Thank You Jeffrey Brown of PBS News Hour

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Stephen Kuusisto to appear on PBS News Hour

Image: Logo of PBS News Hour

Tonight the PBS NewsHour will air a segment about my new book Have Dog, Will TravelThe piece features an interview with Jeffrey Brown whose reporting on literature and poetry is well known to book lovers across the nation. Jeffrey is also a poet whose first collection The News is available from Copper Canyon Press. In our time together we talked about poetry, civil rights, disability culture, dogs for the blind, the field of disability studies, and the power of literature to bring people together around social justice movements. And yes, there’s a lovely dog, Caitlyn, a sweetie pie yellow Labrador from Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

The program airs locally, in Syracuse at 7 PM. Check your local listings.

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Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available:
Amazon
Prairie Lights
Grammercy Books
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

The 2018 Armando Montero Reading at Grinnell College

The 2018 Writers @ Grinnell Armando “Mando” Alters Montaño Memorial Reading

Sometimes one has a bit of unforeseeable luck–as if we’d rubbed the proper coins. Sometimes there’s implicit history to that luck as was the case when I was invited to read poetry and nonfiction at Grinnell College in rural Iowa. The reading series honors Armando Montero, a young writer and journalist and a graduate of Grinnell who died in Mexico City just as he was starting his career. The reading program created in his honor asks writers to speak about human rights, creativity, and perhaps, just perhaps, optimism, for Armando–“Mando” to his friends–is remembered at Grinnell for his enthusiasm for others, his multiple satisfactions as a Mexican-American, half white, gay writer whose every impulse, so far as I know, was generous in the manner of Walt Whitman. Trust me, I spoke with a lot of his friends and former faculty. So I was reading at an event unlike other visiting writer gigs. I wasn’t there to tout myself. I didn’t show up to feed my ego as Robert Bly once put it when describing the deleterious effects of being the parachute poet who drops in and recites.

Mando was the extra man in the crowd, Elijah at the table. And I’m here to tel you I felt his presence and hoped that, in my own way, I could evince some of his hope. In a jaded age when academia or academics who labor in it tend to believe optimism is unfashionable, suspect even, I found the very act of reading in this series absolutely restorative. I do believe in positive change. I also imagine words matter and that anyone can take up the art of poetry with the right encouragement and examples.

At this stage I’ve given a lot of readings in many places. But I’m certain this year’s Mando Lecture was the best public performance this poet has given and I tip my hat to Armando and all the people who’ve seen fit to create a reading program in his honor.

Thank you, Ralph Savarese, for the invitation to participate.

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Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available:
Amazon
Prairie Lights
Grammercy Books
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Wintering

—in memory of Jarkko Laine

Memory loves coffee 

And steam pipes

Banging inside the walls

O what have you.

On Helsinki’s esplanade

We walked 

In matching trench coats—

Two Bogarts with poems

Sticking from our pockets.

Some about sea horses

Some about manners of love

Some about snowstorms burying books.

 

 

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Sam Hamill

Every poet in the United States lost a mentor and exemplar when the poet Sam Hamill passed away this past Sunday. Translator, publisher, poet of conscience, Hamill stood both for truth and beauty—indeed stood for them above the easy and all too familiar conventions of academic poetry writing in the U.S.. I was lucky to have known Sam and even luckier to have had the opportunity to talk with him about literature on more than one occasion.

This is not an obituary. Nor is it a dinner toast. My goal, such as I might have one, is to invoke a great poet’s thrilling intelligence and contrarianism, as Hamill cut his teeth studying informally with Kenneth Rexroth who saw no distinction between protecting Japanese immigrants during World War II and writing a clean, clear headed poetry driven by a profound affection for the world.

