In Our Words: Austin Bragdon

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Austin Bragdon at work
Austin Bragdon, personal photo

Poet, editor, translator, journalist, and teacher Austin Bragdon was born in the largely french-speaking rural expanse of northern Maine. He currently lives in Ypsilanti Michigan, and is a current creative writing graduate student at Eastern Michigan University, where he teaches undergraduate writing courses and serves as editor-in-chief of BathHouse Journal. His work has appeared in The Open Field and elsewhere.

Here is the thought-provoking text Austin wrote for Sarah’s recent visit to campus.

Welcome everyone to the first of three events featuring Sarah Schulman. Tonight we are here to listen to Sarah Schulman read from and talk about her 2016 book, Conflict is not abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair. Sarah is a distinguished professor at the College of Staten Island. She is a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, nonfiction writer, AIDS historian, journalist, and active participant citizen.

Sarah Schulman

Conflict is not Abuse, forces us to ask questions about the violence and conflict we see in the world around us. It forces us to wonder why institutions have so frequently become the arbiters of our personal relationships, and how our failures to successfully navigate conflict within our personal lives bleed into the larger social landscape. Rooting her perspective in queer and feminist analyses of power, Schulman explores how the dynamics of conflict in the personal sphere replicate power dynamics in the larger social landscape. As a writer, this perspective, placed outside what pop-culture might view as the normalizing structure of the family, allows her to write the characters she does, with different identity markers, all while being open to and accepting of the mistakes she makes while creating those characters. As humans who may or may not be writers, this kind of openness allows us the vulnerability required to navigate conflicts which we may otherwise dismiss reflexively.

Who, for example, hasn’t known a stalker? Or at least, someone your friend calls a stalker. Clearly, your friend believes, the only answer is to shun and condemn the stalker, potentially to report them to the authorities, to allow the state to arbitrate any conflict involved. Schulman suggests that this reflexive use of the word “stalker” to address what may be a nuanced conflict would be reductive to those who have experienced genuine violence and abuse at the hands of real stalkers. Instead, in order to make a real judgement, assessment, and potential resolution of this kind of conflict, you must risk the most frightening social dividend — honesty. She also explores how our understanding of honesty itself might be flawed, showing how our distorted thinking might lead us to think we are being honest, when really we are being honest about the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Navigating the kinds of conflict which might have led to the original confrontation, which may or may not be justified, requires vulnerability, and honest, genuine communication — the willingness to admit fault, to learn, to transform, and to understand. It may well be that the impetus to reach for the word “stalker” so reflexively, stems from an inability to correctly assess threat, an inability that can lead to the failure of a relationship.

In Conflict is not Abuse, Schulman explores this inability to assess threat at all levels of society, from our interpersonal relationships, to the governmental lack of ability to assess threat which lead the Canadian Government to require those living with HIV to report their status to the government, to invoke fear in their citizens and establish punitive measures for those living with HIV, rather than encourage more open communication between people, as Schulman writes “imposing itself as a substitute for learning how to problem solve.”

Schulman writes that “this is not a book to be agreed with.” It’s not composed of hard evidence, and it is not a list of facts. Instead it is designed to be engaged with, to provoke discussion, and to get a bit closer to understanding human behavior, so we can learn, both as writers and as people, to listen more closely to the stories of those around us. As Schulman writes, “it is the cumulative juxtaposition that reveals the story.”

On a more personal note, I found the process of writing this introduction difficult — the personal revelations this book provokes has made me rethink past and current conflicts with my partner, my friends, my students, my parents — the book often feels like years of therapy packed into a smaller, and frankly, much cheaper module, and it’s brought out a lot of guilt and curiosity, and optimism, much of which I’m still working through — I even found myself concerned for the person who flipped me off in traffic yesterday. It is my sincere hope that it can bring you towards the same kind of emotional labor it’s inspired in me. With that in mind, please join me in welcoming Sarah Schulman to the stage.

