Tonight the PBS NewsHour will air a segment about my new book Have Dog, Will Travel. The 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.
ABOUT: 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.
Rain falls in my hair and there’s a long distance call from the dead, my dead, that vanity of all men. Rain. And not voices really but numerals in the mind. Meantime music quiets in me while I count the generations. Rain. Great grandfather. His wife sobbing behind a tree. He was a wheelwright. He made coffins for children. Music quiets. As a boy I never liked mathematics. Rain this morning. I walk among apple trees. I see paradise in fallen fruit. I want to kneel down.
When the Victorians read Dickens they read for plot and confirmation–they could see their world. When we read Dickens we still read for plot but less for confirmation as we think we are superior to his characters. This is a great mistake. Dickensian sins are fully our own though we’ve one extra: post-modern irony.
I’m thinking of pastiche as Frederic Jameson would say: irony that references itself. Most often it’s mediated consciousness draped with the status conferred by consumer fetishism. Dickens characters were vain or greedy but never so self absorbed they fell into anhedonia.
Most days I read like a Victorian who wants plot and confirmation but also a bit of compassion. I’m also an admirer of Cardinal Newman’s dictum: “We can believe what we choose. We are answerable for what we choose to believe.”
I’m old fashioned that way.
Of Newman I also like: “Nothing would be done at all if one waited until one could do it so well that no one could find fault with it.”
Dear Charles: you pushed your wife into the asylum when you were done with her. You rooted for the American Confederacy. You were silly. You thought Anton Mesmer was on to something.
Dear Kuusisto: and who are you? (Reader, does he get to answer? Does anyone get to answer?)
He tries: “I was half destroyed by war movies. They tried to brain wash me into thinking the good guys always won. I’d no idea that beneath Roy Rogers’ horse was the blood of indigenous people. Man was I tricked. And you can’t get your money back!”
OK. You’ve said who you aren’t but nothing more.
He tries: “I’m a human consciousness growth project lacking some essential vitamins.”
Night never wants to end, his backward death
Apes my own, yours, the death of a lonesome neighbor
Once, coming down after acid
I saw the morning star
Was a tombstone
Early it was a mockingbird
Sang a little “Keats”
Ghost limbs of poplars
Held him up
Do you remember
Before you could count
Everything was equal?
This is how it is for night
Falling like Icarus
Away from the sun
Each loss a child’s
“…yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away
From out dark spirits.”
And wild eyed let’s
Go about our business
I am presently in the process of reading arts grants. I won’t say “for whom” but let’s say this offers a wide view of contemporary arts funders and in turn offers their various mission statements. What’s shocking is the evidence that the disabled are not broadly conceived as artists nor are they imagined as customers.
Of course I shouldn’t be shocked. I’ve watched for years as numerous national literary conferences have treated the disabled like dirt. I’ve been to arts retreats–formerly known as “colonies” where the disabled artist is a curiosity and the dinner conversation is filled with ableism. During COVID-19 sequestration I’ve watched poetry festivals emerge on-line. Almost none of the feature disabled writers. Maybe the organizers think we’re already dead.
It shouldn’t surprise me at all that while checking the websites of the arts organizations looking for dough I’ve found that nearly all of their sites are disability inaccessible. Yet the words “diversity and inclusion” are plastered everywhere.
Yesterday I asked a friend why she thinks the disabled are so routinely left out of the diversity and inclusion panopticon.
We concluded they think we’re already dead. Or if not, we represent death and who needs it?
Think on this: if you’re a blind poet trying to use “Submittable” the ubiquitous website employed by the majority of literary magazines as a submissions portal you’ll discover its accessibility is deeply flawed. They’ve a web page that says they care about accessibility. But caring and doing are miles apart. Inclusion means doing.
Over the past decade, given how inhospitable most literary magazines are when it comes to disability, I’ve published my poems on my blog. The blog is accessible. Who needs the ableist clotted mechanisms of disability exclusion. As a writer who’s published with the best houses in the US and abroad I don’t need any more gold stars from “Poetry Magazine” or “Spilled Chowder Review. I sure don’t need Submittable screwing with my precious time because they can’t be bothered to make their system fully ADA compliant.
I shouldn’t be surprised.
Here’s a poem I self published some years back:
America with your history of eugenics.
With your hostility to the global charter on disability rights.
With your jails, stocked with psychiatric patients—worse than the Soviet Union. We are Gulag Los Angeles; Gulag Rikers Island; Gulag Five Points in Upstate New York.
America with your young Doctor Mengeles.
With your broken VA.
With your war on food stamps and infant nutrition.
With your terror of autism and lack of empathy for those who have it.
Wih your 80% unemployment rate for people with disabilites.
With your pity parties—inspiration porn—Billy was broken until we gave him a puppy.
With your sanctimonious low drivel disguised as empathy.
With your terror of reasonable accommodations.
With your NPR essays about fake disability fraud, which is derision of the poor and elderly.
With your disa-phobia—I wouldn’t want one of them to sit next to me on a bus.
America when will you admit you have a hernia?
When will you admit you’re a lousy driver?
Admit you miss the days of those segregated schools, hospitals, residential facilities—just keep them out of sight.
When will you apologize for your ugly laws?
When will you make Ron Kovic’s book irrelevant?
America, you threatened Allen Ginsberg with lobotomy.
Ameica you medicated a generation of teenagers for bi-polar depression when all they were feeling was old fashioned fear.
When will you protect wheelchairs on airlines?
When will you admit you’re terrified of luck?