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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 

Still Shaking

I am of the opinion that Donald Trump won the debate last night. I’ve watched “Morning Joe” and read the papers. Lots of people are using nuance and scruples to analyze what happened in Cleveland. But the proof of Trump’s victory is in today’s headlines–“Rage on the Stage”; “Debate Disgrace”; etc. Trump’s goal is to turn people off, keep them at home, cast doubt on the very idea of democracy. If the headlines are any indication (and they may not be, I’ll concede…) then “the Donald” succeeded last night.

In order for my dark suspicion to be wrong we’ll have to see a vast turnout for Biden. Like all bullies Trump’s rules “are” the rules and on the debased playground that’s taken the place of civic engagement only a large moral posse of good kids will be able to stop him.

I was beaten on the playground as a kid. I know plenty of women who have survived abusive relationships with men.

I’m still shaking today.

If enough Americans want their democracy back we’ll get it back.

If Trump succeeds in destroying all public confidence in our national decency and the fairness of elections then he becomes dictator for life.

Yeah, I’m shaking. I know you are too.

The one thing I take comfort from is that “the proud boys” sounds like a toilet training celebration at the day care center.

Dispatch from Moscow, Idaho

Moscow, Idaho

In November of 2008 I spent a week guest teaching nonfiction writing at the University of Idaho. I was accompanied by my aging guide dog “Vidal” a yellow Labrador retriever who’d retire the following month. He was still a good worker and a boon companion though straight off I found he was a vehicle for rubicund creationists who were holding a mini-convention in the Best Western. You know this hotel: a pasteboard phantasm of breakfasts, carpet deodorants, bad plumbing, a cocktail bar straight out of “Breakfast of Champions” with faux paneling and lava lamps. And the creationists who admiring Vidal would step in front of us to ask if I understood the earth is only 4,000 years old? “Nice doggy, nice doggy, sir, do you know the earth is only 4000 years old?”

Cheapness in architecture means you can’t get three abreast in a corridor so Vidal couldn’t find a way around creationist one who for the sake of nuance I’ll call Decimus Tite Barnacle. “Well, you know, ” I said, “I’ve things in my refrigerator that are older than that.” And Old Decimus wasn’t having it for he proclaimed this was no joke and I said, “excuse me but doggy gotta poo poo” and shoved him aside. This was day one in Moscow, Idaho; hour one. The first ten minutes. Outside was no better. The town smelled of rotting plants.

The students and faculty at the university were marvelous. We had lively, imaginative, and altogether useful conversations about writing, life on and off the pages, good books to read, the uses of curiosity. I loved everyone I met who had even the slightest interest in writing. And then there was the Best Western. Each night I’d return to a cloud of disinfectant spray, drunken creationists, overly solicitous waitresses in the grim dinette who thought that being blind I might need spoon feeding and who said “god bless you darling” when I’d ask for a fork.

Of this waitress clan I’ve met many and let’s not be sexist some are men, though yes the general “prole” nature of the thing is the thing, barbers, doormen, cab drivers, the maitre de, all believing the blind man is going to come apart like a bad banjo right before them and so they radiate a good natured panic at the sight of you.

At the university they thought I knew a thing or two. In the hotel I was a lost lamb of god.

By day two I was informed that the odor on the wind was rotting potato plants. Vidal and I walked up and down and he scented the air and my sinuses filled and we discovered that every third storefront in town was some kind of Christian venue–reading room, fortress, safe house, donjon, turret, bunker, for some of them were below street level like tattoo parlors. Yes and there were despoiled Christians outside each establishment who “loafed” as Walt Whitman might have it but they had no love in them and would step into our path and say things like: “You know Jesus is watching you, don’t you?” Or, “What did you do in your past life to wind up this way?” The stink of a million potato plant corpses like a sand storm.