To purchase Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is not Abuse, visit the publisher, Arsenal Pulp Press. To read more of Austin’s work, click here.


Austin Bragdon’s 11/19 Introduction for The Holocaust at 75: “Remembrance as Public Practice”

This evening we are here to experience the work of Jason Francisco. Jason is an associate professor in the department of film and media studies at Emory University, and is the founder of FestivALT, a program of radical and experimental Jewish art based in Krakow, Poland. Francisco works in a wide array of discourses and mediums, including photography, poetry, essay, curation, and translation, seeking to explore the impact of trauma across cultures, landscapes, and history. His ongoing long project A ChinaTown Document engages with the faces, buildings, and moments of San Francisco’s Chinatown, a place still struggling to define its place in the American landscape in the wake of a history of discrimination toward Chinese immigrants, and a multitude of imagined images of the place distributed by photographs. Working in a different medium, and covering a different people and timeframe, Francisco’s essay “Diasporic Investigations” asks “what would it be to make a work that responds sedulously to the discontinuities and fractures that yield ‘the jewish’ in the passing jewish century?”

Despite the disparity between these two examples we can see common threads — one, the desire to explore the way trauma is inherited between people and generations, and two, the understanding that history is not a fixed object upon which art and opinions can be enacted, that despite the enormity of facts we know about events like the Holocaust, we lack the language and meaning to express their true weight. As the poet Paul Celan wrote, “reality is not simply there, it does not simply exist: it must be sought out and won.” Simply knowing the existence of an event like the Holocaust is not enough to define its impact upon the communities and cultures it effected — though its meaning, weight, and horror may be ineffable, its impact upon the Jewish culture is inescapable.

His photographs often utilize a space of “fracture” — aware that suffering and complicated cultural memories are too complex to reduce to a handful of photographs, he instead uses his work to demonstrate the complications in cultural memory, the array of perspectives that can be generated. They engage with what Roland Barthes called the punctum — “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me.)” We see faces, some chanting slogans of revolution in Ukraine, many more expressionless, or with heavy frowns. These details, at once quotidian and enigmatic, are carried with us. These documentaries of other lives connect us to their subject — as Francisco says they “release social meaning, [relay it] from site to site, observation to observation, predicament to predicament.” They begin to help us learn, and remember.

The talk we are here to listen to tonight is called “The Holocaust at 75: Remembrance as Public Practice,” In the wake of tragedy like the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting of October 27, the deadliest ever attack on the Jewish community in the United States, remembrance may be more important than ever.

With that in mind, please join me in welcoming Jason Francisco.

Cecilia Stelzer’s 10/16 BathHouse Reading Introduction for Edwin Torres

Edwin Torres is a poet, but not only a poet of the written page; his poetry expands across the senses—it is a tool of connection between language, the body, the self, and others. He is a self-described “lingualisualist.” Torres’s poetry is physical, aural, verbal, and visual. I can say all of this is true even though I have yet to personally see him perform, instead I have experienced the emersion of his poetry through his work in published books and in online readings and performances. Some of his pieces are solo performances and others are collaborations between other artists, such as dancers and musicians in his piece “We Are Walls Talking” or filmmakers in his piece for Visible Poetry Project titled “Aurora’s Aura,” but all of Torres’s work creates a space for the senses, both of the performer and audience, the dividing line between which is also being deconstructed. In his Tedx reading Torres says, “How do we align our natural trilingual voice: our speaking, seeing, hearing voice into a lateral extension of the ground we claim: the audience, the body, the room, the core community of one. Because we are here together, we are the journey.” Torres aligns this natural trilingual voice. He connected with my senses on the other side of the page and screen, and now we will all be able to experience this emersion, this community, in person.

