What is the name of the piece that you have in Grabbed?
Daughter, They’ll Use Even Your Own Gaze to Wound You
What was the inspiration for your piece? What compelled you to write it?
I was in a conversation with a group of women friends, talking about times we’d be accosted or assaulted by men. I brought up the subject of exhibitionism, because there are three times in my life when a man has exposed his genitals to me. I’ve always been curious about other women’s experiences with how frequently this occurs. The majority of the women (there were seven of us) had been the victim of exhibitionism.
After this conversation, I kept replaying the three incidents, all very different both in their setting and in my reactions. The first time, I was a high school girl, in a library, and I felt exceedingly upset and violated. I didn’t tell anyone and didn’t know how to process what I’d been forced to see. The second time, I was with my friends, and we’d been drinking, and when the man exposed himself to us, we laughed, and the whole incident felt much less scary and traumatizing. And the third time, I was in grad school, and in a park, training for a half marathon. And when the man exposed himself to me, I just kept running at my same pace, determined to finish my training run and not give him the pleasure of seeing me look shocked or upset.
In the weeks after the conversation, I kept thinking about two things. The first is, I realized I still had some processing to do. I think I was conflicted about my feelings of violation because I kept telling myself “No one touched you, you’re fine, it’s not a big deal” but at the same time I knew that violence had occurred and that I had been forced to experience something I didn’t want. The second thing I was thinking about is that the pattern of my reactions also conveys how sexual violence of any sort is an attempt to beat you down and dehumanize you, and it had worked in the respect that the third time my reaction was so much smaller than the first time, as if it’s reasonable to live in a world where this happens.
Why did you choose this particular form or genre for this piece?
I was thinking about the tidy box of the Shakespearean sonnet, a form I love—how there are three examples of a problem or situation, and a tidy couplet that resolves the problem or reverses the statement. So my piece became a secret deconstructed sonnet—three examples that don’t get reversed or resolved. The couplet show that the tidy box is broken, as the lesson of “what women know” gets reinforced. This couplet even rhymes. I don’t expect the reader to know what I’m doing with this deconstructed sonnet, but it was useful for me.
Can you speak to the evolution of writing your piece? How long did it take you to write this piece, including revision?
After I wrote the piece, I knew there was one more layer to what I wanted to do with it, and I realized that layer comes from the world outside the poem, the fact that we not only inhabit a world where violence is done to women but we inherit this world from our mothers. And I thought about my pre-teen daughter, and how chances are good that she too will experience some type of the ugliness and brutality that many women experience and then are blamed for. And that these three acts of violence were done to me merely because I have eyes. So in a revision I thought of the title, “Daughter, They’ll Use Even Your Own Gaze to Wound You.”
How can a publication such as Grabbed help to empower or heal readers?
Because women are often blamed for being the victim, they metabolize shame. But reading of others’ experiences reminds us we’re not alone, and together we can support each other and redefine “what women know.”
Beth Ann Fennelly, a 2020 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow, is the poet laureate of Mississippi and teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Mississippi. She’s won grants and awards from the N.E.A., the United States Artists, a Pushcart, and a Fulbright to Brazil. Fennelly has published three books of poetry and three of prose, most recently, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, which was a Goodreaders Favorite and an Atlanta Journal Constitution Best Book. She lives with her husband, Tom Franklin, and their three children In Oxford, MS. https://www.bethannfennelly.com/