Dog of My Travels

My new memoir Have Dog, Will Travel explores how being paired with an exceptional guide dog changed me into a more curious, adventurous, and trusting person. Corky, for that was her name, helped me become better, especially on the inside. I think it’s safe to say this is the most  interior book I’ve yet written. And while no one can really do such a thing, I try to get inside Corky’s head as well.

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(Photo of Stephen Kuusisto with his third guide dog Nira, a yellow Labrador, in the English-Philosophy Building at the University of Iowa.)

I started my writing life as a poet. I remember the afternoon I told my father I wasn’t going to law school but instead had chosen to attend the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. As Franklin W. Dixon used to write in the Hardy Boys books, my dad was crestfallen. After a day or so he roused himself and said: “well we probably need more poets and no one in his right mind believes we need more lawyers.”

At Iowa I studied poetry with several well known poets including Marvin Bell, Donald Justice, and Sandra McPherson. Studying poetry meant both writing it and revising it–living and breathing extraordinary words by others and trying, often inexpertly, to write some lasting words of one’s own. That’s the thing about poems: in order for them to be considered any good they should be original and if you’re lucky your poem says something no one else ever has or at least not precisely. Ezra Pound said famously “poetry is news that stays new.” We should be surprised by poems, both as readers and writers.

Here’s the thing: when I was writing poetry in Iowa City I had no idea how to travel safely and independently–surely a primary need for any blind person. In my new book I describe how I went to Iowa two months before graduate school just so I could walk the town like a crime scene investigator–I walked a grid, up and down the charming brick streets and memorized the steps I’d have to take to arrive wherever I needed to be. In those days I was play acting at being a sighted person. This is not an unusual story among the blind and I claim no special distinction. But its safe to say I was closed in, anxious, quietly desperate, and yes, inwardly guilty–for wasn’t I a sham? And of course, as the depressed imagination goes–wasn’t I a sham in all things?

In Have Dog, Will Travel (which is subtitled, “a poet’s journey”) I narrate how I grew tired of not knowing how to strike out on my own and go anywhere I wished, any time, yes, on a whim. Freedom is about many things but “whim” is surely central to it. In the book I describe how, as a college student living in western New York I wanted desperately to go to New York City and hear the poet James Wright read at the 92nd Sweet YMCA.  In those days I needed sighted friends to accompany me places or I couldn’t go. I found no willing co-conspirators in my quest to hear one of my favorite poets and I stayed home. I felt the disappointment bitterly.

Climbing out of that place, that self-imposed covert, took several years for me. My book about a yellow Labrador is a poet’s journey because with Corky by my side I was able to do what others freely do all the time–I could wander without goals in New York City; walk loose jointed and open; push my curiosity the way a child floats a toy sailboat in Central Park. The book’s most joyous passages have to do with trusting my canine pal, plunging into traffic, and pressing forward because I just wanted to go to a baseball game (I’m a Mets fan) on my own.

Except I wasn’t on my own. I had a poised, confident, upright, vigorous, and soulful sidekick, who happened to be one hell of an exceptional dog.

She made me a better man. More trusting. More flexible. Open to others in ways I’d never imagined. And you know what? She made me a better poet.

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 professorship in the Center on Human Policy, Law, and 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

4 thoughts on “Dog of My Travels

  1. Dear Mr. Kuusisto,

    I love what your write. I’ve shared this post in several places on Face Book. I hope others will share it yet again and that many will buy your book.

    I first saw anything about you on the 1 Million Poems for Peace group I set up on Facebook a while back. I began an initiative in Austin back in 2012 called Poems for Peace. It was a way to celebrate the UN’s annual International Day ofPeace (9/21). It was also a way to grow the capacity and reputation of the Subud International Cultural Association (SICA), an all volunteer, global nonprofit I was chairing at the time. I felt it was useful to address the challenge the UN’s Peace Day gives us — the challenge to consider how we choose to live together in this world as one human family. The idea caught on, and soon people were doing a Poems for Peace event in 14 other countries.

    That led me to think about partnering with other organizations to grow our work for peace. As I was then living and working in Austin, I reached out to others who might join in this effort. And that led to a whole coalition of people, groups, organizations working together. The result was an 11 day celebration and exploration of peace and what that means: Peace Day Austin. We created a Poems for Peace website, a Peace Day Austin website, and related groups and pages on Facebook. 1 Million Poems for Peace is one of those groups.

    One of our Peace Day Austin partners was VSA Texas. (Very Special Arts). They support arts programs and initiatives for peopleCelia Hughes and April Sullivan run that organization. Their mission is to challenge perceptions of how people contribute by creating an arts-inspired, inclusive community of individuals with diverse abilities. They have continued to do a Poems for Peace event all these years. Another parter was the Charter for Compassion. I had SICA also join the Charter as one of their Arts Partners. This last year, I’ve been in conversation with their national director, and we agreed to try to build a global online anthology of poems for peace on our 1 Million Poems for Peace facebook page.

    My hope would be that various writing departments in colleges, universities, and schools, would focus on taking ownership of this initiative, would contribute and encourage others to contribute poems and works on this site as it’s beyond the capacity of a single person to achieve these goals. My hope is that we create a movement.

    I’m 84. I was a theater person when I was younger. We had an improvisational theatre in San Francisco during the 60s, and we focused on political satire. We are also part of the protests of that era — on stage and off. I graduated from Bennington in the 50s. I was a lit major. Howard Nemerov was my teacher and thesis coordinator. My thesis examined the images of self and soul in Yeats’ poems and plays. So while I’m not a poet, I do have a deep love of poetry.

    They say the ear of the unborn child is closest to the heart of the mother. The heart beats in an iambic rhythm. The baby’s early cries are in the same rhythm. All our holy books in the world are in verse. We learn with little rhyming ditties when we are children. Our love songs are in verse. Our ancient wisdom is in verse. There’s a power here I can only sense. We need peace in the world — and we also need truth.

    You speak from those places. Paul Nelson, who’s also connected to SICA, is the one who made you an administrator so that you could invite others to be on this 1 Million Poems for Peace site. I’m sure you have your hands full, but perhaps some of you students could be become involved with growing this initiative.

    Please forgive me if I totally intrude on your space and time. And please also ask your wife’s forgiveness if all this intrudes on her time and space as well.

    All best,

    Latifah Taormina 512-560-3397

    On Mon, Feb 5, 2018 at 2:47 PM, Planet of the Blind wrote:

    > skuusisto posted: “My new memoir Have Dog, Will Travel explores how being > paired with an exceptional guide dog changed me into a more curious, > adventurous, and trusting person. Corky, for that was her name, helped me > become better, especially on the inside. I think it’s saf” >

    Like

  2. I just reserved two spots to come and hear you at the Los Angeles Public Library. I am so excited to finally meet you in person after following you in this virtual space for so many years. If there’s anything I can do for you while you’re in Los Angeles, please let me know. I’d be happy to drive you around!

    Like

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