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 

Eric Hobsbawm, the Welsh, Brexit, and Donald Trump

In his excellent memoir “Interesting Times” the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm says of the Welsh, circa 1960: “For most of the mountain people the Welsh language was chiefly a Noah’s Ark in which they could survive the flood as a community. They did not so much want to convert and converse: people looked down on visiting South Walians with their ‘school Welsh’. Unlike Noah, they did not expect the flood to end. ”

Excerpt From: “Interesting Times: A Twentieth-century Life.” Apple Books.

There is a practical sense though a dark one to be found in provincial communities, a noir pragmatism that the flood (whatever it stands for) will never end. In rural Wales the English built summer houses and despoiled the landscape. Enterprising locals burned those houses down rather frequently. The constabulary never caught a single arsonist and yet the flood kept coming. Ironic then that Brexit is among other things a response to the post-colonial flood of foreigners and their influences on Britain, and a simultaneous self-induced house burning. Unable to stand the flood the English are burning their house down.

In the United States the flood is largely a fiction which Donald Trump has borrowed from the language of white nationalists and because of this he knows in whatever it is that passes for his heart that he must burn the government down rather than negotiate the terms of his wall. If the wall—the need of a wall—which is really a dyke against the flood of foreigners—is based on fictive presumptions than any negotiation about it will quickly fall apart. Better to burn the houses of government.

This is made all the easier because the Republicans have campaigned against government for decades. Their rhetoric has devolved from Reagan’s call for smaller government to Trump who scarcely knows what governing is and like most real estate criminals imagines the governance of a nation to be a blight on his own ambitions. That’s a view he inherited from his racist father who was fined for discriminating against people of color in his public housing projects. Government t will make you do the right thing. All hail the collapse of the government.

I suspect there was never a Noah. I do like the idea of him. Lord knows he was an optimist. He preserved life in a dark time. There’s no evidence he burned houses. He didn’t arrive on dry land and slaughter the locals like Columbus. I have no idea what he thought about governance but the birds liked him.

From a notebook….or, “the warlock hair”….

This morning I’ve too many thoughts to hold in place. No meditation “app” will help. Mozart on the stereo is doing his best. Good old processed Mozart.

Late stage Capitalism is eating my wiring like a wild mouse. Good old processed Kuusisto.
I’ve got the algorithm blues.

I type too much. My neck is a mess.

There’s a single black hair growing on my nose. I’m a warlock.

Because I was beaten as a child I’ve a warlock hair on my nose. Nothing stays hidden.

Of course I’m imprisoned in myself. Of course that self is something else. Of course these words are something else.

There are stones inside my fingers.

I’m trying to not age out of hope.

Blind I cannot track the flight of birds but I know they happen all around me.

The history of the mind is not the history of ideas.

Miniver Cheevy! I bet he had a warlock hair.

I remember a thing or two. Just like my tongue does.

Of course I found a spoon in snow
While missing you,

Gulls above the harbor
Baltic yellow mid day mid winter

A policeman talked softly to his horse
I was proud of my new wristwatch

Cheap but Swiss made
Being of the scholar class

It was a totem thrill on my wrist
You my brother my twin

Gone in infancy who followed
And follow—listen

I’m sewing together
A seahorse like the one

We rode in the womb

Where shall I put this shaved magic hair?

The Identity Pluck

My identity needs water. My identity is a dried turd. A 16th century one. Identity from “idem” to be the same. I’m the same as you. I’m not without my qualities but they’re significant only insofar as someone else also has them. My identity is troubled by this. It scratches and moans at all hours of the night. I’ve never met anyone like me. If I claim an identity aren’t I by the very act claiming a fantasy?

Well yes. Oscar Wilde said it: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” Given what Wilde endured in the name of originality who’d want to go beyond mere identity?

This is, in effect, what a free thinking human being should strive for: life beyond identity, not a sameness, a politburo, a glee club, a political party. This is scary. Institutions are against it. Churches, universities, corporations….Who dares to be naked?

Rousseau said: “I am not made like any of those I have seen. I venture to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence. If I am not better, at least I am different.”

Different frightens every school child. It scares the pants off of me. I want desperately to look like you.

Disability is interesting in this regard since no two people experience any disabling condition the same way. No. Two. People. In this way disability is not an identity. Disability is an enforcement.

Einstein wrote: “We experience ourselves our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.”

Consciousness is predisposed to a sea sickness—staggering between separateness as ideation and the desire for sameness in the name of affection. Disability identity is enforced separateness (the social construction of normalcy) and a longing for others like us.

But no matter your disability there’s no one like you.

A disability by any other name would smell as sweet.

In this way I can’t be scripted by disablement. The name can’t help. The affections for likeness are fictive.

Audre Lorde, one of my favorite poets wrote: “I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self.”

