatwood feels hopelessly beholden to social media, something heightened by how integral it feels to her professional success. 

‘We’re addicted to Instagram and it’s insane and I hate it,’ she says. ‘I’m really private and I don’t like sharing a lot of things from my life. But I have this crazy instinct to go and look at it, and I do have to fight the feeling of worrying about my relevancy, because it’s like: “oh your follower count isn’t growing at the rate it should be”’.

On stage, Gatwood’s delivery ranges from joyful and mellifluous, to melancholy, to rageful - often in the course of a single piece. Like many great performance poets, she exudes a rare kind of energy which makes part of you wish you could trade places with her, if only to know what such emotional clarity - or at least, the performance of it - feels like. The millions of YouTube views are one measure of her popularity, but it’s in the comments you see how much her poems resonate with her fans.

They work pretty well on the page, too. In ‘The Sandias, 2008’ we join the young narrator as she rides a ski lift while

admiring, silently, 

the tall grass and blond poppies 

and untouched globes of dandelion

She is there with her father, ‘the only person who knows, and I mean really knows [...] my sadness’. It is a quiet and beautiful evocation of the way heartache washes the colour out of the world, with a tender paternal relationship at its core. It is also the one piece in the collection I read without feeling the words wanting to leap out of my mouth. 

 

It feels like it could be the seed of a novel, so it's no surprise when she confirms that is what she is working on next: 'it's exciting because I’m so sick of writing about myself, and now I get to invent people…’

Olivia Gatwood. Photo by Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2019.

Photo by Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2019.

There are plenty of dark moments in Life of the Party - stories of insomnia and anxiety and abuse in a myriad of forms. But towards the end, as the narrator gets older, some beams of sunlight begin to burst through the lines. I wonder whether she is happier now than when she started the collection.

‘I’m in a different place,’ she replies. ‘When I finished the book I slept through the night for the first time, which was crazy. I’m happier in some ways, but I am not the happiest person. I just feel everything - like all the injustices of the world live in my body. 

'I used to think that was a part of my work, and why I am good at what I do. But as I get older I realise that’s not really the way I want to live. And I don't think I'll need to.'

Life of the Party by Olivia Gatwood is out now. 
 

Related articles