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 

Gestural Violence, Philosophy and the Academy

I started reading “the Philosophers” when I was around ten. In a sense there was nothing else to do. Yes I read other things. Poetry, novels, Ian Fleming, instructional manuals. But I had the half-starved mind’s musical anger to know why the body; why the damned consciousness though I didn’t call it that and you shouldn’t either.

Back then I read with a gramophone. Big boxes of recorded books would arrive on my doorstep from the Library of Congress. Those were the days when the classics were available for the blind and I remember reading the following:

“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

I didn’t know the term “gestural violence” yet but I was bullied at school and daily.

Gestural violence is a means of bullying. Today I’m a university professor and I see how It occurs in the academy because the agora is patrolled space.

Bullying is epigenetic and happens across the globe. It’s not merely a human trait. Chimpanzees have been known to murder their own. The desire to punish even minor differences crosses borders and species. But human bullying, owns what I will call, for lack of a better term, an architectonic structure, which is entirely political. In his altogether relevant book from the early 1960’s Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity Erving Goffman wrote:

“The Greeks, who were apparently strong on visual aids, originated the term stigma to refer to bodily signs designed to expose something unusual and bad about the moral status of the signifier. The signs were cut or burnt into the body and advertised that the bearer was a slave, a criminal, or a traitor—a blemished person, ritually polluted, to be avoided, especially in public places. Later, in Christian times, two layers of metaphor were added to the term: the first referred to bodily signs of holy grace that took the form of eruptive blossoms on the skin; the second, a medical allusion to this religious allusion, referred to bodily signs of physical disorder. Today the term is widely used in something like the original literal sense, but is applied more to the disgrace itself than to the bodily evidence of it.”

Architectonic stigma/bullying comes from constructed and layered significations. The social construction of stigmatized bullying is therefore more sinister than primate bullying. Strictly speaking all of Michel Foucault’s work is concerned with the political enforcement of normality and its accompanying structures of correction. Paris is a good laboratory as it’s still even in its post-modern assembly a late medieval city. Like Kafka’s Prague, Paris is built from disciplinary power, its architectures crafted by coercive persuasion and milieu control. Stigma/bullying where disability is concerned became in Paris a matter of cleaning the streets. In other words we may usefully understand the modern city as a machine of categorization. As Goffman puts it:

“Society establishes the means of categorizing persons and the complement of attributes felt to be ordinary and natural for members of each of these categories. Social settings establish the categories of persons likely to be encountered there. The routines of social intercourse in established settings allow us to deal with anticipated others without special attention or thought. When a stranger comes into our presence, then, first appearances are likely to enable us to anticipate his category and attributes, his “social identity”—to use a term that is better than “social status” because personal attributes such as “honesty” are involved, as well as structural ones, like “occupation.”

We lean on these anticipations that we have, transforming them into normative expectations, into righteously presented demands.”

The ableist believes he or she has the right to her normative expectations; moreover, has the right to be joined only by men or women, boys or girls who sustain those expectations. In sum, all ableism is bullying, relies on stigma and involves what Nietzsche called “will to power”—“My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (–its will to power:) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on…” (from The Will to Power, s636, Walter Kaufmann, trans.)

I like to think of gestural violence as the will to ableism.

Just two days I ago I found myself riding in an elevator with a professor who has (as he believes) “secretly” labeled my presence problematic at the university. Because we were side by side in a tight space he tried joking with me, peformatively, jocular, and every syllable was just more violence.

Again I thought of Aristotle: “Good habits formed at youth make all the difference.”

I said nothing. See the first quote above.

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 

On Being Expensive, Difficult, and Lonesome in Higher Education

I feel like opening up. Some days, owing to blindness, because of my internalized “super crip” expectations (all that rococo internalized ableism) I think my job is to make being a disabled professor look easy. Alright, most days. OK. Every day. Yes daily I saddle myself with the false and unachievable supposition I’m supposed to be absolutely flawless. After all, to admit a flaw would be to succumb to vision loss. The medical model of disability IS the academy as it’s currently established. Of course I know too much to live this way. Sure. Absolutely. But the academy doesn’t care what I know. Universities have almost no interest in unpacking their nascent ableism since this would require examining a thousand years of questionable institutional exceptionalism. Alright, maybe eight hundred years. The academy is constructed entirely around the idea of the elect, the promotable, the meritocracy, the lithe and nimble of mind and body. As a professor I too must be this way. If I have merit it must mean this business of researching, writing, teaching, and serving is natural. If it comes with hard work it’s only the difficulty of ideas, the speed of a required curriculum that stands in your way, not your body or your learning style. If these are impediments you shouldn’t be within a hundred yards of the ivory tower.

