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

Featured

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 

Publication Day: Have Dog, Will Travel

Today is pub day for my new memoir Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey. The book is a love poem in prose to my dear friend Corky, a yellow Labrador who changed my life for the better. She entered my circle as I say in the book, like a clown, my first ever guide dog who was meeting me for the first ever time:

She was brilliant and silly. I couldn’t believe my luck. Back in our room she bounced, cocked her head, backed up, ran in circles, and came back. All the while I kept talking. “Oh let’s go any place we choose,” I said, feeling I was on the verge of tears.

As our first hours unfolded we began the lifelong art of learning to read each other.

She was happy but she had something else, a quality of absorption. She looked me over like a tailor. She took me in. She wasn’t searching for a ball to be thrown. Was it my imagination or did she actually have the most comprehending face I’d ever met? There are times when you can’t describe your feelings. You say, “so this is the new life.”

I thought: “so this is the new man with the big dog— the big yellow dog, who cares not a whit about the old man’s history and already believes in his goodness.”

Have Dog is a little bit like Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s a book about focus. About giving myself and my precious ego over to something that’s decidedly not me. In this way it’s a sixties book—spiritually optimistic without the irritable reach of staid determinism or contemporary vexation about using the word soul. Learning to go places in the company of a superb dog was like writing poems: I had to open my head and heart.

In an early chapter I describe walking with Corky in a busy city for the first time:

It was Corky’s moment. She’d show me what she could do.
I’d show her I wasn’t afraid.
There is even a moment, in the very beginning, when you have to jump across a precipice . . 

We hurried past storefronts. Corky pulled and I con- centrated on my breathing, trying to stay loose. My arm was straight, my shoulders squared, my posture upright. In lecture it had sounded so easy but now I was moving very fast. I was scared and joyous. Kylie was behind us, monitoring.We were“stepping out”as they say in guide- dog work. Corky was going so swiftly I didn’t have time to worry about oncoming shadows—people, street signs—whatever they were, they just dropped behind us.

I’d always been a tippy-toe walker. Now I was put- ting everything into my feet and for the first time I felt vital in relation to my footfalls. It was a circumstance for which I had no prior lingo: a dog-driven invitation to living full forward. Racing up the sidewalk we were forwardness itself.

This is a book for readers who like to walk, who love animals, and who still have Walt Whitman on their bookshelves. Corky allowed me to walk in New York. She took me back to my childhood home in Helsinki. She walked on the Golden Gate Bridge. She drifted in a Gondola past Mozart’s apartment in Venice.

Corky changed my life so thoroughly that I wanted her to have a book of her very own.

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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 The 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 available at:
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 

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.

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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 at an Indie Bookstore near you:
Prairie Lights
Gramercy Books
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