And the Wind a Grain of Salt

I’m going to let the kitty out of the wrapper and admit I’ve never believed the teaching of creative writing is more than a pastime. Like baseball, academic discussions of poetry and fiction, nonfiction and playwriting tend toward exquisite minutiae and nostalgia but without regard for what’s happening outside the stadiums or sports bars. I’m employing nostalgia with irony of course—using it in the Greek sense meaning returning home in pain. Odysseus is nostalgic. In turn he’s single minded.

**

Odysseus is more than nostalgic. He’s religious in the worst way, Huck Finn praying for a fishing hook. Athena is his familiar and gets him “home” on rage. Most religious pastimes are about nothing more than this.

Justice is absent from Homer save for divine vengeance that good old Olympian smack down.

We better know what we mean about the effects of poetry, what we mean by justice, where the study of poetry or literature stands in relation to human rights.

At the poetry conferences save for very few, human rights are not discussed at all. It is assumed by the writing workshop crowd that just thinking about writing elevates.

**

I told a fine poet last evening that I’m running out of time. At 63 I need to turn my prow toward the far shore, away from time, to that place where coins are useless. That I’ve long been in the fight for disability rights (which are all human rights insofar as disability admits everyone) means I’ve had to sculpt and shape my anger into productivity. Just anger admits justice and eschews vengeance. Just anger is not nostalgic. It’s also a form of ambition. Pentti Saarikoski wrote: “I want to be the sort of poet whose words build houses for people….” Amen. Meanwhile, how to let go of anger, or just enough of it to die happy?

**

“Life is a hospital where all the patients want to change beds,” said Baudelaire. I want to pick up my bed and walk—not because I’m cured but because I learned (am learning) to make my burdens light and my rest easy. I want this for you and you.

**

So I gravitated away from the teaching of creative writing to work in the eddies of human rights. 80% of the disabled remain unemployed in the United States. Some will tell you its only 70%. Some will tell you they’re a drain on society. (Hitler: the disabled are useless eaters.)

If human rights mean anything they stand for the manifest opportunity to think, believe, examine, eat, sleep, all unencumbered. And as I think about the bow of my boat I’m remembering these lines by the Norwegian poet Olav Hauge:

“Don’t give me the whole truth,
don’t give me the sea for my thirst,
don’t give me the sky when I ask for light,
but give me a glint, a dewy wisp, a mote
as the birds bear water-drops from their bathing
and the wind a grain of salt.”

The Cage We’re Forced to Watch

My neighbor is eating good ham. He drives a nice car. He voted for Trump. He’s a stand up guy. Just ask him. He’ll tell you he loves America. In fact he loves it more than you do. You describe problems with the USA. He only sees timeless verities: cowboys and Indians; slaughter on behalf of the railroads; local jobs based on environmental destruction. While the Colorado River basin runs out of water he says global warming is a hoax.

Sleeping he dreams of a wide cushiony bed where no one has sex, it’s a white, protestant cloud if you will.

When he wakes he turns on Fox News and tells himself America is great again because “those people” are getting their comeuppance.

**

Yesterday I hosted film maker Federico Muchnik and poets Doug Anderson and Preston Hood at the 15th annual Syracuse International Film Festival.

Federico’s film “Hunter in the Blackness: Veterans, Hope, and Recovery” details the experiences of American soldiers—veterans with traumatic brain injury, PTSD, and other poly-traumas. Doug Anderson and Preston Hood, both veterans of the Viet Nam War are featured in the movie alongside vets from America’s involvement in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It is a haunting film. The lack of awareness of civilians is a recurring theme. We send boys and girls to wars while America shops at the mall. When troops return with grievous conditions many Americans don’t want to know.

22 veterans commit suicide daily in these United States.

Last evening, after I bid farewell to my new found friends, I took an Uber home. My driver was a veteran of the war in Iraq. He has PTSD and traumatic brain injury. He told me how his best friend from his time in the military recently committed suicide.

And there we were, riding in a Dodge pickup, through the gritty nighttime rainy streets of Syracuse, NY, and it was impossible for me to blink away the machinations of my country. My driver told me about his TBI, his facial disfigurement, his stress condition, and the ongoing difficulties he has had with the VA to get the help he needs.

Rain spattered the windshield.

**

Swedish poet Lars Gustafson writes: “And a cage/which never held a bird can easily give/a feeling of disorder.”

I’ve not been to war. But I know the cage we’re forced to stare at.

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 

Stop With Your Ableist Lazy Rage

Over the course of the last two years (post election and the year prior) I’ve watched people throw ableist insults. From the right the favored term is “libtard” and from the left one hears “moron” “idiot” and “imbecile” all echoing eugenics both in Germany and the United States when the disabled were marked for elimination.

When disability must be employed to register rage then its nothing more than lazy rage. Rather than call a Trump supporter an imbecile why not say: “there’s a person who doesn’t understand his shadow.” Not so much fun as ableizing him or calling him a pig or weasel.

Lazy rage is fun rage. Even in their discontent Americans like to have fun. Trump knows this. Its perhaps the only thing he knows.

We’re got rape culture to worry about; children in cages; wholesale destruction of the environment at hand; black men in the school to prison pipeline; eroding medical services for veterans and the poor; unending American involvement in ruinous wars; the collapse of public education; big Pharma slinging opioids in every corner of the nation; religious extremism attacking science; an outright war on the Americans with Disabilities Act—I’m just getting started.

And all I see on facebook is callow name calling with an especially able bodied smugness.

As John Lennon might say: here’s another clue for you all. You are as much the problem as the problem.

Read Carl Jung on “the shadow” and know your own deep despairs before saying someone else is “lame” and for god’s sake join a volunteer organization of some kind.

More About Hating Smokey the Bear

I don’t like Smokey the Bear. I’ve already written about it. He’s a slick defier of logic. Children are powerless to prevent forest fires and telling kids they’ve a singular moral responsibility fo forestall contagion is the kind of cartoon horse shit Americans are forced to grow up with.

Meanwhile the forests are being systematically cut down by Weyerhaeuser and fried by acid rain from “clean coal”—a phrase I’m sure Smokey the Bear would approve.

Now you will say: “But Kuusisto, is it Smokey the Bear you don’t like, or is it the fatuous, bloated, running dogs of the bourgeoisie who created him who you dislike?”

Of course I dislike Madison Avenue. But it’s the cartoon Bear I hate. He’s the kind of anthropomorphic dungaree wearing shovel toting ranger hat wearing dingus who will pick your pockets if you’re not careful. He’s out to mess with your conscience. He wants you to feel responsible when bad things happen in nature.

Only you can prevent hurricanes.

Only you can prevent global warming.

He’s anti-democratic and the purveyor of superstition.

Thomas Jefferson would have despised Smokey the Bear.

Why am I “on” about this?

Because when you make a woman who’s survived sexual abuse stand alone before a room fool of smug, pink, hostile men on Capitol Hill, you’re saying, “only you can prevent sexual assault”—the American social lie…the idea that the culture isn’t responsible, only you, only you.

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 

This is the Smokey the Bear Social Lie Complex.

The corridors of power depend on this.

Why the Able Bodied Don’t Like Disability in the Arts

I was in residence at an arts colony not long ago when I heard a noted American novelist tell a wide audience that they’d never be so blind and poor of judgment again—referring to (wait for it) a broader appreciation of marginalized art forms.

Blindness as metaphor, indeed all disability as metaphor is offensive and “not cool” anymore. That this occurred at a well heeled arts event doesn’t surprise me. It’s still the case that disability isn’t part of inclusivity in the arts even when some of the most amazing creative work in contemporary America comes from the disability community.

Just so the leading national academic conference for creative writing, the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) has a long standing problem with disability. They dislike having to provide accommodations at their conferences and they are particularly disdainful to disabled writers.

I’ve come to see this as a matter of resort sales. Years ago I ran training sessions for Sandals and Beaches resorts. The idea was to help beach front hotels become better service providers for the disabled.

One executive said that having disabled people on their property would negatively affect business.

I saw what he meant: all their promotional material featured photos of sleek, gym toned, happy looking people. Some were white, some were from different ethnicities. But the point was everyone was very very attractive.

When you look at the photos featured on the AWP’s website you’ll notice that all the writers look like they’ve just come from the gym.

When you look at the photos from arts colonies you’ll notice that everyone looks like they’ve just come from the very same gym.

That the arts industry (such as it is) has so little awareness (such as it might be) about it’s devotion to normality is telling. Diversity is OK if it’s about race, gender, sexual orientation, but it’s not applicable if you use a walker, a stick, talk with your hands, walk with a guide dog, etc. Everyone knows that disability art isn’t real art. It is something else, isn’t it?

Adrienne Rich, Virginia Woolf, William Carlos Williams, Audre Lorde, Stanley Elkin, Robert Lowell, Andre Dubus, Walt Whitman, Hart Crane—all were disabled. Some walked with canes, some stuttered, some used wheelchairs. None looked like they were fresh from the spa.

In the narrow confines of American art, which let’s admit is academic art, it’s still the case that when illness is thought of at all, it’s imagined as something to be overcome. The arts in America are driven by the medical model of embodiment.

Try explaining this to the arts administrators. They’ll say, as indeed someone at the AWP said to a room full of disabled writers, “your time hasn’t come yet.”

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 

On the Probable Death of Empathy

Empathy is an engrossing word. While it means the capacity to understand and share the feelings of others, its Greek origin suggests entering into the emotions of others. The Greeks thought empatheia was sacred. In dramatic terms its absence was viewed as a tragic flaw. With the advent of literacy (“book learnin’” as Huck Finn called it) empathy was reckoned as the ability to imagine what someone feels, a difference, as the Greeks didn’t fully believe in imagination in these terms instead viewing it as a divine prerogative only available to the best minds.

In the modern world (which for argument’s sake starts with Shakespeare) empathy as imagination has been a responsibility of sorts. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Whitman, George Eliot, Grace Paley, Eudora Welty—a long list—each of these writers shouldered a duty to bring forward the buzz and confusion in the minds of outsiders. Beginning with the Elizabethans literary writing is understood as an obligation to reach beyond the self.

With the altogether exciting rise of singular voices in literary publishing, those who speak from singularities—disability, blackness, Native American experience, LGBTQ lives, Asian-American experiences, regionalisms of all kinds—literary empathy is often recast as “cultural appropriation.” It is asserted that no one “not of your neighborhood” should ever ever imagine your life for you. There’ve been many brouhahas recently about writers who are believed to be transgressors, who willfully seized the interiority of human beings not of their own neighborhoods.

As one who hails from a historically marginalized position I believe this febrile, literary neighborhood watch is both understandable and fatal.

I’m a blind poet and I loathe Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel All the Light We Cannot See. Doerr presents a blind teenager, a girl, as helpless to the point of needing to be bathed by her father. Since Doerr makes her blindness vaguely interesting, allowing some flashes from her point of view many non-disabled readers flipped for the book.

From a disability POV Doerr extends damaging stereotypes—her inability to bathe, her half- prophetic intelligence—are junk. Many in the disability community have cited the book for “cultural appropriation” a position I fully grasp. Doerr uses blindness as a literary device to advance his plot, Within the field of Disability Studies this is called “narrative prosthesis.”

Does the novel really do damage to the blind? Who knows. The blind are 70% unemployed in the United States. We’re imagined as quasi-helpless, burdensome. Doerr plays into this. He does present her as having an inner life. Big whoop! I’m citing him for a failure of empathy. He cannot steal my culture.

This is the crux of the matter: talented writers can enter effectively into the lives of others, even people who aren’t situated precisely next door. For my money one of the most effective portrayals of disability in all of literature was written by Toni Morrison. In her novel Sula she puts readers inside the head of Shadrack, a World War I veteran suffers from PTSD and has been released prematurely from a veterans hospital. He can’t order his mind or control his hands. He’s seen brains flying in the air. She writes at first of his experience in the ward:

