Of or Pertaining to Self Approval in the Age of Airlines

Mark Twain wrote: “We can secure other people’s approval, if we do right and try hard; but our own is worth a hundred of it, and no way has been found out of securing that.”

I like this quote but think Twain got it wrong. As a disabled man I know that I cannot secure other people’s approval so long as I insist on my rights or what we like to call “equal rights” and therefore the only way I can secure self-approval is by insistence. I insist that I belong at this meeting, in this room, on this airplane, in the voting booth, in your taxi, theater, hotel, swimming pool, university, library, railway, hell, even your amusement park.

I do not get customary approval for this entreaty and that is painful, at least on the inside where the barbs from others must go. I secure my affirmation from public resistance and I’ll take my public scorn with a twist of lemon thank you very much.

Last week I had two plane flights where—despite the laws of the land—the airline wouldn’t seat me and my guide dog or “seeing-eye dog” as they’re sometimes called in a place where we could fit. In each case I cited the applicable law (the Air Carrier Transportation Act) which makes it clear that they have to put me where we can fit. And in each case I was treated with absolute disdain and then hostility. The airline was Delta but it could be any one of them.

I was angry, humiliated, and yes, embarrassed for the flight attendants were not only inhospitable they made me the problem. We call that ableism in disability circles and like racism or homophobia it’s all about the knee jerk assumption that someone different is a lesser being and can be treated as such. This is why all bigotry hurts all others. If Chic Fil-A thinks it can object to queer people on a phony religious principle, then they can also object to me and my guide dog. Disdain carries a permission index that’s portable.

The Delta airlines flight attendants not only didn’t care that I couldn’t fit in their seat, they also didn’t care about the law—which says they have to move to a place where I can fit. They did not want to be bothered. The overheated cigar tube was being crammed with passengers, the public address system was smoking with imprecations to tag your bag because the overhead bins were full, please sit your ass down, we’ve got a schedule to keep, etc.

And there I was with a big assed guide dog who couldn’t fit under my feat. I crammed her head under the seat in front of me and sat with my own feet tucked under my ass like a chic woman on a divan. Try doing that for five hours.

The story is worse than this. A woman seated next to me was rude. She didn’t like sitting next to a dog. A flight attendant appeared, (remember, they didn’t try to reseat me) and in front of me asked her if she minded sitting where she was.

I can’t get the approval of strangers and I have no idea what Mark Twain meant. But I have my own satisfaction. I tell the truth. That’s what civil rights are for.

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 

Alone in Boston, Guide Dog Notwithstanding

I’m alone with my guide dog Caitlyn in the back bay of Boston. Tonight we’ll take in a ball game at Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox. Dog and man going solo to a stadium. Sometimes in this blind life I worry in advance: how will it go? Will everything be OK? Will I find my seat? Will I find my way back to my seat after searching for a hot dog? Will strangers be helpful? Will I experience kindness? Then in occurs to me, these questions are ordinary—everyone has them, blindness or not. Will this day receive me? How will it go?

There’s a song by the late great Lou Reed that I like which has the refrain “it takes a bus load of faith to get by…” I’ve always liked Lou’s employment of “faith” which he offers with a hint of irony to be sure. A bus load of faith is a crowd’s worth of faith—we will get where we need to go without mishap. And we’ll manage it because we all had the proper thoughts. We kept that bus on the road with our individual and collective magic. Faith is hard work.

I think this is why I like to just take off and go places by myself. Or with just my dog for company, I feel the skin of my faith grow tighter. I step out into the unfamiliar. I’m alert to the mysteries of being alive and the sheer improbability of having a consciousness. I walk down Boyleston Street and feel how provisionally alive I am and how lucky. And I don’t know precisely where I’m going.

I’ve been teaching this week at a wonderful low residency creative writing MFA program called “Solstice” located at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hills. As a nonfiction writer I’m often talking about the essay—how creative prose can help us shape experience, make sense of the blooming buzz as they say. One may think of the essay as a soothing corral for the mind. Here is a shape in language within which we can rest, survey, feel a bit less panicked by the wideness of perception. Sometimes a horse, upon entering the corral is instantly calm.

And then there’s the horse who gallops into the shadows and sun beams with no idea where she or he is going.

I think that’s me just now. Enter the day. Get a little lost. Feel again the ache of amazement, that transverse cross of body and 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 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 

Thanks for Every Kind Word

Over the past few months I’ve felt gratitude for friends both old and new. Growing up in an alcoholic family and striving with a disability I learned nothing about thankfulness. If I thought about it at all I thought it was indebtedness—surely gratitude was dangerous—a slowing down when speed meant everything. 

I’m thankful to have written a book about a remarkable dog—a harder thing than it sounds because the actual topic of the memoir was gratitude. While working on an early draft I described the project to a friend who said “where’s the drama?” He was right to ask. And I couldn’t answer. Learning to love the world with a dog is not a customary narrative. I was writing about how I changed on the inside and for the better. 

That so many people have written me to say how much Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey has moved them means more to me than I can easily say. Gratitude is acknowledgment, recognition, a mirroring. Properly understood it means we’re together as we express satisfaction. 

In Columbus, Ohio last weekend I had the privilege of speaking on two panels at the Ohioana Book Festival. The first session was about dogs and books—the subject isn’t as simple as you’d think—what do dogs mean to us? I still don’t know the answer. I know I merely know I’m better off for all the dogs in my life and not just my guide dogs. 

The second session was more prosaic. It had to do with how we write. My fellow panelists were more practical than I was. They had useful things to say about researching topics, plotting their stories, joining writing groups, etc. All I could say was: “I get up early. Drink coffee. Throw words like Jackson Pollock throwing paint….and wait to see what happens….” 

I’ve had a hard life. Lord knows my new memoir details some of it. But what a remarkable moment I’m having—and it’s not about me! I set out to write a love poem in prose for my first guide dog Corky. What I managed to do was write about curiosity, joy, and spontaneity, three things dogs know better than we do. 

So here’s to all my friends who’ve written me, tweeted, posted, sent emails, texted—and here’s to the folks I’m getting to know. We’re in this life and affirming why we are respectively, often privately grateful for animal joy and poetry. 

 

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 2018 Armando Montano Reading at Grinnell College

The 2018 Writers @ Grinnell Armando “Mando” Alters Montaño Memorial Reading

Sometimes one has a bit of unforeseeable luck–as if we’d rubbed the proper coins. Sometimes there’s implicit history to that luck as was the case when I was invited to read poetry and nonfiction at Grinnell College in rural Iowa. The reading series honors Armando Montano, a young writer and journalist and a graduate of Grinnell who died in Mexico City just as he was starting his career. The reading program created in his honor asks writers to speak about human rights, creativity, and perhaps, just perhaps, optimism, for Armando–“Mando” to his friends–is remembered at Grinnell for his enthusiasm for others, his multiple satisfactions as a Mexican-American, half white, gay writer whose every impulse, so far as I know, was generous in the manner of Walt Whitman. Trust me, I spoke with a lot of his friends and former faculty. So I was reading at an event unlike other visiting writer gigs. I wasn’t there to tout myself. I didn’t show up to feed my ego as Robert Bly once put it when describing the deleterious effects of being the parachute poet who drops in and recites.

Mando was the extra man in the crowd, Elijah at the table. And I’m here to tel you I felt his presence and hoped that, in my own way, I could evince some of his hope. In a jaded age when academia or academics who labor in it tend to believe optimism is unfashionable, suspect even, I found the very act of reading in this series absolutely restorative. I do believe in positive change. I also imagine words matter and that anyone can take up the art of poetry with the right encouragement and examples.

At this stage I’ve given a lot of readings in many places. But I’m certain this year’s Mando Lecture was the best public performance this poet has given and I tip my hat to Armando and all the people who’ve seen fit to create a reading program in his honor.

Thank you, Ralph Savarese, for the invitation to participate.

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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:
Amazon
Prairie Lights
Grammercy Books
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 

Thank You Jeffrey Brown of PBS News Hour

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Stephen Kuusisto to appear on PBS News Hour

Image: Logo of PBS News Hour

Tonight the PBS NewsHour will air a segment about my new book Have Dog, Will TravelThe piece features an interview with Jeffrey Brown whose reporting on literature and poetry is well known to book lovers across the nation. Jeffrey is also a poet whose first collection The News is available from Copper Canyon Press. In our time together we talked about poetry, civil rights, disability culture, dogs for the blind, the field of disability studies, and the power of literature to bring people together around social justice movements. And yes, there’s a lovely dog, Caitlyn, a sweetie pie yellow Labrador from Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

The program airs locally, in Syracuse at 7 PM. Check your local listings.

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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:
Amazon
Prairie Lights
Grammercy Books
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 

Just for the Books

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On Wednesday last, April 11, I had the privilege of reading from my new memoir Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey  at Gramercy Books  in Columbus, Ohio. Gramercy’s owner, Linda Kass took this terrific photo of the event. I’m standing in front of a good sized audience, my purple sweater covered with dog hair, and I appear to be just about to make an extravagant gesture with my hand, like the opera tenor I’d really like to be….

As I’ve said before on my blog, I adore independent book stores. People come there for the books. They really do. Oh they might get a frou frou coffee, some poodle-ish beverage, but for Indie shoppers that’s just “value added” as they say in marketing circles. Customers who shop in independent book stores are drawn by words, intuitions, giddiness, mystery, fantasy, Dostoevsky, or “news that stays news” as Ezra Pound once said, describing why poetry matters.

You can’t tell from this photo but there are several guide dog users at the event. And puppy raisers from Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

What could be better than books and dogs, and lots of readers?

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:
Grammercy Books
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 

Fear of Falling, Twenty Times Each Day

I walk up and down stairs while I’m awake and as far as I know I don’t do it in my sleep. Stairs are bad enough in my waking life. My blindness means every set of steps will be both challenging and vaguely frightening. Often walking with sighted friends they sail down staircases talking all the while as I nervously feel my way with electrostatic feet. I’ve always loved James Tate’s line: “when riding an escalator I expect something orthopedic to happen.” Me too James. Or worse. I expect to fall face forward into death’s arms.

No matter how proficient you are at traveling blind you’re always aware of the manifold instances when, frankly, you’re risking physical harm. It is not fashionable to say this. What’s fashionable is to assert blindness is a minor inconvenience—with the proper accommodations it is practically nothing.

And then there are stairs, intersections, drunk drivers, distracted bicycle messengers, tiny revolving doors, all the daily invitations to behead myself.

On the surface I appear collected. Underneath, even with a guide dog by my side I feel that old fear of falling, feel it at least twenty times a day.

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:
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