I’ve been a tenured professor (lucky me) at three American universities and I was a long time adjunct at a fourth. My blindness has been a problem at all of these places—sometimes an ugliness—and now I must admit at the age of sixty four and still likely a decade away from retirement that the career—mine—has been painful, clotted, steep, and wearisome. In the faculty ranks the disabled are not naturally linked with other academic diversity initiatives. While my historically marginalized colleagues have many many problems (which I do not dismiss) they also have (at least at the institutions where I’ve worked) something like society, something like a collective voice. I am the only blind professor at Syracuse University and have been the only blind professor wherever I’ve worked. My embodiment and my accessibility needs are lonely and exhausting things.

I remember the famous poetry professor at the University of Iowa who told me when I was a graduate student that I shouldn’t be in his class. In his view, if I couldn’t read as fast as other students I was uneducable. All disabled students who read differently or communicate differently know this story. Certainly autists who type or students with learning disabilities know their very presence in college is secretly or overtly questioned by faculty and administrators. Academic ableism is the norm. It’s been the norm throughout my forty plus year career as a student, grad student, and faculty member. Wherever I’ve worked or studied I try for consistency: calling out accessibility problems and ableist attitudes. Behind this though is the pressure to appear perfect and make the “life” look easy.

Nothing could be more unachievable or hopeless. I have faculty colleagues (some of whom teach disability related courses) who don’t care a whit about the inaccessibility of websites, academic research materials, PDF documents, HR surveys, adopted computer programs, online teaching and learning portals, PowerPoint presentations at department meetings or campus events, films or video presentations—the list is long when you’re blind. I’m the outlier asking for admission to all these things and after years in higher ed I feel no closer to inclusion or admittance today than I did years ago.

The only good thing is that computers have gotten better. Tablets and phones have become more blind friendly. Apple has made my life better. Microsoft is getting on board. The technology now exists to assure colleges and universities are fully accessible to the blind. But they’re not. The ableism of bureaucracy and meritocracy holds back the blind over and over again.

Meantime I’m supposed to be (as I said above) absolutely flawless. Despite the lack of good usable assistive technologies across campus I should be a superior teacher, graceful, kind, cheer up the normal people who find disability either consternating or distressing, publish as much as my colleagues, if not more, and be a “thought leader” whatever that means.

Not long ago during the same week when I was faced for the umpteenth time with a new university web portal that was inaccessible, I was asked to participate in a campus inclusion workshop. I declined. I said I couldn’t do any more emotional lifting for the university. This was a breakthrough for me.

“What’s that?” you say, “you can’t help the able bodied faculty anymore?”

That’s right.

I’m not going to pretend at easiness anymore.

My weekdays are clogged with inaccessible features.

The built environment is consistent. I don’t belong.

I’ve spoken about these things over and over for years and my spirit is patched. It has holes. The moths of ableism have eaten my beret.

In recent weeks I’ve called on Syracuse University to make films and videos accessible to the blind.

Some people have responded positively to this. Others not so much. One faculty member went out of her way to tell me how difficult and expensive this is.

Blindness is always “difficult and expensive” whether the subject is audible traffic signals, a Braille menu, or getting screen reading software for a PC.

I’m difficult and expensive and noisy and bothersome and mostly lonely in higher education.

On Susan Sontag, Taste, and Disability Inclusion

Susan Sontag once wrote: “Rules of taste enforce structures of power.” I’ve always liked this quote because as a disability rights activist I know what the late scholar Bill Peace called the problem of “the bad cripple”—the disabled who persist in their demands for inclusion are easily caste as people of bad taste. We’re the ones who spoil the even tenor of the dinner party or the golf course. We trouble the classrooms and the gymnasium. We’re a terrible burden on airplanes.

Two days I ago I sent an email to a faculty colleague saying that a PDF she’d forwarded to a wide range of folks was inaccessible. This colleague was wounded. She wrote me to say she’d tested the PDF and it was accessible on her machine. She felt that I’d mistreated her. She didn’t mean to say it, but I was the bad cripple.

