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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 

Conditions, July 4

All these poets writing of poetry
Like peacocks thinking only of their tails
Meanwhile the blazing sun
The road ahead

**

Stray cat follows me home
Leaves whisper
Although I live far inland
There’s the green chill of the sea

**

Mother, if I could call you back
I’d ask, as I failed to do
When you were with us,
Who hurt you so?

**

“Humerus”

I am sad like summer sun
No name for it
Bone words unwrit

My wholly
Imagined shrink—Doctor
Sigmoid Fraud—
Sez
Have a good
Colonic…

**

Today

I see my hands
As attached
To an old man
Who isn’t me

**

America:

A dream of teeth—I woke chewing a rope—a French knot from the Commune, a vicious thing, braided with vengeance. Stars at the window, topiary gardens far off. If only I could escape my bonds. My dear life, my stubborn jaws and the hourglass just out of reach. “Oh,” I cried, “what apparatus of report have we here?” A mouse in the wall was chewing too. Yes forest to foothills I heard—every live thing making it by means of teeth. In such a world there is no will to charm. There’s only the white and blue moon, and hunger incessant, valorous, gnawing at history.

**

Down river a fox hunts for mice
July is life itself
And defies occupation

On Disability Pride Month

Because this is “Disability Pride Month” and owing to my own disability I must reveal I’m not “feeling it” as they say. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a fully charged, tough, outspoken, confident blind man. If the opposite of pride is shame then I’ve got pride enough. But “Pride Month” isn’t sufficient for me anymore. I’d prefer we call July “The Disabled Get to Live Month” or “This is the month the Disabled Finally Get Jobs” or even “No More Ableism Month.”As I work my way through America I encounter social, environmental, structural, and political obstacles so routinely that pride isn’t the first thing that springs to mind for me. Maybe we should call this “Disability Fury Month.”

Pride celebrations are necessary no matter your heritage or circumstances and certainly there’s plenty to celebrate if you’re a cripple. Like what? Well, we’re told that New York City’s subway system will be accessible within thirty years. If I’m still around at 97 I’ll finally be able to ride an elevator down to the tracks. What else? We have crippled Barbie Dolls now. Close to 90 per cent of women with disabilities are unemployed but look! Barbie’s “Dream House” even has a cute ramp. Only one in four undergraduates with disability actually graduates from college. But you can bet some universities will post something about Disability Pride Month—because, why not?

“Pride” is a bit like the squeaky toy raised aloft by a baby photographer. It makes a happy photo possible. Outside the studio, structural ableism continues, often at high speed, like Roman traffic. The airlines destroy over ten thousand wheelchairs a year; service dog users are denied access to public spaces even though it’s expressly illegal. “And so on” as Vonnegut would say. When the disabled fight back we’re labeled “bad cripples” as the late writer Bill Peace used to say.

If you’re cripple and you’re BIPOCA and not white like me, well, structural ableism will find even more reasons to hold you’re complaints in contempt.

So “pride” isn’t cutting it this year.

I’m tired of abjection, the poverty of my friends and allies, the precarious state of American health care—the inaccessibility of polling places. It’s a long list. Once, a couple of years ago, I wrote the following “imitation” of a poem by Allen Ginsberg. I think this is a good place to end:

America with your history of eugenics.
With your hostility to the global charter on disability rights.
With your jails, stocked with psychiatric patients—worse than the Soviet Union. We are Gulag Los Angeles; Gulag Rikers Island; Gulag Five Points in Upstate New York.
America with your young Doctor Mengeles.
With your broken VA.
With your war on food stamps and infant nutrition.
With your terror of autism and lack of empathy for those who have it.
With your 80% unemployment rate for people with disabilities.
With your pity parties—inspiration porn—Billy was broken until we gave him a puppy.
With your sanctimonious low drivel disguised as empathy.
With your terror of reasonable accommodations.
With your NPR essays about fake disability fraud, which is derision
of the poor and elderly.
With your disa-phobia—I wouldn’t want one of them to sit next to me on a bus.
America when will you admit you have a hernia?
When will you admit you’re a lousy driver?
Admit you miss the days of those segregated schools, hospitals, residential facilities—just keep them out of sight.
When will you apologize for your ugly laws?
When will you make Ron Kovic’s book irrelevant?
America, you threatened Allen Ginsberg with lobotomy.
Ameica you medicated a generation of teenagers for bi-polar depression when all they were feeling was old fashioned fear.
When will you protect wheelchairs on airlines?
When will you admit you’re terrified of luck?

