Russell Brakefield's New Poetry Collection, “My Modest Blindness,” Reflects on His Experiences With Keratoconus

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

The cover of “My Modest Blindness” is on the left and a portrait of author Russell Brakefield is on the right.

Russell Brakefield’s new poetry collection, My Modest Blindness, is both “a telescope of loss” observing how a health condition called keratoconus robs the sense of sight and an exploration of this new state where there are “maybe a million small truths held just out of reach.” Brakefield’s poems take a “reluctant trowel” to excavate this experience and then “step into a life of shadow.” The poet sees familiar life receding and seeks “to reclaim another.”

The book contains six sections, starting with “Paper Boats” which launches the poet unwillingly down this path with keratoconus. The next two sections bear titles suggesting a clinical examination in “Pathology” and a historical approach to eye conditions in “A Brief History of Corrective Technology.” The fourth section called “Ancestors” looks backward and forward, including family, art, and references to film and other mediums. “In Between Worlds” is the penultimate section, in which the poet identifies lessons, such as humility, and in the “Coda,” begins “again      to play.” 

The poems themselves, however, remain untitled, which has the effect of immediate immersion into the poet’s dimming world. The exception to titles, though not exactly formatted like a traditional title, is in the intermittent series of one-stanza poems that consistently start with the word “Entry” and a number in the first line. “Entry #7” describes heirloom tomatoes like those pictured on the front cover: 

                                 A tag in the dirt tells 
me the varietal is Indigo Apple, though all 
year I’ve been calling them Bruises or Savory
Plums or Skyline Just Before Nightfall. 

Egg Rolls and Racism: Curtis Chin's memoir recalls growing up in his family's Chinese restaurant in the Cass Corridor

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Curtis Chin and his book Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant.

Author photo courtesy of Curtis Chin.

Some lessons arrive early in life and stick with you for years. 

For author Curtis Chin, the lesson is “Work hard. Be quiet. Obey your elders.” These instructions become a mantra for Chin as he grows up in his family’s restaurant, Chung’s Cantonese Cuisine, in Detroit. The advice gets him through unfamiliar situations. 

Chin recalls his experiences in his new memoir, Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant. With humor and the kind of introspection that comes with looking back on one’s life, Chin narrates stories from his time in the restaurant and Detroit, as well as his journey to becoming a writer at the University of Michigan. In fact, he worked at Drake's Sandwich Shop as a student. Food, family ties, and Chin’s identity as a gay American-born Chinese serve as throughlines in the book. 

The politics and racism of the '80s parallel Chin’s formative years. Chung’s was in the Cass Corridor, a rough area at that time, and its clientele spanned all races and even drew Mayor Coleman Young as a diner. Chin’s father recognized the lessons to be had from talking with customers and brought his sons from the back kitchen into the dining room: “[H]e had really brought us there to discover the outside world, which was sitting right at our tables. All we had to do was listen.” 

Purple-Colored Glasses: Sarah Costello and Kayla Kaszyca Provide Asexual and Aromantic Perspectives in “Sounds Fake But Okay”

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

The cover of Sounds Fake But Okay and authors Sarah Costello on the top right and Kayla Kaszyca on the bottom right.

Sarah Costello (top right) and Kayla Kaszyca explore asexuality and aromanticism in their new book, Sounds Fake But Okay.

University of Michigan alums Sarah Costello and Kayla Kaszyca host the podcast “Sounds Fake But Okay” and recently came out with their new nonfiction book, Sounds Fake But Okay: An Asexual and Aromantic Perspective on Love, Relationships, Sex, and Pretty Much Anything Else. The book delves into what it means to be asexual and aromatic. Along the way, they define many terms, both in the glossary at the start of the book and in subsequent chapters. They offer their own personal examples and quotations about identities from other people who responded to a survey. 

Like many things, asexuality and aromanticism are on a spectrum, referred to in the book as aspectrum or aspec. Costello and Kaszyca describe their understanding of this range of perspectives and identities as having “purple-colored glasses”:

Once a person first puts on those purple-colored glasses and sees the potential a new mindset unleashes, it’s understandable that they may not want to take them off. It’s understandable that one may choose to embrace the unknown and the uncategorizable in contexts beyond relationships with one another and apply what the aspec lens teaches us to their relationship with themselves.

The authors emphasize the many variations along the aspectrum, given that “the aspectrum is a seemingly infinite trove of words and concepts and love whose combined meaning cannot possibly be fully mastered by a single mortal being.” Aspectrum is not one-size-fits-all but rather a plethora of individualities to which a person may relate. 

David Lawrence Morse's Short Story Collection, "The Book of Disbelieving," Challenges Distinctions Between Fantasy and Reality

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

The cover of "The Book of Disbelieving" along with a photo of David Lawrence Morse.