The PDF was entirely unreadable by my screen reading software.

The professor in question talked to her departmental technology specialist who opined that the problem is that I use a Mac and that’s why I couldn’t read it.

The difficulty with this is that it’s entirely inaccurate. The PDF was fully inaccessible. But I became the problem “twice over”—for complaining and then for having the wrong kind of operating system.

I resent this. Moreover I dislike the assumption that I should never state the case, or by extension that I should be exceedingly kind to people who disperse inaccessible materials, as if it’s my job to make everyone feel OK about “the disabled.” I reject this principle. I might once have subscribed to it, say twenty years ago. But it’s not my job anymore.

Not long ago I pointed out that our human rights film festival and our disability film festival are inaccessible to the blind. No effort has ever been made to incorporate basic audio description for movies we show at my university.

When I brought this up a faculty member lectured me about how expense and difficult this would be.

Doing the right thing where disability and inclusion are concerned requires letting go of old cobwebby assumptions about disability accommodations, expectations, and the use of taste to enforce dominant power structures.

I’m sorry I hurt the faculty member’s feelings about the inaccessible PDF. She thought she was doing the right thing by checking it. The problem is that our university doesn’t have a syncretic and workable system for assuring that anything we do is accessible.

Not long ago we purchased an online program to educate staff about sexual harassment But the university never adequately tested the product and it was in fact inaccessible.

As a disabled faculty member I feel these things deeply.

It’s my hope that we’re heading in a better direction.

It’s my hope that in what remains of my career I’ll be freed from having to be the bad cripple.

My guide dog just looked at me as if to say “good luck with that.”

Ripeness is All

Beethoven’s violin concerto is the perfect balance of milk and milk.
Adorno’s dialectic is to body shame as money is to dialysis.
Disability studies is to ableism as crickets in August.
Wallace Stevens is to philosophy as bibles are to baking.
When poets have fun so do the tea cups.
Playing the violin burns about 170 calories per hour.

**

How close am I to becoming someone?
Of course I mean this in a moral sense.
I have the history of morals here in my cup.
Dregs of Aristotle.
Push them with my finger.
Happiness. Virtue. Work.
Remember to be a good flute player.

**

I ask so many questions.
Why do I believe I should soften death?

**

What is someone?
Is it cumulative flowers on a grave?
Even Shakespeare threw up his hands.
I joked once in a Helsinki pub:
Lear is a self help book…
“Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”

**

Thank God I have the radio for company.
Thank God for William Shakespeare, life coach:
“And worse I may be yet: the worst is not
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.”

**

After Ecclesiastes:

I haven’t been true to myself lately
I press my face into barberry leaves
I weep among stems
If you know me you’ll not be surprised
If you know me you too will be honest

When I Close My Eyes

Face it: its feeling drives you
No help for it
Bread sits untouched
& the country that isn’t a place
Takes you in

**

Yes I’m blind
I can still see a swan’s track
On the water

**

History calls the sleepless

**

After years
I’m not much of a talker
I prefer to drop things

**

The houses hereabouts have no special beauty
You won’t find gorgeous specificities
Strangers have sorrow smoke in their eyes

**

Up in the tree of boyhood
With a home made arrow and bow
When I close my eyes

Rainy notebook department….

“When one burns one’s bridges, what a very nice fire it makes.”

Did Dylan Thomas really mean it?

(Riding a tram in Helsinki.)

**

One likes to imagine death driven by wind—
leaves, snow, what have you…

**

Phenomenology is to the body
As the body is to a seed
Please don’t think too hard about this

**

Handel’s “Water Music” is cheerful, stately, vaguely orgiastic
Radio on a rainy morning

**

Old Folks Poem

I can’t keep up
I can’t keep up
What’s that? A frying pan?

Please don’t think too hard about this

**

One morning early, bending to trash, I saw a flash, a light not of this world. “Maybe my retina has detached,” I thought. The gold white iridescent microburst was passing strange but then it was gone and to date has never returned.

Every now and then that flash, that otherworldly color, returns in mind.

All our eyes expect to be received.

**

Whether I was in my body or out of my body as I wrote it I know not. God knows.

—Handel