Independent Local Bookstores: My Kind of Community

Author, Poet Stephen Kuusisto reads from his work

Poet Stephen Kuusisto reading at Prairie Lights Bookstore, Iowa City, IA

You wouldn’t know it to look at me but I’m wildly supportive of independent bookstores or “indies” as habitués call them. If you see someone like me on the street with a guide dog you might think: “there’s someone who doesn’t go to bookshops.” Ah but you’d be wrong! So wrong!

Whenever I enter an indie bookshop my spirits lift. Really, they do. I’m no longer at the bottom of life’s stairs, l’esprit de l’escalier, like Diderot—hoping I might be wise or “wiser”—thinking all the sharp people are one floor above me. No, the independent bookstore is where all those who like being alive come for books.

I first learned this in my early twenties. I was fortunate enough to go to graduate school and felt lucky to find myself among bookish people. I was also lucky because despite my greenness and other deficiencies I was studying creative writing in Iowa City, Iowa.

In general it’s good to know you’re lucky. And of course the sensation isn’t ubiquitous. One can’t feel kind fortune every minute. My poetry classes at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop were contentious. The teachers were famous and my fellow poetry grad students were talented and ambitious. Such conditions should make for satisfaction if not happiness but often classes (known as workshops) could be rebarbative affairs. Occasionally a student would run from the room in tears because a Pulitzer winning poet-teacher had made a moue of disgust at a line in a poem. It was crazy. Old and young people fighting about poetry. Sometimes discussions about the merits of a student’s poem or lack thereof felt to me as fatuous and exaggerated as that section in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels where we see that a civil war has been fought over the question “which end of the boiled egg do you crack first—big or little?”

Enter the bookshop. In the summer of 1979 a fellow named Jim Harris opened a store in downtown Iowa City called “Prairie Lights” and he hired some of us anemic baby poets to help build bookshelves and lug boxes. Maybe this doesn’t seem like much—sweat and sawdust and the emergence of a new kind of store—but then you see there’s this quality of community that stands behind every indie bookstore. I knew it right away. And my hammering poetry pals knew it too. This, I saw, was a genial space.

To his credit Jim Harris made Prairie Lights an ever more genial place, hosting poetry readings, talks, events for kids. He hired people who genuinely loved books and who also—wait for it—liked talking with customers.

The playwright Edward Albee once said he wasn’t interested in living in a city where there wasn’t a production by Samuel Beckett running. By the time I was 25 I knew I didn’t want to live in a town without a warm, jazzy, welcoming and vital bookstore.

In a few days I’ll be publishing my sixth book, a memoir about poetry and a special dog. Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey will be released on March 13, by Simon & Schuster. Like many authors I’m thinking ahead about places where I might read from the book. Indie bookstores are at the top of my list.

On April 9 I’ll be reading at my beloved Prairie Lights where I’ve been fortunate to read a number of times and then I head to Bexley, Ohio both to read and celebrate Gramercy Books—a new “indie” that’s already proving to be remarkable. As Linda Kass, owner of Gramercy Books says on her website: “our name, Gramercy, comes from the French words ‘grand merci,’ which translates to ‘big thanks’ or ‘many thanks.’ We’re so grateful. For books. For our customers. And for the opportunity to bring you this experience.”

Gramercy Books, Bexley, OH

And that’s really what I’m trying to convey—indie bookstores are about thankful experiences. This of course is not a customary dynamic in capitalism but it’s the manifest hope of independent book sellers that we might warm each other with good words.


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

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order at an Indie Bookstore near you:
Prairie Lights
Gramercy Books

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

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey (Simon and Schuster) Available for Pre-Order

Guide Dog “Corky” changed my life in more ways than one.  Thank you to Simon and Schuster for allowing me the opportunity to share our story.

“Never before has the subtle relationship of a blind person to a guide dog been clarified in such an entertaining way. That Stephen Kuusisto enables us to see the world through his blind eyes as well as through the ‘seeing eyes’ of his dog is this book’s amazing, paradoxical achievement.”  —Billy Collins, U.S. Poet Laureate (2001-2003)

Have Dog, Will Travel Available for Pre-order Now!

Have Dog Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto


In a lyrical love letter to guide dogs everywhere, a blind poet shares his delightful story of how a guide dog changed his life and helped him discover a newfound appreciation for travel and independence.

Stephen Kuusisto was born legally blind—but he was also raised in the 1950s and taught to deny his blindness in order to “pass” as sighted. Stephen attended public school, rode a bike, and read books pressed right up against his nose. As an adult, he coped with his limited vision by becoming a professor in a small college town, memorizing routes for all of the places he needed to be. Then, at the age of 38, he was laid off. With no other job opportunities in his vicinity, he would have to travel to find work.

