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Voice against violence

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — One of the true-crime poems in Olivia Gatwood’s hard-hitting debut collection “Life of the Party —— Poems” is about the still unidentified West Mesa Bone Collector, believed to have killed 11 brown and black women and a fetus.

In the free-verse poem “Body Count: 13,” Gatwood writes, “Maybe it was a person/who thought they were doing the Lord’s work/murdering prostitutes/addicts and burying them/in a shallow grave.”

In the subsequent poem “Eubank & Candelaria, 2009,” Gatwood briefly returns to the subject: “I always thought it was a misnomer ——/collector —— decorative and terrifying/but inaccurate. The name/made it sound like a hobby.”

They are among a number of poems in the book examining violence and victims of violence and courageously exploring her own sexuality and queerness as she came of age.

“I found it important to tell my own story, that this is normal, that this can be beautiful and can just be part of life. I struggled with being so open. It was a way of coming out,” Gatwood said in a phone interview.

The 27-year-old Gatwood, who grew up in Albuquerque and graduated from Albuquerque High School, said some of the bones were discovered on the West Mesa when she was a teenager.

“Some were of the same or a close age,” she said. “It changes your relation to freedom, to your community. So it’s very personal to me that they were found in my hometown, and not found for 10 years.”

Had 11 white women vanished, rather than women of color, the police would have quickly said it was a serial crime, Gatwood contended.

In the book’s acknowledgements, one of the many people she thanks is “Ms. Bernstein … for seeing something in me that took much longer to see in myself.”

Gatwood identified “Ms. Bernstein” as Sara Bernstein, an English teacher at Albuquerque High and “sort of director of the poetry club and our biggest cheerleader.

“As a student I was kind of a pain in the butt. She whipped me into shape. She said, ‘This is your skill. You can either take it seriously as a craft or you’re going to fail.’ She gave me the motivation I needed. She said, ‘I want you to do this because I know you can.’ It felt like a harsh love I needed as a teenager,” Gatwood added.

Another woman who advocates for Gatwood is Mackenzie Brady Watson, her literary agent. “She changed my understanding of myself as a writer. … She took a chance on me. She knew I had something. She’s also my editor and my sounding board,” Gatwood said.

Gatwood has come a long way. A resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, she has become an internationally known performance poet who regularly sells out events.

She has published “New American Best Friend” and is working on a novel. Gatwood gives spoken-word workshops and has taught writing workshops and sexual assault prevention workshops.

Tickets are $17 at or at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande NW, or at the door. Admission includes a copy of “Life of the Party” and a free companion ticket.



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