Lyric Essentials: Shannon Wolf Reads Olivia Gatwood

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week we are joined by poet and editor Shannon Wolf to discuss the work of Olivia Gatwood, the particular power of seeing poetry performed live, and writing as a therapeutic act. As always, thank you for tuning in!

Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: We all have an origin story for when we discovered a favorite poet. How did you discover Olivia Gatwood?

Shannon Wolf: Just like many of her fans, I found Gatwood through Youtube performances of her poems. She has a huge following in the slam poetry scene, and I found both her performance style and the actual content of her poems really compelling. She’s best known for earlier poems – like “Alternate Universe in Which I Am Unfazed by the Men Who Do Not Love Me” – and I think it’s because these poems (especially for women) are accessible in their language and ideas, which is not to say they aren’t well written. She has a wonderful eye for making magic from the minutiae. So many of her poems are about the female experience, the female body, and all of its burdens and blessings. Her work is somehow both refreshing and dark, and as a poet myself, that seems like one unattainable feat to accomplish.

Shannon Wolf Reads “If a Girl Screams in the Middle of the Night” by Olivia Gatwood

AH: During our correspondence, you mentioned that you’ve actually seen Gatwood perform her work live. How was the experience? Did the experience of hearing and seeing it performed change anything for you?

SW: It was really fantastic. I think it’s important to note how the venue was packed with so many people identifying as women and it felt like this safe, collaborative, familiar environment – the laughter and the emphatic noises of agreement you often hear at poetry readings seemed three times louder than usual in that room in Portland, Oregon. She performed with a musician, Mexican singer-songwriter Joaquina Mertz, setting her poems to sound, and it was a total sensory experience. Gatwood’s performances (with and without music) definitely add a layer of meaning to the written word. Her style of reading, her tone contextualizes the work – she has this great deadpan delivery that just lights each piece on fire. This particular performance was on the tour for her chapbook New American Best Friend, so I’d love to take in a reading of poems from Life of the Party, which I think drill a lot deeper into the female consciousness (and the dangers that seem to surround it).

Shannon Wolf Reads “My Mother’s Addendum” by Olivia Gatwood

AH: In an interview with The Adroit Journal, Gatwood said the following about Life of the Party: “I was in a constant state of feeling afraid, and instead of running from that feeling or trying to soften it, I held a magnifying glass up to it, tried to figure out where it was born, then write from the beginning.” As a writer, have you felt similar emotions and experiences when trying to write a particular piece?

SW: Absolutely! I would be surprised if there isn’t a writer who doesn’t use their work as some kind of therapy, honestly. I think whether it’s fear, or a specific trauma, or even just making sense of a memory, stepping toward it with your writing can produce something really striking. I often say that Gatwood’s poems are so personal – many in her chapbook refer to specific details from her own reality – but in Life of the Party, Gatwood appears to distance herself much more. Somehow though, this serves to bring the reader in even closer. In “If A Girl Screams In the Middle of the Night”, the singular scream of a girl becomes universal. In inspecting her own fear, she taps into our collective fear. I try to do this in my own work when I inspect generational trauma, and abusive relationships. Perhaps this hard stare into the sun eventually softens the fear anyway.

AH: Have any exciting news you want to share (it can be anything! Life, writing, new revelations)?

SW: I do. I just recently signed a contract for my first full-length poetry collection. Green Card Girl, which will be forthcoming from Fernwood Press in September 2022. It’s about my immigration journey from England to the US, the genesis of my chosen family, and the slow rot of toxic relationships. You can follow me on Twitter @helloshanwolf or check my website for updates on the book! I also have poems coming out with Sledgehammer Lit and HAD, and I’ve just started a new teaching job here in my new hometown, Denver, CO. There’s a lot going on right now!

Olivia Gatwood is a writer and activist. She is the author of the full-length collection Life of the Party and has performed her poetry both in the United States and internationally. Her poetry has appeared in The Winter Tangerine Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and The Missouri Review, among others.

Find her website here.

Watch her perform her poem “We Find Each Other in the Details” here.

Purchase her collection Life of the Party at Penguin Random House.

Shannon Wolf is a British writer, living in Denver, Colorado. Her debut full-length poetry collection Green Card Girl is forthcoming from Fernwood Press. She received a joint MA-MFA in Poetry at McNeese State University and also has degrees from Lancaster University and the University of Chichester. She is Co-Curator of the “Poets in Pajamas” Reading Series. Her poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction (which can also be found under the name Shannon Bushby) have appeared in or are forthcoming from The ForgeGreat Weather for MEDIAHAD and NoContactMag among others.

You can find her on social media @helloshanwolf.

Read her poem “Ode to Tony Soprano” here at No Contact Magazine.

Learn more about Shannon on her website.

Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is a multimedia artist and writer. She has had work appear, or forthcoming, in Barren Magazine, DIALOGIST, Rust + Moth, and The Shore, among others. She is the Co-Editor in Chief at both Mud Season Review and Juven Press, and reads for EX/POST Magazine. More of her work can be found at

Lyric Essentials: Lydia Havens Reads “The Story” by Hieu Minh Nguyen

Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Lydia Havens reads “The Story” by Hieu Minh Nguyen.