After the Thunderstorm

I like to think of William Turner mixing paint and I like thinking about the strips of felt in Beethoven’s pianos. It’s the small things, the fallen feather, the overturned teacup in a railway dining car—these are central to whatever it is we mean by the “inner life.” I like ice cold water in a wooden Finnish cup.

And perhaps because I’m blind I see houses moving sideways in rain though I’m assured nothing of the kind has happened. But the visually impaired have their optical illusions and I won’t back down. My neighbor’s house moved five feet to the left during last night’s thunderstorm. By morning it’s shifted back.

And while that house is moving the dead have a party. Because I live in a “settled” neighborhood each house has its own dead. So they have a little get together.

Of course when they’re gone they’ve left no note, not a shred of evidence. I close my eyes. Open them. Take a random walk in the wet streets.

The Republic is failing.

Everywhere is an alien city.

Auden, I need you…

Of poetry they say much…

Of poetry they say much
Leaves whisper, for instance,
But who will say—
Leaves to themselves are alien
And lost to their neighbors

**

Was anyone ever as lonely
As Lorca in New York?
I was blind
In summer rain—
Child beside a grave

**

So much talk of poems
As if we could merge
With the stones
In this building
Beside the cemetery

**

What did Jesus do with the coin
With Tiberius on the one side
Where is it buried
Under whose house
What was on the other face?

**

Reading the old critic
“Taking it in” as they say
His fascinations
Are zoological
And not bookish at all

**

The one promise of poems:
In you I am a present tense
Always
That’s something
Now we’re life overloaded

Notebook/ It Was Time for Tea…

It was time for tea
But the lieutenant was dead
And sorrow trees
Waved branches
At the moon
I laughed at the wrong place
I was bent in a small room
I did my best to see the far sides
Of the minutes

**

Morning distress
Barely awake
Already looking for names
Drinks coffee
Says to himself
“The countdown has begun”

**

My early days
In and out of hospitals

The doctors
Now beneath willows

How proud they were
For a few brief hours

Shining pen lights
Into a blind kid’s noggin

**

Say what you like
About “the deep”
It sure makes
For folks songs

**

You see, you can go
To the cemetery
Have a picnic
On top of
Childhood’s doctors

Bring a ukulele

**

It’s spring
Thinking of Lorca—
What was it like, god of mine…?

**

No, nothing like coherence
Spring
Preparing sandwiches
For the cemetery

Soundings

I am sad today because
Crippled men and women
Crippled children
The globe itself
Are merely
Wallowing
In the shadows
Of a hill
Created long ago
In a furious hunger

No room here
For the imperfections
Shadows
Feel more real
Than our bodies
One wants a shirt
That reads
“Fuck you, Plato”
Though he was
More a symptom

I’m told
Being blind
I’m a dark picture
On the water—
Hence
Incorporeal
Unlike
So not of confluence
With the hill
Gods say: let him go…

Notebook, May 16, 2022

Song

In the cave of orphans
I sing to the walls
The taste in my mouth
Is like winter rain
If you know, you know
So go on—
Accuse me
Of what I’ve become
I’m busy…

**

I was a small child when I first glimpsed the madness in my family though I’d no name for it. My mother, enraged by fallen spoons, my father silent for days, then dancing across the living room singing snippets of vaudeville.

