Three Writers Respond during the time of Coronavirus

May’s Special Feature focuses on student writing, created during Michigan’s Quarantine. Photo credit: Canva.com.

Notes from Carla Harryman:

The creative pieces  by Elizabeth Kulper, Selena Fack, and Drake Nardi were submitted as homework in Creative Writing 335 and Creative Writing 300 classes. They were composed between mid-March and early April, just after classes went on-line. These are spontaneous creative responses to the impact of the virus. I was impressed by the writers’ urgency to respond and the openness of their responses to the troubled moment.  They do not hold back on the unsettling aspects of experience as  they enlist the imagination to document the suspension of normal life at a moment of
emerging crisis.

Carla Harryman, Professor
Creative Writing Program

Days Like That by Elizabeth Kuiper

December 7, 2020

You will never find a leatherbound journal filled with the stories of how I saved a child from drowning in a frozen Lake Michigan and then left to climb Mt. Everest the next day, of how I became a doctor at the age of 20 while supporting my unemployed mother, of how I managed to stop World War Zero by writing letters to every government to teach them how to care about the next generation who they see as lazy, of how I created a vaccine for the incurable. We reserve cowhides for the Gods and Goddesses and the few unlucky mortals who “live in interesting times” and make the world boring again, writers and their peace treaties, lawmakers giving in to protests, doctors defying death. But not everyone who lives in interesting times deserves leather. 

Give me a torn folder filled with grocery lists, Bar Louie receipts, weekly homework checklists, out of order diary entries, class notes, predictions, movie quotes, and song lyrics written in cursive over and over again tucked in the margins and white space.

I was late for this, late for that, late for the love of my life, but when I die alone, when I die alone, when I die, I’ll be on time. 

-The Lumineers

Ouch. Like the stinging of steel wool, hot water, Dawn dish soap, and flesh, truth hurts. At least, I do not bury it beneath mountains, I dig for it through the stars, cards, tea leaves, and news articles.

November 7, 2020

If you could have one day that exists completely outside of time, meaning you had no obligations like homework, friends, family, work, how would you spend it? It is hard to set relaxation time aside for yourself when you spend that entire time thinking about the things you should be doing. I always thought I would marathon the Harry Potter movies starting at 9am with a cup of coffee and ending at 3am with an empty bottle of wine. Sarah would read the last hundred pages of the book she has been working on for a month. Jo would make vegetable soup and gluten-free bread for herself. Ryan would play World of Warcraft until he won or whatever the equivalent of winning is in that game. Ed would play with his cat, Cassidy, until she became annoyed with him and hid under the couch. Mom would clean the house. Dad would do yardwork.

I wonder if I will experience that in the next couple of weeks.

November 10, 2020

Within the moment it takes to cough, I decided not to go swing dancing. No new blue-striped dress, no eyeliner, no heels, no wings, no fairy lights, no gangsters (I would give anything to see gangsters hanging out with fairies), no Matt, no Henry, no choices. My mother would say that being unable to choose right now is a good thing and that choosing Matt or Henry is the wrong decision and that I should wait until after college to date. I would disagree, but I guess it doesn’t matter unless I randomly text Henry tonight and ask him to love me.

I’m kidding. Of course, in case future me is able to reread this, do not text Henry and ask him that. Do not text Henry under any circumstance not even if you are on the Titanic or chained to a hospital bed. Don’t do it! Because once you do, you will survive and must eventually face the embarrassment unless you fake your own death which might be relatively easy right now. Maybe you should text him when you’re in danger. The Gods and Goddesses will want to see you live long enough so they can laugh at your terrible decisions they placed before you.

Just kidding. Mortals are entertaining enough without adding myself into the mix. Maybe I should choose neither. Well, it’s not like I’ll be there tonight. Maybe I’ll take a bath and then the whole apartment will smell like geranium instead of the weed coming up through the vents from the downstairs neighbors. I wonder if they are mindful enough to worry right now or if they have reached peace in their brains.

November 12, 2020 9:20am

Sunday tarot reading. Outcome: Death. 3pm

“When tarot was born in the 1400s, vaccines, antibiotics, and pasteurization had not yet been invented. Diseases we now consider harmless led easily to death. And so this card appearing back then truly heralded somebody’s demise.”

-Diana

No immunity. Yet.