This is how he found himself at Guiding Eyes paired with a Labrador named Corky. In this vivid and lyrical memoir, Stephen Kuusisto recounts how an incredible partnership with a guide dog changed his life and the heart-stopping, wondrous adventure that began for him in midlife. Profound and deeply moving, this is a spiritual journey, the story of discovering that life with a guide dog is both a method and a state of mind.

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

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Barnes and Noble

It Takes a Village to Sell a Book: Tips to Help Your Favorite Author

Help! It takes a village to sell a book

By C. Kuusisto

Now that books can actually be published online with a few key strokes (compared to bygone days) chances are you know someone who has written a book.  Or an eBook.  Think about it for a minute.  Browse the shelves of a library or your local bookstore or on and you’re looking at exceptional efforts made by some extraordinary individuals, each with a passion to share his or her message with the world.  Granted, some books are better than others but that’s another story.  Story – get it?!

Not everyone has the inclination or ambition to make such a mark on the world.  For those of us who don’t, unless you know an author personally, it is very easy to take their efforts for granted.  A book, just one book, represents hours, months, sometimes years of toil and trouble. While some consider it a labor of love, others may consider their book the worst “assignment” ever.

I know; I’m married to an author.

So if YOU know an author, or if you have a favorite author you’d like to support (hint, hint) what can YOU do to make a difference?  If you’re reading this post, I’m assuming you have an interest in doing so.  Well then, here are some ideas for meaningful things you can do to help spread your enthusiasm for any author dear to you.

• Check out the author’s web site and buy a book!  Buy another one and gift it to a loved one.  Or a friend.  Or both.

• Buy another copy and donate it to your local library.

• TALK about the book.  Word-of-mouth advertising is priceless!

• Follow his/her Virtual Book Tour.  But don’t just read the introductory blog posts.  Click the links!  Visit the hosts’ blogs; write comments.  Show some love!  Bloggers LOVE comments!  Internet search engines love links.  Follow an author on a virtual book tour, participate, and you’ll help make “noise” online.

• If he or she is offering a reading at a local bookstore or other venue,  GO!  And buy a book!  Ask him/her to sign your book.

• Bring a friend with you! Treat him/her to a copy.

• Help arrange for a reading at a local venue.

• Write a book review.

• Visit Goodreads.  “Like” the book.  Add it to your bookshelf.  Recommend the book.  Leave a comment/review.

• Visit “Like” the author.  Like the book.  Recommend the book.  Leave a review.  Same goes for any other online book seller site…

• Are you a Twitter user?  Connect!  Then borrow the link from either Amazon or Barnes and Noble and share with your followers.  Or share your favorite quote.

• Are you on Facebook?  “Like” the author and/or the book and tell your friends why you like it.  Important: Leave Comments!  SHARE!

• Are you a blogger?  Ask your favorite author if he/she will provide a guest post.

• If you are a blogger, offer to interview your favorite author and publish it to your blog.

• Make a video of your interview and post it to YouTube and to Facebook.

• What other social media platforms do you use?  Google+?  Pinterest?  Instagram?  Use them to help spread the word.

• Share the book with your book club.  Ask the author if he/she will do a virtual online meeting with club members to discuss the book.

• Start a book club!

• Contact your favorite author and ask “what can I do to help spread the word?”

You may have some other ideas.  Please feel free to share them in the comments.

Oh, and just for the record, Stephen Kuusisto’s new book “Have Dog, Will Travel” is now available for pre-order on both Amazon and Barnes and Noble.  It will take a village to sell his book, too.  No doubt he would appreciate YOUR help.  Share the news, will you?  Steve’s book “Planet of the Blind“, a NY TIMES Notable Book of the Year (1998), touched a lot of lives; this we know.  The hope – the expectation – is that this one will, too.

Have Dog, Will Travel: a Poet's Journey by Stephen Kuusisto


First Image: The word HELP spelled out in red by a hand holding a pen. Underneath HELP it says “It Takes a Village to Sell a Book” in black letters.

Second Image: Cover of author Stephen Kuusisto’s new book. Light blue background with white lettering: Have Dog, Will Travel A Poet’s Journey. Included is an graphic image of a gold-colored dog wearing a harness and at the top of the cover is a testimonial by poet Billy Collins.

