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Crip Ecologies: Changing Orientation by Petra Kuppers

 

This Essay was originally published on PoetryFoundation.org.

Crip Ecologies: Changing Orientation

As you go out your door, observe how you navigate the world, and which rhythms shape your journey: smooth stones out to your backyard, or a few steps down a stoop, a long whoosh of a ride in an elevator, or cracked paving stones. How does your mode of embodiment, the way you move through the world, shape your sensorium?

I currently use a scooter, a hand twist providing speed as I glide for long stretches till I come to a stop at a non-existing curb-cut, or need to carefully navigate a neighborhood tree root that has cracked its concrete confinement. When I am at home, or on short journeys, I tap along with a cane, distribute weight, shift to accommodate chronic pain patterns, sway when standing for more than a heartbeat.

Slow, halted, or fast. My attention shifts with my environment, the smooth or broken edges of the world, and with awareness of my inner state, my pain threshold, and the way I hold myself to ward off future pain. Inner sensation and outer affordances rise to the level of consciousness. These two ways of perceiving, and the intricate dance between them, fuel my creative practice. I am a poet because I am in pain. My writing brings me into relation with this pain, with joy, with life, in the interstices between words and sensations.

As I shift orientation, and become aware of my wider ecologies, I perceive even more, in an eco soma way of being. Suddenly, in these pain moments, I feel the histories and presences of the land I am traversing, in the gap between eco and soma: between environment and bodied self. There is my somatic experience, my relative ease or discomfort, in contact not only with the actual environment I am in, but also with what that environment signifies: the relative investment or disinvestment in a neighborhood, and the racial and class configurations that have led to this particular arrangement of green space, brown field, concrete, or toxic site. My crippy close-attention gait and my smooth gliding scooter passage offer me different kinds of pauses and speeds to appreciate how my White cisgendered queer disabled bodymindspirit fits into this geographical amalgamation of power relations.

In my poetry, drifting, or to cite the French term used by Guy Debord, dérive, is a central generative technique. It is a post-surrealist way of engaging in psychogeography, letting one’s self be influenced by the world, tracing its contours by spending time outside of linear walking paths, outside of linear thought structures.

When I am drifting (in my neighborhood in rust-belt Ypsilanti, at a performance space in Detroit, by the Huron River, at the shore of Lake Michigan), 
I am in relation to the world. I visit, ask for permission, offer thanks. I assemble words and sensations, impressions and unexpected pathways, often in attention to the minor key, the tiny detail.

I write about dragonfly nymph husks on a lake deck, or about half-torn leaflets for dance competitions in a movement studio, about rocks in my hand and bricks in windows. And I find in these traces again and again that this world is not “naturally” the way it is. This world has been shaped by some bodymindspirits for particular bodymindspirits and not for others; we live in these ruins. The apocalypse has already been happening, for centuries, for many. We can all learn to live better with one another and in our world. Access is never just about ramps—as grateful as I am for them. Access is about activities that widen the circle, of being aware of who is not in the room, on the stoop, in the street with us.

To thinkfeel in this eco soma way is unsettling. Where I grew up in Germany, in a small village on the Niederrhein, every creek and rivulet was alive, had invisible creatures living in it, giving care and worthy of care. My embodiment and enmindment shaped themselves around this secure 
knowledge of an animate and magical world, and my developing ethical understanding of what it meant to come from a perpetrator nation and the debt that imposes on oneself.

I grew up aware of what it meant to be German after the Nazis, with a soiled cultural connection to the land. I found out that the connections between environmental love and White supremacy run deep, that racism and ableism are deeply baked into the social contracts contemporary nations have wrought. I learned that I had to unsettle myself from my secure location as a disabled but hopefully still valued citizen.

Now, living in the colonial geography of the US, I have to unsettle myself on Indigenous land, feel/research/sense disconnect, align my pathways across occupied territory with my personal pain and the witnessing of colonial and racist pain that I experience in spatial testimony all around me. The Disability Justice movement has offered us powerful tools to help think through privilege (see, for instance, Sins Invalid 2020). Contemporary perspectives on living disabled mean becoming aware of the histories of human classification and ongoing violence when moving through one’s space—and that awareness can mean growing into new relational ecologies.

I use again the terms eco and soma1.These two layered concepts grow pearl skins as they rub against one another. I am using eco soma methods when I feel my own self truly unsettled, teetering, when the knowledge of oppressions that are not part of my personal lineage become irritant enough to affect my sense of self. As an artist and poet, these are the moments I look for: resonance beyond the self, feeling more than self, energies chafing. Out of this instability emerge the forces of creation—and hopefully, the kernels of community.

Part of my eco soma methods of living mean that I seek out and appreciate Anishinaabe contemporary literary and creative forms, one of the languages of the land where I now live. I learned some Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwe language, by taking language classes 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, invited me into a women’s hand drum group, the Miiskwaasining Nagamojig (Swamp Singers), where we sang in Anishinaabemowin as part of a language revitalization politics.

