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Thank You Jeffrey Brown of PBS News Hour

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 

Disability and the Samaritans….

Once when I was walking in Manhattan with my first guide dog (a big yellow Labrador named “Corky”) a stranger grabbed me while we were crossing Fifth Avenue. No one likes to be seized and blind people especially dislike it. I required no help but there it was—we got to the far side and the man apparently bowed and ran away. “He thought he was saving your life,” said a woman who happened to see the incident.

I’ve thought about this for years. On the one hand it was invasive and frightening. But I realize my silent sentinel was sincere even if he’d no idea about how to engage with blind people.

Sincerity might not be a wholesale excuse but one shouldn’t underestimate good deed doing.

Blind folks dislike unsolicited help—at least generally. If they have guide dogs they certainly don’t want you talking to the dog or petting it. But let’s take blindness out of the situation. Do you like strangers walking up to you and patting your dog without an invitation? Do you like being manhandled? Do you like unsought help from strangers? Of course you don’t.

Back to my earlier point. We shouldn’t underestimate good deed doing.

I’ve come to this because (as we all know) civic life has been eroding. The man or woman who wants to help but doesn’t understand what’s called “disability etiquette” is at least trying to walk in my shoes. Right now Americans in their partisan divides are not imagining the shoes of strangers.

If you’re not familiar with the term disability etiquette it simply means having some common sense when interacting with the disabled. Don’t walk up to a wheelchair user and say “what happened to you?” (I remember vividly a classical composer at a famous arts colony who asked me first thing: “How did you go blind?”) The question is always reductive and irrelevant. That composer didn’t ask me, “what art do you practice?” In his mind I was just my disability.
BTW: I’ve a friend who’s a renowned physician. He’s very tall. Strangers ask him straight off if he played basketball. He hates this.

Don’t do what a college administrator I know once did to a student with a disability. She leaned over the woman’s wheelchair and said loudly: “Oh we’re sooooo glad you’re here with us!”

Don’t yell at disabled people. We’ve had plenty of this in our lives.

When a disabled person says something is inaccessible don’t label them a malcontent.

I’m just like you except I can’t see. She’s just like you but she is a wheelchair user. Note: stop saying “confined” to a wheelchair, for the love of God!

Stop acting so damned superior because “today” you appear to be “normal.” Get over your fealty to a narrow way of living. I promise you it won’t end well.

Quit acting so put out because you have a disabled student in your classroom.

Talk to me and not the apparently non-disabled person next to me.

Please keep your hands off me.

Oh, and for the love of God, stop referring to us as sufferers.

And for good measure: quit trying to take our limited health care away.

Memoir on a Thumbnail

Upriver

It was Herakleitos put string in my wrist
(What a trickster)
Bozo the clown
Sent me a love note
In 1963

**

In the Woods 1960

For the merchant god
Knew me
As I bartered soul
For shy, unexpected
Living things
To come my way

**

Accidie

The old men and women of the universities grow tendrils and the students don’t see

**

Naval History

Dead men in a rowboat
Take away the corpses
Dead men in a rowboat

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Monument

Patroclus I think was eulegized
In bronze
Because his dignity didn’t survive
To the age of gold

**

Local News

“To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable!”

—Beethoven

Meanwhile, in Syracuse, NY, pianos are being offered free of charge to anyone who will haul them away

Inventions for our political moment…

Inventions for our political moment:

  1. “The Trump Pump”–just like dynamite in the out house it blows shit everywhere. Lots of noise. Gentle folk become confused. There’s a toilet seat up in a tree.
  2. The “Spox Box”–picture a tiny rectangular lava lamp with Rachel Maddow or that tight whitey from Fox inside. Bubbles going up and down.
  3. “Live Free or Die, Right Now”–a New Hampshire inspired crowdsourcing game. You show up waving two boiled lobster claws, wearing no mask, with an automatic rifle strapped to your back. You get COVID and die in a substandard hospital in Portsmouth.
  4. The Hangdog White Apology mask for old liberals: sounds eerily like post-war Nazis–“I swear we didn’t know what was really going on.”
  5. The “Bezos Box”–straight from Amazon to your door. Looks like a coffee table but you can use it as a casket.

Autumn Mirror

After summer came and went and some were ill
And some were in love—many traveled—
The world was unsafe or generous
I wept as men do
Choking in my white room
As the spread out
Abstract gas of war
Suffused every inch of me
So that my obedient hands
Become war hands
My neck a battle neck
My tongue dipped
To atrocities
Like a bee ignorant
Of its flower
Unable to distinguish
Where it’s been or what lies ahead
Do you see, it said, my tongue
How the body, even in repose,
Even with this poetry
Is just a war lord’s gavel?

