Petra Kuppers Interview

Scholar, essayist and poet Petra Kuppers was interviewed by Wordgathering about her recently finished manuscript Disabities Culture Poetry: Pleasure and Difference .

WG: I'd like to talk with you about your upcoming book Disability Culture Poetry. There are an increasing number of excellent collections of poetry by writers with disabilities, but to my knowledge, this is the first book of any kind that specifically discusses disability poetry as a genre. What prompted you to write the book?

PK: It all started with a disability culture class I was teaching in Texas, where I was a visiting fellow at the Institute of Medical Humanities. I was preparing my sessions, and decided that poetry would be a good subject for one of our weeks (others had focused on dance, theatre, disability memoir, ASL art work, etc). And although I love poetry, I never really immersed myself in US crip culture poetry before: most of my poetry reading until recently was in German, actually, which is my first language. So I started to research, and was captivated first by Neil Marcus's "Disabled Country", which seemed to sum up to me so much of what we were talking about in our class, and then by Jim Ferris's "The Poet of Cripples", which I find such a beautiful poem. So I put together a whole sheaf of poems for my class, from many different poets, and we organized a poetry banquet at a local restaurant. I really like reading poetry in appropriate settings: in my university classes here in Michigan, I also like to shift scenes when reading poetry, so I might take my class out into the sunshine, for instance. And in those evenings in Texas, as I was preparing for the banquet, I found myself writing something in response to "The Poet of Cripples": and what I wrote that night became the beginning of the book.

WG: It's interesting that you mention Jim Ferris because Jim has an essay in this issue of Wordgathering, and I'd like to quote something that he says, "Disability poetry can be described by several characteristics: a challenge to stereotypes and an insistence on self-definition; a foregrounding of perspectives of people with disabilities; an emphasis on embodiment, especially atypical embodiment; and alternative techniques and poetics." In the introductory essay in Disability Culture Poetry, you also devote some space to discussing the characteristics or, perhaps I should say, definition, of disability culture poetry. Can you summarize your view of what disability culture poetry? How do you think that it dovetails with Ferris' characterization? Or does it?

PK: To define disability poetry is like trying to define crip culture: it's the tension inherent in these names that gives them their spice. Poems are singular, words at play, but also draw upon our shared languages, common concepts, the echoes of older words and poems in our head. In the same way, a culture is a shared thing, something connecting people, something excluding other people: and yet, isolation is so much part of many disabled people's experience. 'Crip culture': it's a moon on the horizon, an accessible castle in the sky, something we call into being. Yes, at times, it is a description of part of our lives: but often, it is something we move towards. When I look at crip culture poetry, I am fascinated by these things: how to think singularity with commonality, how to name and not name the individual body, how to move against constriction, how to work with existing narratives and find space, how to celebrate and how to protest, how to breathe, how to acknowledge a people, precariously. I like Jim's definition (and cite it, too): and in my book, I play in the "alternative techniques and poetics" part of all that.

WG: Will you elaborate on what you mean by "alternative techniques and poetics"? Can you cite a few examples that you used in your book? Were there any of these that surprised you or caught you a bit off guard?

PK: Oh, much caught me off guard. Why else read poetry? I love poems where rhythm, meter, concepts, words make unexpected leaps, strike me differently, and chime with my own crip aesthetic. As a woman living with pain and fatigue, I know how complex and interesting bodily sensations can be, and I read poems that open up these complexities for me. For instance, in Karen Fiser's work, pain is not the solidly negative experience it so often is in a lot of work by non-disabled people: pain, a halt in speech, instead becomes a moment where attention can be focused, where a single moment opens up, blooms, and sensations fill a space. In one of her poems, Still Life with Open Window, this magical thing happens. Here is one of the stanzas:

Time spent in pain exists absolutely, without structure,
demarcation or relief, it is all one color,
like winter's rainy sfumato inscriptions on gray.
Meanwhile, the other, inner life goes on, unwitnessed,
the shadow a tree makes on the wall, rippling like water.

There are such interesting colors in the words, in the shape the words make in my mind, and they all echo with and rewrite the meaning of sfumato, smoky, layered: there is a richness here, in nuance, not mono-colored, but delicately smeared, 'rippling like water'. The poem moves precisely from 'all one color' to the specific, small instances of change that are all held within the moment of pain, and the last lines of the poem are:

They will have to be connected
by what flowers within the moments themselves.
each moment must expand to hold this infinite, unexpected joy.

In this poem, the formal qualities, the rhythm of the words mitigate gently against a dissolve, a static absence of sensation, and calmly negates the singularity that so many non-disabled people think pain is. Pain is unspeakable, maybe, but very much communicable in crip poetry.

WG: One of the essays in your book involves poetry slams. I'm making an uneducated guess that many of our readers don't attend poetry slams on a regular basis and wondered if you would comment on what slams can contribute to disability poetry or what opportunities they might provide for poets with disabilities?

PK: Slams and crip culture cabarets are forms that allow people to share their art practice in relatively low-key, non-competitive environments. The crip culture poetry slams I know are not competitive (which many other slams are, of course): no one tries to out-poem someone else, and the poems are not improvised. Instead, the crip poetry slams I know allow for people to come together and read out their work to others who provide support and appreciation. When I recently held a poetry reading at my local Center for Independent Living, I invited audience members to each bring a poem of their own. It is both fun and moving to share our experiences that way. Poetry can work in many different ways: while I very much enjoy literary complex poetry, I also appreciate listening to poems as direct personal expressions, where form is given to pain, joy, isolation and community. Poems can hold these tensions and contradictions so much better than most other art forms, I find.

WG: Petra, in reading poetry of Stephen Kuusisto, Tom Andrews, Karen Fiser, Sheila Black one of the things that strikes me is the uniqueness of their individual perceptions and the richness of the insights they have to offer as a result of their individual experiences. At the same time, there is real thrust within disability studies for writers with disabilities to be seen as a community - as part of a movement. Do you see any tension between a writer trying to maintain her artistic integrity/vision and at the same time meeting the political expectations of a broader community? Although it isn't an exact analogy, I think of the often heard accusation that some African American writers "aren't black enough."

PK: Disability culture has so little openly available history, and a desire to find cultural forms that speak to community building, celebration and group cohesion is more than understandable: it is vital. I am not sure if it is disability studies that drives this agenda - I think the driving force is the mounting pressure of disabled people who have come to see themselves as a minority identity group. That seems to me to be the issue here: of course there have always been poets with disabilities. But the poets who embrace disability culture, see it as one facet of their working practice, understand the contradictory and paradox draws of that identification. Disability is singular, individual, and yet also shared. A label can be a cage and a rallying point. A name can be affixed, and can be proudly claimed. I doubt that I would find poetry that hews to a particular political groove very interesting. But all the poets we mentioned in this interview write much more complex work: they craft work that addresses the history of poetry (in particular lyric poetry) with its tensions between individual, experience and expression, and that also can offer nourishment for people who want to see the richness in the life experiences of disabled people.

WG: The Sound of the Bones , the first of the essays in your collection, appeared in The Disability Studies Quarterly last fall. To me, that in itself seems a great accomplishment given the stature of the DSQ, but I was wondering if you have gotten any feed back as a result of that publication? Is publication of any of the other essays in the works?

PK: I have been delighted to get very kind feedback from that first essay. Some people have told me that they are using it in their disability studies classrooms, and others tell me what personal delight they get from reading how one can read poetry - and that is really my most important methodological impulse with these essays. Quite a few people are scared by poetry: they have been told that reading poetry is difficult, and that they need to 'get' the poems. In these essays, I try to show the deep pleasure of reading poetry, and the way that poems open up landscapes in one's reading self. At first I had no idea how easy these essays would find homes: I had read little that was similar to my essays, and I was concerned about finding audiences. But as it turns out, editors and readers seem very glad for these kinds of writing, merging personal voice, poetry reading and disability culture discussion. Within a few months, most of the essays in the book had been accepted for publication, and some are already published. A few essays are in academic journals: Text and Performance Quarterly has just published one piece (on biological determinism and poetry), and the British journal Disability and Society has accepted another (on scars in poetry). Two essays are forthcoming in the first issue of the Journal of Literary Disability, a special issue on poetry: one essay on Disability Culture Nature Poetry, and one experimental one in which Steve Kuusisto and I collaborate around one of his poems. Other essays are in poetry publications, including an in-depth review essay on Jim Ferris's collection Hospital Poems in the most recent edition of The Valparaiso Poetry Review, an on-line journal. I am also very glad that some community publications like my essays enough to publish them: I have an essay on the 2006 Disability Culture Pride Parade Poetry Slam on their website, in the history section. Overall, it has been amazing to see how many people feel touched and excited by this kind of writing, and I hope that many more people feel encouraged to experiment a bit more on the edges of creative non-fiction, academic writing, and the love of poetry. To me, reading a poem, closely, with attention, is so much filled with pleasure, and I love to communicate that pleasure to others.

Petra Kuppers is a disability culture activist, a community artist and an Associate Professor of English, Theater and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan. Her books include The Scar of Visibility: Medical Performances and Contemporary Art (Minnesota, 2007), Community Performance: An Introduction (Routledge, 2007) and Disability and Contemporary Performance: Bodies on Edge(Routledge, 2003). Currently, she's lovingly polishing her collection of disability culture poetry essays and has a great time fiddling with her first poetry collection.