Random House: An interview with Stephen Kuusisto
Your condition, retinopathy, allows you partial vision. Describe what you see, walking through crowded city streets, for example, or having dinner with a friend at a restaurant.
Stephen Kuusisto: My vision is severely limited. When I walk down a street in New York City I don’t “see” so much as I “experience” the visual world. In a way, “seeing” is a proactive sensation — with good eyes one can scan what’s ahead or what’s coming and make a host of instantaneous decisions and classifications. Vision gives you the power to arrange experience and feel secure, even in a crowd. My version of vision is reactive: odd shapes large and small come flying at me and I can’t identify or classify them. At one point in the book I say something like “The world’s red insects fly at my face.” My place on the street is wildly receptive and imprecise. It can be beautiful or frightening. It’s analogous to an LSD trip, save that it’s permanent. At certain moments it can be a sublime experience: In a restaurant with the woman I love I see her as a thrilling humanoid corona of blue light. Connie is not just a woman dining across the table: She’s the Phrygian goddess of moonlight.
BT: You use visual metaphors frequently in your writing. As a blind man, how are you able to make these metaphors? How do you know, for example, that a cluster of houses looks like a herd of buffalo?
SK: Blind and visually impaired people know the world by touch. Therefore I love souvenir shops, particularly cheap ones. I sidle up to the display of plastic Empire State Building replicas and Statue of Liberty figurines and touch each one of them the way a neurosurgeon might handle a brain stem. The great, shaggy bison occupies its place in my consciousness because as I boy I held a carved buffalo in my hands while visiting a tourist trap on Hogback Mountain in Vermont. In Planet of the Blind I compare the unfamiliar houses of a strange neighborhood to a herd of bison. In a way, this is a poet’s trick — the use of analogy to create new perspective. Clearly, I don’t really know what the houses look like; also my awareness of the American buffalo is limited. I try always to remember that all poetry is play. I play with what I have available. The latest thinking in neurology and ophthalmology is that human beings must learn how to see — that is, we acquire the ability to process the information transmitted to the brain’s visual center. I have learned to see through imagining much the way a child does.
BT: At what point in your life did you realize that you wanted to write a memoir?
SK: During the sweltering summer of 1988 I discovered the rare books archive in the library of the American Foundation for the Blind in New York City. Helen Keller collected many of the books in that archive. They offer a fascinating glimpse into the superstitions and dogmas that have historically been applied to the blind. One can actually read Sunday school primers from the nineteenth century that use the figure of a blind child to teach lessons of fidelity to God and parental authority. In other words, the blind child is blind in an exemplary fashion because he disobeyed his father. In the nineteenth century sudden childhood blindness wasn’t uncommon. Kids frequently went blind as a consequence of fevers and labor accidents. My original intention was to write a non-fiction book detailing these stories. But as I began the project I found that I needed to describe my personal experience of blindness. As I wrote, the memoir found its shape-part historical miscellany, part poetry.
BT: In your portrait of childhood, blindness was perceived as a disease. Do you think that people’s attitudes toward blindness have changed? If so, what do you attribute that to? If not, why?
SK: Disability has long been defined in terms of illness. This medical model for disabled people overlooks the very real attitudinal barriers in society that are in reality the driving force behind handicapping people who have physical impairments. Are you disabled by the physical problem or the social one? In my lifetime the drama has moved from the medical model for accepting disability toward a broader consideration that the culture may be the biggest barrier faced by a disabled person. As an example, nowadays the blind have the technology that allows them to do a wider variety of work and yet 70 percent of the visually impaired remain unemployed.
BT: You used a cane for several months before you went to Guiding Eyes. What freedom has your dog given you that the cane could not? In addition to being your guiding eyes, what other roles does Corky play in your life?
SK: Corky gives me the freedom to travel safely. Because of her I have the greatest independence and broader horizons. Last week, while Corky and I were visiting Chicago, she pulled me back from a car that had run a red light on Michigan Avenue. We were halfway across the intersection when Corky yanked me back from certain death. Had I been traveling with a cane I might very well have been seriously injured or killed. Obviously, having such a loyal and strong companion at your side is a profound life-affirming force. Corky is a form of divine energy — and as William Blake said, “Energy is eternal delight.”
BT: Guiding Eyes pairs dogs with owners based on the basis of personality. What about the mix of your personality and Corky’s makes you such a good team?
SK: Corky and I were paired on the basis of several factors. I like to travel widely through many different environments. So does Corky. She likes Shea Stadium when we go to see the Mets. She likes guiding me through huge crowds on Fifth Avenue during rush hour. Going places energizes us. Corky also likes to play games around the house, as I do. We’re a great match because we both love the intensity of the work and yet we’re both voluptuaries who like to snuggle on Sunday and listen to Mozart.
BT: What message do you want the book to send to the blind community?
SK: It’s my hope that my book will inspire others in the blind community to tell their stories. I believe that the lives of blind men and women are steep and often brilliant.
BT: What understanding of blindness do you want your sighted readers to walk away with?
SK: I’d like the sighted community to know that blind people are just like everyone else — that they don’t bite, they’re not helpless, and that the planet of the blind can be a beautiful and empathetic place, an instructive world.
BT: If you could give sighted people five rules for interacting with the blind, what would they be?
SK: Rules are hard to follow since they’re so closely related to etiquette. I’m always nervous at a dinner that employs more than two forks. The best rule of thumb when you’re with a blind person is to talk openly with him; don’t worry that using words like “see” or “look” in standard conversation are upsetting to the blind; don’t worry that talking about a movie that you’ve seen recently will cause a blind person distress; don’t grab a blind person without first asking if they’d like assistance. In the end it’s all pretty simple: use common sense.
BT: You avoid sentimentalizing in your memoir, and the books ends soberly? Do you see this as a story of acceptance or of triumph?
SK: My memoir ends on a sober note when I talk about my own struggles with religious faith. Like Emily Dickinson I believe in Jesus, but I’m also angry with him. I grow tired of living in a riddle day after day. Why must we live in a world of occult charlatans? The balance resides in the liminal, ecstatic moments of animation — the book ends with a blind man and his dog dancing together and laughing at a superstitious crackpot. The book has a sober gaiety, I think.
BT: Are you working on any writing projects now?
SK: Yes. I’m working on a novel called Caruso’s Heart. It’s about the lives of a dozen people who heard Caruso sing and were turned in odd directions because of the experience. The book is dark comedy.