Sea creatures, time, mating, life, and death all take a twist under David Lawrence Morse’s pen in his new short story collection, The Book of Disbelieving

The worlds of Morse’s short stories are not our worlds, though they are not too different. In The Book of Disbelieving, he changes an element or two of life, which becomes the premise of the story. As one character reflects, “The mind can imagine anything, but that doesn’t make it so.” The stories also read like fables with a moral, even though there are no animals who speak. 

The first story, “The Great Fish,” contains a civilization that lives on the back of a large fish and only allows pairs of people to stay together if they successfully procreate. When Osa and the narrator, who are partners, disagree about their future, Osa focuses on her own plans. Her significant other reflects on their circumstances: “ ‘What’s wrong with floating,’ I asked. ‘That’s the way the world works.’ ” Osa does not want to float through existence anymore, though. They do not agree because her mate wants to keep “the precarious life it was my responsibility to preserve.” As they forge their own paths, the surprising thing is what they miss. 

These stories gravitate to the topic of death. One story covers a person with the role of “oarsman” to row away the deceased. Another story called “The Serial Endpointing of Daniel Wheal” follows a desperate character trapped in a society that has a special unit to remove those who have “endpointed.” Passing on carries a great deal of mystery and abruptness, as Daniel reflects on his life: 

That was memory. That was past. And Charlotte was past and the past is past. As much as he wanted to relish the experience, he couldn’t hold on to the moment, the moments slipped free too quickly, before he could appreciate them the moments ghosted into memory. Time is an endpoint that renders pleasure into grasping after nostalgia. 

No one, including Daniel, is immune. Morse’s stories embrace “how it could all change in an instant. How you told yourself one thing but believed something else. But the thing you actually believed wasn’t the thing you wanted to believe.” 

Morse earned a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) at the University of Michigan and now directs the writing program at the Jackson School of Global Affairs at Yale University. I interviewed him about his new book. 

Late in the World: Molly Lynch's new novel tracks the willing disappearance of a mother and wife

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Molly Lynch and her book The Forbidden Territory of a Terrifying Woman

Author photo by Hadji Bakara.

Imagine that you have an urge to disappear and be unreachable. 

Then, imagine that someone whom you care about has that urge, but you don’t know where they went or why. 

Now, add many more layers of complexity to the woman who disappears given that she has a family, including a child, and a career. 

These circumstances would raise many questions, and the premise of Molly Lynch’s new novel does just that. 

The Forbidden Territory of a Terrifying Woman tracks Ada, a mother and wife who goes missing suddenly. Her husband, Danny, and son, Gilles, are left behind, bereft and confused. Yet, Ada is following her thoughts and feelings. With an omniscient third-person narrator, the reader gets insights into all the characters. 

Early on in the book, the bond that Ada, Danny, and Gilles have with each other becomes clear, as “All three of them were one connected thing.” Yet, there are challenges: 

The debut novel by Ann Arbor author and therapist Jan Leland follows characters processing emotions in the early days of the pandemic

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Jan Leland and her novel, After the Before-Times

We all collectively endured the pandemic, but we each had an individual experience of it. 

The unique but relatable stories from 2020 to 2021 are what Jan Leland tells in her new novel, After the Before-Times

The circumstances in which Leland’s characters’ find themselves all differ, but they converge at the same time—when COVID-19 emerges—and in the same place: the Clearview Inn on Orchard Lake in Keego Harbor, Michigan. Through these characters, Leland portrays the stress and anguish—as well as the triumphs and coping mechanisms—of the early days of the pandemic. 

One of these characters, Ashley Cooper who is known as Ash, works at The Book Shelf in town. The coronavirus affects her early on when her boss and close friend, Marla Phillips, sickens and passes away. As Leland is attentive to character development, we learn about Ash in detail: 

Pretty and petite with shiny shoulder length curly brown hair and brown eyes, high cheekbones and dimples, Ashley was smart and curious. Although Marla felt Ashley needed life experience, she perceived an inner strength to Ashley. It did not take much for Marla to convince Ashley to take the position of Store Manager at The Book Shelf

The job offered, in Ashley’s eyes at least, the opportunity to work and live in a small town where people were friendly and easy-going and where Ashley felt important and sophisticated in providing literary knowledge and expertise. 

This opportunity for Ash allows her to not only engage with books but also meet many others with whom she becomes close. 

The Dating Game: Julia Argy’s Debut Novel “The One” Chronicles the Fallacy of Finding True Love on a Reality TV Show

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

The bright pink book cover of "The One" is on the left and a photo of Julia Argy wearing a white sleeveless blouse and red pants is on the right.

