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.


CW Faculty and Student Performances

This past week was a big one for both students and faculty. Performers from each echelon exhibited work in the Detroit Metro Area. Both Dr. Christine Hume and CW Grad Student Danielle Etienne were among the artists performing.

On Thursday November 8th at 7:00pm at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), the blog bore witness to both a Reading & Performance of Catherine Wagner & Christine Hume. Christine Hume started the night with a solemn incantation in a piece titled “Speech Talks Back,” afterwards  Catherine Wagner performed poems from her new book, Nervous Device (City Lights, 2012).

MOCAD

During Dr. Hume’s piece, the gallery space was plunged into near dark, a single light illuminating the reading space. The audience sat hushed, and distracted. Dr. Hume read as simultaneous audio boomed from several speakers. At times ears were overwhelmed with the recording and at other times one could feel the reading more palpably. The effect was incongruous with the play between the two channels of narration creating a third space where the piece took form.  The performance caught the audience in this third space, between the poles of navigation, the reading and the recording.

When Dr. Wagner took the stage, the lights came up and all was visible. She calmed herself using a variety of medieval songs rendered live before the audience. She stood before the audience eschewing the podium for a more intimate relation with the attending crowd. Her poems created laughs, frowns and other expressions as diverse as the material she read. Occasionally a poem would also include sung lyrics. This was not a professional musical performance, but an interaction between an untrained singing voice and a honed reading. Indeed, “the poems of Nervous Device express a self-conscious scepticism about the potential for human connection even as they maintain[ed] an optimistically charged eroticism.”

Flip Salon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Saturday November 10th at 8:00pm, Creative Writing Graduate Student Danielle Etienne read three short fiction pieces at Flip Salon in Ferndale. The exhibition/performance, titled Little Cloud Rising/STRAIGHT TO HELL, also featured artwork from artist Jacqueline Woodrich and live musical accompaniment. The space itself, Flip Salon, is indeed a hair salon. Artwork lined the walls and Ms Etienne read in the “waiting room” while the audience crowded around and watched from a variety of perches. As Ms Etienne read a banjo played on, the aura of white trash hillbilly that Ms Etienne articulates in her piece was brought twanging into the salon space. The audience hooted and hollered throughout the performance as Ms Etienne’s evocative descriptions filled them with laughter or caused them to cringe inwardly.

Each of the events was a remarkable demonstration of the breadth of diversity that is present in the EMU Creative Writing Program and the blog looks forward to more performances of both students and faculty.