**

I took to running off. I was tiny in those days. I hid inside a neighbor’s gutted upright piano—the piano in a barn, the mice drawing dark pictures.

**

Haaviko: keep yourself warm when the pools are freezing…

**

My poor mother, abused as a child, addicted to pain killers by the time I was five. Pregnant with my sister and in withdrawal she threw a hairbrush just missing my head because I asked for a glass of water. The solution was to send me to live with my maternal grandmother who occupied a massive Victorian house with the ghost of her dead husband. Think of me as Little Boy Heidi.

**

Early in my life when I saw that falling notes are the optimistic ones.

**

Haaviko: and yet we must have a word with happiness/build a house to catch the sun’s light…

**

An invisible bell is lifting and ringing. That’s the magic of living in the metropolis. Those bells: audible mirages…

**

Now now. No blank spaces sallow cheer…

It may not be much but there’s never an end to play. Even as we fall, sailing back to the stars, there’s a Gobelin weave…

**

If I want to tell you how much I love you I must first—what? Oh shut up. I’m climbing from the river to tell you…

**

Song

I lie down under the apple trees
Because I’m also living up there
Where blossoms are designing
The fruit to come—
They won’t let you say this
In school; it’s no good
In the office—
Meanwhile,
In the apple roots…

**

He was central to he-ness which meant hiding from him…
He knew he was the product of alchemy
Didn’t much like it
Never could find the right wizards
He stood under the starry sky
Him was coming

**

Meanwhile in the apple roots
Digging with the mind
The ur-worm has a secret
I’m certain

Someone, somewhere is building another cross…

Christ crucified is the perfect metaphor for disability suffering—inner doubt and pain; merciless public contempt. One may say it’s a depiction all sorrow and that’s true but his public death is really a story of madness—it’s Nerval’s “Aurelia”—the winged angel who has fallen into a shabby Parisian courtyard.

**

I think the thoughts of a depressed man. The disabled no matter their ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation are ten times more likely to die early from lack of access to health and wellness programs. “Lack of access” is too polite of course; we’re talking contempt. Structural ableism.

**

In the disability communities we say “nothing about us without us” and for good reason—the disabled are often left out of critical discussions about our needs. If you’re black and disabled you’re left out of multiple conversations. It matters who we are. Lives are in the balance.

**

It’s spring. I hear hammers in my neighborhood. I think, “someone’s building another cross.”

Of Blindness and Teamwork

I’ve been thinking a lot about team work lately. When I was a child they wouldn’t let me play sports owing to my blindness. This made sense when the only games for kids were baseball and basketball. But somehow the physical education instructors believed it would be good for me to sit on the sidelines and so I’d daydream to the sounds of sneakers on wood floors or the vaguely pastoral whispers of baseball. I did a lot of daydreaming. It was easy because no one talked to me. Talking was reserved for those who were in the game and I was for all intents and purposes in Valhalla. The truth is I never had a team experience, never had camaraderie, reliance, the sense that somehow someone had my back. Never had someone who made me better because he or she was there. This quality of unsporting isolation in childhood was the most painful thing about being blind. When I recollect the isolation and enforced solitudes of boyhood I see how my first guide dog not only gave me confidence in traffic–she also gave me the first sense of being on a team. We might only have been a team of two, but we were a powerful and mobile team and yes, we had each other’s backs. Corky dog brought me this spirited physical and emotional bond that had always been missing from my life. Dogs are teamsters through and through.

Everyone knows that in a team sport you can’t win without others. I saw this for the first time when Corky and I were crossing Columbus Circle in Manhattan. From a traffic standpoint the area is a nightmare. It’s a lethal circus of combined avenues and cross streets, the traffic moving so fast it makes a zithing sound. We plunged together into the maelstrom with her good judgment and my faith in her. I once tried to describe the moment when we left the sidewalk’s safety there on the upper westside of Manhattan as embracing the emptiness between stars. Now that’s teamwork. “Who is your team mate?” “Blaise Pascal.”