Dispatch from Moscow, Idaho

In November of 2008 I spent a week guest teaching nonfiction writing at the University of Idaho. I was accompanied by my aging guide dog “Vidal” a yellow Labrador retriever who’d retire the following month. He was still a good worker and a boon companion though straight off I found he was a vehicle for rubicund creationists who were holding a mini-convention in the Best Western. You know this hotel: a pasteboard phantasm of breakfasts, carpet deodorants, bad plumbing, a cocktail bar straight out of “Breakfast of Champions” with faux paneling and lava lamps. And the creationists who admiring Vidal would step in front of us to ask if I understood the earth is only 4,000 years old? “Nice doggy, nice doggy, sir, do you know the earth is only 4000 years old?”

Cheapness in architecture means you can’t get three abreast in a corridor so Vidal couldn’t find a way around creationist one who for the sake of nuance I’ll call Decimus Tite Barnacle. “Well, you know, ” I said, “I’ve things in my refrigerator that are older than that.” And Old Decimus wasn’t having it fir he proclaimed this was no joke and I said, “excuse me but doggy gotta poo poo” and shoved him aside. This was day one in Moscow, Idaho; hour one. The first ten minutes. Outside was no better. The town smelled of rotting plants.

The students and faculty at the university were marvelous. We had lively, imaginative, and altogether useful conversations about writing, life on and off the pages, good books to read, the uses of curiosity. I loved everyone I met who had even the slightest interest in writing. And then there was the Best Western. Each night I’d return to a cloud of disinfectant spray, drunken creationists, overly solicitous waitresses in the grim dinette who thought that being blind I might need spoon feeding and who said “god bless you darling” when I’d ask for a fork.

Of this waitress clan I’ve met many and let’s not be sexist some are men, though yes the general “prole” nature of the thing is the thing, barbers, doormen, cab drivers, the maitre de, all believing the blind man is going to come apart like a bad banjo right before them and so they radiate a good natured panic at the sight of you.

At the university they thought I knew a thing or two. In the hotel I was a lost lamb of god.

By day two I was informed that the odor on the wind was rotting potato plants. Vidal and I walked up and down and he scented the air and my sinuses filled and we discovered that every third storefront in town was some kind of Christian venue–reading room, fortress, safe house, donjon, turret, bunker, for some of them were below street level like tattoo parlors. Yes and there were despoiled Christians outside each establishment who “loafed” as Walt Whitman might have it but they had no love in them and would step into our path and say things like: “You know Jesus is watching you, don’t you?” Or, “What did you do in your past life to wind up this way?” The stink of a million potato plant corpses like a sand storm.

Why Putin is Laughing…

By now so much has been written about Donald Trump I think what can I add? Just this: hearing him I recognize the voice of someone who’s in terrible pain and in turn will do anything to pass it to you.

The former KGB (now Russia’s ruling elite) discerned racism was America’s biggest weakness, first, in the 1950’s, imagining it as a propaganda tool in the Cold War; later as a means of domestic subversion. Make no mistake–though Putin didn’t “groom” Trump as some would have it, he knew he’d hit the jackpot when Trump fell into heavy Russian debt. Trump would be superhuman if he didn’t feel rage at being a puppet.

His racism “saves” him–it’s the thing he knows best and the more he blames dark people for every deleterious thing he can imagine, the more of Putin’s work he’s doing.

In this way he’s not a man of opinion, he’s a robotic Putin viceroy of bile who can perfectly divide a vulnerable, multi-cultural nation.

Ironically it’s our very multiculturalism that’s our biggest strength.

Thus endeth the sermon.

Happy Birthday

My friend Jarkko who’s vanished in the two dimensional heaven favored by pagan Scandinavians wrote once about a lonesome birthday, a childhood recollection, comic books and pop records on a cheap gramophone….something about the joy of it.

I can’t find his poem anymore. There were attic windows I think. Mansard windows maybe. Some attics have portholes. It doesn’t matter. Jarkko was alone, light seeping like watery milk in the orphanage.

In this poem, which is its own crude comic, we laugh as Batman steps on a giant frozen turd. Robin says: “Oh, that’s going to take some scrubbing!”

