October 23, 2010

Petra Kuppers and mythology

The idea to start Write To Connect came from a number of different experiences in recent years--among them, attending Olimpias gatherings with Petra Kuppers. Petra is a professor of women's studies, a performance artist, a poet, and a culture worker in the disability community. Olimpias is a collective of sorts, loosely organized by Petra--in which dance, art and storytelling unfurl during get-togethers which also double as potlucks and "formal" performances. Petra's personal style is that of the myth-maker, the ritualist. To enter one of her workshops is to be drawn into a realm of red cloths and lavender scents or just simple meditation exercises, while following her on an imaginative journey. Here is an excerpt from a paper she wrote for Disability Studies Quarterly.

Abstract: 

This essay looks for myths in disability culture poetry, and uses this lens, searching for different and welcoming spaces, countries, bodies and songs, to look at two questions: what does poetry do for crip culture? And what does crip culture do for poetry? Through close readings of poems by Jim Ferris and Philip Dowd, new lands emerge, and Neil Marcus's Disabled Country comes into view. The essay frames this discussion through a poetry banquet, held as part of a disability culture course at the Institute for Medical Humanities, UTMB, Galveston, Texas.

Introduction

Since I was a little girl, I have been fascinated with Greek mythology, sung in verse. That world explained my world to me. In these stories, there were always so many people I could feel myself into, try out different characters at a time. Of course, I would not just be limping Eurydice, her foot bitten by a snake, now on wobbly feet trying to escape the world of the shades, only to be betrayed by her lover's glance— I would be searching Orpheus, too, using his sweet words to extricate his beloved out of Hades, only to lose her again. [1] And I would also be Agave, the Queenly leader of the Bacchae, those wild women who eventually rip the singer apart in their drunken, ecstatic revels, or, even, Bacchus or Dionysius himself, laughing at the young king who wants order in his kingdom and tries to defy a god who has set the king's people on fire with wine and love. [2] Transformation, transgression, cruelty and sex: these were the Greeks I devoured from early on.
And although I would have to reach far, far back to find actual memories to support my observation, as I grew older I felt sure that this fascination had an origin in my own bodily being, in the difference I finally pronounced and outed as 'disabled' many years later. I have found on Mount Olympus my land, my people. People who limped, fell down where they stood with inexplicable pain, people who were daily visited by tortures, and yet lived, and were defiant, not meek. I found the Sirens - women with body parts made of brass, called disfigured and yet singing beautifully. I found my avenger fantasy, Medusa, the woman who could kill with one look - who could turn to stone any boy who'd come to laugh at her.
Long before Xena the Warrior Princess reinterpreted Greek mythology for a new generation, I remember being read or told Greek stories as a toddler, then reading them in prose in grade school. Ultimately, though, my interest in these complex stories became an interest in poetry, and stood me in good stead when we began to translate Ovid's poetry in my Latin classes, or interpret Goethe in Literature, in my state-sponsored co-ed convent school in rural Germany. And I was much taken by the images we found in those poems: the perfect boy Ganymede rejoicing in being drawn into Zeus's lustful arms, and Prometheus spitting proud defiance at this god who had chained him to a stony cliff to be eagle's food.
Greek myths, and Greek themes - I still find them, and they find me, in the pages of disability poetry. Sometimes, they seem obscured by a political will that denounces them for their meaning, their hold over our cultural lives. But they are names of old stories, and powerful, as feminists know when they long to hear Medusa's laugh: they are not easily contained, not framed and done away with. Just like tricksters and other figures of many other traditions, they infiltrate, and their longings leave their mark deep in our bones. We better make peace with them, or at least call them into our dances, or else they will haunt us in the night.
In this essay I am moving out to look for my Greek myths in disability culture poetry, and as I unfold that theme, I will look at two questions through this perspective, themes that set the tone for this essay series: What does poetry do for crip culture? And what does crip culture do for poetry?
To read more, go to http://www-personal.umich.edu/~petra/DSQ.htm. Are you into mythology or legend? Tell us why or bring a myth to share this coming Friday, at the first Write To Connect workshop.