Edwin Torres is the author of In the Function of External Circumstances released by Nightboat Books in 2010, Yes Thing No Thing released by Roof Books in 2011, Ameriscopia released by University of Arizona Press in 2014, among many others. Torres is also the editor of a forthcoming anthology titled Out Of Each Other: An Anthology of the Body in Language which will be released by Counterpath Press in 2019. His most recent publication Xoeteox: The Infinite Word Object, was released last week by Wave Books. It is a complex, experimental composition—some sections look like they were made on a glitching printer or taken from a textbook on quantum mechanics. Some pieces read like fables that are constantly changing, dream-like, into other fables. Other pieces read like abecedariums, outlines, or lists that have been cut and collaged out of order—or, more accurately, into a new order.  In his piece “The Collagist at the Edge” Torres writes,

“a journey, made familiar

by these sheets of grey and black markings

on white noise—right here

in my hands

an act of understanding—a contract

between you and me

a skin of cognition—a container

holding us together”

Through the body of the poem, Torres has created a journey, an experience of the senses.

Edwin Torres’s work has been widely exhibited and anthologized, including a retrospective at the Center for Book and Paper Arts in Chicago, along with work published in the anthologies Postmodern American Poetry and Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café. Torres has performed and given workshops nationally and internationally, including his creativity workshop “Brainlingo: Writing the Voice of the Body.” He has had fellowships at The New York Foundation for the Arts, The Foundation for Contemporary Performance Art, The DIA Arts Foundation, The University of Pennsylvania, and most recently an Artist’s Choice Residence at The Institute for Contemporary Art in Richmond, VA. Poet and performer Rodrigo Toscano calls Torres a “one-man poetic theater phenomenon.” Please join me in welcoming Edwin Torres.

Review of Janet Kauffman’s, Eco-dementia and Joanna Ruocco’s Fiction Reading

By: Maria Kornacki

The main takeaway I got from Janet Kauffman’s Eco Dementia reading was the power of bringing people and environments together through writing.  Not only through writing, but through visual media to help make connections to our world. Janet Kauffman began her reading performance with defining her own term “Eco-Dementia” as being the “condition of humanity; a love of the living world while causing hurt and suffering its destruction”.

If I hadn’t gone to this reading or been a part of the creative writing community, I probably would not have gained insight from her thoughts about the environment.  The ability to share my personal view about society and the world is a writer’s gift, which has helped shape me into a better writer.  I have been gradually getting better at sharing my inner thoughts with others instead of just writing them down or not writing anything at all.  Her presentation was successful in fostering a sense of community and shared endeavor because we are all capable of learning from our surroundings through our senses.  Learning through observing, feeling, smelling, hearing, and even tasting allows us to make connections to the world around us.  Janet Kauffman explained the environment she lived in that was sort of a carley for how Eco-Dementia came about.

Kauffman is surrounded by land and described the importance to protect farmlands and wetlands in Michigan.  Kauffman’s environment placed prominence on connecting to the sense and physical world.  I thought it was a key note when she said she dislikes it when her poetry is described as “nature poetry” because it sounds more flowery in terms of really getting underneath all of the dirt and issues that come along with nature, which is what Eco-Dementia exhibits.

I then attended Joanna Ruocco’s reading on October 24th at 6pm.  Her reading was successful not only in fostering a sense of community, by helping foster young writers’ individual voices.  The pieces she read were lengthy, but each sentence was packed with experimental language to keep the audience engaged.  I noticed several people, including myself that laughed and smiled while listening to her read, particularly “My Future Boyfriend”(her “Dan” excerpt was also humorous).  This piece formed through a response to artwork, which is a similar to a writing/photography class exercise I have participated in at our EMU galleries.  If I have learned anything about Joanna Ruocco’s work, it’s to hone in on finding your voice as a writer while also being open to other possibilities for different styles of genres.

As a creative writing major, my college experience has been about finding my voice through writing and both bathhouse readings have helped me learned how to think outside the box in terms of getting the audience to be invested in my own writing style.  Expansion of the mind and the words on the page go hand-in-hand.  Ultimately, writing should be a way to bring an audience together and leave them thinking about the meaningful questions the work provoked.

