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Unlocking Our Imaginations: An Interview with Petra Kuppers

MQR’s Online Series, “Celebrating Writers in Our Community,” is inspired by our upcoming special-themed issue, “Why We Write.” The series of interviews is a celebration of the diversity of Southeast Michigan writers, their talents, their motivations for writing, and their significance to our community. 

Petra Kuppers is a disability culture activist and a community performance artist. She creates participatory community performance environments that think/feel into public space, tenderness, site-specific art, access and experimentation. Petra grounds herself in disability culture methods, and uses ecosomatics, performance, and speculative writing to engage audiences toward more socially just and enjoyable futures.

Petra received the American Society for Theatre Research’s best dance/theatre book award, the National Women’s Caucus for the Arts’ Award for Arts and Activism, and her performance poetry collection Gut Botany was named one of the top ten US poetry books of 2020 by the New York Public Library. 

She is the Artistic Director of The Olimpias, an international disability culture collective, and co-creates Turtle Disco, a somatic writing studio, with her wife, poet and dancer Stephanie Heit, from their home in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Her next academic book project, Eco Soma: Pain and Joy in Speculative Performance Encounters, will appear with the University of Minnesota Press in early 2022.

Lillian Pearce (LP): Where do you find intersections between performance and the act of writing? How do you involve readers in your work?  

Petra Kuppers (PK): I am a community performance artist, and many of my poems and stories operate as scores: as invitations toward sensation, as transportation mechanisms, combining somatic (embodied) attention and speculative modes of imagining difference. With ‘score’ here, I refer to the performance and visual arts forms used by artists like Kurt Schwitters, John Cage, and Yoko Ono: notations for experiences arranged in time.

Let me give you an example: in one of my poems in Gut Botany, I am using a Situationist technique, drifting (or dérive), to explore a performance space, Light Box in Detroit. The book came out during the pandemic in March 2020, and even now, as I am writing this in April 2021, I have not performed it in front of a three-dimensional audience with the book in hand. When I perform the poem now, I invite my listeners to get up from their seats, move out of their zoom squares, and let the words drift over them as they let their eyes or hands roam over their space. The poem begins with two questions: “What hides under the chairs? What sighs under the upholstery?” and I can often see how people use this initial instruction to change position, to see their space differently by bending low and peering under their furniture. This reorientation seems delicious to me. When I invite people to engage in a free write, let their minds and words swing after witnessing Gut Botany, and then share fragments in the Zoom chat, these moments often come back in intriguing transformations. Furniture becomes a portal site, a place of transformation.

Toward the end of the poem, the ceiling similarly becomes a site of focus shift and Afrofuturist memory: “the theatre anthropologist/in her Sun Ra door blinds sashays across the ceiling tiles scattered/by a hurricane.” Watching my audience, I can see people looking up at their ceilings, tracing moldings, and the top of windows. The infrastructure of our lives comes into view and is made strange. 

By thinking of these poems as invitations and scores, as open-ended instructions for how to see and feel one’s self in space, I hope to activate new perspectives. And that’s for me the hinge into social change: if we can rethink living arrangements and sense outward from our familiar ways of doing things, we can begin to address the reality of climate catastrophe, the ongoing effects of white supremacist thinking, of an economy, based on extraction, and more. Unlocking our imaginations and finding those imaginations grounded in our bodies seems to be the prerequisite for any action. 

When I lead workshops in the flesh, in the field, I invite drifting as a form of sensing, as an antenna-tuning that allows for a new relationship to history, to one’s sense of self, to the present, and to possible futures. For a post-conference workshop at the Association for Literature and the Environment, my collaborator Stephanie Heit and I took people on a gentle walk (or for me, a wheel) through the botanical gardens at the University of California, Davis: engaging with plants and lands that have known fire and floods, and charting sensations as we touched hard seed pods and leathery leaves. Among us were people who know of the Indigenous names and healing uses of the plants we touched, others were environmental scientists who could feed in how plant life had changed with the advent of agriculture, yet others came from elsewhere on the globe and told of similar plants and stories associated with them. 

All these influences, stories, and sensations can combine into writing nuggets when all of us sit down and free write. Writing in community with human and non-human others, aware of the much-longer-than-human stories of the land, is a great mechanism to think outside of oneself: excellent seeds for new and kinder futures.

LP: Your latest work, “Gut Botany,” focuses on living on indigenous land. Can you speak on the importance of writing about space? More generally, how does this latest collection of poems connect to your geographical experience as a Michigan writer? 

PK: To answer this, I’ll take us back a bit to my own homeland. Where I grew up in Germany, in a small village on the Niederrhein, every creek and riverlet was alive, had invisible creatures living in it. My sensorium shaped itself around this secure knowledge of an animate and magical world, my imagination fed by literature, and my developing ethical understanding of what it meant to come from a perpetrator nation and the debt that imposes on oneself. 

This range of influences shaped my basic orientation to the world, and it offered me entry into other societies that honor different kinds of Indigenous ways of knowing and asks people to be mindful of ancestry and obligation: I lived in Wales for a decade and was a community dance artist in Aotearoa, New Zealand. 

