“Habits of Mind: Creative Practices toward Social Change: A Conversation with Kate Schapira”” – curated by Mary-Kim Arnold

I have had the great fortune to know Kate Schapira – poet, writer, activist, organizer, teacher, and stellar human – for more than a decade, and over that time, we have had many conversations about art and writing, about living with change and chaos, and maintaining a sense of connection and community through periods of nearly unbearable grief and loss.

Just after the official launch of her new book, Lessons from the Climate Anxiety Counseling Booth, we sat outside in early spring sun, and talked about how talking with strangers about climate change became this practical guide to thinking about, talking about, and taking collective action toward a more purposeful, livable future in a climate-changed world. 

Kate Schapira has been listening to people about climate change for ten years, at the Climate Anxiety Counseling booth and elsewhere.  She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she teaches nonfiction writing at Brown University and is involved with local efforts toward environmental justice, climate justice and peer mental health support. In addition to Lessons from the Climate Anxiety Counseling Booth, Kate is the author of six books of poetry and her prose has appeared in Catapult, The Rumpus, The Toast, and as a chapbook from Essay Press called Time to Be Something Other Than Human. She never met a tidepool she didn’t like.

Mary-Kim Arnold: There are two things, primarily, that I’m hoping we can talk about. At your reading last week, the question came up about framing the Climate Anxiety Booth as an art project and I want to hear more about that, and then also, I would love to hear you talk about the process of having written poetry for many years, and then moving into this kind of work that is more dependent on collaboration with other people. I hope we can talk about that process.

Kate Schapira: Yeah, I mean, those things are entwined, right? Because I come from an arts background, a poetry background, and one of the factors that fed into the counseling booth was that I did poetry on demand events here in town for a long time. Somebody comes up and they say, “Can I have a poem about faking my own death?” which is a real request that I got once.

MKA: Ha, love it.

KS: I was like, “Yes, you have so much more going on. I’m not going to push back on this request at all.”

So then I would write, that was fun for me. It removed the question of how to get started. And it gave a collaborative feeling. With my first book, actually, I sent a prompt to a lot of writers that I was friends with. I asked them to tell me something about a town, a real town or an imaginary town. And I wove those together to create this book about a town.

So on the one hand, I had some elements that had this collaborative quality, this idea of working with what other people were saying or being, getting hooked into their motivation or what was driving them, and making a kind of chorus of voices woven together.

But on the other hand, being a poet or a writer always means being in charge, in a certain way, of the thing that you make. Really surrendering that would, I think, need a kind of elaborate procedure. I know people do that kind of thing with chance operations and OULIPO procedures and all of that. But even with that, they set up the card game, they make the rules, and then they shape it out of whatever they find.

I wrote about this a little bit in the book, because I was thinking about the structure of the booth and that one of the ways that you could tell that the person who made it started their working life as a creative person and as somebody who thinks of themselves as an artist, is that relationship it establishes is between one person and the rest. And I think that I learned how I could not do that through community organizing, being part of campaigns and with groups of people who were trying to do more collective things. And even with the booth, I was listening more than I was talking really, even from the very beginning. And that got more true as time went on and I got better at it. But that idea that you make something and then everybody has to reckon with it, I think is an artist’s sense.

MKA: I hadn’t made the connection between that first book and this one. Was there a point when you recognized the desire to have that kind of multivocality?

KS: I actually remember talking to you about this back in the day. People would stop at the booth, and be like, “What are you doing? Are you writing a book?” And for most of the time, I had no intention of it. I wasn’t thinking about it in those terms at all. But then, a few things happened. One is I started really thinking about the fact that as an organizing tool, the booth was very limited. It only offered conversations with a very few people. And even though I could point people to events or hearings, it wasn’t a site where a lot of planning could take place. There couldn’t be a lot of collectivity, it wasn’t the greenhouse for that.

And around that time, I had a really long and powerful conversation with my friend Nicole Hernandez Hammer, who’s one of the first people that we hear from in the book. We were talking about home and having to leave home and having your home change around you. And that made a few additional neurons stick together. And then right around that time also, there was a call for work from a press in England about that topic.

So I started developing those ideas along those lines. And one of the things that Nicole and I had talked about was how do you prepare people? There are things that you can’t stop from happening, but one thing that can make a difference for people is being able to get their minds around the fact that it’s happening and then having support to survive it.

So I think those things kind of all went into the rock tumbler. And then the other piece was this idea of practice. I had started running this series called Interdependence Days, which I ran for about a year. I was trying to get practice in more collective and group activities. And to practice relating and allowing people to relate to each other in ways that weren’t like their habitual ways. And interestingly, I wrapped that project partly because I could not figure out how to cede the right amount of control and also give the right amount of support to people who are interested in doing it with me, figuring out how to work with everybody’s different capacity, but also my desire to shape the thing.

