Who let the CAT out of the bag?

Olivia Gatwood’s poem ‘Ode to the women on Long Island’ doesn’t bother beating around the bush. It is fierce, unapologetic, and has feminism slapped on it like a warning sign. When taken in conjunction with a follow up interview by Newsdaily, we get a glimpse into why Gatwood structures her poem as a conversation with her imagined interlocuters. The communicative adjustments hardwired into the structure of this piece sheds light on both the poet’s attitudes to her audience and to her imagined interlocutors. Howard Giles’ (2016) CAT theory, known more formally as the communication accommodation theory, is used to analyse Gatwood’s structural choices as well her communicative intentions. Gatwood also pays attention to the notion of audience design – her imagined interlocuters are not the only influence on her stylistic choices.

Although the poem’s content is filled with nothing but awe for the ‘women on Long Island’, I can’t help but wonder why her delivery is not completed fully in the Long Island accent. It would seem more logical to converge towards those conversational partners whom we hold positive feelings for. Yet, this case is a perfect example of the disparity between psychological and linguistic accommodation (Giles et al, 2016). For instance, when the poet comes ‘out of character’ her accent switches back to her own whereas, whenever she needs to impersonate her interlocuter she puts on a very convincing Long Island accent. Check it out! You will be fooled for sure. To solve this mystery, we can take a look at the interview between Newsdaily and Olivia Gatwood.

Ode to the Women on Long Island:

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To the question: ‘Why did you decide to perform this piece in an accent?’ The poet replies that she was inspired by the way these women carry themselves – they are not afraid of having opinions nor do they stereotypically feel the need to stay quiet. Perhaps the most striking comment she makes is that these women never had “to learn” how a woman is “supposed” to behave and this is carried in their voices.

This is precisely why I feel the poet chooses to diverge from her interlocuters in this imagined conversation. For the poet, these women are an enigma, they are loud and boisterous with an unwavering resolve and more importantly they are something she aspires to be like. These feelings of reverence and respect are the reasons she diverges from these women – just as all fans in a particular fandom do! Her motives are to draw complete attention to the women of Long Island because it has to be all about them. In distancing her speech, she singles out these women and highlights their awesomeness to the audience. The poet shows psychological convergence by emphasizing and positively evaluating outgroup values; therefore, her intention is to accommodate to her interlocuters. Yet, this is only made possible through linguistic divergence – in other words Gatwood wants to appear favourably to her interlocuters but she achieves this goal by distancing her speech.

The poet’s choices can also be influenced by members of the audience – Gatwood wants the audience to let go of any preconceived biases and to see these women as she sees them which is why she gives these women their own platform to perform on. The poet’s aim is not only to share her experiences but to place these women in the spotlight and to make their lives, experiences, attitudes and belief systems a living example for other women to follow suite.

Dragoyevic, Marko, Jessica Gasiorek and Howard Giles. 2016. Accommodative strategies as core of the theory. In Howard Giles (ed.), Communication Accommodation Theory: Negotiating Personal Relationships and Social Identities Across Contexts, pp. 36-59. Cambridge: Cambridge University press

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