Groceries

  • Potatoes
  • Mushrooms
  • Chips
  • Bar of Lindt chocolate
  • Package of tofu
  • Cheese
  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Hummus
  • Apples
  • Oranges

Groceries

  • Rice
  • Blackbeans
  • Frozen vegetables
  • Canned corn
  • Pads
  • Toilet paper
  • Bread
  • Yeast 
  • Flour
  • Sugar
  • 2 one pound bars of chocolate (Trader Joe’s)
  • Oatmeal
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Chips
  • Potatoes
  • Seitan
  • 3 packages of tofu
  • Cheese
  • Handsoap

November 12 Homework

  • WRTG 301
    • Tuesday: Read article and start on Ethnography
    • Thursday: Finish drafting Ethnography
  • BIO 215
    • Monday: Research
    • Tuesday: Write!
  • CRTW 335W
    • Monday: Read all of Mean

Topics for BIO Paper on Food and Culture

  • Cheese
    • France
    • Could talk about the aging process
  • Durian
    • Malaysia
    • Indonesia
    • Banned in public areas for strong smell
  • Rice
    • Mexico
    • Japan
    • China
    • How it became a staple

IMPORTANT: DO NOT FORGET TO CALL MEIJER ON MONDAY (Can work 23rd-2nd from 8am to 12am).

ALSO IMPORTANT: Therapy on Tuesday at 11.

ALSO ALSO IMPORTANT: Call Dad back

I was late for this, late for that, late for the love of my life, but when I die alone, when I die alone, when I die I’ll be on time.

November 13, 2020

DAY 1

Today, I will marathon Harry Potter surrounded by lavender candles and coffee and ignore my phone. One day without expectations or homework. I wonder if my parents or my brother have started their fourteen days yet. Tomorrow, I will know.

November 14, 2020

DAY 2

Research and write my entire paper because even though the parking lots are filled with cars, but have not a person in sight and the bars are closed. The brain does not have a “Closed” sign. So today, I will write and read and write some more.

November 15, 2020

DAY 3

I wonder if my mother knows that I curse the people that come into Party City and yell at her, and I wonder if she would approve. I wonder if she knows that I pray for her and my father’s safety. She would not approve because unlike her and my father, I do not care which God or Goddess hears me so long one of them listens and protects, and if that damns me to a Christian hell for eternity, so be it.

Sometimes I wish I was as strong as my words spoken (or written) with the force of a bowling ball, but it is difficult to be a bowling ball when I have only ever been a pillow. Nice. Soft. I do not know how to turn a pillow into a bowling ball, especially when I want to be both or when I am so tired and never want to be a bowling ball again. Bowling balls have to have so much force, weight, strength and all I want is to be the pillow someone dreams on, drools on, leans on. 

Besides, the bowling alleys are shut down and my bed is right here even if it is empty and I am both the pillow and the someone. Goodnight.

November 16, 2020

DAY 4

Heavy handshakes dislodge weapons, show fellow knights that you will not draw a weapon against them, carvings of handshakes on gravestones depict final farewells before leaving for the Underworld. How fitting. The handshake, a gravemarker. When did a handshake become the reason for a new generation of government officials?

You can tell a lot about a person by their handshake.

There will be feasting and dancing in Jerusalem next year, I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.

–The Mountain Goats

November 17, 2020

DAY 5

Do you want to hear about my rainy days, wintery days where I slept til midafternoon and wake up in the dark, where I made lunch and dinner and dinner and folded my clothes and did my dishes, and did not step beyond the curtain leading downstairs, but danced around my room to avoid muscular dystrophy? Dance, dance da da da da, Fall Out Boy? Dancing on my own. Dance me to the end of love. Dance with somebody, but not anybody. Dance til you drop dead. Gorgeous.

Do you want to hear about my red lipstick days where I put on makeup to feel better, but I still cannot hide my frown lines and furrowed eyebrows so I grow my hair out and wrap it around my face until I fall asleep?

Have you ever had days like that? No? You will.

November 26, 2020

DAY 14

Phone rings and rings and rings and never leaves its cord. Voices marred by technology. Remember when voices traveled through the air? When you could feel someone’s laughter through their vibrations, their nervous breath through the six inches between you, when you could mumble and still understand people?

Germaphobe by Drake Nardi

I heard coronavirus has the world in mass hysteria. I watch silently as everything around me closes down: universities, businesses, concerts, sports events, parties. Societies across the board take extreme measures of precaution. Someone posts on Twitter that a college professor had placed students’ assignments into a microwave to make sure that if there was any sort of virus on them, the heat would kill it. The papers burst into flames. Someone posts on Facebook that they got fired after sneezing at their place of work. Someone posts on Snapchat that their high school’s senior prom had been canceled. Supermarket shelves have now been stripped naked as people stock up on food and toilet paper in preparation for self-seclusion. Society forgets that sickness lurks within all of us, that we carry our own diseases that are far more transmittable. 

I heard that in the midst of all this, xenophobia still continues to be infectious in the United States. The president refers to the virus as “the Chinese virus” on live television, for the third day in a row. His concern of being called a “racist” continues to greatly overpower his concern for the growing number of people in America affected by this. A Fox News anchor demands that the country of China issue an apology. A video of an Asian-American student being beaten by classmates surfaces on Twitter. People sneer as they let subtly racist parodies bounce from tongue to tongue. The fury of the American people grows with each day of quarantine. People lose jobs, businesses shut down, the stock market continues to crash and the government anxiously pumps trillions of dollars into the country’s economy to keep it alive. Cities and counties go on complete lockdown as the death toll teaches the ten-thousands. In the midst of all the chaos and fear, I try to bring myself back to just a few weeks ago, when everything was normal, when everything was alright. 

I heard coronavirus has been forcing people to quarantine themselves, and it reminded me of that night we drank from them solo cups. The frat house that now is only occupied by those living in it was once a shell of walls shaking from trap music and crossfaded conversations. I remember the moment my inebriation became intoxication. It was the same moment I noticed that you were in attendance. You came up to me, joking about how I was falling asleep as I half-consciously rested my body against a corner. That corner held me captive for most of the night until I was drunk enough to have the courage to approach you. For six months, I had been socially distanced, completely detached from any emotions. I felt as if my inability to feel granted me immunity, but as I lost myself in the whites of your eyes, I began to experience symptoms. My throat grew tight as I opened my mouth to speak with you, coughing out what little phonemes were able to escape my vocal cords. My lips trembled as I fought back every urge to try and kiss you, in fears that you would retaliate. If that had happened, I would have regretted leaving that corner.

I heard that for every 10 seconds of kissing, 80 billion molecules of bacteria are transferred. At the end of that night, I had wondered how dirty my mouth was. As hands made their way to places never explored before, I felt our lips ripple off of one another. I felt a fire inside me that was quickly washed down as you pointed out how my breath smelled bad. I still brush my teeth four times a day. No matter how clean my mouth is, how often I wash my hands, I still grow more and more symptomatic. I never realized how infectious you were, how lethal a kiss could be. As the idea of you and I spread from the corners of my thoughts to pandemonium, I started having daydreams that slowly become feverish. The semester ended early, and the longer we spend apart, the more I feel this slipping from my grasp. The idea of us fades more and more and I wonder of fever dreams and delusion. After ejecting myself from emotional quarantine, I am put right back into another type of seclusion. I am reminded of past sicknesses that once or twice swept the nation.

I heard that the swine flu pandemic only has estimations in terms of the total number of cases. In 2009, I was only in the fourth grade, virtually fearless with my immunity proving strong and my invincibility complex still present. In my nine-year-old world, I never would have sensed that danger was lurking. Between April 2009 and April 2010, the CDC estimates that up to 89 million Americans were infected. I remember still attending school as usual. I never would have suspected that a more deadly sickness would return a decade later, only for me to fear for my safety. I would love to have the security I had at nine years old. Through the years, I have become more aware of my surroundings, as my anxiety keeps me from distraction. My immune system has significantly become more compromised. I also worry for you, as I remember you telling me that you often feel sick for weeks on end. In my nine-year-old world, never would have suspected that I would find myself in selfless emotions, as I try to offer any kind of protection I can for you. I never suspected that I would be afraid to be close to someone, just to conquer that fear and get pulled away from them. 

I heard that the AIDS epidemic has killed over 10 million people in the United States. It reminded me of the night you asked me why I was afraid for people to know about us. You asked if I was afraid of people knowing I was gay, but I wish I could have told you that I was just afraid of catching something. I wish I could have told you how sick I’ve been made before you. I’ve let people with ill-intentions attack my trust until it was no longer healthy enough to fight back. After being tested positive for a broken heart, I abruptly remembered hearing about a woman whose cause of death was a broken heart. I’ve spent summers self-secluded in fear that the next heartbreak would be the last. You told me you were HIV tested last week and the results came back negative. With our skin pressed against each other’s, I forget about my germaphobia. I allow you to touch me in whichever way gives you pleasure. As you make your way into my soul and I realize I’m catching feelings. 

I heard that we must love ourselves before we are able to love others. It reminded me of the days and nights I’ve spent searching for someone to cure me rather than taking precautions to protect myself. I wanted to have a relationship that didn’t make me feel sick in the end, like parts of me were attacked from the inside out and rendering me weak as I fight it off. In you, I realized that I needed to stop thinking that I was a host of emotions, bound to flare up and become explosive. I realized that I needed to stop isolating myself in fear of becoming attached. I needed to stop trying to find myself in everyone else but myself. 

