Queering ecopoetics: Nonnormativity, (anti)futurity, precarity

by Angela Hume

"I am feeling the words on my skin already, long before the laptop is linked to the projector, my top is off, and the words appear on my bare back," relates Petra Kuppers, in reference to her experience collaborating with the poet Denise Leto. Kuppers described her collaboration during the Conference on Ecopoetics panel "Illness, Landscape, Healing" — one of the conference's most interactive.

In a studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Kuppers explained, the poets recorded what she calls their "improvisational assemblage," a performance/process that involved conjuring and composing lines of poetry through trance and touch, or "bodymind" (Kuppers' term). During their two-day session, the poets explored the possibilities of embodied composition, for which "body" was at once the materiality of layered voices; the blood, lymph, and cerebral fluid to which they were attuned, coursing through their circulatory and central nervous systems; the vulnerability and delight of exposed skin, warm under the studio lights; and the metal and rubber of Kuppers' wheelchair, amidst entangled hair and limbs. In Kuppers' words:

"I feel Denise’s muscular back against mine, touch her dark and gleaming hair as it passes me by. I see her eyes, but I do not know what she is thinking. I know this work is hard: being present in this alternate time, bearing the lights, being aware of a camera capturing what is happening here. Touching in non-ordinary ways, not quite erotic, but with an edge of danger, an intimacy that is beyond the confines of ordinary comportment. We are swimming, between the shark and the velvet, creatures of the wild, each alone at sea."

For Kuppers, nonnormative intimacies are the stuff of disability ecopoetics — a poetics of interrelation between humans and other-than-humans on a shared path; of "aesthetic principles of disruption and deconstruction"; of boundary transgressing; and of healing from "embodied and 'enminded' normative concepts" (to use Kuppers' words).

In this way, disability ecopoetics is always also a kind of queer poetics, precisely — to borrow the language of the theorist Mel Chen — in its veering away from "dominant ontologies and the normativities they promulgate" — ontologies whose normative conceptions, Chen explains, have long animated cultural life.[1] In short: disability poetics pursues new modes for thinking and experiencing matter. And this is queerness, argues Chen, whose view it is that queer theory, disability studies, and environmental critique are intertwined essentially and constitutively. For Kuppers, similarly, disability links one to the "contours of [one's] terrain," to the "work of finding access," or negotiating matter, perhaps — queering matter, or queer mattering — in alternative ways.

While Kuppers read her paper, panel attendees were encouraged to move about the room, or "flock." As part of her presentation, Kuppers also screened her collaboration with Leto, entitled A Radiant Approaching (view it here).

If anything, Conference on Ecopoetics presenters did the work of exposing the phrase "queer ecopoetics" for the tautology that (arguably) it is. Anne-Lise Francois — who in her recent essay "Flower Fisting" gestures toward the queerness of pollination[2] — moderated a seminar on "Queering Ecopoetics: Hybridity, Ferality, Eroticism." The seminar featured short presentations on everything from Emily Dickinson’s queer relationship with her beloved Newfoundland, Carlo, (Julia Drescher); to poetry’s tradition of (re)imagining the rape of Leda (Dana Maya); to “becoming monster,” or “thinking ecologically with monsters,” as a means for rethinking material entanglements (Art Middleton); to a call for Marxist readings of non-reproductivity, along with theories of the interrelation between Marxism, ecology, and queerness and poetry’s situatedness to register this interrelation (Eric Sneathen). These presentations were testament to queer ecopoetics' disciplinary elasticity — spanning botany, critical animal studies, posthuman theory, and materialism, among others.

Presenters also explored the relation between ecopoetics, eco-erotics, and environmental ethics. Reflecting on her choice to relocate with her family to rural Maine, Arielle Greenberg performed a series of "pastoral sex poems" that evoked ties between sexuality and landscape. Turning the pastoral mode on its head (hearkening back to the most traditional tropes, but switching gender roles, Greenberg claimed), Greenberg drew connections between the search for a more "wholesome" lifestyle (greater access to local economies, leisure time for the care of family, etc.) and her choice to pursue "sex-positive" non-monogamy. And Sarah de Leeuw, a self-described poet of "eco-erotica," suggested that we consider the ways in which the "reverence" of an "especially sexualized ecopoetics" might serve as a kind of antidote to escalating planetary violence.

While engaged more obliquely with the relationship between ecopoetics and queerness, presenters on the panel "Environmental Dreamscapes and the Heedless Sublime" all gestured similarly toward the queer temporalities that saturate eco-aesthetics and forms of eco-affect. Referencing dystopic and sci-fi apocalyptic modes, Evelyn Reilly, for example, suggested that ecopoetry is often marked by an "impasse," which we see manifest in representations of devastated landscapes, in anti-quest or anti-epic narratives, and/or in the overwhelm of geologic time that haunts certain works (Reilly cited William Carlos Williams' poetry as an example).[3] Brian Teare pointed toward the queerness of what Reilly termed "impasse," calling it by a different name, "negativity," and echoing Lee Edelman’s critique of the way in which the logic of reproductive futurism (the culture's blind faith in the figure of the Child) regulates political discourse and the social order, precluding recognition of the queer sexualities that might "endanger" it (and for this reason, Edelman argues, only queer sexualities and temporalities — queer negativity — will constitute any truly oppositional politics).[4] Teare noted that Nature, too (like the Child), often operates as a futural figure, but sought to extend Edelman’s critique by arguing that, ultimately, undermining reproductive futurism and normative temporality entails recognition of "various life forms in various states of becoming and coming undone," or the "ontological strangeness" of the human and non-human others alongside whom we exist.

I want to note one final presentation, from the panel "The Ghost in the (Drum) Machine: Tracking Remix, Reuse, and Return in Contemporary Ecopoetics." In his paper, Joshua Bennett discussed the openly gay hip-hop artist Frank Ocean's Nostalgia, Ultra, an album that, according to Bennett, explores "the tension between love and apocalyptic time." The album, Bennett argues, registers the situation of New Orleans-based African Americans, for whom the future has become increasingly difficult to imagine, obscured by catastrophe. Ocean sings, "Say hello, then say farewell to the places you know / We are all mortals aren’t way? Any moment this could go." In this way, nature, race, desire, and futurity — in all of their possibility and/or (perhaps more often than not) impossibility — are inextricable in the precarious present, and queerness becomes the simultaneous recognition of this fact while also living on in the face of it— a "futurity" of a very different order. Listen to Frank Ocean yourself for a taste of the "future."

[1] Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012), 11.

[2] See Anne-Lise Francois, "Flower Fisting," Postmodern Culture 22.1 (September 2011).

[3] For further theorization of "impasse," see Lauren Berlant's chapter "After the Good Life, an Impasse," which appears in her book Cruel Optimism (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011). Berlant conceives of the precarious contemporary moment as defined by "impasse," a state of suspension or "space of time lived without a narrative genre," in which one moves, but paradoxically, in the same space (199).

[4] Lee Edelman, "The Future is Kid Stuff," No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004).