Caroline Rothstein C’06, the same Caroline Rothstein for whom an annual poetry program at the Kelly Writers House is named, created a video that recently caught Lady Gaga’s attention — and, by extension, the attention of Gaga’s 53 million Facebook fans and 30 million Twitter followers.
Rothstein is a writer and performer who specializes in spoken-word poetry. (Recent grads may have seen her on stage with The Excelano Project, which she directed her junior and senior years at Penn.) She has performed her oral poetry at colleges, schools and other venues around the country, and is also a longtime eating-disorder recovery activist who hosts a Body Empowerment series on YouTube.
Her spoken-word and eating-disorder activism often overlap, as they did with the video Gaga discovered and shared with fans. “Fat”’s powerful message begins immediately, surging from its first three lines: “I am not fat. It took me 22 years to purge words onto a page the same way I purged my body into stomach ulcers, popped eye blood vessels and missing tooth enamel. Twenty-two years to tell the tale of my bulimic, anorexic, and disordered-eating hell.”
Rothstein spoke with us about writing “Fat” as a senior at Penn and about the video’s recent spread. She also discussed some of her other work, including an award-winning one-woman play based on her own experience with and recovery from an eating disorder.
Lady Gaga revealed her own eating-disorder struggles shortly before sharing your video. Do you have any idea how she found “Fat”?
[Last month,] a friend posted an article on my Facebook wall about how Lady Gaga had come out saying she has a history of an eating disorder and then announced, ‘Let’s start a Body Revolution; everyone share your story.’ I went to [Gaga’s website] littlemonsters.com, which I had never heard of before that evening, to see what was going on. By the minute, thousands of people were posting their stories and saying things like, ‘I had anorexia.’ ‘I had bulimia.’ ‘I cut myself.’ ‘This is a picture of my stomach.’ It was so powerful and amazing and I thought, You know what? I’m going to join in. So I posted a link to the video of my poem “Fat” and in the caption I wrote, ‘I’m eight years recovered from a decade-long eating disorder and really grateful to Lady Gaga for being so brave and spearheading this movement.’
I went to sleep. I figured maybe a few fans would see it. Then the next day, I saw all these tweets from Lady Gaga fans saying, ‘We love you. The whole world knows who you are.’ I went and checked [Gaga’s] Twitter page and sure enough, she had tweeted the link. The part I know is that I posted it; the speculation is how, amidst the thousands and thousands of posts, she or whomever came across mine. That’s the part I don’t know.
What sort of response did you experience from people discovering your video?
It’s been amazing. I have all these new fans and followers and supporters, and on [littlemonsters.com] I received hundreds and hundreds of incredible comments. I am so moved and grateful…. I feel awkward just listing all the accolades I was getting, [but] more importantly, a lot of people shared their stories, too, and that’s why I do what I do. That’s why my art is personal and political and that’s why I believe the personal is political. My hope is that we all eliminate the shame surrounding whatever our stories are so that in our honesty we heal ourselves and we heal each other.
“Fat” is such a compelling piece. Can you tell me about the process and experience of writing it?
I wrote it at Penn when I was a second-semester senior. I was 22 years old at the time. While I had been a writer and performer my whole life and I had been publicly speaking about my experience for years, it was so hard to articulate it succinctly. At that point, I was about a year and a half into recovery and I was finally able to concisely articulate my experience in a way that felt manageable, authentic and honest to the severity of the illness and also to the reality of recovery being possible.
[The piece] went through a lot of edits. I vacillated between words and lines for weeks, I remember. I can picture myself actually sitting in Qdoba at the counter window looking out onto Superblock and editing word by word. I wanted it to be accessible, and that’s what this whole Lady Gaga thing has proven to me — that it is the accessible piece I hoped it would be.
At what point did you realize how powerful spoken-word poetry could be for you?
I didn’t know spoken-word existed until I was at Penn. Carlos Andres Gomez had just started The Excelano Project and I saw him perform. I was a freshman and I thought, ‘Now there’s an art form that exists where I can be a writer, performer and activist all at once instead of separately.’ My whole life I’d been a theater kid and a poet and now I had a way to do it all at once. I tried out for Excelano, made it and I was in the group for the rest of Penn.
Spoken-word is so personal and expository. How do you prepare yourself to go on stage and share such intimate thoughts and moments with an audience?
That’s actually always the easiest part for me. Even before spoken word I was publicly speaking about my eating disorder and writing very confessional poetry about depression and bulimia and sexual abuse. To me it feels inherent in who I am as an artist. I don’t know any other way to do it. That’s not a roadblock for me. The roadblock is, Do I have this memorized? That’s always the biggest challenge for me.
And how do you memorize everything?
Everyone has their own thing. I use a lot of old acting techniques. One is lying on my back and breathing each word so I get it in my body. Another is reading it over and over so I have it visually memorized.
Are there things that work well with spoken-word poetry that wouldn’t work as well in written-on-the-page poetry, and vice versa?
Absolutely. I think that’s why there are a lot of poets who struggle on the page who are incredible on-stage and vice versa. Performing gives you an opportunity to let go of grammar and structure, but I personally like to make sure my stuff works on the page before I bring it to the stage. If you read every spoken-word poet’s stuff it all looks different. Some people are like me and take care of how it looks, some just throw it in a paragraph and somehow get the cadence.
I’m in a really big repetition phase right now. I’m working a lot with repeating words and lines and motifs and performance lends itself better to that than the page does.
Tell me about your one-woman play, faith.
I developed it with the support of a director and production company. It debuted in the Culture Project’s Women Center Stage Festival in April here in New York. I did a two-night run and then I did a one-night benefit performance in another social-justice theater festival in New York in June. From there it won Outstanding Production of a Solo Show, so now it’s officially award-winning, which is really exciting for all of us. My producer and director and I are looking into some really incredible opportunities for moving forward with it, so this is really the beginning of its life, I hope.
What else are you working on now?
I tour and perform spoken word at colleges and universities and schools. I also facilitate workshops in writing, performance and empowerment in different schools. I have a Body Empowerment series on YouTube, which I’ve been doing for four years. Any day I’m wearing 50 different hats and multitasking and juggling to crazy degrees. Right now, I’m just working on loads of different projects and also traveling and performing all the time in New York and around the country.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in spoken word since you discovered the art form 10 years ago?
When I started spoken word it was a very adult art form. Very few youths had access to it and it was just starting to pick up in the college world. Now it’s starting in elementary school. That’s the biggest difference — you can grow up wanting to be a spoken-word poet.