Poem of the Week | April 23, 2018

This week, we are excited to present a new poem by Olivia Gatwood. Gatwood is a poet and educator from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her performances have been featured on HBO, BBC, Nylon, and The Guardian. Her poems have been published or are forthcoming in Poetry City U.S.A, Muzzle Magazine, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and Winter Tangerine, among others. She is the author of the bestselling collection, New American Best Friend (Button Poetry, 2017). She currently lives in Boston.

Gatwood was a finalist for the Missouri Review‘s 2017 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize.


some girls were seasoned in sex,
visibly bored when the conversation
lingered around foreplay but never
nosedived beyond it. some girls
had done it, but with their boyfriends
who were still boys & still loved them
which made it not count.
it didn’t matter if you were a virgin
or not, it mattered how you used it,
like currency, a sack of nickels
on the bar top. it was before any of us
believed we were good at anything
so we became good at our bodies,
at talking about them like we were
greyhound bitches, lean & itching
to break through the race.
before either of us had sex,
jordan & i showed up to the skate park
in plaid skirts with no panties
& the boys took turns sticking
their faces underneath, like small
children lining up behind a telescope,
giddy for a suddenly reachable universe.
jordan brought a disposable camera
& the boys snapped photos of their skirt-submerged
heads, us with our hands over our mouths
like newborn marilyns, cock-kneed & flustered.
who knows what we got from it, maybe a loosie
or a ride or the chance to finish a sentence
& then took the camera to the pharmacy on 4th street,
where the middle-aged woman printed each glossy
still & we paid in nickels & she didn’t ask any questions
& we hovered over them, our chests hot and skittish
laying the best ones out like tarot cards promising
a good future. but soon we grew bored of our own faces,
grew out of our old bodies & threw the photos away.
my father found them in the trash that week
& left them on the kitchen table for me to find.
they looked foreign against my mother’s tablecloth,
& i remember questioning if they were even me.
he pondered over them like a poker deck,
selected one, carefully, of me & a headless boy, let it dangle
between his thumb & forefinger, waited a moment
for me to drink it in, to look myself in the eye,
& then asked who i was.

Author’s Note:

“Gamble” is a poem I’ve written over and over again–mostly in the form of small anecdotes–stories that reflected the same idea of the way virginity and sex is tacked onto teen girls as an identity, but never once named explicitly. I am routinely inspired by the balancing act that is the “virgin/whore paradigm” as I’ve heard it called, and the kind of unrecognized skill it takes to navigate it, especially as a young person.
I was always in awe of how my middle school best friend Jordan managed to present herself as both a fetish and a fantasy. I wanted to be like her–not compromise my reputation as “respectable” but also make men imagine what it might be like to have me. But as I grew older, my gaze shifted. I started thinking critically about the memories of men gawking at our thirteen-year-old bodies–how we never once thought to name them as predators, because as we understood it, their attention was some kind of signifier that we were beautiful and worthwhile. I am struck by all of the things teen girls survive, without even knowing it.
When my father found the photos in the trash and I was forced to look at myself through his eyes, any sense of control I thought I had evaporated. I felt a new smallness. What I thought was my own power was actually someone else’s abuse. I don’t think I’ll ever stop unpacking that kind of disorientation.