What is the name of the piece that you have in Grabbed?
"What We Did This Year" and "Date Grape"
What was the inspiration for your piece? What compelled you to write it?
"What We Did This Year" was written amid the deluge of #MeToo stories my friends were sharing on social media. I remember that so many of us felt, at that time, a kind of insidious anguish about this lifelong phenomenon, finally more fully named by Tarana Burke, the founder of #MeToo. Yes, we always share these stories with our friends—"Guess what happened to me when I was walking from the car just now to get coffee with you?" or "Have I ever told you that weird story about my college boyfriend?"—but for so many friends to spell out their stories at once was more than just triggering; it was being plunged into cold water and held down by the same man we all knew and had never been unafraid of. We couldn't laugh off any of the stories like we sometimes do. We had to sit with them.
"What We Did This Year" was written on hour-long shuttle bus rides I took between the distant campuses of Florida International University during graduate school. I used these bus rides as my writing time. There were usually as many passengers as there were seats, so I often sat next to a stranger. One day, the guy sitting next to me fell fast asleep, and as the bus snaked down I-95, taking a curvy detour near the airport, the sleeping man flopped over into my chair, my personal space. Squeezed into the corner of the seat I was entitled to, I wondered what it would be like to experience as much comfort in public as this man seemed to. I also wondered why it felt so hard for me to wake him up, why even the thought of stirring him caused me anxiety, as if I would have been the one invading his space.
I very often think of something that happened while I was taking a walk as a teenager in Milwaukee. I liked taking very long walks by myself in high school because it represented the freedom I so desperately wished for. I didn't have a car. I had pink hair at the time. A man who claimed he was a hairdresser complimented my hair, my clothes (to be complimented was also something I desperately wanted), and gestured to his parked van. I was four or five miles from my house. He told me he would drive me anywhere I wanted to go.
Luckily, I didn't get into the van and never saw the man again, but I didn't tell anyone about the incident until I was an adult because I was afraid it would mean I would not be allowed to take walks by myself anymore. I knew that the reaction would be a clamp-down on my small teenage freedoms instead of an acknowledgement of what I believed to be the truth: I had proven my strength, my ability to exit that situation successfully. Of course, it wasn't my fault that the situation happened, and it wouldn't have been my fault, either, if I had taken the man up on his offer of a ride. What kind of adult man tries to pick up teenage girls?
A decade later, I was an adult working with young people, still in Milwaukee. Some of the teenage girls in our program said that men in cars came to the bus stop after the youth program was over, targeting these girls they knew would be waiting to take public transit home. These men were offering them rides and all sorts of other things. Nothing had changed. But also, something had: I was glad that the girls felt comfortable telling us what had happened, and that they knew we would believe them. We were able to figure out a solution together.
I very often think about a walk I took with a friend to a shelter, once. This friend had been kidnapped by a boyfriend who turned out to be an abusive pimp. He'd taken her from Milwaukee to Chicago, but she had found her way back. It was the dead of winter. There was a lot of snow on the ground.
"They are everywhere," she said. She was walking sideways, looking all around her as if the abusive boyfriend had spies in the trees. She was trying to hide her face behind the collar of her winter coat. We got to the shelter and she disappeared inside. I walked back through the snow alone, under the darkening sky. "What We Did This Year" is for all of us, the survivors and the witnesses.
"Date Grape" is a poem written from a fount of unending anger. In 2016, a man named Jeremy Bergener submitted a rape-themed suggestion to a crowd-sourced beer recipe contest at MobCraft Brewery in Milwaukee. It was made from dates and grapes and called "Date Grape." MobCraft changed the name suggestion to "Dates & Grapes" on their website until public scrutiny caused them to finally take the whole thing down.
I'll admit that I snooped on Jeremy Bergener's Facebook page at the time of the incident because I wondered, what kind of person makes a joke like this? I discovered several comments from Bergener's father voicing his support of his son's rape humor. I couldn't say it was surprising.
This was right around the time of not only the 2016 election, but another incident in which a bar owner named Jay Stamates published a disturbing ad for his bar, Sabatic. In the ad, Stamates posed in his underwear (yes, his underwear) next to a dumpster while holding a beer and a cigarette. Published in Milwaukee's alt weekly, the text of this ad read, "Our back alley: Where 50% of Bradley Tech [High School] pregnancies begin and end." The bar is about two blocks away from the high school.
I don't think I need to explain the multitude of ways in which this ad was offensive, but at the time, I knew several women, including an entertainment journalist, who spent a ton of energy defending Stamates on social media. He did attempt to make an apology, but I do not accept it.
I wanted to write a letter to these men from my teenage girl self, my pro-choice self, my adult beer drinking self, myself as a witness to the ways men elevate and support each other through abusive language. Women's lives and happiness are their collateral damage, but to these men, it's incidental. They're laughing at each other's jokes already, anyway.
"Date Grape" and "Our back alley: Where 50% of Bradley Tech pregnancies begin and end": both of the incidents that necessitated my poem consist of men using language to control, punish, and re-injure girls and women under the threadbare, flimsy, belittling guise of humor.
How can a publication such as Grabbed help to empower or heal readers?
I am always thinking about Muriel Rukeyser's lines from her poem "Kathe Kollwitz": "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?/ The world would split open."
One of the vast number of gifts feminism has given me is the chance to read the stories of other humans working for a healed world. Anthologies were essential to me as a teenager when I was first learning about models for a life. Reading has split my world open countless times, and it's why I continue to devote so much of my time and energy to language. I know that Grabbed will do this for readers, and I hope it will encourage them to tell their own stories, especially the ones they're figuring out how to tell for the first time.
Freesia McKee is author of the chapbook How Distant the City (Headmistress Press, 2018). Her words have appeared in cream city review, The Feminist Wire, Painted Bride Quarterly, CALYX, Gertrude, So to Speak, Nimrod International Journal, and the Ms. Magazine Blog. She lives in North Miami. Find her online at FreesiaMcKee.com or on Twitter at @FreesiaMcKee.