The Forehead Egg, Biopolitics, Disability

When I was in my early twenties I read a lot of poems by James Tate. If you’re an American who’s interested in poetry and you’re over forty there’s a good chance you’ve visited Tate’s poignant, Da-da universe where dark alleys and cemetery willows remind a man to have a cigarette; where Sam Beckett’s people enter cereal naming contests; where only a dish of blueberries can pull you out of a lingering funk. Somewhere in my reading I saw a line about a man who feels like a fried egg has been glued to his forehead, which is to say, he walked around that way. There I was, blind, in college, cross eyed, the streets before me erasing themselves as I moved, lonesome, stamped by the U.S. Department of Alienation, hyper-aware that a cutting remark would be coming my way any moment. I knew Tate’s fried egg was my third eye, my sunny side up stigma. Disability can feel like that.

When we, the disabled discuss the biopolitics of disability, which is to say, the economic and political performances and entrapments of disablement, it often seems, at least to me, we’re talking about eggs and foreheads as much as anything else. What kind of egg will it be? Will you cook it yourself or will someone do it for you? Just so, will you self-apply your egg or have it done professionally? (I’m not metaphorically describing disability but the stances one must take because of it.) And there’s more: will it be a free range organic egg or from a factory? Perhaps if you’re lucky it will be cooked just right.

The neoliberal egg-on-forehead (hereafter NEOF) is like the cereal naming contest above–you have to pay to win and while you may be named Estragon you’re reliably in the game because it’s now an inclusive economy. In the bad old days you’d have been forced to live in the NEOF asylum but suddenly you have putative value. A productive, non-normative worth has either been declared or assigned. You round up your pals who once lived in the ward with you and together you create a federation. You’re online. Christ, you even blog. You belong to a Single Condition User Group. You’re no longer just a person with egg on the unibrow, you’re informed, itchy, talkative, contrary, ardent if not militant.

In their groundbreaking book The Biopolitics or Disability: Neoliberalism, Ablenationalism, and Peripheral Embodiment, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder point out that: “as medical citizens within neoliberal biopolitics we are expected to take active control of our health management regimes to a greater extent than in any time in history. This active control taking health represents the double-edged sword of biopolitics and results in the desperate necessity of participating in funding initiatives on behalf of physicians and researchers to provide the missing profit motive for future investigations of potential medical treatments for members of rare condition groups.”

You were in a special hospital not so very long ago but now you’re an anguished expert on forehead eggism because you must be. You must be because either you’ve a job and want to keep it (you’ll need an accommodation—you can’t wear standard issue hats) or you hope to have a job—or jobless, you wish to have community relevance, which means among other things you should have the right script memorized.

I for one commit to memory a lot of self-declarative language. Yesterday I went to the ophthalmologist. I told him all about my eyes. In ophthalmology land I’m a failure. You mustn’t imagine eye doctors view low-to-no vision patients as successful and autonomous citizens. I felt the need to take care of myself and control the medical narrative to the best of my ability. I wasn’t an uninformed blind person. I wasn’t in need of rehab. No. That’s not a laser scar on my left retina, that’s what it looks like. You see, I don’t need to be cured, and even if that’s something in the cards it’s not happening today. I like the eggs. Yeah you can call me Estragon.




Elegy for Pentti Saarikoski

Like many poets I wake thinking of delicate things, some apparent, others abstract. I think of Wallace Stevens “planet on a table”—the world we must make each day, and then I smell the  sweet ripening apples outside my bedroom window. I rise, feed my dogs, brew coffee, check the news hoping for breakthroughs in international understanding, put on my rough shoes and walk into the still morning. I’ll make something of this. Put on my little “peace hat” and pepper the aborning hour with words—names—Isaac Bashevis Singer, entelechy, sea cucumber, yellow mittens, mother-world. No one is about in my neighborhood. No one’s awake. The houses are all buttoned, windows dark. My feet love the wet road. I think I need to pardon my youth. I hear the Phoebe bird. The age I live in has a dark taste. I’m seldom prone to this but I do sometimes wish I was a bird.


But I Can’t

Some mornings I need tenderness, tendre—just to make clear: “soft, easily injured,” early 13c., from Old French tendre “soft, delicate; young” (11c.), from Latin tenerem (nominative tener) “soft, delicate; of tender age, youthful,” from a derivative of PIE root *ten- “to stretch,” on the notion of “stretched,” hence “thin,” hence “weak” or “young.” Compare Sanskrit tarunah “young, tender,” Greek teren “tender, delicate,” Armenian t’arm “young, fresh, green.”

Meaning “kind, affectionate, loving” first recorded early 14c. Meaning “having the delicacy of youth, immature” is attested in English from early 14c. Related: Tenderly; tenderness. Tender-hearted first recorded 1530s. 