So it was with Sam who fought for human rights and human dignity throughout his long career—but don’t mistake me—he fought as a poet with discipline, intellect, and yes, with soul. He was the pacifist’s pacifist. An ex-Marine, Hamill grew to quicly see the imperial disdain of America—North America—and he wrote about our incontrovertible and malignant destruction of innocents around the globe. Over dinner he’d never talk about literary prizes, campus gigs—the careerist piffle that poets all too often share over wine. He talked about human rights.

I’ll have much more to say about the work of Sam Hamill in the coming months. Let me leave you with some lines of his:

True Peace

Half broken on that smoky night,
hunched over sake in a serviceman’s dive
somewhere in Naha, Okinawa,
nearly fifty years ago,

I read of the Saigon Buddhist monks
who stopped the traffic on a downtown
thoroughfare
so their master, Thich Quang Dúc, could take up
the lotus posture in the middle of the street.
And they baptized him there with gas
and kerosene, and he struck a match
and burst into flame.

That was June, nineteen-sixty-three,
and I was twenty, a U.S. Marine.

The master did not move, did not squirm,
he did not scream
in pain as his body was consumed.

Neither child nor yet a man,
I wondered to my Okinawan friend,
what can it possibly mean
to make such a sacrifice, to give one’s life
with such horror, but with dignity and conviction.
How can any man endure such pain
and never cry and never blink.

And my friend said simply, “Thich Quang Dúc
had achieved true peace.”

And I knew that night true peace
for me would never come.
Not for me, Nirvana. This suffering world
is mine, mine to suffer in its grief.

Half a century later, I think
of Bô Tát Thich Quang Dúc,
revered as a bodhisattva now—his lifetime
building temples, teaching peace,
and of his death and the statement that it made.

Like Shelley’s, his heart refused to burn,
even when they burned his ashes once again
in the crematorium—his generous heart
turned magically to stone.

What is true peace, I cannot know.
A hundred wars have come and gone
as I’ve grown old. I bear their burdens in my bones.
Mine’s the heart that burns
today, mine the thirst, the hunger in the soul.

Old master, old teacher,
what is it that I’ve learned?

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Just for the Books

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On Wednesday last, April 11, I had the privilege of reading from my new memoir Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey  at Gramercy Books  in Columbus, Ohio. Gramercy’s owner, Linda Kass took this terrific photo of the event. I’m standing in front of a good sized audience, my purple sweater covered with dog hair, and I appear to be just about to make an extravagant gesture with my hand, like the opera tenor I’d really like to be….

As I’ve said before on my blog, I adore independent book stores. People come there for the books. They really do. Oh they might get a frou frou coffee, some poodle-ish beverage, but for Indie shoppers that’s just “value added” as they say in marketing circles. Customers who shop in independent book stores are drawn by words, intuitions, giddiness, mystery, fantasy, Dostoevsky, or “news that stays news” as Ezra Pound once said, describing why poetry matters.

You can’t tell from this photo but there are several guide dog users at the event. And puppy raisers from Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

What could be better than books and dogs, and lots of readers?

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available:
Grammercy Books
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Soul Clap Its Hands

I have reached the age when I must ask “what kind of old person do I want to be?” One thinks it may be an American question, the pursuit of happiness has no age limit. I don’t mean wealth, or success in common forms. I don’t know how the coming years will unfold. All I know is I want to be flexible, kindly, and retain my curiosity until the end. This isn’t a workday ambition. It’s a matter of soul. Soul clap its hands as William Butler Yeats once said.

Often these days I’m forced to reflect on Marcus Aurelius’ famous maxim: “the soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.” I am 63 and entering the age of disappointments. This means I’ve had my share of luck. I wasn’t a refugee child. As a boy I was treated with penicillin. If my schooling wasn’t superb it was adequate. It is proper to reflect on one’s advantages. If I was a blind child who was bullied—well, I also fell in love with Duke Ellington in solitude and later an excellent professor told me about Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and so muscular lyricism came my way. I have enough good sense to count these discoveries as good luck.

