U-M professor Petra Kuppers’ new poetry collection reaches into the soil to see murders, organisms, pollution, recycling, and fairy tales


Petra Kuppers and her book Diver Beneath the Street

Author photo by Tamara Wade.

Petra Kuppers’ new poetry collection, Diver Beneath the Street, invites you to “Slide into the dive” and become the “lioness” in the “time river” where the “Acorn nut, un-hatted, veined, split, keeps the secret.” The poems navigate the soil and secrets and horrors of women who never made it home. 

Several events related to the book are upcoming. Kuppers will be at Booksweet on May 17 at 7 pm as part of the “True Crime Authors’ Night” with Christine Hume and Antoinette M. James. She'll also perform in Ann Arbor on June 15 at 3 pm in “Crip Drift by the Huron River” with Turtle Disco as part of Ann Arbor 200/Ann Arbor District Library Digital Projects. In the fall, Kuppers will read from Diver Beneath the Street and talk with Shelley Manis at AADL’s Downtown branch on September 25 at 6:30 pm.

Diver Beneath the Street begins with a preface in the form of a prose poem that shares all of the “ley lines” tying the collection together: murder, environmental pollution, fairy tales, the pandemic, and ecology. We learn that the fairy tales evolve from the 1960s Michigan Murder cases in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, from the Detroit serial killings in 2019, and from “access to space constricted during the COVID-19 lockdown.” They exist “Between horror and the soil’s plentitude.” The book goes on to Section I, which contains one poem named after the book, “Diver Beneath the Street,” which also references Adrienne Rich’s poem “Diving into the Wreck.” The poet narrates: 

The diver sucks the sugar cube, goes under.

Huron pinches her waist.

She dives.

Giant wet tongue kiss full of moss and foul tree juice.

Oil smears above her head.

If I tell the truth, I am the diver.
If I tell the truth, these women have been dead for as long as I have been alive.

To read this book is to be parallel with the soil alongside the poet and to ask what is festering. 

The cover image of the veins of a leaf or a partially disintegrated leaf, extends throughout the book by appearing at the beginning, section breaks, and end as well. This leaf also looks like a lung and is reminiscent of decay as both a natural process and a coverup of crimes as time goes on. The competing influences of people on the environment—and of the environment on people—cloud the lines: 

Intricate leaf skeletons aggregate into suburban compost. 
If I do not disturb the layers, charcoal rings mark the passing.

Influx of copper, in my birth year, nourishes tree roots, part of the rot.
If no humans were here, the soil level would rise half an inch in fifty years.

These poems make human actions bare and bear witness to what takes place on and in the ground where “The year they found her in that house, city police searched 3,000 abandoned properties” in Detroit in which there is “Beneath the soil, a salt mine. / Salt, and bones, and copper, and the earth’s blood.” 

At the same time as the earth conceals these crimes, the landscape gives back as well, as the poet in “Dear White Pine in My Garden” says, “Thank you for the delicious syrup” and implores, “Protect us, dear pine, let me root here, back bowed, hands flat.” The poet observes and appreciates this world and the gems that arise from the soil—the “ballroom of this square inch holds you in thrall.” These poems ask us to contemplate, “How far down does light penetrate?”

Kuppers talked with me about Diver Beneath the Street, the crimes she researched for this book, ecopoetry, how she relates to her poems, and what is next for her. 

Q: Originally from Germany, you have lived around the world and now in Ypsilanti. What keeps you here? 
A: There’s a really easy answer to this: the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act. I am a disabled person, and I use a scooter or a wheelchair to get around, as well as a cane for short distances. I have indeed travelled widely, but no other country has taken on disability access as a civil right as much as the U.S. has. Here in the U.S., I can enter most public spaces. I can be pretty certain that when I visit a community center or a university, I can actually enter. None of these are a given in many other countries, including my country of birth. 

Of course, on the ground, these things can be complicated. Many businesses find ways of not following the ADA, even within the city of Ann Arbor, which has become much less diligent in the last decade in enforcing that particular law. Many literary spaces in the region are physically inaccessible, and I am excluded from these communities. But I have plenty of resilience and ways of finding poetic fun in accessible sites, like BookSweet in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti’s Riverside Arts Center, as well as, of course, the AADL. I also run many poetry/performance events outdoors, in our gorgeous parks and along riverbanks, fully accessible to a small public of curious passers-by—something I learned by growing up and living in inaccessible public worlds.

