Meaning Matters: A Conversation With Kate Schapira

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It makes me crazy to think that the smallest unit of space is made of the same stuff as the largest, but that the smallest unit of matter is particular. And what is the largest unit of matter? (These questions are not commensurate.)

Maybe it’s not a theory of everything that’s wanted, but a representation. Can I make words behave the way I’m trying to describe? How to represent everything without including every thing? I’d need a parenthetical grammar—not paratactic, but receding—sets within sets. I want to nest (in) forever, but what if everything is more of a big open bracket?

[(A linguist finds the smallest units of meaning, a poet the largest.)

(But my nature abhors an open bracket.)]

“No word on what happens when one head wants one thing and the other, another.”

— Kate Schapira, Handbook For Hands That Alter As We Hold Them Out

Kate Schapira is a Providence-based poet, essayist, teacher, and activist, whose ongoing Climate Anxiety Counseling project is a thing of rhizomic, open-bracketed beauty, the subtle complexity of which half eludes and completely captivates me. For years now she’s been setting up a banged-together Lucy-from-Peanuts-style booth in public places and inviting passersby to share their anxieties about climate change or anything else. She does not tell people what to do with or about their anxieties, but often suggests a less foregone way to think of them. They are invited to mark a site of worry on a map of Rhode Island, and given a small drawing of a native plant or animal. Mine, which I’ve had taped over my desk since 2014, is of grass of Parnassus, which, Kate told me, is neither grass nor Greek.

I often turn to Kate when I’ve thought myself a knot I need to unwind into the living world.


Kate Colby: It’s fashionable to invoke the Drake Equation about how many gazillions of planets’ worth of intelligent life there must be and have been in the universe. I’ve been thinking—every life matters, yes, but why do all of them, in aggregate? I mean, I know it bugs you when people act like the whole earth and the life on it dying are no big deal. Why does it matter to you if humans and other earth-bound life forms continue to exist?

Kate Schapira: Is this a question about “why this planet?” or is it a question about mattering, or both?

KC: Both. Maybe more the latter.

KS: Where I’m coming from with this is twofold: 1) lives exist in relation to other lives, webs of thicker and thinner relations. When you destroy them, you’re destroying nouns, verbs, and prepositions. They matter to each other, whether they “know” it or not, which is kind of the only kind of mattering there is? I mean, everything has to matter to somebody or something. I don’t think there is an abstract mattering, just a relational mattering.

KC: An ecology.

KS: Yeah. The relationships are the house. So that’s one. 2) is that it’s not just that we’re destroying the earth, it’s that many human people, nonhuman people, and relationships are being destroyed for a few people’s bad reasons—their profit, their egos, their hunger, their fear—and I do think there’s an additional ethical imperative there.

KC: Is ethics what it means to matter? A mold doesn’t matter to itself, humans matter to ourselves, and maybe the mold matters to us. Does self-knowledge create an onus to ascribe meaning to other life forms, too?

KS: We really just do not know that much about how nonhuman beings understand being themselves.

KC: Is it fair to say, then, you’re not all that interested in human sentience or epistemology, or they’re not priorities for you? Caring for the earth means facilitating human life for many people, but for you it’s not that. It’s like affirmative action.

KS: I think it’s more like I’m interested in human epistemology/sentience in proportion to all the other kinds of being and the relations among them.

KC: As you know, I get so caught up in these giant questions about space-time and pure math and ontology and recursive relationships, and none of it has any bearing on—or it’s irreconcilable with, functionally—the daily requirements of having two children, a house, a husband, a dog. I always feel like I’m neglecting the middle ground—right now, anyway—where Earth and other people are.

KS: Well, the one is happening inside the other. The middle ground is where I’m trying to live. I get caught up in the extreme quotidian, too, you know—the dishes have to get washed, I want to sit on the porch and eat popcorn, etc.

KC: But you live there in a way that is impossible for me, and would be, even if I had no family. I try to be socially and environmentally responsible and do the right things, but I don’t know how to believe in them. Which is not to say I don’t, I just don’t know how or why or whether.

KS: I don’t know if I believe in them either, that’s the thing. I think there is a certain collective hallucination/consensual reality thing happening when we talk about what matters, or what’s right, or even try to do those things.

KC: I’m a temperamental skeptic, but that’s only one piece of it. It’s more about morality and this abstract question of mattering. For something to matter, do I have to know why? Is that the case for everyone, and if not, is mattering then purely personal?

KS: You’ve used the word “morality” a couple of times now and it’s interesting because although I think it is the name for how I’m thinking about this stuff, it’s not a word I use a lot. Are you using it in the sense of obligation? What we owe each other (the big “we”)?

KC: I don’t use that word much either and really don’t know what it means, either in a practical or broad sense. I suppose it is about fairness and prevention or mitigation of suffering. But does it extend to ant-sized suffering? Like “to matter,” it might not be a useful word because it’s also proportional and relational and scaled to human experience.

KS: One thing that came out of the Climate Anxiety Counseling booth, actually, is that duration can’t be the standard of mattering. Like, it can’t be that if something stops mattering it never mattered. Because everyone and everything that things can matter to will die at some point. So the standard has to be something else.

KC: Yes, I like that.

KS: Is the way those giant questions appeal to you a matter of mattering? (Sorry.)

KC: I’ve become obsessed with context—how can I possibly understand anything here if I don’t know the nature and position of everything around it?

KS: Yeah, that’s an ecological question. Context is an ecological concept and not just a concept, a fact! It seems in much of your work that you relish the frustration of bottomlessness.

KC: Yes, I want to see the complete ecology of the whole universe, but love the bottomless, all the same. As for the matter of mattering, that little word play illustrates it, exactly—what do semantic glitches, accidents, and impasses hide or illuminate?

KS: See, I think part of the difference in our preoccupations is I’m like, “Well, that’s an impasse, better go a different way.” And you go, “Ooh!” and . . . become intimate with it.