—for Ralph Savarese

Long ago in a land without iPhones…

When I was a grad student in poetry writing at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop back in the Jimmy Carter era, before mobile phones, I used to wander all day lost in my thoughts like a baby version of Rousseau. I liked people better than Rousseau but that’s another story. Nor am I nostalgic when I say that having whole days, weeks, months when you could walk around without emails, e-calendars, texts, or phone calls was paradise. And though I couldn’t see the future I understood my liberation. Here as best I can reconstruct it is an average morning spent in Iowa City before iPhones, computers, pagers, or anything else that ice picks the mind. I admit it’s a story of privilege. I had the opportunity to live this way.

Wake up. Look at crows in the ruined garden outside my apartment. Though legally blind I know they’re crows. Either that or they’re giant animate raisins leaping for joy or in hunger. Wonder if joy and hunger are related. Promise to finish reading “Hunger” by Knut Hamsun. Drink coffee on front porch.

Stand at bathroom mirror for at least fifteen minutes. Should I shave off my beard or not? I don’t like my face. Understand that I don’t like either option. Think about Nikolai Gogol. Imagine having an enormous mobile nose as a companion. Think that might be OK. Conclude that cutting off the beard will take too much time. Reckon I need to go outside right away. Hope the imaginary Gogol nose will follow.

Late September in Iowa City. Leaves falling. Walk upon them. Smell them. Fruit spoiling. Wind. First sweater day. I’m twenty four and refuse to wear colors. Grey is not a color, I’ve decided. Blue jeans, hole in knee, Adidas tennis shoes, white. Head south on Linn Street toward downtown. Zero notion where I’m going. Gogol’s nose hasn’t followed. Decide to get coffee. Head to diner. Lean on counter. Overhear two farmers wearing caps that say “Blue Seal Feeds” discussing Randy Newman’s hit song “Short People.” One likes it, the other is affronted by it. I think: “curses on both short and tall people.” I do not say it.

Spend the next hour walking in circles around the town. As far as I know I do not meet people who know me. I’m too blind to identify passersby.

In the autumn of 1978 I’m very caught up thinking about the subconscious. More of Jung, less of Freud. I believe it’s possible to fall asleep and share a dream with someone in Tashkent. Stand for a moment outside a farmer dude barber shop. Think about Isadora Duncan and Sergei Esinen. Wonder if they met through synchronous dreaming. They lived briefly in Tashkent.

Head to public library. Old, homely, granitic friend. Know I’m unlikely to meet irritating fellow graduate students there.

Drift through stacks smelling books. Can read some of them when the print is large enough.

They have a large print edition of Stendahl’s The Red and the Black

Check it out and though its big as a Manhattan phone book I carry it with me on my walk.

Now I’m like a man with a votive pillow. The Stendahl pillow.

I walk up Clinton Street with a supersized edition.

Locate public bench. Sit. Business school students wearing cheap suits scuttle past.

I’ve been out of my house for two whole hours and no one has bothered me.

Several leaves do a dans Russe. Wonder who killed Esinen. Or did he really hang himself?

Time for a cigarette.

Time for spontaneous laughter. I laugh at nothing apparent.

Decide to walk beside river.

It’s a day.

One can read uninterrupted.

I keep a journal.

Write a few lines about the unconscious, Isadora Duncan’s love of the Greeks, think of her in a canoe telling Sergei to “strophe, strophe!”

How lovely the days before the constant dings and chimes.

Nothing is just the sea…

So I came across the quote from Jean Genet: “Treachery is beautiful if it makes us sing.” I’m wondering what it means.

I think I know what it means, you know? Out of pain comes art. More specifically perhaps, we achieve pain through vagabondage, that wonderful French word for the criminalization of not fitting in, and for which they throw you in the slammer.

Still, treachery is an interesting word. It means treasonable or perfidious conduct. Genet means for us to understand this is larger than the individual. Everyone should sing in rage.

BTW Edmund White’s book on Genet is brilliant.

**

I wrote a poem last week in which there’s a line that reads: “Mumsy go poof!”

My mother was an alcoholic and by turns violent or needy.

It took me years to write that line.

Along with it is a Genet-esque willingness to exorcise shit heads of every stripe.

I’m for vagabonds but not vainglorious academics or shiv pushing polemical dirt bags who tell you how you should be disabled, how you should be queer, how you should tie your fucking shoes.

Grew up with that shit.

Poof.

