Today is the day that student poets, dancers, and musicians in Almaty, Kazakhstan will come together and perform their work as part of the disability and cultural diplomacy workshop my friends and I have been teaching over the last 72 hours. As a teaching poet I’m after art not the reductiveness of identity. I want poetry to come and the accompanying astonishments before anything else. Our students here have disabilities and have, to the best of my knowledge, had little inclusive engagement with the world. So we started out by dancing in a large public space; circling; bending; reaching; dipping; swaying; going low; wide; small; and very large.
As the American poet Elizabeth Bishop knew, the imagination has cardinal points but far more than the average map indicates. We’re making new maps for our insides.
My teaching colleagues include the superb choreographer and dancer Michelle Pearson, poet and nonfiction writer Christopher Merrill, novelist Cathleen Dicharry, and the world class jazz composer and musician Damani Phillips. Our trip has been sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa. Cultural diplomacy in this case means inclusive arts education. But that phrase can’t capture what happens. In my class yesterday a woman wrote a poem about living in a sustaining star. We’d been talking about how poetry lets us imagine places that can’t be seen or drawn with a pencil. We’d been talking about inner freedom. We talked about many things: W.H. Auden, Andrei Voznesenskii, Emily Dickinson, Whitman. We wrote together. And there was probative discovery.
Lest you accuse me of “inspiration porn” let’s get something right and from the start. The imagination does not transcend disablement or color or ethnicity or gender. But as the American poet W.S. Merwin once pointed out—“it”—imagination—“lives up here and a little to the left.” Poetry is decisive and clear and often like the clouds in a Tintoretto painting and each of us has access to this. When we come down from this space we’re refreshed. Intellectual refreshment is a human right.
Poetry is play. We made an exercise yesterday. We each had to write a poem that would begin and end with the same line. There had to be an animal in it. And water. A color. A place you’ve never been. Music.
Yes you have to be willing to be a joyful ass! (How else does one describe in essence the method of James Joyce or the Beatles?)
Here’s a dog with a red piano
He pulls it like a plough
And farms the musical dirt in Scotland
Some say he’s from Loch Ness
But he’s an ordinary musician
Changing the world row by row
A dog with a red piano
What was “killer” as we say in the vernacular was the student poems. They went far out and actually made art.
As I type these lines I don’t have their poems in front of me. But tonight they’ll perform them to jazz and dance.
Changing the world row by row.
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