About skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

Old Man Weather and Blind Eyes

I’m watching rain, to the degree I watch anything as I’m legally blind and rain is not immediately apparent so much as it’s a degree, a palpable abstraction. In fact rain is for me much like the faces of friends or strangers. I can’t see your expressions my friends, my enemies, my policeman, my good samaritan. Your features are like the weather—by turns dry, notional, endlessly mysterious, cold or wet.

Years ago on a street in Helsinki I met an old man who accosted me—upbraided me—for having said “I see…” —perhaps the most common locution in American English. I’d been talking to my pal Tim about something rather ordinary when I saiid it. Poof! The man appeared beside us. It was startling. One second we were alone on Runeberginkatu, the next there stood a man so old Tim later told me his skin was almost transparent. He was terribly thin and dressed in a black suit and he was shaking with urgency. “Why do you say you see?” he said.

Then he admonished us: “you don’t see! You understand!”

He was the genius of pavement; he was not of our world. He vanished right before us.

And we’d both seen him.

He was the weather I cannot see. The trees I can’t observe. The faces I’ll not know until some other life.

Yes I’m an animist.

It’s raining in the near. Old men and women are pointing their fingers. Get your words right.

David Brooks and the Dowsing Rod

I read a column this morning by David Brooks who argues America’s problems (what we used to call “social ills”) are a consequence of a shift from governance by aristocracy (think F.D.R.) to what he calls “meritocracy” which means a slavish devotion to individual advancement—read diversity, women’s rights, inclusion, etc. For Brooks the biggest culprit is higher education which has pushed the acquisition of skills and talents per the individual—so thoroughly we can’t govern ourselves. I had to stop reading and rub my scalp. I caught a head cold on the “red eye” from L.A. to Atlanta and I’m souped up on sinus relief tablets which make me hyper-vigilant and paranoid (yes, more than usual) and I thought, “is this sensible?”

Cold pills can’t disguise the silliness of Brooks’ scree. In general I like sentimental conservatism and prefer it to fascism but this is like saying I favor a horse to a camel—the former has beauty even if you don’t like stables; the latter as its name suggests is about deprivation—from camelus, the Greek word kamēlos, and from the Hebrew word gāmāl, which means ‘going without’. I know. I’ve digressed. Its the phenyl-alanine. (BTW the best quote I know about camels comes from Jackie Kennedy who famously said: “a camel makes an elephant feel like a jet plane.”)

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Brooks says a concatenation of selfish me-first baby boomers and their spawn live minus the putative virtues of the old time ruling class (think F.D.R.) which means everyone is addled, self-absorbed, and inclined to vote only for short term gain. Jesus! This sounds so good! Such gratifications are a bit like divining—dowsing with a stick you find water and voila you’ve discovered the earth’s soul. All is clear.

If you think America is packed to the rafters with brummagem you’ll likely soon be strolling the back forty with a stick.

Disclosure: I favor ditch witches over Hallmark conservatism. Neo-liberalism has not been driven by open admissions at colleges and universities. Fantasizing about the good old days when noblesse oblige was ubiquitous (F.D.R.) and blaming its collapse on diversity in college admissions is, if not the most fallacious argument I’ve ever heard, pretty damned close to it. (OK. The most fallacious argument I’ve ever heard is that some people are better than others because of how they look.) (The second most fallacious argument I’ve ever heard is that giving the wealthy more money leads to investment in jobs.)

Brooks argues that elites brought us the Viet Nam War but conveniently leaves out elites fought against it and rather successfully (Daniel Ellsberg, Robert Lowell, et. al.)

He maintains selfishness is the singular order of contemporary America but leaves out the role of the GOP as it fostered racial divisiveness and fear from Nixon onward—a dynamic that has ore to do with Trump’s ascendancy than the culture of narcissism, as Christopher Lasch famously called it.

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 for pre-order:
Amazon
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 
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Last Night in L.A.

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:

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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 for pre-order:
Amazon
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 

Doggish Notes from California

No blogger likes to vanish unless it’s a matter of wild fortune–winning the lottery or being abducted by cuddly, literate aliens–in my case neither of which has occurred though I’m immoderately happy on the “left coast” of the USA where I’ve been on a ten day book tour.

