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

Have Dog, Will Travel: Book Giveaway!

Finally! This book of mine is soon to be officially released!  I’m in a celebratory mood and thought hosting a giveaway should be part of the fun.  So…..let the fun begin, shall we?!

Click the image below or follow this link.

Contest will start at midnight, March 5, 2018.

Have Dog, Will Travel Book Giveaway Contest

The reviews are coming in and I’m so very grateful for the kind words being attributed to my work.  A special thanks to the folks at Simon & Schuster for their trust and guidance.

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Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

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

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Dog of the Morning

 —in memory of guide dog Corky

She brings me my shoes, separately, one by one

And drops them softly on the counterpane

As if to say: a day is here 

With all the colors of waking

Seeing I didn’t know

Knowing my tangled dream

A man in late middle age

Caught with Edgar Poe

His shadows moving to and fro

At windows

A day of high wind

So one by one

I slip my feet inside.

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 Dog Who Loves You

It’s always seemed to me that adults, by which I mean most adults, by which I mean many of those I’ve met, have difficulty giving thanks. I don’t mean just saying “thank you” when the barista hands you a latte, but worshipful thanks. I suppose I’m talking about praise where creation is concerned.  If you’re agonistic or an atheist you’ll see straightaway the predicament I’m in. I’m now standing on the thin ice of religious devotion and some might stop reading this because of it. But you see, what I’m really talking about is the love of dogs. Everyday I give thanks to creation for dogs.

The Dog Who Loves You Stephen Kuusisto

(Image: Young 10-year old boy, Stephen Kuusisto’s step-son Ross, is lying in the grass. Yellow Labrador and guide dog “Corky” is standing above him and is about to “kiss” his nose.”)

Tenderness, dog spirit, moves beside and within me. She has me talking to myself in the street. Stranger I am well. My hands, so often clenched fly open. I am loved by dogs.

This of course sounds ridiculous. The great dog spirit, Canis Tempus is walking me straight out of the profane world.

But this is so.

Shortly after I was paired with met first guide dog, a yellow Labrador named “Corky” I rode the subway to Coney Island.  It was April and cold but the famed Boardwalk was a great place for a brisk walk. Hardly any people were about. We pounded over the wood planks fronting the ocean and I talked to Corky softly. She held her head up, very high, to scent the Atlantic, and it was easy to imagine she was experiencing delight.

Aristotle defined happiness as “human flourishing” which he said involved activity and exhibiting virtue, and both should be in accord with reason. “Corky,” I said,“you are my virtue.” I wasn’t entirely sure what this meant.

“She can’t be my full virtue,” I thought. “She can only be the agent of my honor.” “But it’s lovely, Corky, walking this boardwalk with you and the ghost of Aristotle,” I said half aloud.

A policeman approached us and said, “Are you OK?”

“He’s seen my lips moving,” I thought. “He probably thinks I’m lost.”

“I’m just happy,” I told the cop who was taken aback.

“That’s a first for me,” he said. “I mean, no one ever says that, even at Coney Island!”

“You know,” I said, “I grew up blind in the middle of nowhere and never learned how to travel. Then I got this incredible dog! I just can’t tell you how happy I am.”

Of course I was more than happy. I was thankful. Now, 24 years later, I’m still mindful and full of praise for the dogs in my life.

The dog who loves you turns up in your dreams. Last night she was a woman on a train who said her name was “Evensong” (I kid you not) and she was old and dignified.

The dog who loves you is part of your soul (I kid you not) and she insists that mirth never dies. That is, as they say, how things stand.

Carl Jung had it wrong: the anima or animus is not the man or woman inside you but the dog who loves you; the one who first loved you; who loves you now. Sorry Yeats, here’s how the poem should go:

“Young man lift up your russet brow,

And lift your tender eyelids maid,

And brood on dogs and dogs who love…”

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 

Dog of My Travels

My new memoir Have Dog, Will Travel explores how being paired with an exceptional guide dog changed me into a more curious, adventurous, and trusting person. Corky, for that was her name, helped me become better, especially on the inside. I think it’s safe to say this is the most  interior book I’ve yet written. And while no one can really do such a thing, I try to get inside Corky’s head as well.

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(Photo of Stephen Kuusisto with his third guide dog Nira, a yellow Labrador, in the English-Philosophy Building at the University of Iowa.)

I started my writing life as a poet. I remember the afternoon I told my father I wasn’t going to law school but instead had chosen to attend the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. As Franklin W. Dixon used to write in the Hardy Boys books, my dad was crestfallen. After a day or so he roused himself and said: “well we probably need more poets and no one in his right mind believes we need more lawyers.”

At Iowa I studied poetry with several well known poets including Marvin Bell, Donald Justice, and Sandra McPherson. Studying poetry meant both writing it and revising it–living and breathing extraordinary words by others and trying, often inexpertly, to write some lasting words of one’s own. That’s the thing about poems: in order for them to be considered any good they should be original and if you’re lucky your poem says something no one else ever has or at least not precisely. Ezra Pound said famously “poetry is news that stays new.” We should be surprised by poems, both as readers and writers.