Early today I required Auden:

“But I Can’t”

Time will say nothing but I told you so,

Time only knows the price we have to pay;

If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,

If we should stumble when musicians play,

Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,

Because I love you more than I can say,

If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,

There must be reasons why the leaves decay;

Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,

The vision seriously intends to stay;

If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose the lions all get up and go,

And all the brooks and soldiers run away;

Will Time say nothing but I told you so?

If I could tell you I would let you know.

October 1940

Excerpt From: “Selected Poems.” iBooks.


When a human soul is bruised but not yet crushed, a man, woman, or child often senses a green bleed beneath the skin of mind, as if a coin has fallen through blood with its promise of luck deferred. Oh we didn’t receive our due, but “the vision seriously intends to stay”—life works just this way. If I could tell you I would let you know.

I Have Written a Dog Book and I May Be a Better Person For It

I have written a dog book. What a strange sentence!

Why is this strange? Well for one thing, I owe my life to successive guide dogs who, each and every one, was brilliant and mysterious. As I began the book I imagined with all due humility that writing about guide dogs might be beyond me.

Yes, I’ve written a dog book. I had to grow in order to manage it.

The book, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster next April is called Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey with an Exceptional Labrador

Why did I have to grow?

Because like many memoirists I’m pretty good talking about myself but weak when it comes to understanding others. And then, well, what do you do when “the other” is a dog?

What do you do when your teacher is a dog?

First: admit your teacher is a dog.

Next: recognize dogs don’t think like us. They’re loving and instinctive, patient but sweetly detached from our cloying egos.

My first guide dog Corky, a yellow Lab smiled a lot. She smiled whenever strangers approached, even the vaguely medieval ones who had superstition on their minds.

From the book:

The two of us were unconditionally stirring to strangers. Sometimes we were approached by doe eyed holy roller types—people who’d grown up watching Jerry Lewis telethons, who’d absorbed a thousand sermons about the blind, who need the grace of God—wanting to touch us, pray for us, or at the very least, tell us how uplifting we were. Riding a bus from Ithaca to Geneva, and feeling good, Corky tucked under the seat, a woman seated across from us said: “You and your dog just gave me some Jesus!” I was crippled Tim, a vision of Christ’s mercy. 

These benedictions occurred so often I started worrying about it. When would it occur? On a bus in Ithaca a woman said loudly: “Can I pray for you?” I couldn’t help myself and replied: “Yes, Madam, you may pray for me, but only if together, you and I, raise our prayers for all the good people on this bus who have trouble brewing inside, their cancers aborning even as we speak, whose children have gone astray through substance abuse, people who even now feel lost in a sea of troubles, let us pray, all together for our universal salvation.” I clutched her arm with feverish intensity. The bus pulled to a routine stop and she jumped out the door. Passengers applauded. “Don’t take it personally,” a woman said to me then. I smiled. But how else to take it?

I asked Edward, an Episcopal priest who I met in a coffee shop what he thought of the public Jesus complex as I’d come to call it. We sat on a park bench drinking coffee out of paper cups, Corky chewing on a bone at our feet.

“Many Christians don’t like the body,” he said. “That’s how they understand the crucifixion. They think the body is the throw away part of Christ. And of course that’s entirely wrong: the body of Jesus is, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: the living temple of God and of the new humanity.

“In effect,” he said, “every body is the body of Jesus. Which means each body, broken or not is a true body, imbued with spirit, and not a sign of want. There’s a beauty to the diversity in the body of Christ.”

“So why do I meet so many predatory prayer slingers who want to mumble over me?” I asked.

“The insecure ye will always have with ye…” Edward said.


When she first entered my life I knew Corky would help me in traffic but I had no idea she’d teach me to be kind in an open and ironic way. By this I mean she gave me distance from whatever it is we mean by the self. With a service dog by my side 24-7 I learned to drift above the two of us in disembodied fancies—I could look down on whatever scene we found ourselves in and often, because of this altered state I would become larger than my habitual persona.

From the book:

I walked into a mega-computer store on Sixth Avenue. I wanted to purchase a laptop pc. As we pushed through the door a security guard put his hand on my chest. “You no come in, no dog,” he said. 

I pressed forward and the guard stepped back. “Stop! Stop!” he shouted and waved his arms. Customers stared. 

