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 

Please Mister, Stop Appropriating the Poor Cripples, Or, “The Blind Girl’s Sponge”

1.

A new novel appears; gets lots of praise; about a man who suffers a facial deformity and whatever passes for his inner life is destroyed. You guessed it: the author isn’t disabled. But he’s used a tried and true formula: deform a character and you can cover up your own literary deficiencies. Or nearly. Kafka understood this but his grotesqueries were about capitalism and not about individuals.

2.

In the airports, train stations, public byways, strangers approach and say unbidden things to me owing to my blindness. “I had a dog once,” they’ll say. Or: “I knew a blind girl once.” When I”m feeling charitable I think of their loneliness and let the intrusive moment go. When I’m more vituperative I’ll say anything to get out of the situation. “What dog?” I’ll say. Or: “I don’t like blind people.”

3.

You can only appropriate people you don’t understand. Notice I didn’t say, “insufficiently understand” because even maladroit and speculative thinking is better than incurious meddling. And that’s what ableist appropriation of disability is. Anthony Doerr has written a wholly fraudulent disabled character in his award winning novel “All the Light We Cannot See” (a title so stupid “that” alone should have killed it.) His charming blind girl can’t bathe herself though she’s something like fourteen. Her father (who is the author of course) has to help her. I think Doerr should have called the novel “The Blind Girl’s Sponge.”

4.

Now women writers do their own incurious meddling. There’s currently a very popular woman poet who writes of “grotesques” with enough whimsey to satisfy the ableist appetites of the creative writing academy. While I”m at it, let’s be clear that writers who hail from every kind of background write ableist junk. Feeling unimaginative? Just throw in a cripple or two. Two cripples will always be better than one. Beckett understood.

5.

“What’s the problem?” you say? “They’re just books.” You’re right. And Philip Larkin was right: “books are a load of crap.” And there’s more than one problem anyway. But Robinson Crusoe and Friday represent the unassailable comfort of appropriative culture. Novels are seldom progressivist. If you can get away with it, have three cripples in your coffee table book.

6.

In her new book “Believing in Shakespeare: Studies in Longing” Claire McEachern writes: “Even among person, plot, and place there exist differing expectations with respect to believability.” Her premise is that believing in characters is essentially a sacramental act. Read her book. It’s excellent. She writes:

“Persons are also found in nature as well as art; we can believe in each other, as well as in literary characters, the former suggesting the trust we confer on another ’ s purpose, the latter trust in an author ’ s conjuration. Sociobiology, anthropomorphism, and the sciences of empathy all suggest that humans are especially susceptible to each other; as philanthropic organizations know, a cause with a face is more difficult to shrug off than one without. 3 Prosopopoeia has long been the rhetorical figure employed to supernatural or political abstractions, endowing them with human-sized motive properties. Stories whose ultimate concern may be systemic or institutional identities or corporate fortunes (e.g., the fate of a nation, a race, or a culture) typically phrase their exempla in the unit of the individual. There is something particular about the person. Perhaps it is easier to believe in a literary person because less belief is required. People are people persons.”

7.

Prosopopoeia is just the thing, the ingredient you need if you want to turn real people into cartoons. Where disability is concerned Shakespeare was also a cultural appropriator. Caliban’s deformities come from Montaigne’s imagined ugly cannibals but no matter, you’ve got stock characters who will obediently and without controversy represent whatever imperial disdain you need to employ.

It has always been my contention that the first fully realized disabled character in Western literature is Melville’s Ahab. And though he’s not likable, he’s complex and understandable.

Which brings me back to my original point: the average ableist writer doesn’t need to know Ahab at all. He or she watches the cartoons.

Easter Wings

My father died on this day 19 years ago. Though he was nearly 80 he was in good health and his sudden passing was therefore unexpected. In the subjective I’ve never been able to celebrate Easter since by which I mean the easy, fanciful, chocolate bunny American Easter. Because my dad died on this day I’ve been compelled to confront the resurrection of Christ in its ur-ontologies—if we’re stricken here, with death inevitable, what does the promise of life everlasting through Jesus mean?

Augustine wrote:

“And he departed from our sight that we might return to our hearts and find him there. For he left us, and behold, he is here.”

Note the demarcation of sight and heart—the old Christian insistence that we see as through a glass darkly or in turn we do not really see at all. Faith is sight according to the church and that sight is inward, unlimited, joyous.

Strictly speaking everything you can no longer see is in your heart. Your poor heart. It must stand for memory, soul, eternity, and be the church itself.