Singing with these women, and Noodin’s language teachings, helped me understand the connections between language and land, grammar and being-in-the-world. I learned, for instance, 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.

These grammatical insights are now something that I try to reflect, in English, in my most recent poetry collection, Gut Botany, a project about being with the land. For me, poetry and performance are ways to live respectfully in Michigan, as a White settler, trying to live in good relation with humans and all the creatures that have made this place home for a long time, while acknowledging pain and ongoing disruption.

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, as well as other colonizers, and concepts like Anishinaabe writer Gerald 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 painful self tentatively and gently moves on the land. As a White settler poet on Indigenous land, I find energy and inspiration in unsettled language and unsettled moves.

I stay with the word: unsettled. I let my eco soma senses creep ever deeper. If this were a Zoom poetry reading, I would raise my hand now, and announce that I am raising my hand while I speak of sexual assault. I would keep my hand raised while I discuss the topic, and while I read poems related to this part of my journey. This way, if you needed to keep yourself safe from the harm of this trigger, you could mute your computer until I lower my hand. Or you could scan this essay down, to the words “I lower my hand.” These are access technologies, developed in Zoom times, as many of us begin to get more clarity on what “crip ecologies” and expanded access might mean for our habits and ways of doing things.

At the heart of Gut Botany is healing from sexual assault. I was assaulted a few years ago and it changed my bodymindspirit. It radically changed who I was. I became aware of the privilege with which I had moved through the world before—I had experienced assaults before, but for some reason, this one changed everything.

So many aspects of what it means to be a disabled woman in the sexual economy of the US came crashing in on me in ways I had not foreseen. Over the years, I had come to understand myself as powerful, articulate, successful, and that had become part of my way of moving across the earth, and “movement” is indeed the operative phrase here: I rarely saw myself as static, or stuck.

But I had to face up to how many people see me when I read newspaper headlines that characterized me as a “wheelchair bound woman,” assumed me to be a “natural victim” of a massage therapist’s predatory behavior. All the tropes of vulnerability and imprisonment wound their way around me: during the assault, in the police station drama, in the wrestle with the prosecutor, in the media.

In the aftermath of this dismantling of my sense of a public self, I became much more aware of what trauma does to us, and what a trauma-informed performance might be. As a poet, as a dancer, I changed orientation, and this shifted my approach to my art too. Part of this change in orientation was to move away from single-voiced poetry to a more open field.

In my most recent work, there is more open space on the page. More gaps. Calls outward. Gut Botany is full of other voices: human others, more-than-human others with their moves and dances, layouts with gaps and openings. In “Court Theatre,” a long poem about halfway through the collection, I am in court. I am facing the judge, and also the perpetrator, my gaze wandering from men’s ties to regimented rows.

To make my way through, I am calling other poets into the court, into the poem, as part of my support structure, to be with me. There is Perel, a disabled performance artist, whose lines of performance instructions offer assistance to structure sensation and memory—not just to me, the writer, but to you, the reader. I call upon Bhanu Kapil’s poetry and her powerful feminist writing on sexual violence. And “Court Theatre” shows its birth out of trauma’s scattershot memory: I perform it as a breathless report, punctuated, percussive, but with beats at odds with one another—unsettling.

In many Gut Botany readings, I do not read the “Court Theater” poem—I only do so when I have time to prepare audiences and set up trigger warning mechanisms. But most other poems in the collection also hold reference to sexual violence, including to the ongoing murderous assault on Indigenous women in US-Canada border territory.

Eco soma: my own sense of self shifts with wider knowledges of which women get seen in courtrooms, whose mobility is cut off in which deadly ways. I invite you to be unsettled when you think about your own relative safety or vulnerability, strength, and resilience.

I lower my hand.

Crip ecologies means actively developing tools for survival, not in hermetic capsules, but in open exchange, in a permeability to the world. For me, this means literally opening my front door.

My wife, poet and dancer Stephanie Heit, and I operate Turtle Disco, a somatic writing studio, in our repurposed living room in Ypsilanti, Michigan. One inspiration for Turtle Disco’s deeply local format was Donna Haraway’s eighth chapter in Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, a chapter born out of a creative writing collaboration, where she and her collaborators envision life after the apocalypse. Small numbers of people come together to live in the ruins, and find new ways forward, hopeful, solar-punk style.

Our original Turtle Disco event took place at the first Ypsilanti Pride Festival, a small community-based event that didn’t yet have sponsors or much business presence. 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, offered tea, and called it the QueerCrip Pussy Poets’ Rest Stop, since we had marched as the “QueerCrip Pussy Poets” at the Traverse City Women’s March earlier that year. Our rest stop felt 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 a few declined. We heard moving stories about not being out in small town Michigan, about the importance of having a Pride Day, and about parents and chosen family.

From this initial event, we launched writing and movement sessions in Turtle Disco itself.

