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.


Upcoming: BATHHOUSE EVENTS 11/5 & 11/6

Join us on November 5th and 6th as BathHouse Events and the Creative Writing Department welcomes Douglas Kearney and Tisa Bryant!

The details…

Readings by Douglas Kearney and Tisa Bryant
Tuesday, Nov. 5th, 4 p.m. – 6 p.m.
EMU Student Center Auditorium
Ypsilanti


And:
“Textual Orality: African Diasporic Aesthetic Practices” 
A Discussion with Douglas Kearney and Tisa Bryant
Wednesday, Nov. 6th 3 p.m. – 5 p.m.
EMU Student Center Auditorium
Ypsilanti

Texual Orality: African Diasporic Aesthetic Practices
The aesthetic and formal roots of African diasporic cultural production are often determined in relation to oral tradition, from poetic expression and practical education, to transmission of cosmologies and the genealogical storytelling of village griots. Celebrating and analyzing solely the oral can come at the expense of the written word, from signs and pictographs of ancient Egypt or Haiti, to the ‘spirit writing’ of African American mediums and healers. In response to this enduring but insufficient binary thinking, Tisa Bryant and Douglas Kearney devised the concept Textual Orality. Textual Orality is a way of naming this site of generative tension within African diasporic literature. Using this concept as a critical frame, Bryant and Kearney will explore the ways in which both the (il)legible and aural, the stylized mark and the spoken word, experiments in writing and traditions in performance (or vice-versa), are distinct and interdependent features of their individual writing practices and pedagogies.
Tisa Bryant:
            Though she hails from Boston, received an MFA from Brown University, and lives in Los Angeles, Tisa Bryant grew into her writing within San Francisco’s vibrant literary/arts communities, serving in various capacities with ATA, CineLatino, Frameline, New Langton Arts, the San Francisco International Film Festival, Small Press Traffic, and Intersection for the Arts, among others. She is the author of Unexplained Presence (Leon Works, 2007), a collection of hybrid essays on myth-making and black presences in film, literature and visual art; co-editor/founder of the ongoing cross-referenced journal of narrative and storytelling, The Encyclopedia Project, and co-editor of War Diaries, an anthology of black gay men’s desire and survival, nominated for a 2010 LAMBDA Literary Award. Bryant is currently on a reunion tour with the poets and writers of The Dark Room Collective, celebrating the 25th anniversary of their nationally-renown African diasporic arts exhibition and reading series and she teaches fiction and experimental writing in the MFA Creative Writing Program at the California Institute of the Arts.
Douglas Kearney:
           Poet/performer/librettist DouglasKearney’s second, full-length collection of poetry, The Black Automaton (Fence Books, 2009), was Catherine Wagner’s selection for the National Poetry Series. It was also a finalist for the Pen Center USA Award in 2010. His newest chapbook, SkinMag (A5/Deadly Chaps) is available. Red Hen Press will publish Kearney’s third collection, Patter, in 2014. He has received a Whiting Writers Award, a Coat Hanger award and fellowships at Idyllwild, Cave Canem, and others. Two of his operas, Sucktionand Crescent City, have received grants from the MAPFund. Sucktion has been produced internationally. Crescent Citypremiered in Los Angeles in 2012. He has been commissioned to write and/or teach ekphrastic poetry for the Weisman Museum (Minneapolis), Studio Museum in Harlem, MOCA, SFMOMA, the Getty and the Poetry Foundation. Raised in Altadena, CA, he lives with his family in California’s Santa Clarita Valley. He teaches at CalArts.