Q: Recently, you were the 2022-23 McAndless Distinguished Professor Chair at Eastern Michigan University, plus you are the Anita Gonzalez Collegiate Professor of Performance Studies and Disability Culture at the University of Michigan. What do you teach?  
A: At the University of Michigan, I teach classes like EcoImaginations in the English Department, a course in which we both watch eco-themed cinema, make our own movies, and write in response. I also teach courses on Disability Arts and Culture, and on Creativity and Collaboration. 

One of my favorite offerings in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department is called Queer/Feminist Eco-Art Practices. Weirdly, Tucker Carlson read out and commented on that class’s syllabus on Fox News. Here’s how this happened: in 2019, I was publicly named as one of the “10 Craziest Professors” by the Young America’s Foundation. I now like to think that there’s some young person out there who listened to the course description, and to Carlson’s snarling description of "lesbian outdoor dancing" on Fox News and thought, "Hmm, maybe I could go to university after all."

At Eastern Michigan University, I had the pleasure to connect with faculty and students in a range of ways over my year as the McAndless Professor. One of our engagements was an Alternative Knowledges Tour of the Ypsilanti campus, gathering information and then creating speculative map-stories about the healing waters found on the campus’s edge in the 1880s. We thought about care for land, community, and self, and invented new and sustainability-oriented histories for buildings and sites.

Q: You participated in several artist and writing residencies and write a bit about how they contributed to the poems in Diver Beneath the Street. Would you say more about how these residencies furthered your own writing and art? 
A: I am a deep fan of artist residencies, and of the individuals and collectives that create these wonderful opportunities in the world. I have always found residencies a deep well of nourishment, and I had the privilege to be invited to many different ones around the world. My first big one was a six-month Caroline Plummer Fellowship in Community Dance at the University of Otago in Aotearoa/New Zealand, where I was able to work with Māori and Pakeha people in a hospice, creating small intimate performances together. In recent years, I had residencies in various U.S. locations, including Good Hart and The Croft Artist Residency in Michigan, the Blue Mountain Center in upstate New York, Wildacres Retreat in North Carolina, Surel’s Place in Idaho, and The Thicket in Georgia. Every time, I get to know a new environment, see the world with new eyes, wheel around new neighborhoods, and sense my way into them—all work processes that are central to my Diver Beneath the Street poetry collection with its attention to the histories of sites, changes in land-use, soil stories, experiences at the membrane where death and life meet. 

Q: Diver Beneath the Street brings seemingly disparate topics of murder, ecology, fairy tales, and COVID-19 together and shows their connections through the earth. One description reads “True Crime meets ecopoetry at the level of the soil.” As you wrote these poems, which emerged first: true crime or ecology? Or both? 
A: Both! I read Edward Keyes’ 1976 Michigan Murders book over a decade ago as I was figuring out the underlying stories of my new home base in the U.S.: stories of the 1967-1969 murders of young women who wanted to traverse land, just travel locally, and were killed because of it. Years later, my wife, poet/dancer Stephanie Heit, and I bought a house together, as we wanted to have a base for community arts practices. And a bit later, I found out that our home in College Heights is just a few houses down from the place where the final damning evidence against the murderer had been found. Soon, the COVID era began, and we were all in lock-down. I spent a lot of time wheeling around the neighborhood, thinking about life and death, decay, changes in land-use, rural/urban edges. I paid attention to the plants in the gardens that surrounded me, and to gardening practices. And bit by bit, all these themes came together: women’s access to land, gendered restrictions on movement, the sociocultural stories beneath neighborhoods, the toxic loads of post-industrial cities, the humming activity of soil-based organisms, the way garden plants and trees reach down to the waters. Out of all of that, Diver Beneath the Street was born.

Q: I was just talking with another poet about ecopoetry, and the definition can be hard to pin down. What is ecopoetry to you, and how does your book embody it? 
A: For me, ecopoetry is about attention. About tuning in to the pulse of non-human life. Paying attention to the make-up of soil, to the way sidewalks crack when a tree tries to escape the spaces allocated it. But also to the human stories of how "home" is made: redlining and other racialized practices of allocating who should grow up where, Indigenous and settler narratives, how rivers become tamed, released, dammed, how waters carry industrial traces. Paying attention and tuning to influence in the worlds we live in—that’s what I understand my ecopoetic practice to be.

