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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 

Can I help it if I’m too sentimental to trust my instincts…

Can I help it if I’m too sentimental to trust my instincts? Oh how many times have I stepped onto thin ice, just name the setting: employment, friendships, hodgepodge transactions of every sort. I’m the dope who thinks the car salesman “likes” him and to answer the question, apparently not.

Trust is a necessary adjunct to civics but its relationship to sentiment is poorly understood. Ernest Hemingway said: “the best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them,” which is fine advice but it ignores the clouded and moist diffusions of tender feelings. If you grow up in a loveless house you’ll likely misunderstand affection–hardly any news there–but let’s think of sentimentality, the resistance to one’s better judgements, that Miltonic snake, as one of the worst things that can befall us and one of the most necessary.
Hemingway was mostly right. Wanting to be loved, dare to be loved, decide you’re in love, look for it in all the wrong places. Give it a go.

Sentiment, that gushy thing is not what we suppose for its merely the desire to love the self so in turn it becomes brittle, demanding and manipulative. Thomas Merton wrote: “The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”

When I imagine the car salesman likes me I’m not perfectly myself. When I think workplace colleagues will be true friends I’m not at all myself. I’m just another sad soul demanding others reflect me. Baby Narcissus.

None of this is news. But sentiment has a worse trick up its sleeve. One is so in love with being in love, so thirsty a failure of almost sub-atomic proportions occurs. Here’s Emerson:

“A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud. I am arrived at last in the presence of a man so real and equal, that I may drop even those undermost garments of dissimulation, courtesy, and second thought, which men never put off, and may deal with him with the simplicity and wholeness with which one chemical atom meets another.”

I’ll presume atoms have no sentiment, just life.

Vote for the Binding-heart

I wish I could tell you what’s in my heart in this political season. I don’t mean the rage-heart or the schadenfreude-heart, those twins of Freud’s Id. I’m thinking of the binding-heart, the one that heals. Wishing this I acknowledge it’s tricky, this heart-speak since it requires a bit of poetry and a lot of self-awareness.

I’m blind. Some see me on the street and think I’m a sad sack for what else is disability but a ticket to an inferior life? The statistics on blindness and unemployment are sobering. In my heart? This political season I want Americans to vote for job expansion, inclusivity, dignified employment—which means true diversity in the jobs of the future.

In the heart—mine—I want black lives and guide dog users and wheelchair drivers and women getting equal pay. I wish away the tacit assumption that difference means incapacity. I don’t want employment specialists looking at me as a flight attendant once did, saying: ”if I was disabled I think I’d kill myself.”

The binding-heart is a sober heart as it understands the disabled and their families have considerable disposable income. Most American colleges and universities don’t get this and continue to treat disability services as a pinched nose mandate they’d rather get rid of. Underfunded accommodation programs in higher education are one of the primary reasons only one in four students with a disability graduates. Schools that do a good job discover the disabled are generous. The binding-heart understands this. Black lives are generous and queer lives; yes this is true. Diversity in employment and education means opening the floodgates of talent and generosity in the twenty-first century.

By now you think I’m bananas.

In this political moment America must get imaginative. Let’s imagine disabilities as expertises. If we’re really going to build new infrastructures, who better than the disabled to explain universal design? The binding-heart is both visionary and inclusive. The binding-heart is pragmatic.

Take a look at “Our Ability” a non-profit in Albany, New York that uses AI technology to create accessible and inclusive technology for the employment of people with disabilities. From their website:

“Our vision is to help people develop more advanced skills in the workplace and to evolve the culture around inclusive hiring by creating a job search interface that will connect opportunities for employers and the disability community.”

Take a look at Syracuse University’s Taishoff Center for inclusive education where they say: “we celebrate disability because it makes our campus stronger, more diverse, and much more interesting; until everyone is included, there is no real inclusion for anyone.”

Yes the binding-heart knows disability is interesting. I wish I’d thought to say that to the flight attendant. On that occasion all I could say was, “I’m not what you suppose.”

Vote for the binding-heart.

Privilege in Them Thar Halls…

“Now a secret must be imparted. Professor Pnin was on the wrong train. He was unaware of it, and so was the conductor, already threading his way through the train to Pnin’s coach. As a matter of fact, Pnin at the moment felt very well satisfied with himself. ”

Vladimir Nabokov “Pnin”

This is a confession of sorts: I’ve helped build two disability studies programs at major American universities and now, after twenty plus years I’m Professor Pnin on the wrong train, though I’m becoming dimly aware of it.

The problem is that disabled faculty who require accommodations to work, teach, and conduct research are not well represented in the field. This is because colleges and universities advance sub-rosa programs in “area studies” as long as they don’t have to engage in any new hiring. I’ve traveled across the US over the years visiting scores of campuses and I rarely meet disabled faculty. Note I say “rarely” for there are some stars of disability research who are cripples but they’re outnumbered. I’m no essentialist: I think non-disabled faculty can and should teach disability themes and conduct research. But I lament the divide that has kept younger disabled scholars and writers from advancing. I can also attest that my own need for accommodations in the workplace has been treated variously and it’s often the case that non-disabled faculty who trade in dis-studies are not meaningful allies.

It would be far different if there were more cripples in the ranks.

Prof. Pnin is Nabokov’s lost emigre scholar who suffers from accidie—that late medieval weariness of the isolated monk who just can’t go on. Pnin doesn’t fit in at the provincial American campus where he finds himself teaching Russian lit and experiences the loneliness that comes with having no true friends among his colleagues. The faculty are “in it” for themselves, an old theme perhaps but for disabled scholars this is a nightmare. Just last week a blind graduate student wrote to say she’s having the run around with her university’s information technology team who are unwilling to help her with assistive tech and rather than admit they’re not up to speed on ADA 101 tell her she’s the problem. When I told her this has happened to me repeatedly even as recently as last year, she was aghast. Surely I was somehow well off? Surely as a well known disability activist and writer with a professorship I must have found the secret to inclusion.

Ableism in the faculty ranks is not over. The cottage industry of hiring non-disabled faculty to teach disability related themes is not over. The unwillingness of technologists to meaningfully address disability is not over. The silence of some though not all faculty in the dis-studies field is not over.

There’s privilege in them thar halls.

A Slogan for Trump

Every day there’s an assault on reason in the neighborhood, yours or mine. In Central Asia parents hide disabled children so their non-disabled offspring will be attractive for arranged marriages. Reason seldom prevails over local economics. Thomas Jefferson understood slavery made him rich even as he venerated reason.

Hypocrisy flourishes where economies of suborned dignity are the norm. American conservatives talk of the US constitution using the term “originalism” thereby making no secret of their false virtue where racial equality or human rights are concerned. The American constitution was written by slave owners and their feckless northern apologists. Disdain is never a secret, it’s just tricked out with piety and the kind of candy coated earnestness we saw from Amy Coney Barrett.

There are plural assaults on reason of course: the arranged slaughter of Kashoggi; children caged; refugee camps; environmental looting from the rainforests of Brazil to Lapland, legislation to jail homosexuals in the Dakotas–the list is nearly inexhaustible not only because economies of scale triumph over dignity but because as the globe dies the resource fights are about theft on steroids.

What sells? Delegetimancy. But only for the powerful. Trump’s rhetorical employment of Mexican rapists, the GOP’s histrionics about socialists–(Biden is coming to destroy your suburb) all are incitements to hate the neighbors.

Since Trump is running on no observable platform and since he’s got no catchy slogan (Make America Great Again and Again isn’t cutting it) he should just cry out from his balcony, “Hate Your Neighbors!” There’s plenty of money to still be made.

Mad at the World

William Souder’s extraordinary new biography of John Steinbeck has thrown me back into my youth in ways I’d not imagined possible. I’ll explain in a moment. “Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck” is a nuanced and scrupulous volume and it’s also a study in depth psychology without the turgid rhetoric of Jung and Freud–it’s a book about a life of ambitious heartbreaks. It is quite frankly one of the best biographies I’ve read in years ranking alongside Richard Ellmann’s “Oscar Wilde” and Candice Millard’s “The River of Doubt” in its shrewd and empathetic treatment of the doubts and drives inside a creative human being.

Of my youth I’ll just say that between the ages of 22 and 27 I lived the driven torture of “the imagination” often hiding in lonely places just to afford the luxury of writing without income. All writers have these periods I think but Souder brings out the exquisite, clarifying, haunted precision of early seeing that hurts, fascinates, and ultimately makes one who’d deign to write. He brought back for me the loneliness of perception, the cold wind of it. One night at twenty I went out, got down on all fours in a cemetery and chewed the grass because Lorca said something about it in a poem. Yes I was blind. Yes the moon was up. Yes I was wildly alive.

“Mad at the World” is not a staid biography, it’s almost a nonfiction bildungsroman about a man who was richly alive with all the triumphs and tragedies inherent in a writing life. The cliche is “warts and all” but Souder gives us Steinbeck’s blemishes with the light and space to take them in:

“One of the mysteries of writing is how it sometimes happens in spite of everything. Many writers cannot bear distractions. Steinbeck, always brittle and impossible to be around when he was in the middle of a book, had been fiercely protective of his writing time, and nobody who knew him even a little dared interrupt him when he was working. Maybe being alone with his dying mother felt perversely like the kind of isolation he craved. Or perhaps he discovered at last that writing well is impervious to the noise and clamor of everyday life. It happens. Life (or death) taps you on the shoulder, interrupts what you’re doing, and suddenly you find that nobody has been bothering you but yourself. Indulgences disappear, instincts take over, mistrust of your own work fades, and the tendency toward self-doubt is carried away. And so it was with Steinbeck in that terrible time. He actually enjoyed himself while writing Tortilla Flat and the short stories that fell so easily onto his pages. It did not seem possible that this was the beginning of everything. But it was.”

One may say an open hand is nearly always empty but fate has other things to give and it’s sometimes a tenderness, an illuminated private station and Souder shows us how it worked for John Steinbeck. For my money this is one hell of a compelling book about a writer’s life, the lived life of the unaffiliated places inside.

One night, blind and alone in Helsinki, Finland I found a frozen spoon in the snow. I talked to it. Said: “we’re in equilibrium. It all balances.” It was snowing hard.

The Wind in Syracuse

I started the day with rain in a dish.
There’s always a place like that.
It’s a short lived complex structure.
Mind-house with leaking roof.
Up river someone is singing.
Steinbeck’s ghost.
You can smell the rotting wood.
A patch of garden; damp earth.
A solemn stove rusts in the woods.
Call me what you will,
Friends, enemies.
October winds pass through.
Every day I’m closer to creation.

I once held Enrico Caruso’s shoe…

I once held Enrico Caruso’s shoe…

This is a very strange life. I was presented with the great tenor’s shoe. It was heavy. In fact it was the heaviest shoe I’d ever held. To think of the man above it melting spheres by singing aloud the scribblings of Puccini, the shoe anchoring him to earth…

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Ah, the buttermilk in the far north…

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Let us be as voluble and engaging as the magpies.

This is a very strange life. Fish swim through our souls. Outside our doors ants are preparing for winter.

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I kid you not.

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My neighbor walks about like a man who might shoulder a palanquin.

This is a very strange life.

Keep the television off.

Avoid the warehouses of rage and loss.