I remind myself to stay mindful of small fortunes. The color of thought is yet another thing I can’t describe. But reflecting on it has to be good. Before this sounds like a self-help book let me point out human imagination is dark. 9/10 of it is pessimistic. You don’t have to be Buddhist to know it’s difficult to hold a clear thought in mind. The direction of thought influences its coloration. This much I know.

Perhaps I’ll die lonely without money. America is such a place. Maybe I’ll die in good company like Allen Ginsberg. If I pass like my father I’ll fall over while walking my dog. The soul has its own “thing” as they used to say in the sixties. Steeped in its iridescent moon-glow it can be open and unconcerned.

Of disappointments there are many. I know I won’t live to see a golden age of peace and tolerance. I understand it was silly to imagine such things even as late as fifty. Americans are encouraged to be naive. I wept with joy when Barack Obama was elected in 2008. I even allowed myself to believe if only for a minute in the phrase “post-racial America.” Of course remembering optimism is like recalling seasons of love. I see all about me younger people who will not give up on equality and justice. They are still progressively Romantic. Disappointment is nothing compared to future hope. Even in age I can have this. The soul says so.

Maybe I sound like a half baked version of Martin Buber. Or Mary Poppins. I don’t know any more than you what colors the soul prefers. Let’s say it’s a clean window after everything we endured.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Disability, Resurrection, Poetry

It’s Easter Sunday and I’m thinking about human equality, disability, and the poetry uniting both. Strange really, the resurrection of Christ, equal rights, a poetics. Here’s what I mean: Christ rises from his grave, the very action the most extraordinary figure of rehabilitation in human history. All resurrection myths proclaim equality is not out of reach—that soon enough you’ll be unrecognizable to yourself, clean, bright, and favored like others.

Poetry may not always be concerned with religion or equality. The early modernist poets in their desire to rival the immediacy of photographs were at times dispassionate—see Imagism or Vorticism as practiced by Pound—yet poetry often is where we find empathy. I wept alone in my faculty office one afternoon when, after a day of pain, my legally blind eyes unable to keep up with the tasks before me, in the days before reliable speech technology, I read the following poem by Adrienne Rich with my left eye only a half inch from the page:

I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window
in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet
long after rush-hour. I know you are reading this poem
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean
on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven
across the plains’ enormous spaces around you.
I know you are reading this poem
in a room where too much has happened for you to bear
where the bedclothes lie in stagnant coils on the bed
and the open valise speaks of flight
but you cannot leave yet. I know you are reading this poem
as the underground train loses momentum and before running
up the stairs
toward a new kind of love
your life has never allowed.
I know you are reading this poem by the light
of the television screen where soundless images jerk and slide
while you wait for the newscast from the intifada.
I know you are reading this poem in a waiting-room
of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers.
I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light
in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out,
count themselves out, at too early an age. I know
you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick
lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet you read on
because even the alphabet is precious.
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove
warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your
hand
because life is short and you too are thirsty.
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading
and I want to know which words they are.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else
left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.

–Adrienne Rich, from An Atlas of the Difficult World

Consider a “stripped” reader—consider her bent low. Stripped is vulnerability, a nakedness, and yet it’s also the first turn toward new language, one that allows us to tenderly imagine ourselves renewed.

It’s renewal that interests me. If equality is a moral concept, as I believe it is, than the broken body is also a moral agent; if “where you have landed” is neither a sacred or profane space, it is solely Jeffersonian—embodiment, whatever the circumstance is human, therefore fully, entirely human. In Disability Studies we often speak of resisting “overcoming narratives” by which we mean a resistance to medical persuasion—the idea that humans are only valuable insofar as they can be cured of their maladies. We call this the “medical model” of disability and many a disabled person has written a book touting his or her “miracle cure” often attributing it to a marriage of god and science. Sometimes of course it’s god alone or simply science. In either case the subtext of these books is routine: only a physically able and firm body has value. I think such stories are immoral for unlike Adrienne Rich’s poem which holds out the possibility of new directions in despair, overcoming narratives are steadfast in their insistence only the healthy body matters.

In his new book “One Another’s Equals” Jeremy Waldron observes:

“When we talk about equality, one of the most important distinctions we have to make is between prescriptive and descriptive equality. Descriptive statements tell us how things are, and prescriptive statements tell us how things ought to be and / or what things ought to be done. Crudely, we can say descriptively (or deny descriptively) that people are equal in some respect; we can say their opportunities are equal or that there used to be less inequality of income than there is now. Or we can say, prescriptively, that people ought to be equal. We can say that in general—for example, that they ought to be treated with equal respect—or we can say it in some particular regard, such as their income or opportunities.”

Excerpt From: Jeremy Waldron. “One Another’s Equals.” iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/one-anothers-equals/id1242543605?mt=11

He adds:

“Prescriptive statements call for something to be done that might not otherwise be done.”

This is essentially what poetry is or concerns itself with. And one thinks of Robert Kennedy’s famous declaration: “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

Resurrection is prescriptive and whether its a fantasy or not matters less to me than its moral inference: we are equal in renewal which differs profoundly from being cured or healed. Jesus, risen, still had his wounds. He remains, even glorified, our physical equal, in flesh our aspirational moral equal.

The best disability poetry tends to work in these areas though it may not be overtly spiritual in nature. Embracing the equal status of the disabled body is invariably renewing.

In her poem “Future Biometrics” JILLIAN WEISE writes:

the body that used to
contain your daughter

we found it
behind the fence

It was in a red coat
It was collected

Is she saved
Is she in the system

You’re lucky
we have other bodies

to put your daughter in
Come on down

to the station

Weise combines the medical model, the curative, with a post-human vision of cyber-resurrection. The “it” daughter, not entirely human, dead behind a fence will be transmogrified through technological means, industrial means, one imagines a whole new shipment of alternative bodies arriving by train. A motto for the poem could read: “beware what resurrection you’re calling for” or the like.

Jim Ferris describes resurrection as survival—after eugenics, after Aristotle, the disabled actually dare to thrive:

“Tell Aristotle”

    As to the exposure and rearing of children, let there be a law that 
      no deformed child shall live.
            Aristotle, Politics

Tell Aristotle I lived.
    Tell him Dave did too.
Tell him the state has not
    yet fallen, though you know
kids these days. Tell him perhaps
    all our words are but
elaborations, repetitions
    of that crier’s claim.
Tell Aristotle, tell the Spartans,
    tell the legions of those
who think they can’t afford the difference
    that difference makes,
tell Montaigne, tell Hobbes,
    tell Dr. Tiergarten
and that off-key singer
    of sad and silly songs,
tell them the useless eaters
    have survived,
tell them there are more of us now
    than ever, disorderly,
imperfect, splashing out the gene pool,
    what a messy species,
tell them my brother Dave and I
    inhabit this moment,
tell Aristotle we are alive,
    tell them all we thrive
.

Resurrection is imperfect, splashing out of the gene pool, more of us now, and implicitly, firmly, prescriptively, morally equal.
The poet Laurie Clements Lambeth writes:

and then there are days when I can stride across the house
five times even, springing forward with an armful of laundry
 
as though I never forgot how, no longer offering the body
instruction in hip tuck or the proper undulation of each foot
 
(hold wall, heel first, steady now, lift the next). My gratitude
at such moments is not for the walking, that easy
 
grace. It’s for the shadow, that other gait hovering around
my frame, a faint, wavering outline, staggering dragged
 
water-edge purling behind. How can one measure time or space?
The miles I saw stretch across this little house unfurled a span
 
to heave through, now condensed to mere feet. I will see those
miles again, I know, and somehow now: I keep a foot in each world.

Embodied, prescriptive, we’re equally unknowable—the truest definition of equivalence and equality one may ever know. Disability as poetics, an epistemology is a resurrectionist school but not a school of overcoming or cure.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger