This past March, slam poet Olivia Gatwood released her first collection of printed poems. “New American Best Friend,” which focuses on the struggles of girlhood and the common situations young women face, is affirming and moving.
I discovered the book after a friend sent me one of the poems from the collection. This poem, “The Autocross,” illustrates the author’s interactions with men at a racetrack, revealing the subtle and sometimes blatant sexism in their comments. The poem ends with the lines, “One man asks how I reach the pedals / One man asks where my daddy is / One man opens his trunk and says / Bet you’re small enough to fit.” I was hooked after reading these lines. They tapped into the anger and helplessness that I, and every other woman I have known, has experienced when catcalled on the street or belittled in school and work environments.
The power of Gatwood’s writing comes from the lines that catch the reader off-guard and force them to examine closely the ways people can leave lasting impressions on each other. In one of the most devastating poems, “The Anthem I Have Sung,” Gatwood describes the small delight and exasperation of shedding hair. She ends the poem with the lines, “This anthem I have sung of my own shedding mane / until I stood ankle deep in the bath / and pulled her scraps / from his choking drain.” If there is a common characteristic of Gatwood’s poems, it must be these small but tragic moments. After working as a waitress on Valentine’s Day, Gatwood reflects in one poem about how she felt like “a school teacher / who goes home to no children / a cab driver without a car / a therapist who cries / in the middle of the night / and can’t figure out why.”
Her poems are not all heartbreak. There is optimism and celebration in her poems as well. In “Ode to the Women of Long Island,” Gatwood pays tribute to the strength of the women she has known and the wisdom they have given her. There is also wry humor when Gatwood discusses the hallmarks of childhood and early adolescence: first shaves, first kisses, periods and brightly colored makeup.
The poems in this collection are free-verse, and have varying formats. Some are written in more traditional couplet stanzas, while others are written as paragraphs. Some are long streams of words, flowing without punctuation or line breaks. These poems remind the reader of Gatwood’s talent as a slam poet. There is also very little capitalization, lending the poems a sense of vulnerability, and the feeling that you are listening to the author’s train of thought rather than reading a published work.
“New American Best Friend” should be read by every young woman, and more importantly, by every young man. The poems are not only powerfully written, but also written from an underrepresented perspective about topics that are often too taboo to discuss openly. I believe this collection of poetry has the ability to empower and to foster more understanding and empathy for the women in our communities.
Reviewer Samantha Bastress is a junior studying media and professional communications at the University of Pittsburgh. She interned for WPSU over the summer.