Blind Treatise on Being Seen

A trick, ostrich-fever, you don’t exist
You who stare, public transport
Passersby, if you live at all
You’re inches above the pavement.
You plow without recompense
The fields of your physiques—
Desperate like crows
Where the animal has fallen,
Worshipping where
The animal has fallen.
So you live in a yellow time
Of hunger and you don’t exist.
I walk among you
Without analogy
Though where the animal falls
You think you see me
I loosen every bond.

Ghost Cat and Rimbaud

This morning I run backwards without history, free in the utopian wind that Rimbaud yearned for but never found. You have to know: sometimes words are secondary.

**

I call the ghost cat. He takes his time crossing the floor of memory. The ghost dog never left.

Note to self: never write “of course.’

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Rimbaud: just another guy who got lost in his noggin.

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Oh I love Rimbaud just as I love the ghost cat.

**

Question: why is the ghost cat “not” history?

Question: what do you feed a feline spirit? What prayer should we say over milk?

The Fix

You read books, old and new while the Grecian river flows onward 

So you’ve no help for it but to scribble in the margins. 

You’ve no help for it…Call Charon or Dickens 

It hardly matters, wave your pencil Lethe-wards

No one cares. Pages are an upright affair 

And short lived to boot. Once I struggled 

For a month to read Egyptian grammar 

A college vanity—and so much death 

In every line! And look! They scribbled 

In the margins, sometimes wrote on men. 

“May I look upon my soul and my shadow?”

Asks Anonymous in the Egyptian Book 

Of the Dead but no one answers,

Only the clean papyrus

Waving languidly in the wind.  

 

 

 

 

Mushroom Soup

It comes down to mushrooms, it always does. A good soup. The steaming earth spoon by spoon. Give me the primitive dish.
And when I call to the gods may they smell them on my breath.

**

I’ll give you nothing if you’ll reciprocate. I carry zeros in a tiny velvet purse.

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Before my mother became a full bore drunk she read Dracula out loud to me. Blind kid with photo-monster mommy.

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Dracula, earth, mushrooms, scary mother, zeros in a little sack.

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I do love the way Yeats believed in things.

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My first footprints in snow of the winter. This has been a clumsy year.

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I actually belong to the G. K. Chesterton society.

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I recommend the Cremini mushroom.

Arvo Part on the Radio

Arvo Part on the Radio

You get one chance
But listening
You know it isn’t true
For the Gods come
Like winter smoke

So many ways
To enter the houses
Of the grass

Yes I want too much

For a brief hour
We play with silence
Throw our voices

Of chances
The gods have no use
Night coming down

I knew this much: outside Tallinn
Where the trolley left me
Where I was lost one cold day

I could still raise a hand
So beautiful hitchhiking blind
In a place not mine

Take me back to the fairy tale castle
I told the driver who stopped

Winter Baltic
Wonderful to be alive
How to say it…

Marvin Bell and the Open Poem

If I knew better I’d have bet against a quote purported to come from Yeats. It was first told to me in Finland by a British ex-pat professor of literature who was certain he knew more than anyone else. The word “pettifogger” comes to mind but he dressed well. He insisted Yeats said “a poem should click shut like a well made box.”

I was fresh out of grad school—the Iowa Writer’s Workshop—where I’d studied poetry writing with Marvin Bell (among others) and while I was young enough to be almost nauseous with credulity, I knew poems were different than humidors since the good ones are living things. But I believed Old Jasper (for that’s what I’ll call him) and blithely went about saying “Yeats said…” for a number of years. Youth can do this. You want the authoritative mien of Jasper.

You may not care about poetry or not overmuch and that’s fine but I think its important to say that craft should not be closed, arid, cramped, or locked. Whether you’re changing the oil in your car or writing a song, the best work sends us out into the world.

So I should have known better. Yeats never shut anything tight. He wouldn’t want to. He had the gyres of cosmos and aeonic winds and he loved a ruined house as much as anyone.

Marvin Bell said: “Learn the rules, break the rules, make up new rules, break the new rules.” This is the proper way of it. Improvisation is vital resistance.

Today a large gathering of American poets will read poems by Marvin Bell through a Zoom session hosted by Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City. Readers will include John Irving, Tess Gallagher, Heather McHugh, David St. John, Naomi Shihab Nye, Kwame Dawes, Ellen Bass, Juan Felipe Herrera, Stephen Kuusisto, Dorianne Laux, Lia Purpura, Eric Pankey, and many more.  Marvin’s son Nathan Bell, the internationally recognized folk singer will perform songs.

Marvin Bell has been at the forefront of American poetry for sixty years. He’s quite ill. Today’s event is our chance to say how much we love him.

Come for the poetry. Remember, poems don’t close.