Julia Argy photo by Sejal Soham

“‘I’m actually in the market for a new opportunity,’ I answered, and thus my journey to find love began.”

So starts The One, a novel by Julia Argy, a University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program alum. The main character, Emily, embarks on a whim as a contender on a reality television show, which is designed to whittle a group of women down to the individual who the male love interest, Dylan, selects to marry. Emily describes the show and the book’s premise: 

At the base level, this is all a psychological experiment with a desired economic outcome: trap thirty people together as they fight for a limited quantity of the same thing, something everyone wants, true love, and the result will be scintillating enough to attract millions of viewers to sell advertising. And that, the real hypothesis, has proven true, season after season.

Emily must learn how the program works as it goes along because she has not watched past seasons, so she takes a critical approach rather than suspending her disbelief. As Emily further reflects, “Maybe the first set of contestants are meant to showcase the vast scope of women who desire Dylan, like going to a big-box store where at the head of each aisle is a sample stand, enticing you down to the rest of the similar wares. I need to figure out what brand of woman I’m supposed to be.” The “brand” she turns out to be is not what she expects. 

Flow State: Katie Hartsock’s Poems Fluidly Move from One Place to the Next in New "Wolf Trees" Poetry Collection

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

A book cover featuring a large solitary tree is on the left and a woman with long brown hair surrounded by tree leaves is on the right.

Katie Hartsock’s poetry collection, Wolf Trees, surveys what persists amidst trials that must be weathered. One poem defines the titular term as, “A tree that is the forest that is / the island.” A wolf tree is also, “A tree to lean / against and think, I’m there.” 

Hartsock, a professor at Oakland University, connects the mundane and discouraging aspects of one’s personal and family life to the natural world and also to different points in time. In the poem “Decent Seas,” the setting is a Chicago harbor. The poet instructs us to, “Think of a desire turned into a satisfaction turned into a joy / turned into a joke. That’s how to name your boat.” Whether the topic is boats, local parks, wolf trees, art, or Greek mythology, Hartsock has, “my gaze trained / on earth’s colors as they shift, / ready for invention.” The poet’s attention to nature leads the reader to new associations and even new ways of being in this world. 

Hartsock’s poems take sweeping journeys through the woods, as “you see something and think of something else.” The poems’ lines make sharp observations about having children, managing a chronic health condition, and traversing both regular days and other countries. “It’s all a little Sisyphean,” Hartsock writes. 

Lifelike Living: Blair Austin's inventive new book, "Dioramas," defies easy categorization

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Blair Austin by Mark Ostow

Blair Austin by Mark Ostow

Blair Austin's Dioramas, which won the Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction, is described by the publisher as “part essay, part prose poem, part travel narrative.” 

The author—an Ann Arbor native and University of Michigan MFA alum—describes dioramas to “view” through the eyes of the main character, Wiggins, whose stream-of-consciousness narration means that the reader must piece his world together as the book progresses.

Austin creates a semblance of beauty in the slow-growing shock of what is contained in the dioramas' preserved scenes.

Wiggins, a lecturer, is a scholar of dioramas and builds them, too, even in retirement. He studies the works of experts Michaux and Goll, both of whom made dioramas and contributed their theories about the art form to the field. Regarding Michaux, Wiggins reveals: 

EMU professor Christine Hume faces “Everything I Never Wanted to Know” in her new book

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Christine Hume and her book Everything I Never Wanted to Know

“Do I even know one woman who hasn’t been subjected to male violence? Do you? Why doesn’t that admission stop us in our tracks?” asks EMU professor Christine Hume in her new essay collection, Everything I Never Wanted to Know

Hume in turn does just that—she stops in her tracks to examine the violence and the imperfect structures meant to address it. She takes a critical lens to the ways that women’s bodies have been controlled through expressing productive outrage and through creating a mapping of this issue in our community. Her persistent questioning illuminates the injustices by compelling the reader to consider a response. 

Take the National Sex Offender Registry: “Not a single man who has harassed or assaulted me or anyone I know is on that official list. How many men is that? How many men not on the registry does it take to make that registry itself an offense? How many men are we talking?” Hume accentuates the failings of a system that is supposed to contribute to safety. She goes on to scrutinize the laws that prevent offenders from living near a school or passing out Halloween candy, the design of the water tower in Ypsilanti, and a sexual assault case at Eastern Michigan University. 

The essay “Icy Girls, Frigid Bitches, Frozen Dolls” looks at the implications of the once-popular Frozen Charlotte dolls in conjunction with a health issue that the author endures. Dolls in general are of interest, as Hume wonders, “What draws me to the doll is the vague but persistent sense of having lost my true and best self. A feeling of having once been more free, disciplined, attentive, athletic, daring, intelligent, and attractive.” The doll becomes a reflection of oneself: