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.
We just did a keynote speech at a summer camp for high schoolers, and we asked if anyone has ever used the term “friend zone.” A bunch of high school boys pretty enthusiastically raised their hands at first. But by the end of the lecture, those boys were buying our t-shirts that say ‘Human decency isn’t foreplay,’ and telling us, “I think you’re right. If I’m nice to a girl, she doesn’t have to be my girlfriend.” It’s been really exciting for us to people notice the tiny things.
What was your first show together like?
Megan Falley: Our first show as a group together was really interesting because we were flown to Michigan to a community college. But, I think because it wasn’t a larger college, we kind of thought that it would be a small show—forty to fifty people if were lucky—but there were over 200 people there. There were students who had their prom later that night who came to watch our poetry. It was a really great first show and first response.
I think before that show, Olivia and I thought we were just doing a poetry tour. After that show, we realized how big this could be. It kind of extended beyond the entertainment factor of spoken word, and was now more something that could alert people to the nuances of rape culture and gender violence. We could change the conversation taking place on college campuses.
Olivia Gatwood: I think we get to know our audience in a lot of ways. We usually end up in fully-lit lecture halls where we look at students raising their hands and admitting their experiences to us in a public setting. Our audience is having a conversation with us and we’re having a conversation with them. It’s a new experience for us as well. Sometimes, slams can be very one-sided, but our show is an hour-long and we do Q&A’s after our shows. It’s been a really fulfilling experience to perform for people who are communicating with us while we’re communicating with them.
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.
We were shaken up by that and came to our poetry class the next day. An old man told us, “It’s not an act of misogyny, but its an act of lunacy. It’s an isolated incident.” But that undermines the fact that many women have felt this before and have feared for their safety. We were offended by that, and we thought, “You know, as women, we don’t talk back at catcallers because we’re afraid of them. We don’t want to get killed.” We wrote “Say No” as a response to that man to prove a point, to show something, because that’s how we communicate as poets. It’s important to think of these things equally. We can’t say one is less sexist or less dangerous than the other. They all contribute to men like Elliot Rodgers killing women.
Megan Falley: We do get backlash, from people who are calling us names and saying that we’re complaining or jealous of women who get catcalls. We use those comments in our shows. There’s a comment on one of videos online that is particularly interesting: “I couldn’t understand what the skinny girl was saying because the hippo was talking over her.” So I launch into a poem about body issues. Every negative comment that we get like that sort of reinforces what we’re doing and that it’s necessary.
It’s super important to get feedback from people in the audience who don’t necessarily agree with us, and it’s also important for people who have experienced what we’ve experienced to come to our show and feel validated. For people who haven’t experienced that, when we ask the audience to raise their hands, they look around at people who have been threatened by catcalls, and are outraged.
How did you first meet? 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.
Megan Falley: I am three or four years older than Olivia. I discovered spoken word when I was in college, and I was really into it right away. It is a great marriage of writing and performing, which I love. I was a couple of years in, and I saw on HBO on my mom’s TV that there was a poetry competition. I watched it and, sure enough, Olivia was on it. She had impressive work, and I was fan of her’s—like, who is this young woman killing it right now? I sent her a Facebook message to say that she was great.
Olivia Gatwood: I guess a little bit of time later, I moved to New York [from Albuquerque, New Mexico], and I was walking down the street in Brooklyn with my partner at the time and I saw Megan. I had been a fan of Megan through YouTube—she was a more seasoned poet than I was. I saw her in the street, which is crazy because that never happens. I am very awkward and didn’t want to say “Hi,” and Megan is not so she said “Hiii!” Then we didn’t talk for two years probably, but then we made the [National Poetry Slam] team together. We were the only women on the team, so we sat down and wrote a poem about feminism and it was the easiest thing either of us have ever done.
Megan Falley: I feel sometimes when I write poems with Olivia that I’ve discovered an external hard drive. A lot of times, when you’re writing a group poem it can be antagonistic and you can argue a lot about where it’s going. But when Olivia and I started writing together, we discussed what we wanted and we started to type and Olivia said, “This is going to be easy.”
Olivia Gatwood: “Collapse the Economy” took us all of twenty minutes. We were saying it out loud as we were typing. We did the team, and usually when the competition is over, that’s it. We didn’t talk that much after the team, but the footage came out from the Slam on YouTube and we watched our poem. We were so intensely moved by it. We were like, “This is incredible.” We couldn’t believe how powerful we were together.
Megan Falley: We had a really special reaction. Most of the time, when I watch my own videos, I don’t like the way I deliver a line or my hair or something like that. This was was the first time that I was moved by my own work and not focusing on my own flaws. It was more powerful than I ever realized when we were performing. We were like, “We should go on tour.”
Olivia Gatwood: I had been basically waiting around for her to say that. [laughs] I was about to graduate college.
Megan Falley: [laughs] That was like three months ago.
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.