Dunes Review Interview Series: Petra Kuppers
Petra Kuppers is a disability culture activist, a community performance artist, and a Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, teaching in performance studies. She also teaches on the low-residency MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College.
She is the author of Studying Disability Arts and Culture: An Introduction, Disability and Contemporary Performance: Bodies on Edge, and other books. In addition, her poetry and short stories have appeared in British and American journals including PANK, Adrienne, Accessing the Future, Future Fire, The Sycamore Review, Visionary Tongue, Wordgathering, Poets for Living Waters, Disability Studies Quarterly & many more.
Petra's story "Fjord Pool" appears in the 2017 winter/spring edition of Dunes Review.
What first inspired you to write?
I’ve been a writer all my life, ever since I was a little girl growing up in Germany. I am disabled, and couldn’t run and walk easily, so reading and writing were always part of my fantasy flights, my way of exploring the world.
Do you remember any books or authors in particular that affected you or stuck with you when you were young?
They were all in German, or in German translation, of course! Goethe, Tieck, all the Maerchen (artful fairy tales). So I often feel that my reference field is really different from my US friends and colleagues. But one of the first poets that took me and floored me was Rainer Maria Rilke. I mainlined his work, and still do…
You've published non-fiction books, short story collections, poetry...a little bit of everything! How is it different moving from one type of writing to another? Do you ever have ideas that you think will suit one type, but transform into another?
Yes, I really enjoy moving between the forms, and I often explore the same topics in multiple genres. In the last two years, Stephanie Heit and I have been leading a performance series called the Asylum Project – disability culture work that takes place in or near mental health institutions, at border crossings, with asylum in all its forms and associations. So in response to the experiences we’ve set up, I’ve been writing poems, short stories and academic essays at sites like Traverse City’s State Hospital, Eloise State Hospital in Wayne County, the Dutch coastal asylum Duin en Boosch, Vincent Van Gogh’s stay in and paintings of an asylum garden in Southern France. Each creative form – lyric essay, the rhythmic patterns of poetry – allowed for new ways thinking through stigma, experience, and sensation. The resulting materials have been published in the New Zealand Weird Fiction journal Capricious, the US literary journal Sycamore Review, and poetry journals like White Stag – I really like that very different audiences can get involved with the material.
Can you describe for us the physical environment in which you write? Notebooks, computers, yellow legal pad and a sharpie? What does the actual writing process look like for you?
I write either on a sofa or comfy armchair at home, on my laptop, or else out in nature, with my notebook on my knees, usually while my partner goes on a hike. I take my fingers or pen for a walk, instead.
My partner, Stephanie Heit (also a Dunes Review author, and a poet) and I also engage in a lot of freewrites together. We have a movement/writing practice as a couple: we move for five minutes outdoors, following all the impulses of our bodies to stretch and sense our surroundings. Then we sit down and write, seeing what flows from our movements.
How do you feel about sharing your writing with readers? What kind of feedback do you get? Do you have any insights into that experience?
I always write for people, never just for myself. I do wish to communicate, so readers and audiences are very important to me. Many of my characters are disabled, women, queer/trans, or otherwise marginalized, and the stories speak about borderline events, illness narratives, and the sensuous richness of complicated lives in complicated times. I try to lean into local land stories and myths as part of the reservoir of riches and wisdom, finding resources with which to live well.
I also really enjoy reading out loud, seeing what happens when a story sits in my mouth and flies out. Some things I learn from readers: does it all make sense? My stories are often prose-poems, editors tell me, dense little nuggets, and unfolding and kneading them just enough to let people in is the sweet spot for me.
Tell us about a piece you are particularly proud of.
I have a story in a collection, Accessing the Future, edited by Djibril al-Ayad and Kathryn Allan (Futurefire.net, July 2015). It’s a disability-themed speculative writing anthology, and I am very proud to be part of this particular group of people, and this kind of writing endeavor. My story in there, "Playa Song," is a travel narrative, a pilgrimage, with various people finding their way into the desert to shape new forms of life. The disability theme in the collection offers all these intriguing insights into how to envision life differently, how else we can think the contours of humanity, how to get around, how to have a party, how to rethink kinship. It’s fascinating!
Whose writing inspires you?
Right now, I have been researching Afro-futurist writings, so I’ve been reading Octavia Butler’s classic novels, and newer forms, too, like Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, a novel set in Nigerian Lagos that envisions alien contact in new shape-shifting ways, and twines together the dreamy vitality of city life with folk legends and sea witches. I find great inspiration in these ways of telling old genre stories new, from different angles, with different cultural perspectives.
What is your favorite thing to do when you're not writing?
Reading. Swimming, preferable in Michigan lakes or far away warm beaches. And dancing outdoors – ideally in the water!