**

I read “Querelle” when I was in college. Genet was the first writer to communicate to me the idea that waves and violence are co-efficient in human barbarity. Formerly the sea was just the sea.

**

Nothing is just the sea.

This is privacy turned out like a pocket…

This is privacy turned out like a pocket, this business of blogging, podcasting, running one’s flag of dispositions up the flagpole of public consumption. Some of it is risible. Some of it is rage. Occasionally the author doesn’t know the difference.

I know the diff. But I’m going to say this anyway: The murder of Breonna Taylor is not going to go away in the minds of all citizens who care about human rights. I’m outraged. The system of white supremacy that’s run this nation into the ground and which Trump is effecting to make permanent through election intimidation–that stinking, oozing, soul crushing system is either the death knell of our nation or an alarm for its rebirth.

I’ll be damned if I’m ever going to utter the phrase “law and order’ in the absence of true equality, in a nation without racial justice.

And here I am, isolated, hiding from a virus, shaking my fist.

Ibram X. Kendi writes in “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.”:

“When you truly believe that the racial groups are equal, then you also believe that racial disparities must be the result of racial discrimination. Committed to this antiracist idea of group equality, I was able to self-critique, discover, and shed the racist ideas I had consumed over my lifetime while I uncovered and exposed the racist ideas that others have produced over the lifetime of America. I know that readers truly committed to racial equality will join me on this journey of interrogating and shedding our racist ideas.”

No one is immune to racist inheritances.

But everyone can shed bad ideas.

Here’s a bad idea: shooting black people while entering their homes by mistake. Then, in broad daylight, announcing it’s OK.

I am of god, a god-thing, a sort of man-clay-godish thing…

I am of god, a god-thing, a sort of man-clay-godish thing but you’ll have to excuse me now, I’m going into an American shop.
Long ago when I was new to the market, wheeled in a stroller, I thought the shining goods must mean there’s divinity about, even though I’d no concept of it. Now it’s just the bloody monolith of store, as the poet Anselm Hollo once said.

“They ain’t no god in these canned beans!” I want to shout.

Of course I don’t shout in the supermarket. I hardly say a thing.

That’s how you know you’ve been winnowed and shrunk.

You also know all the beautiful fruits and vegetables are the products of severe exploitation. Some days I think it would be better to eat my own arms off than partake of the quasi slave labor produce.

So I shop at organic places.

This means I’m privileged.

God seems further away by the hour.

And who am I, you might ask, complaining, while living in a land of comparative abundance?

Just trying to reinstall the sacred in the canned goods aisle.

And who am I, you might ask, to take upon himself such a thing?

I’m just a very old child.

Merleau-Ponty and the Melancholy Disability Breakfast…

Merleau-Ponty was much occupied by the phenomenon called “phantom limb”–it made him almost nuts. Do we retain a sense of the perfect body that haunts us? Is that perfect body a Platonic ideal? Does the body have any say in this? Is this a matter of the soul?

Reading him you want to say “sometimes a phantom limb is just a phantom limb. Have a phantom cigar my friend.”

Here’s Mzerleau-Ponty:

“Why can the memories recalled to the one-armed man cause the phantom arm to appear? The phantom arm is not a recollection, it is a quasi-present and the patient feels it now, folded over his chest, with no hint of its belonging to the past. Nor can we suppose that the image of an arm, wandering through consciousness, has joined itself to the stump: for then it would not be a ‘phantom’, but a renascent perception. The phantom arm must be that same arm, lacerated by shell splinters, its visible substance burned or rotted somewhere, which appears to haunt the present body without being absorbed into it. The imaginary arm is, then, like repressed experience, a former present which cannot decide to recede into the past.”

This is phenomenology as infantilization. Someday when I’m less tired I might tackle this. In the meantime I say as a disabled writer: us cripples don’t sit around fantasizing about wandering arms, not even in our subconscious. As for the idea of the former present which cannot decide to recede into the past let us suppose time is not concerned with volition, that what we say about it might be, but where the loss of limbs is concerned there’s no repression at all.

Non-disabled writers are such dears. They believe the body and its breakage is like losing lollipops. Bless their little hearts.