Now, living in Michigan, I seek out and appreciate Anishinaabe contemporary literary and creative forms. I learned about Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwe language, taking two semesters of the language at the University of Michigan with Anishinaabe elders Howard Kimewon and Alphonse Pitawanakwat. Poet and linguist Margaret Noodin, whose recent book is the bilingual Gijigijigaaneshi Gikendaan (Wayne State University Press, 2020), helped me understand the connections between language and land, grammar, and being-in-the-world. I learned, for instance, about the importance of verb-forms over nouns—of being-with, being-in-process, being-alive-together. Noodin, and other writers like Kimberly Blaeser (of Anishinaabe and German heritage), show me ways to think about permeable selves and processes in the natural world. I am also using the website resource my teaching: a great resource for introducing people to the living language.

These grammatical insights about relation are now something that I try to reflect, in English, in my poetry about being with the land. For me, poetry and performance are ways to live respectfully in Michigan, as a white settler, in good relation with humans and all the creatures that have made this place home for a long time.

The German language shares with Anishinaabemowin patterns of agglutination: shaping new words by adding and extending morphemes. This feels like a different conceptual approach than partitioning and categorizing. Mouthing words, I can contemplate these grammars, the effects of the violences of German, English, and other colonizers; and concepts like Anishinaabe writer Gerard Vizenor’s survivance. Poems of touch can emerge and hold tensions, questions, and energetic trajectories. 

As someone who is writing in her second language, I am fascinated by conceptual moves embedded in different language patterns. I enjoy the counterpoint between insecure language inhabitation and how my disabled and often painful body tentatively and gently moves on the land. This is where I end for now in my musings on being a white settler poet on Indigenous land: finding energy and inspiration in unsettled language and unsettled moves.

LP: In reference to the act of writing or the writing life, how do you think about community? 

PK: My wife Stephanie Heit and I co-direct Turtle Disco, a somatic writing studio in Ypsilanti. It’s our living room, repurposed into a community room—and it’s friendly and wide-open look is the reason we bought the house (well, that, and the hot tub). After a decade of being on the road, working as a performance artist, it was time to find a local community. Another inspiration for me was Donna Haraway’s eighth chapter in Staying with the Trouble, a chapter born out of a creative writing collaboration, where she and her collaborators envision life after the apocalypse, small numbers of people who come together to live in the ruins and find new ways forward, hopeful, solar-punk style. 

Our first Turtle Disco event took place at the first Ypsi Pride Festival, a small community-based event that didn’t yet have sponsors or much business presence and where small local organizations like ourselves were able to set up a booth for free. We put up a table and a bunch of comfy camping chairs, put an urn of tea out, and called it the Queer Crip Pussy Poets’ Rest Stop (we had marched as the ‘QueerCrip Pussy Poets’ at the Traverse City Women’s March earlier that year). Our rest stop felt quite magical—we offered people a place to chill down from the Pride energy, and we invited them to select poetry by queer authors. When we saw someone reading a book by a friend, we asked them if we might take their picture to send to the author. Most said yes. And some didn’t. We heard moving stories about not being out in small-town Michigan, about the importance of Pride, about parents and chosen family. From this initial event, we launched writing and movement sessions in Turtle Disco itself, including Queer Dreaming, a trance/writing series that began on the anniversary of the Pulse tragedy. 

People came to us by foot, with bicycles, by bus, and by car, and we sat together and wrote or moved in the studio and dreamed up new friendship patterns together. Now, years later, since March 2020, i.e., when the pandemic began, we host a thriving number of weekly disability-led events online, including our Kaffeeklatsch Zoomshell (a mash-up of the German word for sitting around with coffee and cake, and a turtle-appropriate making-do with Zoom), and the Crip Magic Zoomshell. 

In our Crip Magic sessions, we read published disabled (or disability-adjacent) writers’ poems, discuss them, and then write from prompts Stephanie and I develop from the week’s poems. Recent poets whose work we have discussed include Danez Smith, Roxanna Bennett, Bob Kaufman, Evelyn Lau, Maura Alia Badji, and Shira Erlichman.

Most Crip Magic sessions have 8-12 people in them. This intimacy allows people to enter who try out new forms of being: we often have one or two recently disabled people among us, using Turtle Disco as a gateway to new creative life inventions. We build knowledge and engagement with disability culture forms and offer sites for ongoing creative work. For me, these free writes in our Zoomshell are currently the main creative moments in my week: that’s where poems and stories get born now, clicking away in company. 

Both Stephanie and I also enjoy being part of other writing communities: she’s a current fellow of Zoeglossia, a literary organization of disabled writers, and I am a fellow of the Black Earth Institute, an organization that focuses on relations between writing, the environment, and spirituality. I also participate in a feminist collective, Belladonna, centered in NYC, and we both are part of a small ecopoetry writing group. Our work is nourished by community energies, and we try to do our part to build this web.

LP: What are you working on right now? 

I am currently working on a new poetry project, an ecopoetic approach to changing land-use and women’s navigation of space, based on the terrible Michigan Murders of young women in 1968-69. The murderer was finally apprehended because of evidence in the murder house, which is just a few houses down from where I now live, in Ypsilanti.

Here is a poem from the new series, presented as part of Noon Poems by the Institute for the Humanities — and as you can hear, my German background informs my approach to land, storytelling, and gender: