An Interview with Kate Schapira by Linda Russo
On May 17 of this year, I saw this image of Kate Schapira and declared her my heroine. Her Climate Anxiety Counseling seemed to emerge out of the newly-discovered crack in the Antarctic Ice Shelf— just as many I knew were processing the shock of readjusting our own sense of planetary peril and permanence. I requested an interview to find out more about her public, place-based art/writing project. From May 13th to June 7th, in three hour shifts (2 on Saturdays), she set up her Lucy-from-Peanuts-style booth in Providence, Rhode Island’s Kennedy Plaza, opposite the bus terminal and just outside a big downtown park. There, she invited passersby to share their anxieties and later presented conversations, responses, and reflections at her Climate Anxiety Counseling blogsite. The interview commenced as she was wrapping up her self-appointed public service (she did one last “Exit Interview” on June 26, after we’d completed it). Reportage and commentary on Kate’s project have appeared in several places, including Providence Journal, Providence Phoenix, Outside Magazine, Elephant Journal, and Poets for Living Waters.
LR: What first struck me is that you’re making visible a difficult-to-articulate fear, giving people the opportunity to recognize what they are feeling *as* something, or as connected to something. Has this been your experience of talking to people?
KS: I think so. I don’t think anybody ever put that into words to me, although a few people said things like, “It’s good that you’re doing this,” or “I’m glad you’re doing this.” But if people stuck around after I explained what I was there for, they were forthcoming, and did a lot of the things with tone and body language that people often do when they want, and are glad to have, confirmation or recognition.
LR: The Providence Journal article says you consider this “a combination of a public art installation and a writing project.” It reminds me of Jen Hofer’s Escritorio Publico, where she offered herself as a public letter writer; it’s common, practical service in Mexico, not an “art project.” So both of your projects blur the art/life boundary and create a point of access between what we might keep “inside” and what me might “exteriorize” or articulate. Are their other artists’ projects that come to mind for you?
KS: Before the fact, my friend Brenda Iijima’s, and through her Daria Fain’s and Margit Galanter’s experiments in response and sharing through the language of movement. After the fact, I thought of Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist is Present.” I didn’t specifically think of Bernadette Mayer’s experiments with herself and language, like Studying Hunger and The Ethics of Sleep, but they’re part of my poetry DNA, as is my friend Michael Tod Edgerton’s ongoing participatory project What Most Vividly. I didn’t know about Jen’s project, but I like it that she did that. All these things seem to make portals between inside and outside, between “me” and “somebody / everybody / everything else,” and to have built into them the kinds of vulnerability that has ended up being such a huge lesson (for me) and component of the project.
LR: Could you say more about vulnerability, and why you think it’s affective/effective at this particular juncture?
KS: The vulnerability is already there — we have it, we are it, at every level and on every axis. A few people spoke with shame about their partial dependence on or need for the help of other people or institutions, and others articulated an “only the strong survive” attitude, or predicted a future world in which that would be the case. I can imagine that coming to pass in some ways, and other ways in which it’s already true, but for me that makes it even more urgent to articulate the vulnerability and interdependence we already have, and bring that out as an acknowledged reality and even a potential strength.
I hope it also works to mess up the idea of humans as “doers” and everything nonhuman as “done to.” This is tricky, because some people publicly and willfully resist that global warming is human-caused, that human systems and structures damage systems of plants and other animals and water and land. But we are also in those systems, and part of them, and moved by them.
LR: Have you had any experience with counseling? I’m wondering what it takes to take on this role, or to what extent you took or weren’t really taking on this role – to what extent you were actually receiving than giving counseling.
KS: I’ve been in formal counseling / therapy twice. The most counseling-like work I do is as a teacher, advisor and mentor, in the senses of listening to someone’s needs and fears, and helping them find ways to go beyond what they already know how to do.
This project did work that way, I think. Many of the things I’ve written here in these responses and in my reflections on the project site, I didn’t know before. Some of the plans I’m making, I couldn’t have made before the project. If you think of counseling as something that helps you feel better, that didn’t happen for me, and I don’t know if it happened for anyone I spoke with. But if counseling helps you think newly, understand differently, that did seem to be happening in some of the people I talked with and it is still happening in me.
This leads into one of the questions I had for you: when you first responded to this project, you wrote, “In my imaginary projection of the world I live in, there is a person to do this in every commons across U.S.America. In my imaginary projection of the world I live in, I am that person, and all the other people I feel I need to be.” And yes, I’m trying to bring that world out of the world that we’re in! My question is twofold: who do you feel you need to be? and what could help you to become that person?
LR: I was thinking through perceived relational needs when I wrote that: my job means I need to be a good teacher, my house means I need to be a good caretaker and neighbor, my relationship means I need to be a good partner, etc. But more and more lately I feel I need to increase the circumference of my responsibility, in Robert Duncan’s sense of responsibility as being the ability to respond. The fact that I feel this, that I am able to feel this, is a kind of privilege. Can I respond to more things? I saw your project as an example of being able to respond to a crisis so large it brings us all into the same circumference, a crisis so shaded and distorted it’s difficult to know what our relationship to it is. On one level, your response— to be there & engage— seems clear and simple, but on another level, it was surely a sacrifice, yes? I’m wondering if you thought through the personal costs of putting yourself out there, and had you been thinking about doing something public, or was the decision more spontaneous?