The Christian heart is a big thing.

Sight and heart and memory and faith become one with the resurrection of Christ.

You might say it’s easier to believe in the chocolate bunny. Augustine:

“Consider seriously, how much we should love eternal life, when this miserable life, that’s got to end anyhow some time, is loved so dearly … So you love this life, do you, in which you struggle, and run around, and bustle about and gasp for breath; and you can scarcely count the things that have to be done in this wretched life: sowing, plowing, planting, sailing, grinding, cooking, weaving. And after all this, your life has got to end anyhow … So learn, brothers and sisters, to seek eternal life, where you will not have to endure these things, but will reign with God forever.”

Now Dear Saint Augustine, seeking eternal life is so much harder than getting ahold of some chocolate eggs.

The striving for optimism—an ontology of meanings, good meanings, affirmations beyond just this one life—this is what striving and the heart are for.

This much I know.

And here is my favorite Easter poem….Easter Wings by George Herbert:

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
      Though foolishly he lost the same,
            Decaying more and more,
                  Till he became
                        Most poore:
                        With thee
                  O let me rise
            As larks, harmoniously,
      And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne
      And still with sicknesses and shame.
            Thou didst so punish sinne,
                  That I became
                        Most thinne.
                        With thee
                  Let me combine,
            And feel thy victorie:
         For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

If I Could Call You

Yes you’re long gone and I’m still a man of complaint
So irony (glue of absurd eternity)
Keeps us. I miss you mother.
You didn’t like my blindness
So you were of no help
Like a steamfitter
Without pipes—but no matter
You were the funniest wretch.

In a swamped rowboat
You cried “my fishies
Are getting away”
Dead perch floating
About your head.
You were always too drunk
To row but sober enough
Death was an Irish laugh.

Of course you died badly.
You’re long gone
And sometimes
When I talk to my horses
Under the cold peach trees
I speak the smooth
And outgoing life
You should’ve had.

Up Early, Thinking of Alexander Pope and Disability

First I should say I make mistakes. I once believed in ardor and imagined it was enough. Loving books was enough. Greeting each day with my love of fool’s gold was enough. Pity the man or woman who believed too much in art.

“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” 
― Alexander Pope

As I say, I make mistakes. I have expected quite the opposite of nothing. Ardor means at the very least the Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness. That alone isn’t much of a mistake, its wired into every infant. Even the nematode worm has something like it. No, my ardor was gangrenous from the start. Frankly, I believed that writing about disabiity taken as phenomenology, taken as epistemic process, understood as a profoundly beautiful way of being would gain attention. I do not mean I thought I would win the Pulitzer Prize or be vaulted into the realm of celebrity writers—not at all—but I did imagine that Americans would come to see disability as a significant part of diversity and this has not happened as much as I’d hoped. Ardor wasn’t enough.

There are tremendous disabled writers in the United States and around the world and we can’t get on the main stage of literary conferences. We’re not routinely invited to speak at festivals devoted to books. We remain curiosities. No one should make the mistake of thinking poetry would make them famous or rich but back in 1998 when I published my first memoir “Planet of the Blind” to some acclaim I let myself believe that mainstream literature was finally ready to hear what the disabled had to say.

I was wrong about that and though I don’t know what I mean by “mainstream publishing” I know what its effects are, the soul crushing novels by able bodied writers that employ disabled characters as bleached plot devices—books both popular and utterly creepy. Books that do lasting damage to real disabled people. Anthony Doerr’s wholly false blind teenaged girl who’s so helpless she must be bathed by her father; Jo Jo Moyes; and just this week a new novel depicting a man who’s face becomes paralyzed which, presto, means he goes nuts—two misreperesntations in one.

I admit it: I thought that by the time I was in my sixties I’d see disability on the stage with people of color, queer writers, writers who hail from the far ends of the earth, as folks who can speak for themselves, have tremendous talent, and know where more than a few of the keys to the mind-body schism are greased.

Yes I was wrong.

“A man should never be ashamed to own that he has been in the wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.” 
― Alexander Pope

If I am wiser it is due to comic irony. I look back on my past and say “oh, don’t do it!”

Don’t go on the Oprah Winfrey show where she’ll ask you if you know what she looks like.

Don’t go to the Associated Writing Programs conferences where you’ll hear able bodied writers talk endlessly about how poetry can heal you from affliction—as if being disabled is a failure of imagination.

