Freesia McKee is a working poet. She is a part of the Milwaukee scene — present, attentive and welcoming at poetry events and rallies alike. Her words have appeared in the Huffington Post, Gertrude, Painted Bride Quarterly, Burdock, and Sundress Press’s Political Punch anthology. She co-hosts The Subtle Forces, a weekly morning show on Riverwest Radio in Milwaukee. I met Freesia in at the Public House, a co-operative bar that also serves as a community center for poets and other residents of Riverwest. A mutual friend introduced us by way of saying “If you two don’t know each other, you should.” I am so grateful to have met Freesia before she leaves Milwaukee for an MFA program next year. Though Milwaukee will miss dearly, I’m also excited that she will be entering into an MFA program and that I will get to read all the new poems she will write! I’m also grateful that she took the time answer a few questions about the intersection writing, life, the artist’s responsibilities.
What do you write? How do you write it?
I write poems in small notebooks on the bus, at the kitchen table, in bed when I first wake up, on walks in the city. I “write everyday,” but sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. I keep a couple of notebooks running with notes, observations, ideas, and then I translate those into actual poems usually on the computer. Writing is difficult and it always feels like an accomplishment to finish a draft of a poem.
I also have a radio show with my collaborator and bff Anja Notanja Sieger called “The Subtle Forces” on Riverwest Radio every Wednesday morning. Through literary improvisation, we examine the subtle forces that mess with every aspect of our lives. We do a lot of list making, poeming, and storytelling for the show. Both of us have found that collaborating fuels our creative energies for individual work as well.
Can you tell us a little bit about your roles and how you got there?
My job that pays the bills is working as Outreach Coordinator for ArtWorks for Milwaukee, an organization where high school students learn transferable job skills through arts-based internships. I do grant writing and project coordination. It’s fun.
I don’t have a lot of other formal roles right now, but I do work with other artists around social justice issues. I believe that artists have responsibilities. We are not beholden to nobody, and our art is not divorced from our social context. I’m not saying that every artist needs to present social issues explicitly, but that there are many ways to engage.
Of course, there are ways to not do this, specifically artists who use oppression, pain that is not theirs, and death as currency for their careers. Particularly egregious and well-known examples include white poet Kenny Goldsmith reading Michael Brown’s autopsy on stage in 2015 as some kind of sick performance, and white visual artist Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till in the casket, shown at the Whitney Biennial this month.
Artist Hannah Black wrote an open letter about the Shutz situation, which I recommend reading. Many people have written about the problems associated with using someone else’s pain as “raw material” in a more knowledgeable and eloquent way than I could. What I do want to add here is how disheartening it’s been to talk to white artists and writers in this city who don’t “get it.” They want to talk forever about their victimization and fears of being censored. Some of them seemingly couldn’t care less about white supremacy in the literary and art worlds. To them, white fear of (real or imagined) censorship is more important than the problem of forcing black people to witness or experience murders and torture at the hands of white people (and then again, at the hands of white people with pen and paintbrush).
I type all of this in response to your question to say that my role as a poet is tied to a job we all are called to take on—treating each other with respect as we work for a society devoid of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, domination, and the police-prison-industrial complex.
How do these roles challenge/influence/inspire your writing life?
At a certain point, I had to make the decision to take poetry seriously, which means that I prioritize poetry in my life, sometimes at the expense of other interests or goals. A good question I got asked: If you aren’t serious about poetry, why are you doing it at all? I feel that women poets especially are hesitant to say, I am a poet, so I make sure to say it as much as I can.
Do you have a source of inspiration you turn to regularly?
I don’t know, but sometimes I pull tarot cards and sometimes I walk or bike to Lake Michigan. I attend as many open mics and poetry events as I can, though I’ve been sort of hibernating here for a couple of months. It’s easier to write if I read a lot. I love Sarah Schulman’s newest book Conflict is Not Abuse.
Need to hear more from Freesia McKee? Check out her website. You can also read about her bicycle poetry project or her poem “IF THIS IS MY LAST MESSAGE.”