“When Shadrack opened his eyes he was propped up in a small bed. Before him on a tray was a large tin plate divided into three triangles. In one triangle was rice, in another meat, and in the third stewed tomatoes. A small round depression held a cup of whitish liquid. Shadrack stared at the soft colors that filled these triangles: the lumpy whiteness of rice, the quivering blood tomatoes, the grayish-brown meat. All their repugnance was contained in the neat balance of the triangles—a balance that soothed him, transferred some of its equilibrium to him. Thus reassured that the white, the red and the brown would stay where they were—would not explode or burst forth from their restricted zones—he suddenly felt hungry and looked around for his hands. His glance was cautious at first, for he had to be very careful—anything could be anywhere. Then he noticed two lumps beneath the beige blanket on either side of his hips. With extreme care he lifted one arm and was relieved to find his hand attached to his wrist. He tried the other and found it also. Slowly he directed one hand toward the cup and, just as he was about to spread his fingers, they began to grow in higgledy-piggledy fashion like Jack’s beanstalk all over the tray and the bed. With a shriek he closed his eyes and thrust his huge growing hands under the covers. Once out of sight they seemed to shrink back to their normal size. But the yell had brought a male nurse.

“Private? We’re not going to have any trouble today, are we? Are we, Private?””

Later, out in the world, alone, without assistance, we see him on a country road:

“Once on the road, he headed west. The long stay in the hospital had left him weak—too weak to walk steadily on the gravel shoulders of the road. He shuffled, grew dizzy, stopped for breath, started again, stumbling and sweating but refusing to wipe his temples, still afraid to look at his hands. Passengers in dark, square cars shuttered their eyes at what they took to be a drunken man.

The sun was already directly over his head when he came to a town. A few blocks of shaded streets and he was already at its heart—a pretty, quietly regulated downtown.

Exhausted, his feet clotted with pain, he sat down at the curbside to take off his shoes. He closed his eyes to avoid seeing his hands and fumbled with the laces of the heavy high-topped shoes. The nurse had tied them into a double knot, the way one does for children, and Shadrack, long unaccustomed to the manipulation of intricate things, could not get them loose. Uncoordinated, his fingernails tore away at the knots. He fought a rising hysteria that was not merely anxiety to free his aching feet; his very life depended on the release of the knots. Suddenly without raising his eyelids, he began to cry. Twenty-two years old, weak, hot, frightened, not daring to acknowledge the fact that he didn’t even know who or what he was…with no past, no language, no tribe, no source, no address book, no comb, no pencil, no clock, no pocket handkerchief, no rug, no bed, no can opener, no faded postcard, no soap, no key, no tobacco pouch, no soiled underwear and nothing nothing nothing to do…he was sure of one thing only: the unchecked monstrosity of his hands. He cried soundlessly at the curbside of a small Midwestern town wondering where the window was, and the river, and the soft voices just outside the door…

Through his tears he saw the fingers joining the laces, tentatively at first, then rapidly. The four fingers of each hand fused into the fabric, knotted themselves and zigzagged in and out of the tiny eyeholes.

By the time the police drove up, Shadrack was suffering from a blinding headache, which was not abated by the comfort he felt when the policemen pulled his hands away from what he thought was a permanent entanglement with his shoelaces. They took him to jail, booked him for vagrancy and intoxication, and locked him in a cell. Lying on a cot, Shadrack could only stare helplessly at the wall, so paralyzing was the pain in his head. He lay in this agony for a long while and then realized he was staring at the painted-over letters of a command to fuck himself. He studied the phrase as the pain in his head subsided.”

Morrison’s portrayal of Shadrack is pure empathy and is a demonstration of literary writing at its finest. I won’t quibble about a non-disabled writer entering into the thoughts and torments of a wounded veteran. I can’t. The disabled need all the allies they can get. When a novelist as talented as Morrison turns her attention to a man with shell shock, who has no language for his experience, who cannot control his hands, then she is employing art in the service of a greater appreciation of tragedy and difference for every reader. This is empathy at its best. Its stunning.

I don’t believe in cultural appropriation. I think non disabled writers can write brilliantly about disability experience. They need to do their homework—talk to real blind people, true cripples, what have you.

The term cultural appropriation must never detract writers from the brilliant art of literary empathy.

I don’t want to live in the age when empathy died.

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