My civil rights and the security guard’s dignity were equally delicate. I didn’t know where the guard came from, but his accent sounded East African. How could he possibly know anything about guide dogs? The store’s managers hadn’t given him information. All he knew was “no dogs allowed” and there I was with a big assed dog. As we stood in the doorway I figured it would be my job to foster dignity for both of us. They hadn’t taught me this at Guiding Eyes; they’d given me a booklet with access laws—a useful thing–I had the right to go anywhere the public went—but no one had mentioned emotional intelligence or how to engage in public mediation. 

I made Corky sit. “Listen,” I said, softly, “get the manager. This will be okay.” “This is a special dog for the blind.” I wanted to turn our misunderstanding into something respectful. 

The manager was one of those guys you see all the time in big city stores: sadder than his customers, red faced and put upon. He had a scoured toughness. He approached and began shouting at the guard. “Its a seeing-eye dog for god’s sake!” “Let him in!” “Sorry, sorry!” 


My fight or flee rush was subsiding—I wanted all three of us to experience kindness.   

I was in a Manhattan electronics store and dignity was in peril. It would have been easy to say “fuck it” and look out for myself alone. I’d gotten into the store. I was angry. I could have pitched a fit. But I didn’t feel like doing that. The guard’s name was Ekwueme. My name was Stephen. The manager’s name was Phil. “Listen,” I said, “dogs for the blind are not common, you don’t see them every day. This is Corky. She’s very smart.” I let my voice become soft. Ekwueme and Phil both petted Corky. A customer approached, said: “I’ve raised puppies for the guide dog school! Best dogs in the world!” Phil seemed suddenly pleased, as if he too was philanthropic, or could be some day. Ekwueme admitted he loved dogs.

Outside with a computer under my arm I reckoned life with Corky was more complex than just a story of freedom. Ekwueme and Phil would become legion in my travels but I didn’t know it yet. What I did know was reflected in a quote I’d always liked from Martin Luther King: “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

I sensed that having a service dog meant something more than honoring my own rights.  

“Take the first step in faith,” said Dr. King. “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” 

When you travel all the time with a dog you are changed by the experience. I became more patient, deliberative, not perfect, but slower to burn, better able to think without the baggage of my former life, the one without the dog, the life when I was without a curious and engaging intelligence beside me always.

From the book:

In a diner on lower Broadway, a man, disheveled and clattering, someone the locals seemed to know, wandered from table to table interrupting breakfasters, pressing into each person’s space, piercing the brains of strangers. He called a cop “Porky” and an elderly woman “Grandma” as he lurched steadily toward me. “Oh Doggy!” he said. “Doggy doggy doggy!”

Then he said, “What kind of fucking person are you?”

I tried my best Robert deNiro impression: “Are you talking to ME?”

He wasn’t amused.

“A prisoner!” he shouted, for the whole diner was his stage. “This dog’s a prisoner!”

For a moment I felt the rising heat of embarrassment and rejection. Then, as he repeated my dog was a slave, I softened. In a moment of probable combat I stepped far back inside myself, not because I had to, but how to say it? Corky was unruffled. She actually nuzzled my leg. The nuzzle went up my torso, passed through my neck, went straight for the amygdala.

I smiled then. I said, “You’re right. And I’m a prisoner too.”

I don’t know if it was my smile, or agreement that did the trick, but he backed up, turned, and walked out the door. Strangers applauded.

I’d beaten a lifetime of bad habits. I hadn’t fallen into panic, or rage, or felt a demand to flee.

I sat at the counter, tucked Corky safely out of the way of walking customers, and ordered some eggs. I daydreamed over coffee.

When I was eleven years old I fell onto a pricker bush. It’s hard to say how I did it, but I was impaled on hundreds of thorns. My sister who was six at the time, and my cousin Jim who was maybe nine, fell to the ground laughing as if they might die. I begged them for help which of course only made them laugh all the harder. I remember tears welling in my eyes and their insensible joy. I also knew in that moment they were right to laugh—that I was the older kid, was a bit bossy, disability be damned. I was the one who told my sister and cousin what to do. Now I was getting mine. My just deserts. In the end I tore myself from the monster shrub and stormed into the house. I sulked while they continued laughing outside.

Perhaps I thought, there in the diner, I could live in a new and more flexible way.

“Is it as simple as this?” I thought. “One simply decides to breathe differently.”

I saw, in a way, it was that simple.

Saw also how a dog can be your teacher. And while eating wheat toast I thought of the Buddha’s words from the Dhammapada:

Live in Joy, In love,

Even among those who hate.

Live in joy, In health,

Even among the afflicted.

Live in joy, In peace,

Even among the troubled.

Look within. Be still.

Free from fear and attachment,

Know the sweet joy of living in the way.