Don’t take academic jobs believing you will have a great impact. You’ll have some, but not much. You might succeed in getting them to put in an accessible bathroom on the third floor of the English building.

Know as Alexandar Pope did that your days will be filled with phsycal obstacles and terrible whanging headaches and that work, earnest, probative, thoughtful work is all we can do in this life. It is the only thing we can guarantee.

“Act well your part; there all the honour lies.” 
― Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

I Live in No Country

I spent a dark month translating poetry in the far north and the poems followed me into sleep. Saarikoski’s snakes talked to my dream ears. I don’t always remember dreams but the snakes stayed with me. They followed me in the department store and came with me on the bus. I thought perhaps I should change my name to Asklepios. I also considered the bones inside the snakes. Those glassine springs with their electricities and appetites.

**

If you’re a reasonable woman or man or child you know you belong to no country.
This is the thing—poetry’s reification if you will—I belong in no room, no meeting, no tent.

**

The saddest poets are the ones who keep trying to put up a tent when there isn’t any rain in the forecast.

**

Walking early today thinking of Immanuel Kant, his a priori intuition and the elegance of reason. The snakes’ skeletons still following me down the street.

Now Batting for the Yankees, the Tooth Fairy

There are phrases that are always untrue—”the revolution will not be televised;” “trickle down economics;” “one size fits al”l—and Americans love them. We love them regardless of education, employment profile, social or ethnic background. We’ll take direction from jingles: “see the USA in your Chevrolet.” One might add: “or else.”

In the Human Resources world nouns are also jingles: diversity and inclusion for instance. That diversity and inclusion are bulwarks rather than invitations never dawns on the HR crowd. Those of us who hail from historically marginalized groups know the fortress effects of language.

I”m now at the age when I’m thinking about the things I’ve championed but will never see when it comes to my work life. The American university will not soon be truly welcoming to the disabled or people of color or anyone who is branded as needy. Admissions is part of HR and HR hates the vulnerable. They cost too much unless you can monetize them as is the case with minority student athletes.

I joked one day with a group of disabled students and said “if they could make a profit off our presence they’d be eager to have us.” “Let’s all beg,” said a woman with a power wheelchair. “I’m blind,” I said, “I can sell pencils.”

So I have this vision that colleges and universities will become in the next decades post-embodied sites where the quality of ambition and desire are valued more than privilege or easy bucks.

I might as well say I believe the tooth fairy will bat third for the Yankees.

Goodbye, Bird That Shat On Me

My mother was an alcoholic and not a functional one. Her life was marked by drawn curtains, broken fingers, phantom pains and prescription drugs which, mixed with scotch tended to make her psychotic. When I was a college freshman and no longer living at home she stalked my younger sister around the house clutching a knife. My sister took refuge in a locked bathroom and waited it out. By dawn our mother was asleep on the living room floor in a tangle of shoes and bottles. This story is in no way singular—my sister and I are just tiny dots in the ocean of abused children. The story of my adult life has been the relentless pursuit of self-acceptance, forgiveness, emotional intelligence, and compassion. I think forgiveness and compassion are different as forgiveness can be merely political and compassion is more concerned with lovingkindness.

I work with people who don’t necessarily like me. Chances are good you do too. You may be tougher than I. You might not care about the ghosting malevolence of the workplace, the soiled superegos of competitively unhappy souls who turn up in every meeting, warehouse, classroom—or for that matter even in leisure spaces. Me? I tend to care too much about the opinions of others. This is because the long emotional after effects of my upbringing make me prone to a knee jerk impulse to fix things. If people are ugly I think it’s my job to improve them.

That’s of course its own addiction. I’ll solve your problem. Get you another drink so you won’t hit me. Disguise the damage to the best of my ability. I’ll make excuses for you. I’ll imagine your unhappiness is my fault.

Until one day I don’t. One day after attending Al Anon and undergoing some excellent therapy I decided my mother was on her own.

Nowadays I attend to my own esteem though not without set backs. There’s a senior professor at the university where I work who went out of his way to sabotage me behind my back—an ableist, smug, privileged “shyte” as the Irish would say. I don’t think I can forgive him and I certainly can’t imagine offering lovingkindness.

I know this is what I should do.

I’m a lefty Episcopalian.

Then it dawns on me: I can let him go like a pigeon one has restored to health. Out the window he goes with a spark of feathers. He soars through tangled clothes lines. I shut the window. Turn up Mozart on the radio.

Lovingkindness can in fact be letting the bird who once shat on you find his own way.