The very phrase “book tour” sounds overblown and it is. Forgive me. This really isn’t a book tour. Publishers don’t pay for authors to fly about and speak unless they’re more than passing famous (which I’m not) or they’re media figures (which I’m not) or maybe they’ve done something intolerable and are hitting the come back trail (Pee Wee Herman?).

No I think it’s best to say I’m on a dog tour with a book in hand. The book is mine, the dog is her own creature and we’ve been with friends both old and new. Good fortune. Let it be said. The dog and man are having charmed lives.

Here for instance is a photograph of me reading from the book in hand at Romeo Vineyards in Calistoga, California just three days ago:

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Thanks to Emma Blatcher of Romeo Vineyards for hosting us. “Us” meaning Dog and Man but also my dear friends Ken Weisner and Becky Roberts from Santa Cruz. Ken is a poet, teacher, scholar, French Horn player, and my pal these past 40 years. Here’s a photo of Ken reading his poems at Bookshop Santa Cruz just this past week–an event he made possible and yes, I followed his poetic lead and read from my dog book.

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I first met Ken Weisner in Iowa City in 1978. We were graduate students together, baby poets if you will, (there should be a word for baby poets–something Russian perhaps like “Sputnik”) but terminology aside we hit it off for we both loved classical music, Pablo Neruda, baseball, and complicated jokes.

As I recall, the first joke I ever told Ken involved a rebarbative and scatological piano teacher who instructed his pupil to defecate every time he hit a wrong note. The punch line was: “Good thing I didn’t shit in the piano!”

I offer the above as an example of Ken’s decency, for he befriended me despite this and we’ve been baby poets together, than stripling poets, and now we are entering the phase of life and art one may call “caducity” and there’s no help for it. And no, my jokes are no better these days.

Here’s a photograph of yours truly reading just after Ken. I’m describing how I had to walk with a woman guide dog trainer who was wearing a dog harness–an early stage of guide dog training. That exercise was loony (though perhaps necessary):

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After visiting Calistoga Ken and Becky drove me to San Rafael through lush countryside. And I had the great fortune to spend some time with my old friend Michael Meteyer and his wife Kate Byrnes. They are long time friends of the blind and their home overlooks a thrilling bird estuary and there should be a word also for speaking both human and bird language for I’m convinced Michael can do this as all the local birds adore him and why not? He’s a man with a Zen heart who actually does help old ladies across streets. He also took me to visit Guide Dogs for the Blind, the famous local guide dog training center. Here’s a photo of yours truly and guide dog Caitlyn posing by their lobby sign:

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(I love visiting guide dog schools. I’ve had the good fortune to visit schools in Japan, Finland, the UK, and at various locations in the US.)

As I write this morning I’m in Los Angeles where tonight I will speak at the Mark Taper Auditorium at the Central Library.

My doggish life has been rich, often filled with joy, many times more lucky than my morning imagination supposes. The morning imagination is like Wallace Stevens who once said the “world is ugly and the people are sad”–which may be true enough, but then again, just walking, taking in the air as a living circus (my own words from an old book) is what the world is for.

Connie Kuusisto :
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 for pre-order:
Amazon
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 

Why Donald Trump Can’t Have “This”

I am a small “R” romantic and I’ve a few mottos I live by and more than a few I’ve given up. Of the first, my favorite is: only talk to trees that talk “back” and I’m firm about it. No Ariel, no yakkity yak. And I do talk to trees. It’s a Finnish thing. I even know a banker in Helsinki who talks daily to a birch. (He also talks to stones.)

Concerning the small “r” I’m more of Coleridge than Wordsworth. I don’t think we achieve tranquility. We can only imagine it. Buddha had the strongest imagination in history. John Keats may have been second.

Donald Trump destroys trees, rivers, mountains, waterways—kills wildlife, harms the vulnerable in every quarter. Against this my “r” is infinitesimally small.

I’m animated by the minuscule nature of my “r” for I’ve William Blake on my side. My grain of sand is ineluctable.

Because I know what is true I am healthy. Strong. Flexible. Loving.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “He is the best physician who is the most ingenious inspirer of hope.”

Coleridge: “Poetry has been to me its own exceeding great reward; it has given me the habit of wishing to discover the good and beautiful in all that meets and surrounds me.”