Review of Janet Kauffman’s in-class discussion of ‘Eco-dementia’ (9/26/17)

By: Adam Malinowski

FERN VERSE

“i believe any string of words put together makes meaning” — Kauffman, at Emu, 9/26

the image of the fish (or, the logic of k=q=e) is the magical manifesto of Janet Kauffman’s Eco-dementia, a book of poems where all things—language, life, and all beings—are equal. Kauffman’s poetics nestle language thick inside the ecology of the physical world we all inhabit, but are quickly losing touch with, quickly forgetting, as we deepen our de-realization with life, the body, and the infinite bodies within and beyond us, committing ourselves (those of us plugged into the techno-capitalist machine, the majority of us) to technological alienation. Kauffman’s critique of positivist technological utopianism was best summarized when she stated, “physicality is much more important than meaning.” Meaning being the universal sign, the rationalist logic of the prevailing sexist, racist, homophobic, and imperialist social order. The body is in opposition, always & already, to this logic of domination. The body lies still in a thicket, in wildflowers and wild weeds, laying still beneath the sound of geese flying south in October. Delayed migratory patterns. Delayed apprehension of the materialist logic of late capital, misunderstood best in the deep seat of the thicket.

“Caught between rocks, the blue

mud ushers in

glacial till.” (p. 4)

Language is an aural medium for Kauffman. Perhaps she herself is a medium of sorts; her poems are best understood as spells, operating w/in a magical logic of associative verse and making something happen in the world that otherwise is imperceptible. Kauffman previously worked with an environmentalist group in lower Michigan that lobbied Lansing politicians to change pollution laws (her farm is somewhere along the watershed of the Maumee river, which connects to Lake Erie, and experiences huge algae blooms due to industrial pollution). although k=Kauffman knows her poems won’t change policy, she begs the question: on what level can they effect change, on what level are they affecting? Kauffman’s poetry, in her own words, is an assemblage of language tantamount to the “collections of talismans people places on their windowsills”—for Kauffman, poetry is memorious and felt, guiding our way, like crystal magic does, through the loss of contact with the physical world (home reduced to 4 walls and a front door) into the expansiveness of the planet as home, where our shared ethic is invisibility.

Kauffman’s poems are also informed not just by the loss of contact with the world, but by her own loss, the death of her father, who lived at the end of his life with dementia. her father would never know where his home was, and neither do we. place is not the highway, not the car, not the suburb, or the city. it is the ecosystem that underpins our artificial environs, the biosphere that sustains us all, that we are currently placing in peril. what grows at the side of the freeway? herbs and flowers and bushes and waterfowl and wildlife and kinds of trees. someone once told me St. john’s wart, an herb to ward off depression, is often found at the sides of Midwestern highways. the earth responds, poetry responds, but do we? only under conditions of immense psychological change, do we begin to respond differently. Kauffman felt less in grief about her father than she spoke about him in awe. The way he saw the world was not inaccurate, but less easily understood to humans living in present reality. Rather, Kauffman suggests, he may have seen the world in a less filtered, less mediated way. He would see things that were not “there,” or comment on things “not going on.” The poems respond similarly—to that which we cannot see, but which are, in fact, part of our reality.

—> in this sense, the poems are interventionary.

“because nothing makes a sound not one of us

animals in the end behind walls even the air

drowned out mouths open in every cell” (p. 47)

This poem (c. 2004), written under conditions of personal illness, rampant corporate pollution in lower Michigan, and the horrors of U.S.-sponsored torture in Abu Ghraib overseas, in particular, not just responds to these events, but if we take the poem as a discrete spell, a discrete aural and linguistic event, intervenes in our reality (or in reality), shaping our heads and twisting our brains, giving us new sense, like all good poems ought to do. My question now is: who do these poems ask us to become?