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. Creating a community space also means spinning the web wider, connecting with others with similar motivations, nourishing the field and each other. We gave one of our first presentations about our aesthetics and ethics at the 2017 Allied Media Conference, an important site for change-makers in Detroit. A book by one of the organizers, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown, also helped us envision contemporary approaches for our work, with biomimicry imagery that allowed us to think of turtles, hives, and the sleeping nests of deer as ways of figuring activisms that are capacious, critical, and kind to us and others. Other ongoing influences on our work are Mia Mingus’s work on access intimacy2, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s modeling of care webs.

A few years later, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Stephanie and I thought about how we could call on our disability culture community so that we could thrive in isolation. The disability community is resilient, inventive, and a great resource for doing things differently, so we improvised together. We began hosting a 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), the Crip Magic Zoomshell, Contemplative Dance and Writing, Amoeba Dances, Starship Somatics, and more.

How queer disabled people come together has always been complex: bio families are often central to socializing for people who cannot easily get out of the home. But queerness has often been disavowed by bio families, and the kind of alternative kinship and relationship structures that queer life offers have often been out of reach to disabled queer people. The COVID-19 pandemic has both curtailed and opened up new avenues of togetherness for many of us. Turtle Disco’s Zoomshells were our offering to our network of disabled queer people (and others) to find new ways forward toward sociability, connection, creativity, and online intimacy.

Our main tool for the Turtle Disco Zoomshells was, indeed, Zoom. As a disability-focused group, we immediately had to deal with the problems and opportunities of electronic platforms: How about access? Who can use the chat function, how do we get audio transcription, how do we pin the ASL interpreter? Zoom and the wider disability culture world learned together—and suddenly disabled rhetoricians and digital specialists who had long used video conferencing and other multimodal tech engagements were at the forefront of technical development.

Our other main challenge was to create intimacy options in online engagements. Pretty soon, we all had Zoom-head: overload, with too much staring at screens. Conversations were awkward since pausing and turn-taking is so complicated in the rhythm of Zoom worlds. So, we developed a script for our Kaffeeklatsch. It includes giving explicit permission to not look at the screen, to be comfortable, disability-culture style, to not reproduce the social norms of normative worlds if we do not want to. We have a first round when we all check in, give our names, pronouns, and locations, including Indigenous territories. In a second, much longer round, everybody gets time to check in as an artist and/or creative being: how are you, what are you working on, what moves you in these pandemic times?

The ritualistic structure of the Kaffeeklatsch helped ground it and created a structure of safety and predictability in a destabilized and vanishing social world. We knew that for some people, in particular people with immune differences, our weekly check-ins were part of a slim pipeline to a social life. In this particular form of creative ecology, a different kind of closeness grew and became important and valuable.

Turtle Disco, now in its fifth season, is part of the Crip Ecologies of our shared life worlds. It’s ordinary now, and I love that about it: it’s part of the care webs that grow like mushroom mycelium, webs that connect us both locally and across the world (as long as the digital environment affords us access).

What are your care webs, your creative and nourishing communities? And, if you are taking up my invitations in this essay, where are you now? What sensations have coursed through you while reading? Do you find your senses in an open communal space, or tucked away in the interiority of your own skin envelope? Are you being kind to yourself while remembering access complexities, trauma, or loneliness? What does the shape of your eco soma reception of this writing look like?

I invite you to write about your own ecologies now, your own sites of un/settlement. Let us marvel at the complex webs our layered sensations and thoughts can make. Let’s write for all our liberation.

 

1My book Eco Soma: Pain and Joy in Speculative Performance Encounters will be published this month by the University of Minnesota Press.↩︎

2 Mia Mingus, “Access Intimacy, Interdependence and Disability Justice,” Leaving Evidence, https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2017/04/12/access-intimacy-inter- dependence-and-disability-justice/.↩︎

A note about the term “crip” in “Crip Ecologies”: I enjoy the title that was given to me by the Poetry Foundation for a poetry reading with Kay Ulanday Barrett and me, moderated by Naomi Ortiz. The phrase pings right into me: I love what it says, and how I under- stand it. I have been using “crip” in intergroup slang for a very long time. But I know that for many people in our wider communities, the “crip” is complicated: for some, it still is wholly about gangs and violence. For others, it’s too close to “cripple,” and they are not ready for this particular reclamation of a hurtful word. But my hesitation actually lies elsewhere: the term has become a bit too ubiquitous. It’s an exceedingly comfortable term in academia, in a site where actual disabled bodymindspirits can be hard to find. “Crip,” with its connotations of hipness and sensual/sexual alignment with queerness is quite easy to love. But I have been to too many meetings where apparently non-disabled people were paid to speak about “crip” to a room of apparently non-disabled people (and I acknowledge that many disabilities are non-apparent). So when you use the term “crip,” stay aware of who is in the room, and who is not, and how you can enlarge the circle.

 

 

Petra Kuppers is a disability culture activist and a community performance artist. She is also the Anita Gonzalez Professor of Performance Studies and Disability Culture in the English and Women’s & Gender Studies departments at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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