If this sounds like “paper wraps stone” (and it does) one has already given away phenomenology, has bartered it if for meager coins—the junk bonds of aspirational happiness. My students want instant careers. Deep in debt, terrified for their futures, they’ve little time for Coleridge’s “exceeding great reward.”

My banker friend in Finland talks to a certain tree on his way to work.

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 for pre-order:
Amazon
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 

Lines Written in the Algonquin Hotel

I’m in New York for a gala.
I wonder what this means.
I’m not feeling like a “gala”—
Something something
What’s the phrase?

“Gala” from Arabic
A festive robe
Given in presentation.
Do we need more robes?
Do the saints have galas?

How about whales
Or children everywhere?
O I fear I’m the toothache
Of the gala set,
Unceremonious, twiggy.

**

I must get in the mood!
First I should admit my consciousness is an instinct, nothing more seeking shelter in a rain storm. O but all the smart people like getting wet! And that’s my difficulty. I fear smart moist people.

**

Oh c’mon Kuusisto, everyone needs a dance, a rouse, a collective giggle.
BTW I dreamt last night my father was back from the dead and doing standup comedy.

nie Kuusisto :
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 for pre-order:
Amazon
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 

The Ableist Shrug at Licorice University

Ableism: I’m the problem. I didn’t get cured. Didn’t stand up. Couldn’t read the books with my peepers. “Jeepers Creepers, where’d you get those peepers?” 

Good eyes are productive, produce results; bad eyes, get cured baby! 

Ableism: a term no one likes. Like licorice. (No one really likes licorice. Studies have shown this to be true.) 

What if I substitute “licorice” for ableism? Would it be easier to talk about? 

Licorice: a set of beliefs that hold everyone must like licorice. All licorice eaters are equal but some are more equal than others. If you don’t favor Glycyrrhiza glabra you can’t sit at the table. The great big licorice table. 

Note: too much licorice will poison animals and humans. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t whole cities of licorice. 

Side note; when I was a boy in Finland, licorice candies were sold in bite sized pieces, wrapped in wax paper featuring a cartoon of a little black child. 

Licorice is not innocence. 

Ableism: a predominant belief that discrimination against the disabled is just a matter of innocence. E.g. “We really care about disabled people. What’s that? You can’t get basic accommodations? Oh dear. That MUST be awful! I’m sorry you feel that way!”

Ableism: the disabled have ungoverned feelings. That’s their problem. Really. It is their problem not ours. 

I call the example just above “the ableist shrug”—universities are especially good at this. 

Back to licorice: “So Billy, you don’t like licorice? Then you can’t be in our club house!”

Ableism is infantile. 

The shrug is privilege. It’s not convenient to think about those people today. Perhaps we will get to them tomorrow. 

I’m sorry you feel that way.

Candy can represent hegemony. Finnish candy. 

The shrug: we are good people. We care about you. But your accommodation is way down on our list of priorities, because, well, how do I say this? You’re not in our budget. Not in our plans, not convenient, yes, that’s it! You’re really really really not convenient. We love convenience here at Licorice University. We may talk big about being the best! Frankly, business as usual is just fine. We especially like the Licorice Clubhouse. 

Shrug:  the word comes from Late Middle English and it originally meant “to fidget”—and fidget is an early Modern English word meaning “uneasy”—the shrug, the licorice ableist shrug signifies that disability makes the ableist both uneasy and vexed. Having to think about disability is nettlesome. 

When the disabled bring up their problems—lack of access to buildings, bathrooms, educational materials, transportation, zero dignity in the village square, the shrug works this way: 

  • We personalize the problem. 
  • It’s the disabled person’s difficulty not ours.
  • All disabled people are just failed medical patients. 
  • If you can’t be cured, you’re a failure as a human being.
  • While the disabled are talking, we look at our iPhones.
  • We all know there’s something wrong with the disabled, it’s below the surface, like icebergs.
  • You can’t see it, but below the waterline they’ve got bad attitudes. 
  • If the disabled just had better attitudes. 
  • When the disabled say, “we really hate it here” you say: “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
  • Which means the problems are not about accessibility and inclusion but all about the individualized disabled person.

If you were the right kind of disabled, (Tiny Tim for example) you’d be grateful for the little we’ve given you. “I know it’s a dinky crutch, hand made by your impoverished father, but it’s yours Tiny. It’s yours!”

 

 

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 for pre-order:
Amazon
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