Before we get into the great poem you recorded for us, what can you tell us about Hieu Minh Nguyen? And how did you first come across his work?

Lydia Havens: What I can tell you about Hieu Minh Nguyen is that a lot of his work has made me feel so much less alone. Before I read This Way to the Sugar, I was 16 and starting to remember pieces of a sexual trauma I didn’t know how to piece together. Later that year, I saw him perform at the 2014 Individual World Poetry Slam. He actually performed the poem I chose to record for you, and I remember just crying in the audience and thinking, Wow, he gets it. Later, he made it to the finals stage, and he performed a poem called “Haunt Me”, which is about the repression of traumatic memories, and again, I was left bawling and feeling like someone had put it all into words. That’s when I truly fell in love with poetry, I think. That’s when I gained my voice as a poet.

To answer your second question, I think I stumbled upon his work on Button Poetry, right before his book was published. The video was called “It Was the Winter…”, and I remember just being mesmerized by it.

Sundress: This is a heavy poem and I think it does some important work. What do you think makes “The Story” so effective?

Lydia Havens: “The Story” is real. That’s pretty much the only word I can use to describe it. There are no frills, no sugar in this poem, as it should be with a poem about childhood sexual violence. I know when I first started writing about my own trauma I was so scared to just flat out say, I was lured into a child pornography ring. My parents didn’t even know for years. So when I heard Hieu say at iWPS, I never told my mother I was molested, that was what got me to take a step back and just exhale, because like I said for the first question, that was the moment when I realized somebody gets it. I think, as poets and as readers, we all have that poem that hits home on an huge level. Well, this is that poem for me, and I’m sure it’s many other CSA survivors’ poem. But even if you’re not a survivor, even if you just realize that this should not happen to anybody, it’s effective because you can realize that these “stories” follow us everywhere. To school, to work, to the grocery store, to our favorite restaurants, and all the way back home. That’s when people, the lucky ones who have never experienced this, stop and think about what they can do.

Sundress: I agree, this poem acts as a big stop sign to get people to really listen to a real problem in our society. For me, I found the second listen extremely chilling. “We all know this story,” had a more ominous current knowing now what was coming. Because, although this is true, we do all know this story, it wasn’t the story I was picturing. Nguyen played on those expectations. Listening a second time, I realized how quickly I, too, was willing to allow the narrative to end at being just a ‘phase’ or a family joke; how unaware we are sometimes of the untold stories.

How does “The Story” compare to the rest of This Way to the Sugar?

Lydia Havens: This Way to the Sugar is one of my favorite books in general. “The Story” is one of many poems in the book about childhood sexual abuse. There’s a series of poems, which are all titled “Teacher’s Pet”, which talks more in depth about his own trauma. The book also talks about racism, homophobia, and a few other topics which for some reason I’m having a hard time describing. The final poem of the book is called “Nostophobia”, which leaves me sobbing every time. It’s about how he’s not afraid of losing his mother, but rather “of no longer being a son // to have to attend a funeral // without her”. Something about that strikes every chord inside me with something incredibly heavy. It just leaves me grief-stricken.

Sundress: What about Nyugen’s treatment of language do you think makes his writing such a powerful vehicle to tell these stories?

Lydia Havens: I’ve heard lots of writers (even poets!) call metaphors “frills” or “sugarcoats”, and I just don’t agree with that at all (most of the time). Metaphors can not only enhance a poem, but also become a fluid part of it. Nguyen does this so easily. There’s a line from another one of his poems, “I’m the one who buried everything that had a face” (from “Dear Friend (for JD)”, which is in This Way to the Sugar). It is such a gut-punch of an ending for the poem, but it’s also (for lack of a much better word) effortless. I really admire how whenever I read one of his poems, I think to myself, That’s a REALLY good way to put that! Why didn’t I think of that?

Sundress: Please share your favorite Nguyen performance with us.

Lydia Havens: My favorite is actually another I’ve seen live, and is also about childhood sexual abuse. It’s called “Haunt Me”. This is from the Individual World Poetry Slam Finals in 2014 (I’m one of those cheering voices at the end):

Sundress: For those who enjoy Nguyen, which other spoken word poets would you recommend?

Lydia Havens: Oh gosh, so many! Danez Smith, Ariana Brown, Sara Brickman, Rhiannon McGavin, Tonya Ingram, and Olivia Gatwood. They’re all amazing.

Lydia HavensLydia Havens is a 17-year-old poet and performer from Tucson, AZ. Their work has previously been published in Words Dance, Persephone’s Daughters, The Fem, Drunk in a Midnight Choir, and The Harpoon Review, among other places. They are the 2015 Women of the World Poetry Slam Youth Champion, and the author of the forthcoming chapbook GIRLS INVENT GODS. Lydia currently works for Wicked Banshee Press. They have been winging their eyeliner for over two years now, and still can’t get it even. You can find out more about them at their website,