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 Discords

I could tell you things
But I’m not old enough—
Just walking over a large and shining ice patch

**

Did I eat Prufrock’s peach yesterday?

**

Of the bumblebee Lars Gustafsson writes:

“A flying man who lives far within the wood
Has folded up his wings and sleeps in the rain.”

**

Up river and down
My childhood
But unlike Huck
No Jim, no friends

**

“So that’s what made you a poet!”

**

In the forest there are still signs of the old mill.

**

Terry Eagleton says pessimism is the most difficult moral condition to obtain.
Silly. He never ate frozen strawberries with a 100 year old monk in rural Finland in winter darkness. In general academics need to get out more.

**

If I knew so much parataxis would occupy me
I’d have (instead) invented the shoe horn.

**

Everyone has a debt to death
But on clear mornings you can hear them thar pianos…

I didn’t exactly begin my life. I suppose I was always riding out
From the big bang; show time dust; the carbon democracies.
Vedas say we’ve been here before but I don’t think it.
We were here and then gone and there’s no analogy.
This morning on the first cold day of autumn
I “saw” (the way blind people do….very close….
On hands and knees….)
A tiny wasp emerge unsteadily
From a frost apple—
Though I was only in the grass
Looking for my keys
Sorry for myself.

A Valediction of Fainting

The surgeon plucked at my eye with a forceps. I said I was fainting. Then I fainted.

It was a textbook instance of the “vasovagal reflex”. You can ask the CIA. Touch the lenses of the eyes and you can induce loss of consciousness.

Reader: perhaps you’re a frequent fainter and are familiar with the poetry of the matter. I doff my hat to you.

I woke in a chair. Although I couldn’t see I heard a nurse say: “I can’t hear his pulse.”

The neo-cortex (mine) which thinks fast (yours does too) said inwardly: “Merd! Je suis mort!”

(The neo-cortex it turns out, speaks only French, as it was in fact discovered by Denis Diderot. You don’t have to know French to understand the neo-cortex. The translation process is automatic. It does not matter if you are a Finn or a Croat or Laotian.)

(Theory: the French language was invented by and for dead people.)

(Proof of above: Diderot: “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”)

The nurse said next: “Okay. I can hear his pulse but it is very faint.”

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 

Blank Landscape

Irony—a live crow carrying a dead one
Flies into a house you might say
“Nature” and you’d be right.
Up river beyond the city
People die at the same rate
Some singing at the end—
You might say “nature”
And you’d be right.
My neighbor comes to me
With his old books.
He’s a lonesome man
Who believes words matter.
Sometimes I want to end a poem
Too soon, what with the pain.

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