I realized I needed to find myself before allowing someone else to become a part of me.

Ghosts of a Pandemic by Selena Fack

We won’t close down says my business professor

We’ll be closed by Thursday says my economics professor

We don’t need to worry I tell myself

The internet a beautiful thing a sharing thing a dreadful thing a thing that you have to distance yourself from to stay sane yet a thing you have to keep close enough to survive

The internet is a living paradox and so is humanity

It is half-way across the world I tell myself

People are dying but I don’t know these people so it’s just news to be briefly mentioned at dinner and with friends

But then my mother tells me her coworker’s brother is over there. He talks of the government locking people in their homes to stop the spread of it. More like to leave them to die

He talks of how they run away to Thailand

It sounds like something in history books

Like a dictator or war that people are running away from

Not an invisible microscopic ghost

Seattle and then D.C.

New York and then Dallas

and then Oakland county and MSU closes and are we next?

We are. Online classes for college they say. Classmates smile because they think this will be easier than in person. I know better.

Sports seasons are cut and Olympics postponed

All but essential stores are closing

I talk with a friend on the phone and we question what caused it. The outbreak. COVID-19

They’re saying it started in the exotic animals being eaten 

Maybe the government wanted to use it as an assassin to thin out the population?

A terrorist attack? We both wonder

I am living in a dystopian novel

That is the only explanation

The world has literally shut down due to a global pandemic

I stay in the house for 12 days only going out to run and walk the dogs

On the 13th day I help my mother go grocery shopping and I have never been so terrified of breathing in the air in my entire life

I see a man wearing what my mother tells me is a painter’s mask

It looks like a mask one would wear to avoid toxic waste

Is that what we all are? I think so because I feel my body turn to sludge and see green ooze seeping out of my fingertips

The people I manage to make eye contact with look like they want to murder me

Their eyes are knives and I can feel them slice me in half just for existing

This is what paranoia must feel like

COVID-19 a ghost an invisible killer a thing like the internet many can’t see it but know that it holds a power that can kill and omnipresent like God it is everywhere closing in

Social distancing is the solution we are told and again most classmates rejoice

For not having to leave their beds for lecture halls

But my friends know better my friends like me

Those who aren’t lovers with the quiet

Those who fear it

This isolation is a ghost that manifests into flesh only to wrap its fingers around my throat

I can’t breathe. I’m not hyperventilating, just empty

Staring at a blank wall trying to wish sleep into existence

The quiet has never been my friend

It feeds my anxiety and they both pick the sanity off of my bones piece by piece

Writing has always helped me keep the quiet at bay but my arms are too heavy to hold a pen

Writing helps me remember what anxiety tries to rob me of

Writing holds power and gives me control control that I now desperately need

But I cannot reach

The quiet is an invisible like the internet like God like COVID-19 like anxiety like ghosts

Am I a ghost?

No I can’t be, the ticking reminds me.

The tick of the clock the tick of my own heartbeat in my ear the tick tick tick tick tick

that doesn’t stop that tells me to keep going down a spiral like a never-ending water slide

But this isn’t fun

Ticking like a bomb

of paranoia and white noise and ghosts and thoughts and quiet

Ticking like an icepick hitting its mark

That’s what the victims said of the ghost

That it takes an icepick to your lungs and drains the life out of you as easily as a needle drawing out blood.

Presenting Shayla Harris

The title of Shayla’s Capstone is Mirror of Freedom

“This capstone project is a collection of poems, sound poems, and performances about the journey of finding freedom by looking at myself in the mirror. “

Shayla Harris is double majoring in Creative Writing and Arts and Entertainment Management. She is an African American woman and Christian who uses poetry to reflect on identity, and she plans to continue writing and travel the world performing after graduation, as well as go full course into artist management. 

Experience Shayla’s Capstone Project, Mirror of Freedom, Part One and Part Two.

Please join us in congratulating Shayla!

Presenting Sierra Brocklehurst

Featured

Sierra’s Capstone Project is entitled: Too Many Projects and Not Enough Time: A Writer’s Story.

This is a hybrid work of narrative, prose, and poetry addressing the nature of writing from a fictional university student’s point of view. Sierra is a third-year student majoring in Creative Writing and minoring in Electronic Media and Film Studies Sierra Brocklehurst,  aims to pursue a career as a writer for Cartoon Network Studios.

Please join us in congratulating Sierra.

In Our Words: Austin Bragdon

Featured

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.