Claiming Identity and the Disability Rain Check

I claim my disability identity. I’m proud to be disabled. Out of my way you! I’ll whack you with my cane! (I’ve done so, poking dopey dudes with my stick.) What else? I claimed my difference but I’m still damaged goods on the customary street; in the ordinary shop; the classroom; airport…

My “claim” is like a rain check. I went to the ball game but the game didn’t happen. Pride at being disabled is critically important to my self esteem. But the game, that inclusive, engaging, pastime—the American pastime—it doesn’t get played. I have a ticket. That’s all.

The ADA is my ticket. It is a beautiful ticket. I carry it with me like the letter from the eye doctor when I was in graduate school—the one that said I needed extra time for reading. Some people read that letter and understood it. Others were dismissive. Sherman Paul, a once upon a time famous professor of avant garde poetry at the University of Iowa told me I shouldn’t be in his class if I took longer to read.

I claim my disability identity. There’s always a Sherman Paul just waiting to tell me to screw myself. I wave my ADA ticket. But the ballgame doesn’t happen.

I long for something greater than my identity vs. yours. I want a collective push for human rights. What a Marxist nostalgia I have!

Identity claim check in hand I wait for the other identity groups to say I belong.

As I get older I realize I won’t live to see the progressive coalition I imagined.

But the day I claimed my identity was a beautiful one. The wine was good. The music was loud. The weather was very fine.

At least I was on the street.

Disability by Any Other Name

I’ve been disabled all my life and I hate the term. Beneath it, like Poe’s tell tale heart, is the pulse of loss. The “d” word is Karl Marx’s term: a 19th century mark for injured workers. It originally meant the lack of utility or earning power owing to a broken body. I prefer to be called a citizen.

That I’m a blind citizen should matter not at all. Did you know that blindness is nothing more than being born left handed? Disability is a false name which pulses underneath us and continues to cause human beings with diverse bodies terrible harm.

Of course there are cutesy efforts to fix the d word like putting the “dis” in parentheses to emphasize ability. This has always seemed to me like putting antlers on a cat. Diversions are seldom more than gestures and unless you’re using sign language gestures don’t mean much. Most if not all disabled will agree we’ve had enough of gestures.

The d word can’t describe me or the hundreds of d people I know. My band is made up of practical men, women, and children who have imaginations, wisdoms, loves, sorrows, tastes, and ambitions. For them the d is a horse collar—outdated, heavy. No one needs a horse collar anymore. Blind I’m disabled by the idea I’ve nothing to give. Disabled I’m doubly blind—not seeing becomes figurative worthlessness.

Citizen is better. I’d like my value to be understood as a matter of the hive. And yes, “value” is another tell tale heart. Value for whom? What does value mean? Why should the tax payer pay for a kid with Down syndrome to go to school?

Hitler called the disabled “useless eaters” to suggest the state shouldn’t support the unproductive. The presumption of competence, that the disabled have potential can’t co-exist in a purely industrial and essentialized vision of human bodies. It’s a terrifying vision. The d word is outworn, dangerous, and like the horse collar above, unsuited to a century when work itself is being reexamined.

I believe the future of work will involve more and more autonomous systems—robotics, driverless cars, supply chains that are fully automated. What will work mean for humans? It’s possible that deconstructing the d word will be important for everyone. Or it already is.

Mozart’s Piano

It’s raining in Syracuse, New York where I make my living teaching university courses about disability and the arts. Later today the rain will turn to snow. Of the grayness I’m fond of saying I’m a Finn and it can’t phase me. Yet these last few weeks have opened a portal and the grayness is seeping in. This is the gray stain where a portrait once hung; the lithic gray of the imagination trying to picture the future. Poetry is helpful. Mozart piano sonatas are good. I admire Mozart’s speed and cheer in the face of death which was everywhere in his world.

Speed and cheer.

Now you’re getting somewhere Kuusisto.

Cheer is a funny word. It comes to English via old French chiere which meant face. It’s a mask, a disguise, a pose. In a very real sense cheer is stoicism. The British stiff upper lip.

But if that was all there was to it cheer would be a social lie and of course it isn’t.

Cheer is motion. It is “going further” than wasting one’s time talking to sinister capitalists.

It’s knowing you’ll derive from this planet something something you needed to take with you on your way.

That is why Mozart’s piano fast or slow is so tender.

The Old Jokes

Old Jokes

1.

Where do they go the old jokes? The Sumerian howler—”Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”

Up the chimney they go.

It’s safe to say almost no one laughs at the residue of smoke.

2.

But we do. Farts. Smoke. Bad breath. The old jokes tell us we ought to weep.

And poor old Freud who had no sense of humor and wrote and wrote and wrote about the matter.

3.

“You go first” was in fact the first joke.

4.

When a friend was dying I told her I’d just come up with punch lines, minus the tedium.

“OK,” she said. “Show me.”

“I’m not that kind of a pig,” I said.

Punch lines don’t need support.

5.

Sometimes I think dogs invented the first jokes because of their noses. We can only approximate dog words. All their words are hyphenated. Grey squirrel standing in gorse. Muskrat nibbling on chicory.

6.

Don’t forget last words. Oops. The finest epitaph.