I was fortunate to be interviewed last evening by Louise Steinman at the Mark Taper Auditorium of the Los Angeles Public Library. Years ago when I was a little bit lonesome and watching “Larry King Live”–an uncharacteristic thing–I heard Paul Newman explain that he owed his entire acting career to luck. I thought of him as I sat on stage with Louise and explained my life in poetry, non-fiction writing, and civil rights work. What luck to be there in that room–how it might have been otherwise–how good people have entered my life and given me opportunities and hope. (That was Newman’s story. He shared how he was an understudy in a Tennessee Williams play on Broadway when the headlining actor fell ill. He stepped in. His career took off.) Newman never forgot that there were many other actors and actresses in his circle who had talent and never got a break. Sitting alone before my TV I wanted to hug the man for his humility.
Louise asked me about writing, trust, love, spiritual life, and we spoke about empathy and human rights. Suddenly I said: “Everyone deserves dignity and happiness.” Simple enough, right? But let’s talk about the politics of health and the necessary recognition that most human advancement has more to do with luck than Americans commonly suppose.
Many contemporary literary writers who achieve more than passing success imagine they got “there” by talent. It’s a hard position to argue against. Writing good poetry or prose requires skill to be sure–but there’s a shadow in the room like Poe’s raven, (picture wing shadows on the wall) and that’s the specter of fortune.
I know many writers of equal or greater talent than I who’ve not had the middling success I’ve enjoyed. That was the source of Paul Newman’s drive toward charity work. He saw his career as a matter of happenstance as much as anything else. I’m with him on this. I’m not gilding the Lilly of modesty. I believe what I’m saying. I wish more creative writers shared this position.
Of course I can write. Blue curtains sway above my sleep. A dream turtle drifts from under the dock and sparkles like an emerald in the unconscious. I discovered Carl Jung’s work when I was an anorexic, blind, desperately unhappy teenager. I saw how dream life is substantial and true. That was the year I found the poetry of Kenneth Rexroth. The year I took the eucharist and began eating.
Luck is the bread we break then share. You needn’t be Christian to know it.
My friend Elizabeth Aquino took this photo of Louise and I and guide dog Caitlyn at last night’s event. It was an evening of luck and emotive food to be sure:
ABOUT: 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.
(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