Here’s the thing: when I was writing poetry in Iowa City I had no idea how to travel safely and independently–surely a primary need for any blind person. In my new book I describe how I went to Iowa two months before graduate school just so I could walk the town like a crime scene investigator–I walked a grid, up and down the charming brick streets and memorized the steps I’d have to take to arrive wherever I needed to be. In those days I was play acting at being a sighted person. This is not an unusual story among the blind and I claim no special distinction. But its safe to say I was closed in, anxious, quietly desperate, and yes, inwardly guilty–for wasn’t I a sham? And of course, as the depressed imagination goes–wasn’t I a sham in all things?

In Have Dog, Will Travel (which is subtitled, “a poet’s journey”) I narrate how I grew tired of not knowing how to strike out on my own and go anywhere I wished, any time, yes, on a whim. Freedom is about many things but “whim” is surely central to it. In the book I describe how, as a college student living in western New York I wanted desperately to go to New York City and hear the poet James Wright read at the 92nd Sweet YMCA.  In those days I needed sighted friends to accompany me places or I couldn’t go. I found no willing co-conspirators in my quest to hear one of my favorite poets and I stayed home. I felt the disappointment bitterly.

Climbing out of that place, that self-imposed covert, took several years for me. My book about a yellow Labrador is a poet’s journey because with Corky by my side I was able to do what others freely do all the time–I could wander without goals in New York City; walk loose jointed and open; push my curiosity the way a child floats a toy sailboat in Central Park. The book’s most joyous passages have to do with trusting my canine pal, plunging into traffic, and pressing forward because I just wanted to go to a baseball game (I’m a Mets fan) on my own.

Except I wasn’t on my own. I had a poised, confident, upright, vigorous, and soulful sidekick, who happened to be one hell of an exceptional dog.

She made me a better man. More trusting. More flexible. Open to others in ways I’d never imagined. And you know what? She made me a better poet.

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 StephenKuusisto.com.

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

With Thanks for the Kind Words

When you’re writing a book, or I should say, whenever I’ve written one, there’s a moment when I don’t know what’s happening. I know the subject before me. I even know vaguely where I’m supposed to go. But the gloaming surrounds me, a Dante-esque “dark wood” and I’m utterly lost. No wonder Dickens said all writers are “ink stained wretches.”

My latest memoir, Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey was no exception. I understood I was writing a book about my first guide dog Corky and how training with her lead me to discover a new sprit of adventure. Before Corky I didn’t know how to travel on my own, or I didn’t know I could do it joyfully. I found I was writing a book about animal love and traveling joy. That’s not bad.

It’s in the writing one finds whatever we mean by depth psychology. My book about Corky became a spiritual narrative. I’d no idea it would become that when I started out.

So its especially gratifying to have received some advance praise from some writers and activists I admire. If my memoir became a poet’s journey (as I wished, had wished—that lyric hope) then what could be better than these words by the esteemed former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins:

“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 wold through his blind eyes as well as through the ‘seeing eyes’ of his dog is this book’s amazing, paradoxical achievement.” ~Billy Collins

That is, of course, precisely what I was hoping to do—to become both dog and man—to inhabit two bodies and suggest how, by wandering, we shared our loves and fascinations. A dog is not a tool—she’s a tutelary spirit, or she was for me. Corky made me better. This is a book about how a yellow Labrador made me a better man.

I’m grateful to Billy for having seen what I was trying to accomplish.

A few weeks later I received still another testimonial from Temple Grandin who likely needs no introduction, but surely she’s been one of the preeminent global leaders in animal studies, disability and what’s come to be called neurodiversity. She sent the following:

“A perceptive and beautifully crafted memoir of personal growth, and a fascinating example of what can happen when a person and a dog learn to partner with one another.”  ~Temple Grandin

I should tell you that when it comes to literary writing I’m as insecure as the next person. When I received Temple’s note I almost cried.

Dana Spiotta, a colleague of mine at Syracuse University and one of my favorite fiction writers wrote:

“Have Dog, Will Travel is both an intimate memoir of one man’s particular experience of blindness and a beautiful tribute to the devotional, unconditional love of a dog. Funny, moving, and joyful.” ~Dana Spiotta

Sometimes a writer just gets lucky—she or he or they manages to get through the gloaming and arrive at a place where others can feel the joys we’d imagined.

And as if all these fine words weren’t enough, the poet and essayist Ona Gritz (who has written amazing poems and nonfiction about disablement) sent the following:

“I fell in love with Corky, of course, with her goofiness and boundless affection and heart-stopping wisdom. Truth be told, I fell in love with Steve too for how he dove into his new, broken open, adventurous life with her, and the way he processed his experiences through the lens of his reading life, and his compassion for others and for his own late-blooming self.” ~Ona Gritz

In Britain they say if you have an amusing story you can “dine out on it” and judging by these kind and unanticipated words, I can at the very least order a bone for my dog and perhaps a bowl of excellent soup.  To say I’m grateful to Billy, Temple, Dana, and Ona isn’t sufficient.

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 StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto
Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

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

Overview

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 StephenKuusisto.com.

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