I was sitting in the audience of a poetry reading in Soho, checking the time and wondering if I should duck out (it was getting late, after all), when Olivia Gatwood and Megan Falley came on. They had been standing in the sidelines for the past hour, cheering the previous two poets with such enthusiasm that, when it was their turn on the make-shift stage, both were bursting with positive energy. So I stayed, and I’m glad I did—I was blown away by their humor, their freshness, and their smarts. By the end of their performance, they had every last person laughing and clapping.
In turns out that for the past two months, ever since Gatwood graduated from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, both women have been on the road together, driving long hours around the United States to present their feminist, interactive poetry show, Speak Like a Girl, in cities like Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Muskegon and Detroit in Michigan, and New Paltz in New York (while also making time to compete in the largest midwestern slam competition, the Rustbelt, in Rockford, Illinois).
Speak is designed to educate audiences about serious topics like female body image, gender roles, street harassment, and rape culture, and Gatwood and Falley use a spoonful of sugar—humor—to help the lessons go down. It’s been working like an elixir: People have been coming in droves to fill college lecture halls and classrooms on Speak‘s tour (and are streaming their YouTube videos by the thousands online). We caught up with both last week via Bluetooth, as they were “somewhere in Indiana,” fourteen hours in on their drive to their next performance.
Since you’ve been all over the country, what has the response been like to your poetry in all of these different cities?
Olivia Gatwood: It’s been great. We have a lot of people who have heard our work before on the Internet so it’s always an exciting experience for them to hear it live. We think of our show as less of a poetry show and more of an entertaining lecture that uses poetry to each people about gender and equality. Its been fun for us to watch people change.
What inspires you to do the work that you do? And, what gives you the courage?
Olivia Gatwood: One of our poems is called “Say No.” It has a pretty big response on YouTube. It’s about the culture that surrounds women who say “No,” and the ways women are punished by saying “No,” whether it’s during a public proposal or for a higher salary or for another drink. We wrote that poem after the Elliot Rodgers rampage, where a young man opened fire on a sorority house and wrote a manifesto about women rejecting him.
Olivia Gatwood: I was going to Pratt and Megan grew up in New York City. We met through the Urbana Poetry Slam, and were on a team together to go to the National Poetry Slam in 2014. It just worked out so well that we decided to go on the road. And, now we’re here.
What’s next for Speak Like a Girl?
Olivia Gatwood: We’ll be doing colleges. We’re working on the schedule right now. We have four women who are like our regional reps and do booking for us in different pockets in the country. We’ve been working with them to set up this tour and the fall. It’s been really random because these past two months, during the summer, colleges aren’t in session, so we’re doing random gigs. When we get to do colleges, we hope it will be more geographically organized.