Monday, May 5, 2014

Badass people I know [and what they're up to]: Gaby Kappes

Professor Kappes
This week in Badass People I Know [And What They’re Up To]: Gabrielle Anastasia-Forrester Kappes!

Gaby and I have been friends since the sixth grade, when we met on the playground at school in New York. In our adult lives, we’ve kept in touch through postcards and other regular reminders of mutual support and admiration. We have the kind of sacred friendship that is nurturing and timeless, entirely devoid of judgment or drama. As Gaby says, “We can call each other up at whatever time of night and talk about our Pap smear results.”

Gaby is currently a doctoral candidate in English at the City University of New York, and teaches literature at Lehman College. She’s an accomplished poet and long-distance runner, and one of the most serious thinkers I’ve ever met. She’s also a total sassbag, which is why we get along.

On being a grownup:

Shtetl Chic: How’s your new apartment?

Gaby: Everyone who comes here is like, “This is an adult apartment.”

Shtetl Chic: It is grownup. You have curtains and things that match.

Gaby: Yeah, kind of. So, you have interview questions?

Shtetl Chic: Have you always been a cat lady?

Gaby: Ha! There was that article in the Times - Did you see that a couple weeks ago? - “Oh, it’s okay to be called a cat lady these days.” Like there’s not a stigma against it.

Shtetl Chic: Was there ever a stigma?

Gaby: Right, exactly. Like, thank you, New York Times, for validating my lifestyle.

On nature, the urban experience, and learning to teach:

Gaby: I love living across from [Van Cortlandt Park] and seeing this wide expanse of the Fair Grounds, the trees surrounding it, Cemetery Hill…but I miss seeing the Hudson River every day.

Bodies of moving water just have this very calming effect and are also restorative. You’re able to clean out negative energies. If you’re hiking in the woods and you sit at the base of a tree, it’s a grounding energy force to be able to connect with the energy of the tree. It’s a very different feeling when you’re next to a pond or a lake, or when you’re on rocks or big boulders, which have a different energy too. You feel some kind of reverberation going on there.

The city is a very draining place for me, even just walking, taking the subway. Maybe it’s because I can’t tune out. On the train, everyone has their headphones in, or is reading, or whatever. Everyone is constantly putting up these shields to tune out what’s going on around them. I want to be receptive to what’s going on around me, and take it all in, and engage with it, even just observationally.
"The Quarry" by Gabrielle Kappes

Shtetl Chic: Also when you go into the city these days, you’re going to work or you’re going to school, which enriches you, but it pulls from you at the same time. It’s challenging. You go to school near Grand Central -

Gaby: It’s tourist central.

Shtetl Chic: - which is a huge transit hub in Manhattan. Then you have to enter this space that’s this quiet institute of higher education, and sit around a table and talk about the meaning of texts. Just that disparity between the spaces…

Gaby: Yeah, it’s really interesting. Teaching at Lehman College never felt like something I could just easily walk into.The way I got over that was by trying to be myself and not put on an act, which is impossible because when I enter that institution, I’m in a role and my students are in a role. It’s best to not feel like it’s a static dynamic where I’m the teacher and they’re the students, but to also think that I’m not a knowledge-holder. I don’t hold some sort of information that needs to be disseminated to them, and that they need to be receptive to.

I tell my students that it’s a learning process as much for me as it is for them, and it’s important to get your own information on your own terms. That’s a hard thing for me to even say to them, because it seems to overturn the whole dynamic of what this institution is: that you’re coming to a classroom to learn information that I’ve designed, on a syllabus that I’ve chosen.

If they take anything away from that class, I hope that they’re receptive to getting information in a way that’s important to themselves. They’re the ones deciding what they want to learn in their lives.

Shtetl Chic: Yeah, you can look at schoolwork like a mandated thing, or you can look at it like, “How can this inform my fullness as a human being?”

Gaby: I’m teaching English Lit this semester. When we were reading “Frankenstein,” I showed them a YouTube clip of Judith Butler talking about gender performance. We talked about Frankenstein’s creature - his monster - and discussed, “Is he performing his gender? Is he performing his disability? Is society constructing that?” We took it forward to the late Victorian era with “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and thought about performing disability, and whether society is constructing your physicality.

Shtetl Chic: Wow, that’s awesome!