KS: This gets into a territory that has often felt impassable to me, and maybe does to a lot of people: being afraid of the answer to the question, “What does this situation” — global climate change, its contributing factors, its unfolding effects — “require of me?” I come up with hypothetical answers and then shrink from them. The project was partly a structure for not doing that, for being able to respond — a mechanism for refracting response, bending it to a temporarily manageable angle.
That didn’t always work. I had a couple of bad days, including one when I was visibly upset at the booth, and I know (because I know her and she mentioned it later) that one person walked past me because I was crying. But I had also been crying when I was at home by myself. The personal cost, the emotional cost, was already happening. The publicness was the addition to the equation. And public seemed like the way to go, because as you say, everybody is in this.
LR: You are creating a public space for dialogue around what’s been presented as a polarizing issue. You’re open to hearing people’s concerns more generally, not just about climate change: “I want to know what other people are worried about,” you’re quoted as saying in the Providence Journal article. It seems that we might take “climate” here more broadly or metaphorically – social/economic/political climate and their attendant anxieties. Of course, these are all connected. Do you think the political problem of our inability to reach consensus on what to do is served by this more general airing of anxiety?
KS: One of the first people to speak with me was anxious because she couldn’t afford to work full-time. She had to work part-time and use food stamps, about which she felt ashamed, in order to maintain her personal economy — pay her rent, afford food, and provide or buy care for her son. The attitudes that make her situation common are the same ones that got us into this ecological mess — selfishness, instrumentality, inexhaustibility and exploitation. The policies of exploitation and consolidations of power driven by those attitudes are similar, and they include things like making it hard for people to think beyond themselves and the people in their most immediate orbit — that’s not an accident!
Talking together, in public, has the potential to reveal those connections and to make room in time and space to think about them. It has the potential to enact another, already-existing connection, maybe we could call it a horizontal or reciprocal connection, between living beings. And it seems possible that future actions in the political or large-scale spheres could be rooted in that kind of interdependent connection, scaled up or spread or both.
But it also emerged that a lot of people aren’t sure what the best place for their efforts would be — either to slow global warming or to prepare for and respond to its effects. If that’s also the case for you, would you be willing to talk about it here — especially in the context of your inhabitory approach to poetics, as a poet of ecologies and relationships in place? Where do you want to, try to, put your weight, and where do you feel stymied or cut off?
LR: I related to the local aspect of your project, because that’s really important to me. In my work, I try to unite different dimensions of place – the social, historical, geographical, physical, emotional – while calling attention to how we see, experience, understand, and represent place, particularly as it is shaped by specific forces with specific histories. I’d like myriad places, “the local,” what’s underfoot, to be seen as vital and not just future Walmart parking lots – of which we have 2 in an 8-mile radius from where I sit now. It’s perhaps too late to just wake up to what’s around us and to wildly re-imagine how we live— that was the gesture behind my choosing “inhabitory”. I admire the work of poets who bridge the local with the larger forces that determine just what shapes public space takes and how we experience our relation to it – for example, in Portland, by people like Kaia Sand and Allison Cobb – both working ecologically on-the-ground in very necessary, provocative ways — and the civic work that is Portland, the (self-mockingly) sustainable city full of inventiveness. I’m kind of geographically isolated, so I sometimes feel cut off in that way, but one thing I’m excited about in the wake of the recent Cascadia Poetry Festival is being part of an international exploration of “Cascadian culture.”
This brings me to your book TOWN, which was based on a similar listening project. What does Climate Anxiety Counseling have to do with the fact that you’re a poet?
KS: It partly has do with the way I’m a poet. Questions of privateness and publicness are important to me, and so are the relationships between individuals and communities. I do a lot more meaning-making in a “we” way than in an “I” way. In TOWN I tried to create a little helplessness for myself by asking people to tell me something about a made-up town and fitting together everything they told me, however contradictory, in order to write poems set there. My collaborators / contributors created the place, and I had to inhabit it.
Writing makes me alert to the words people say, our circumlocutions and catchphrases, the shortfalls we try to make good, the fumbles, the pronouncements. When I set up this project, I wanted to talk about global warming and ecological collapse, and I couldn’t. Not having the words felt like part of the problem. I thought other people might help me find or make ways to talk about it.
LR: It can be hard to think through big problems. What have you learned about how people approach them? Might there be any “practical” takeaway from this project, might it point a way toward “progress” on the Climate Change front (whatever that is)?
KS: I wanted to find out if other people were worried about global warming and its effects, and I did: some of them are. One way I plan to carry it forward does have a more active and practical component that will probably be informed by conversations at the booth. The “What can we do / what should we do?” question I mentioned above–people asked that, and not knowing the answer is a big part of the fear and frustration, as well as often meaning that whatever they could do, they aren’t doing it yet. What is the best place for our energies, our work? So my search for people who can answer that question, and help me create a library of actions that we can draw on, is about to begin.
KATE SCHAPIRA lives in Providence, RI, where she writes, teaches at Brown University and for Frequency Writers, and co-runs the Publicly Complex Reading Series. She’s the author of four books of poetry, most recently The Soft Place (Horse Less Press), and her 10th chapbook, The Motions, is coming out this fall with above/ground press.
Linda Russo is a walking geographer, poet, and teacher. Her recent work includes a chapbook, picturing everything closer visible (Projective Industries), and an itinerant essay on Emily Dickinson; two books, The Enhanced Immediacy of the Everyday (Chax Press) and Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some way (Shearsman), are forthcoming. She lives in the Columbia River Watershed and teaches at Washington State University.