Q: I often ask authors about the poet and themselves because the roles have an important distinction and also a boundary that can be blurred in so many ways. Early on in Diver Beneath the Street, the poem titled after the book says, “If I tell the truth, I am the diver.” Does this line express how you connect with the poet, and if so, how? 
A: Yes and no and everything in between! This is a fascinating question, and the answer can vary from poem to poem. But mainly, yes—the "I" of many poems is me. I often write after drifting on the land—the wheeled walkabouts I talked about. Many of the poems in the collection have their origin in these imaginative openings that occur after taking in a site. I am hovering at the membrane between my painful and yet moving self and the world and its histories of pain and joy. Fantasies guide my explorations: research on soil organisms leads me to spiral into the earth and hang out with nematodes and springtails. So the "I" is a fantastical one, but informed by my embodied sensations of being on the land.

Q: Several poems mention books, such as the line “I fondle a frayed book cover” in the poem “Skin Thirst” and the poem “Book Lungs,” which says, “We live as archives in the world, you and I, our book lungs spidering the land….” Are lungs meant to be read, and do people carry their stories in their lungs? Is the book lung also the leaf that adorns the cover and section breaks of the collection? 
A: There is a surprising answer here—"book lungs" are an attribute of some spiders. That’s literally the name for their respiratory organs. How we respire, manners of air exchange, agency, and violence around air became so vital during both the COVID lockdown and ongoing pandemic and the Black Lives Matter revolution with its attention to systemic racialized violence. At the same time, many of us spent unusually long times in our homes and made friends with our housemates, including spiders. So that’s the origin of this recurring word in the collection—and I use it exactly for what you are pinpointing here: bodies as story collectors, soil organisms offering recycling and rejuvenation to decaying organic bodies, new stories out of old mulch.

Q: When participating on hikes with others, you share that you engage by sitting on the ground. How do your sketches and watercolors lead to poems? Do you also write as you observe? 
A: I have a pain-related disability, but I love being out and about. So I often go out with friends to spots where they hike—and I either might just go in a few hundred yards, or else hang out in the carpark, or on a park bench—whatever is accessible to me. Sketching, watercolor, and writing are all ways I spend my time: a kind of hiking by other means than legs! 

Q: What are you reading and recommending this year?
A: Here are three books I just read, and enjoyed very much: 

C Pam Zhang’s Land of Milk and Honey, a dystopian climate fiction novel that depicts its protagonist as a chef on a Decameron-like mountaintop setting as the world starves. This is so luscious, so decadent—and you will find out what thawed mammoth flesh tastes like. Sara Tantlinger’s The Devil’s Dreamland offers poetry as crime documentary, about Chicago serial killer H.H. Holmes. I believe poetry is an excellent medium to talk about the gaps and incomprehensibilities of true crime. And Marjorie Liu’s and Sana Takeda’s The Night Eaters, a gorgeous horror graphic novel of twisty mothers and haunted houses.

Q: What is next on the horizon for you? 
A: I just finished work on an experimental documentary, the Crip/Mad Archive Dances, and I am getting ready to launch this into the world. It feels like a companion to both The Diver Beneath the Street, my poetry collection, and Eco Soma: Joy and Pain in Speculative Performance Encounters, my most recent academic book. Here are the questions that guided the film-making. How do disabled and mad people survive, dance, insert their differences in a world full of stigma? How do we live through bodymindspirit experiences of alienation and pain? The experimental documentary draws on community with human and non-human others: media clips as performance gifts, archival footage from dance archives, environmental embedment and grounding in trees, water, desert, and lakes. I find it so satisfying to work across genres—embodiment and movement, poetry and criticism, video-making, and community ritual. 

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.

Petra Kuppers will be at Booksweet on May 17 at 7 pm as part of the “True Crime Authors’ Night” with Christine Hume and Antoinette M. James. She'll also perform in Ann Arbor on June 15 at 3 pm in “Crip Drift by the Huron River” with Turtle Disco as part of Ann Arbor 200/Ann Arbor District Library Digital Projects. In the fall, Kuppers will read from Diver Beneath the Street and talk with Shelley Manis at AADL’s Downtown branch on September 25 at 6:30 pm.