Gaby: So we got to the point where I was like, “Why are we reading this?” And students were like, “Well, we have to.” And I’m like, “Haha…um…thank you. But why do we read literature? Why is this important as an art form in general?” It has to do with engaging with “the now.” It has to do with how to go forward with what’s been said or done politically and aesthetically in the past.

Shtetl Chic: When you’re saying that, I’m thinking about the people I work with who have documented, official diagnoses of disabilities, and who have to constantly answer to that and all the dynamics that result from that. They have to justify it and also fight against it in some spaces. Maybe these people have never read Victorian literature, but they certainly attach to that concept.

Gaby: Right. Also, there’s a burgeoning field of disability studies too, looking at literary texts and academic criticism. It’s very much engaged in the legalities of what rights do unable-bodied - or however you term them - people have, what communities are formed among them… Usually they don’t have a community, or their community is isolated and stigmatized. It’s not integrated into the everyday.

Gaby taught an urban contemporary writers course last fall in which she introduced texts from Amiri Baraka, Charles Olsen, and Sun Ra, among other unconventional thinkers:

Gaby: I was really trying to emphasize, “Let’s break out of what the canon is, and let’s read underrepresented, underexposed, marginalized writers.” And not only that, but, “Let’s go out and find a writer.”

We studied graffiti as a form of written word, art in expression. Students were going to bookstands on the streets where they lived and coming back: “Oh, here’s someone who grew up in East Harlem and wrote poetry about where he lived, and published it with a small press,” and we read that poetry. I called it the Lost and Found Project. That was really cool to try something out that’s very different and not traditional, versus assigning texts on a syllabus.

I didn’t know what we’d read; people would just bring things in and we’d read them. Then they wrote one-act plays, which were phenomenal, and we performed them. It was a really exciting class. Now with teaching the English lit class - that’s a survey course of 1,000 years - I did have to go by the books a bit there, but that’s been really fun too.

Shtetl Chic: That’s cool you can maintain your teaching philosophy for different subjects.

Gaby: I taught composition for two-and-a-half years at Lehman. That was a struggle on my end because many of these students are English as a Second Language students, and English is the language of the colonizer with all those power structures built into it. I say to them on Day One that there is no standard that I’m trying to hold everyone to, that this class is about everyone’s own personal journey through writing. Through constant revision, it’s important to find your own voice and use it as a process of self-discovery.

Otherwise people are always being told how we should think. Like the [NYC-sponsored subway art project] Poetry in Motion thing is about suppressing creativity. There’s this poem - I forget who it’s by; I think it’s on the 1 train - that’s “Be satisfied with your cup of coffee and your memory of a time when things were simpler.”

Shtetl Chic: Yeah, that is pretty much a deadening thing.

Gaby: Right, like they’re making sure there’s not going to be a riot that’s going to break out on the train.

I was at the Whitney Biennial, where they had guided tours through the art. It just seemed that because the art is obviously conceptual and difficult to describe, you have to have that immediate experience with it. A lot of it is based on your physical interaction with the space where the art is.

There’s something to be said for valuing your own self-knowledge. It’s a very personal thing, but there’s guided tours through this, which to me didn’t seem to fit. It seemed so counter to what this art was trying to promote, breaking free from certain constraints of thought patterns.

For the past few years, Gaby has been working on archival research related to the writer Kathy Acker, who is described by critics as a forerunner of the punk movement. Gaby's work will be published next year through the City University of New York's Center for the Humanities. 

Gaby: Kathy Acker was influenced by the Black Mountain poetry school and the Fluxus Network. She has a whole series of journals in the later years in which she’s reflecting on her writing process. She’s even writing about the British Romantic poets.

I got started on this research as part of a seminar project I was doing. I went to the New York Public Library Berg archives and Duke University, seeing what was there in her papers. I found these poems that she called “exercises,” which to my knowledge were never published.

I thought this was interesting because she’s not really known as being a poet. One of them was homage to Leroi Jones - Amiri Baraka - and that was mindblowing. Actually, when I was in Gloucester I asked Amiri about that. I was like, “So, Kathy Acker wrote an homage to you.” And he was like, “No shit, really?” 

Shtetl Chic: Haha you did? 

Gaby: Of course I did. And as for the fact that her poems were never published: What does it mean when the public sphere isn’t a viable vehicle for your political and aesthetic ideas? It speaks a lot to women writing in the zone of the unpublished. 

Shtetl Chic: What about your poems?

Gaby: I returned to writing poetry this past summer. I needed to do that in order to sustain the more critical writing I’ve been doing. I felt like I needed another mode to express myself creatively.

Postcards from Gaby through the years
Working in English programs at this level, people feel pigeonholed to a field or time period because on the job market, you’re going to promote yourself as an expert in one. That’s how the jobs are advertised: “We need a Victorianist.”

Shtetl Chic: To round out our collection of scholars.

Gaby: I’ve been thinking of poetry in terms of reconstructing memory and what that means…How your memory is like a cone in your mind, and what’s filtered down to you, and what’s inaccessible, and how you go back and sift through the past that you’re trying to make sense of, as it’s informing your future…

Shtetl Chic: That’s powerful stuff. Now, with new media, a lot of it is, “Here’s my ego on a page, on a webpage.” There’s very little thought, there’s very little editing, there’s very little collaboration. A lot of it is very atomized. Sitting at your computer and putting shit out there. Certainly it’s creative production, but it’s an interesting sociological concept that we’re so isolated and all we want is to seek community, but we’re doing it through these very isolated structures.

Gaby: I do think that the “social media poet” is an important thing that’s happening right now. I wrote a poem this past winter about “Missed Connections” because CraigsList is a fascinating platform. The world of reality that we’re passing through is so isolating, and you’re removing yourself once again to try to reach out to someone. I wrote a poem inhabiting a speaker who had seen someone and felt this incredible sense of isolation and loss.

Shtetl Chic: I remember one time I was dating F., and someone wrote a Missed Connection about him. He showed it to me, and I was furious, not because someone wrote that - because part of it was flattering, like, “Oh, this perfect stranger thought my partner was adorable” - but I was furious because he was looking at them. And I’m like, “You’re missing the connection with me, and I’m right in front of you!”

Gaby: Well that guy was no good. And what the posts are saying is, “There’s something about this person I just saw...I’m going to put it out there: “Did you see me too? Did you notice me too?” Every day, you come back to check to see if anyone noticed you too. There’s something very void. It’s like the want for human interaction and connection, but it’s almost doomed from the start.

Shtetl Chic: Which is maybe tragically romantic in its own way. Like, “I had this extremely fleeting experience with this person, and half of it is the potential of what it could have been,” which is not negative. There’s a certain element of bravery that goes into that, but it’s a different bravery than saying to someone on the street, “Hey, I find your presence very moving. I’d like to talk more.”

Gaby: That’s a good line.

Shtetl Chic: You can use it.

Gaby: I just recently learned the line “Have we met before?” I didn’t know that was a pickup line until the other day. I thought I had a doppelganger because I had heard it, like, once every two weeks for the past year. 

Shtetl Chic: No one’s ever said that to me. 

Gaby: Really?

Shtetl Chic: Well, not recently.

Gaby: I feel like New Orleans has their game a bit more together than the creepers here in New York.

Shtetl Chic: Well, it’s a smaller city, so the chances of you actually knowing someone are greater.

On friendship: 

Gaby: It’s really cool that even though we don’t live near each other anymore, when we do see each other, I know that it’s going to be a very nurturing and connecting experience. It’s something I always look forward to, no matter what. I really mean that. I’m always so proud and supportive of what you do.

Shtetl Chic: I’m honored that you agreed to be interviewed. You and I both get messages from different realms and different people that what we do is not important, and that’s a lie. Women often are dismissed - “You’re chatting, you’re gossiping” - but those are moments of real connection. We should lift each other up.

Gaby: When I tell people about you, I’m like, “Oh, Arielle, she’s the responsible one in our relationship.”

Shtetl Chic: I feel totally the opposite. I always think it’s hilarious when you ask me for relationship advice, because what the fuck do I know.

Gaby: Well, yeah.


Shtetl Chic: Okay.

Cheer for Gaby in the Yonkers marathon this fall, and check out more of her poetry on “Space for Breath,” a collaborative healing project pioneered by our badass high school friend Tabitha Silver.

Thank you, Gaby, for who you are and all of what you do!

Interview has been condensed and edited.