Last year I went on a few book buying binges. In one of my hauls, I purchased a book of poetry called ‘New American Best Friend’ by Octavia Gatwood.
I like poetry, but don’t read it often. Every time I do, I think I should read more because I enjoy it. Poetry feels much like music – the “story” tends to be in snippets of emotional impact, often without the form or structure of a chronological story. It’s not comprised of facts. It’s not deprived of facts. You have to sit with poetry a bit, digest it slowly before it can be realized.
The majority of the poems in ‘New American Best Friend’ revolve around a coming-of-age theme. Such stories are popular in a lot of fiction no matter the audience age. They are the demonstration of how a person came to be who they are and ultimately help us understand ourselves, which is the key to any good story. Even if the tale being told resembles nothing like our own life, becoming a person is something we can all relate to. I’ve always found that if a coming of age story has good bones, it will likely resonate.
I recently read some reviews (aka. Goodreads comments) that criticized Gatwood’s work, calling it ‘period poetry’ and that no one thought it made her special. I have to wonder what makes other women so angry about a poem to feel the need to leave a review like that.
While unsurprising, it saddens me to think we still have a such a stigma about female bodies and that the thought of those bodies growing from childhood to adulthood is somehow shameful or gross. The misogyny colliding with the objectification of women is so routine and so ingrained, that it hardly makes a ripple.
If the idea of period poetry is abhorrent to you – have you considered why? I’m not talking about a casual dismissal where it’s simply not interesting. I’m not particularly interested myself, but it doesn’t disturb me to read about it. It doesn’t offend me. And questioning why it’s embarrassing – well, that isn’t new either.
So yes, the first poem in this collection might’ve turned off some readers. I cannot imagine that wasn’t intentional. I applaud the poet for putting it right out there in front. It’s like saying ‘if you can’t handle this, you can’t really handle me’. Forewarned is forearmed and you can’t say she didn’t warn you.
One of the poems is ‘Ode to My Bitch Face’, which I had first encountered while browsing poetry slams on YouTube – a pandemic hobby of mine which is the thread that brought me to this book. This poem reignited in me all the anger I’ve ever felt when someone says “why don’t you smile” while simultaneously letting me know I’m not alone in feeling so judged and on display- under surveillance. There’s a sisterhood out there and we can commiserate.
Parts of ‘Ode to My Bitch Face’ remind me of that famous quote attributed to Margaret Atwood that ‘men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them’. Whenever I mention that quote, I know some feel I’m being overly dramatic – but it’s a hard truth and this is the society we really do live in. Women do spend an incredible amount of energy to maintain a feeling of safety in every day life.
While I’m not sure I can wrap up on a happy note, nor can I say I particularly enjoyed all the poems, they did leave an impact.
They made me consider and reflect.
They made me angry, they made me laugh, they made me feel a little sad and a little less alone.
And isn’t that the point of poetry anyway?