A couple of people had reached out to me after I published an essay about deciding not to have a kid, and I didn’t want to just write about that. What more could I say? I didn’t have a book’s worth of stuff to say about that. So I started reaching out to a lot of people because I knew I didn’t have a book’s worth of stuff to say by myself. But with all of these voices speaking together, then we had a book’s worth of voices and a range of experiences, people who had done things that I’d never done, tried things that I’d never tried, made changes more drastic in their own lives and in the world around them than any changes that I had ever made.

MKA: This book project really seems to be the culmination of all these skills and capacities that have been developed from other areas of your life, and it makes me think about how creative works can be thought of as having absorbed the life of a person and the experiences of a person. It’s so exciting to see all these threads from these different parts of your life coalescing in and through this book.

When did your first book come out?

KS: 2010.

MKA: And when did you start doing the Climate Anxiety Counseling Booth?

KS: 2014. Spring of 2014. So it has been just about 10 years now. Wow. 10 years in May.

MKA: And you have pretty much been doing the booth continually that whole time?

KS: I didn’t do it during the trough of Covid. I couldn’t figure out a way to do it safely. And then it was winter again, and it really does not work online. I tried it, but it super did not work.

MKA: What sort of things happened or didn’t happen?

KS: You can’t see someone’s whole body. That’s a big part of it, I think. They can’t see mine. And you’re even more out of the world. When I do the booth in a public place, what’s going on is going on. And even though that can be distracting at times, it is also a reminder of the living world around us and that we’re not alone in it. If you’re just sitting in a little hole, I don’t know. It does seem to make a difference.

I think the other thing is that, of course, someone can come visit me on purpose at the booth, people do that all the time. But I think there is an element of stumbling on it, especially for people who don’t know me, which was most of the people I encountered, and that made a difference, too, right, encountering it in the wild?

MKA: Right.

KS: Like there’s this weird white lady sitting behind a booth made out of garbage. What’s going on?

MKA: Right. Over the course of the time that you were doing it, and at the point that you thought maybe this is something, how did the form of it — the booth or the book — change or evolve in your own mind?

KS: Well, the booth just changed in response to what people were responding to. So I was like, okay, I need to listen more. I need to ask more questions. People are feeling isolated. I got to figure out how to connect, which means I have to figure out how to connect. For me, the basic format of the booth didn’t really change. The one thing that changed was I started adding people to my side of it, worked with interpreters a couple of times, once with a note taker. But I feel like another big pivot moment was when I started doing it with the Health Equity Zone.

I did a guest presentation and was then asked to help them get answers to some questions they were having. They thought [the booth] was a format that could help gather information that they can use to figure out what our next steps should be. So I did that, with an interpreter and a note taker. That was phenomenal. That was great. That was probably the best time I’ve ever done it. So now I was starting to try to have people do it with me.

What I love about that is starting from this idea of I want to talk about these things, and then to become a kind of intermediary or a trusted listener and get information that might otherwise be really difficult to get, that quality of information.

MKA: Is there stuff that came out of the interviews and the booth that you feel like are pointing in a different direction? That you might want to pick up again?

KS: Definitely. Well, first of all, there’s a lot of stuff that didn’t make it into the book.But something that came up very late was the idea and the practice of involving people’s body and motion and their physical sense of themselves, not just physically showing up in a place to yell about something, but also bodily attention as a healing method and as a way of relating to one another, connecting with one another.

What else? Learning more about land return and the land back movement is something that also lifted up a lot during the time that I was writing the book. And so that’s another thing that I’d like to explore and learn more about.

MKA: What are your hopes for the book?

KS: I hope people use it. I hope the book kind of tells you in no uncertain terms use this book as a reason to get together with people, to feel through these feelings, talk through these conversations, and do some stuff together. It really just does tell you to do that. So I hope that people will follow my instructions. I am an oldest sister. I’ve been a teacher for almost my entire working life. I have an opinion of whether people should do what I say that is perhaps a little inflated, but I really think if people do some of the stuff in the book, the stuff that’s real for them, where they live, the stuff that fits with who they actually are and who they want to become, I think they will experience something that they will like. I really do. It’s not like I think it’s going to be an easy or amazing time, but the world’s just throwing a lot of shit at us right now. And I do really think that the methods in the book, the tools in the book, the stories and models in the book will give people something that they can do besides just feel like garbage about all of that.

MKA: So you started the booth in Providence, but you’ve also done a bit of traveling around and interviewing people and working with different community groups. Can you talk a bit about how that came about?

KS: This past year, an organization called Communities First formed to help people who had been doing environmental justice work, energy justice, climate justice and stuff adjacent to that, like housing stuff, disability stuff, clean water, grassroots level, neighborhood level often or city level, very direct, very concrete work for many years, to try to get them access to the Inflation Reduction Act money. There’s the Justice 40 Initiative and some other provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act. There’s also some stuff around it or next to it, I think there’s some stuff in the infrastructure bill also. And the Communities First crew essentially was like, federal grants are hard to apply for. They’re confusing. The process is long. By the time people find out about them, they might not be able to make the deadline. They might not have the technological capacity. They might have not because they’re local, they might not have even had opportunities to consider their work at this different scale. And yet they are the people who know the most about what needs to be done and how this money needs to be spent, and the difference between life in their community without it and life in their community with it. And we want them to be able to say how this money will be spent.

So we are going to put together these environmental convenings. We’re going to call in contacts of ours within federal agencies to come and answer questions for people. We’re going to have people to walk through different aspects of this process. We’re going to have technological hubs to provide that kind of assistance. We’re going to offer capacity building grants. Of course, all of these small organizations are also way, way, way, way, way understaffed and overworked. And we’re also going to bring people who do this work together to see if there’s any new partnerships that make people able to get hold of stuff that they wouldn’t be able to get ahold of on their own.

So, the place I come into that story is through the Providence Racial and Environmental Justice Committee, who approached me looking for a storyteller. And I said, that’s not exactly what I do. And she’s like, yeah, but I think you’d really be perfect for this. So, I set up the booth in the lobby of the hotel downtown and it was great. It was terrific. I got to see a lot of people who I know from doing stuff around here. I also got to meet some folks from all over New England.

MKA: And then what happened?

KS: Then I was invited to the next one they were doing, in Detroit, and I listened to the people who came to talk, and something that I had sort of been noticing at the first one, but that hadn’t really clicked for me until the second one, was that I was listening to people who really had to be the solutions people in a lot of their working and organizing lives. They were like, “Come to this meeting and it’s going to work. Call this elected official and it’s going to work. Do this, and it’s going to work. It’s going to work.” And what they were saying to me was, “I don’t know if it’s going to work. I’m really angry. I’m really scared. I feel used by this organization. I feel tokenized.”

I have trouble talking with people about what I do. But it was just a tremendous honor to be able to be with them in that, even though it obviously sucked for them, that is a very hard place to live. It was an honor to be their company for a minute in that. Then I went to Durham, North Carolina and did it at the third meeting that they had there, and same thing. So that was my experience with kind of going further afield with the booth. And I’m really thinking about how to, rather than do that, equip other people to do it. I’m 20 years from here. Somebody who’s from the place where they’re doing it is, I would say, hands down, going to be doing a better job.

MKA: Is there anything else that you want to say that I didn’t ask about?

KS: Well, I guess there’s one thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot. I just went down to North Carolina again to give a talk in a series called “The School for Living Futures.” And my co-presenter was a poet, an organizer named Dasan Ahanu, his professional name, and his presentation was about including artists in the strategy part of organizing from the get-go. So when you said that thing a minute ago about where does this fit, that’s actually what my brain went to. So often it’s like where the artists are the inspiration at the beginning or we’re like the grace note at the end. There’s a quote on a banner, but they’re not thinking about how to do things in an unusual way, in a less predictable, in a more effectively moving or surprising or just enjoyable way. He said, we’re leaving power on the table when we don’t involve artists in this. From the very beginning. He’s like, if somebody has this skillset, and we’re like, well, you can’t use that, but you can help move chairs and read a poem. We’re not taking advantage of all the power that’s available to us.

MKA: Absolutely, I mean, that’s what prompts my thinking about the relationship to institutions, too. There’s the impulse that’s like, I don’t want to have to defend these practices, but there’s also a part of it that seems to be an opportunity to illuminate these pathways and methods that otherwise are not visible?

KS: Totally.

MKA: Knowing you as an artist, writer, teacher, and organizer — it’s amazing to see how all of these elements are so deeply interconnected in this project.

KS: It’s so much about habits of mind, right? As well as habits of behavior and action. I tend to resist any kind of idea that being an artist makes you special in some way, but I think it does create a habit of mind in the same way that being a gardener creates a habit of mind, for example, or being an engineer.

MKA: Not special, but specific.

KS: Exactly. It’s specific. So the idea that there might be something specifically useful to come through an artist in the same way that there might be something specifically useful to come through an engineer, or specifically useful to come through a gardener — even if what is being made is not a garden, a bridge or a poem — is worth exploring.

Mary-Kim Arnold is a poet, writer, and artist. She is the author of The Fish & The Dove (Noemi Press, 2020) and Litany for the Long Moment (Essay Press, 2018), which was a nominee for the 2019 Krause Essay Prize, and has been honored by the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association, and named a “Best of 2018” Book by Entropy Magazine. Other writings have appeared in HyperallergicConjunctionsThe Denver QuarterlyThe Georgia ReviewThe Rumpus, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a 2020 Howard Foundation Fellowship, the 2018 MacColl Johnson Fellowship, and the 2017 Fellowship in Fiction from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. Adopted from Korea and raised in New York, Mary-Kim lives in Rhode Island, where she teaches in the Nonfiction Writing Program at Brown University and in the Newport MFA at Salve Regina University.