The strangeness and beauty of bodies and how we live in them is a theme that weaves itself throughout poet Petra Kuppers’ work. These are intensely personal interests for Kuppers. She’s a University of Michigan professor who lectures on writing, disability culture, and queer culture. Kuppers uses a wheelchair and lives with chronic pain. And she says the process of poetry— observing and distilling her experiences through writing— is a healing one.
“I'm a disabled woman, so I live in pain. I have chronic pain. And ever since I was a little child, I found myself very drawn to looking at things close up, observing closely, writing about them, savoring them. And that's been the origin of my poetry. That's still why and how I write poems,” Kuppers said. “They often come out of performance situations where I'm either alone, or with others working outdoors, working with other disabled people, often around trees on the edges of car parks. And the experiences that we have become refracted through the poems that I write afterward.”
Her latest poetry collection, Gut Botany, was published last spring. Kuppers’ inspiration for the title comes from the integration and understanding of the body and mind when healing from trauma.
“So much of the tension and the trauma manifests itself in the gut. You know, we hold our guts. We just we hold our whole being,” Kuppers said. “So much work, and somatic work, for instance, is about relaxing or letting not relaxing into formlessness, but finding a supportive structure that allows us to shape our experiences, to push things through, to allow us to think and feel things through to completion.”
English is not Kuppers’ native language, but she said she finds “refuge in words.” As a child, she found companionship with literature and language while living with her disability.
“I enjoy the sound of language. My first language is German, so I write in a second language and I just so enjoy the play of language on my tongue. And I try to capture that in these delicious words. Foreign words. They're all foreign words for me. Right? So I tried to capture that deliciousness. And with that approach, the deliciousness of touching a leaf or touching someone's skin,” Kuppers said.
Kuppers articulates and explores disability culture in her work, but she also composes poems about being queer. Many times, those two themes are intertwined within her work. And she says that the two culture have learned a lot from each other.
“Because just like queer culture, disability culture had to reinvent the values of words. Still in our shared world right now, disability has a very negative connotation for many people. Many people feel a lot of shame around being different in that particular way. In the same way, people who are queer found ways of recovering the term ‘queer’ to make it as a word of both depth, a history of oppression, and also celebration and joy. And I think this is how many people now approaching disability culture.”
Support for arts and culture coverage on Stateside comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural affairs.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan