Interviewed by Tom Fletcher
Stephen Kuusisto is the American author of three poetry collections—Only Bread, Only Light (2000), Letters to Borges (2013), and Old Horse, What Is To Be Done? (2020)—and nonfiction essays and memoirs, including Planet of the Blind (1998), Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening (2006), and Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey (2018). He currently holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies at Syracuse University in New York.
Kuusisto, who was born legally blind, remarks on how his visual impairment enables him to re-evaluate the world. His comments ask us to reconsider how the experience of space might be interpreted and imagined differently by someone who cannot see. For Kuusisto, poetry offers an avenue for individuals to imagine future spaces where all bodies are valid.
TF: As you are aware, thirty years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was written into law. How do you set about representing the shift in societal representation of embodiment through your poetry?
SK: Behind all my poems is the vivid assertion that I belong in the public square. Moreover, sometimes in a poem I can be rather militant about it.
TF: Your first memoir, Planet of the Blind (1998), makes reference to the notion of a “sensorium of the blind” as possessing “some marginal vision” that is “by turns magical and disturbing.” In what ways do you consider your poetry helps us to understand how we exist in public and private spaces and challenges how spaces operate and are designed?
SK: When journalism adopted the news photo as an adjunct to print story, telling the notion of reportorial language became tied to the photographic image. Seeing a dead dog beside railway tracks, Ernest Hemingway leapt from his train carriage and wrote every detail about the dog’s corpse into his notebook. When people ask me “how can you write so vividly about the world if you can’t see?” what they’re really saying is, “isn’t language just a sub-genre of photography?” The surrealists understood that you can say things in poetry that can’t be pictorially represented—Monday blazes like a wheel, the poor live inside the casket of the sun. And I’m helped by my visionary and surreal ancestors.
TF: I also recall that in your memoir, Planet of the Blind (1998), you say, “On the Planet of the Blind, no one needs to be cured. Blindness is another form of music.” Can you indicate the ways you consider your poems are consciously constructed to convey this notion? How do you set about representing how you visualise and interact with the real and imagined spaces of different cultural environments?
SK: I always resist the medical model of disablement, and to the degree my poems are polemical, that would be the heart of it. Disability is rich in literal and figurative experiences, and this is why so many great artists have been influenced by bodily inconveniences—Monet with his failing vision; Walt Whitman, writing after his strokes; Jackson Pollock’s clinical depression—disability is everywhere in art, once you learn to look for it. As for me, I know that my visual experiences are inherently beautiful, though wildly inexact. I “work this,” as they say in the vernacular. This is as much a political engagement as an aesthetic one: the blind are possessors of beauty and wisdom.
TF: A major part of your prose focuses on the representation of city landscapes and the processes of traversing unknown spaces. Can you tell us more about how you envision the public spaces of the city function as a way of defining subjective experience in your poetry?
SK: The city is of course the proscenium arch of modernism. Cities are where the flaneur and the café both flourish. Walt Whitman’s Manhattan is both literal and figurative, sacred and profane, real and imaginary. Modernist poetry starts with Baudelaire and Whitman. As a blind traveller, I find cities are easier to navigate than rural spaces. I often tell people that New York City is very easy to navigate when you’re blind. But aside from ease, cities are also remarkable for their surprising incitements: one discovers in Venice a group of intoxicated men trying to push a garbage scow under a bridge while singing; in Helsinki, there is a policeman talking softly to his horse, before sunrise. Cities are places where chance dramas are more apparent. So, of course, in this way, they’re great subjects for art.
TF: Your most recent memoir, Have Dog, Will Travel (2018), affirms that guide dogs are a key component of your travels across the public spaces of city landscapes. As an appendage, they have made your disability visible. What poetic techniques do you consciously employ to convey the visibility of your disability?
SK: I think the answer to this is more philosophical, rather than a matter of poetic technique. Disability is more interesting and surprising than people who aren’t disabled customarily understand.
TF: Are there any particular philosophers, disability studies theorists, or perception phenomenologists who have influenced your work; and, how have they influenced your thinking?
SK: Well, I suppose a number of writers have had an influence on my thinking: Gaston Bachelard; Merleau-Ponty; Husserl’s Logical Investigations; but I must also reference poets as diverse as Yeats; Auden, the great Surrealists like Lorca and Neruda. Disability Studies has seemed to me un-nutritious most of the time, reactive and polemical rather than speculative and probative, though I’m fond of any work proposing disability as epistemology.
TF: Can you also tell us more about how literary figures—such as Allegri Dante and Jorge Luis Borges—interest you as literary guides and inspire your poetry’s imaginative landscapes?
SK: Both were visionary poets, much in the manner of the English Romantics, with whom they are not customarily identified. The visionary poet tends toward imaginative experiences that can’t be drawn or photographed. What could be better for a blind writer than to have permission to not be a journalist?
TF: In the poem, “Letter to Borges from London,” you recount the speaker’s perception as a constructor of imaginative spaces: “Now I’m a natural philosopher but with the same restless hands./Some days I put cities together-” Can you elaborate on your choice of imagery and your use of spatial motifs in general? Perhaps you can also touch on how the typography and verse form of your poetry is used to replicate the negotiation of different types of real and imagined spaces?
SK: I think that urban designers, architects, city planners are often so hopelessly utilitarian (what will be cheapest and serve the most standardized people?) that they miss out on the possibilities for public space. Inclusive spaces need not be expensive or ugly—I love the idea of a Kyoto of Universal Design.
TF: I love the way the poem “The Books to Come” presents readers with a future vista notion of real and imaginary geographies of space. Books are “Likely To save us /Like secret friends, /books to come.” I love this idea of future writings juxtaposed with the citations from the past. Can you elaborate on what ways you think books help us imagine the future world and the spaces that we will inhabit? Do you see any distinctions in the ability of prose and/or poems to achieve the same end?
SK: Borges imagined Paradise would be a library and there is something of the vatic about reading. One way to think about this is that the very act of reading—the first effect of literacy—is that the reader is granted the opportunity to question the language itself. All readers are contrarians, or at least all good readers. This is why tyrants want to burn books and imprison intellectuals, and it’s why Shakespeare’s audiences could experience comic or tragic irony—that sense we have that we know more than the characters on the stage. In this way, all literary writing is an invitation to step outside our customary thinking. In terms of geography, one may think of reading as a visionary invitation to be productively lost. I think poetry and prose can both deliver this.
TF: In what ways do you believe your own poetry sets about contributing to a future vision of society? How do you consider your poems to give voice and help make the case for society to be made more accessible for all?
SK: I think all creative writing has the capacity to be utopian. This does not mean I believe all writing achieves it. When we read Rilke or the best of Auden, we’re in the presence of aspirational loveliness, which is another name for hope. I believe in this.
About Stephen Kuusisto
Stephen Kuusisto directs BBI’s Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach initiative. A University Professor at Syracuse, he is the author of the memoirs Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”) and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening as well as the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light, and Letters to Borges. His newest memoir, Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey, is new from Simon & Schuster. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart & William Smith Colleges, and The Ohio State University. Professor Kuusisto has served as an advisor to the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington DC and has appeared on numerous television and radio programs including The Oprah Winfrey Show; Dateline; All Things Considered; Morning Edition; Talk of the Nation; A & E; and Animal Planet. His essays have appeared in The New York Times; The Washington Post; Harper’s; The Reader’s Digest; and his daily blog “Planet of the Blind” is read globally by people interested in disability and contemporary culture. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is: www.stephenkuusisto.com
About Tom Fletcher
Tom Fletcher completed a Ph.D. at the University of York in 2020. His Ph.D. dissertation was entitled, Crip Contours: Space and Embodiment in 21st Century American Disability Poetry of Jim Ferris, Stephen Kuusisto and Laurie Clements Lambeth. He is a graduate of Stirling University and has a Masters from Copenhagen University. He is a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy. Tom’s article “Planet of the Blind (1998) A Memoir by Stephen Kuusisto” is featured in the published book, Disability Experiences: Memoirs, Autobiographies, and Other Personal Narratives, edited by G. Thomas Couser and Susannah B. Mintz (2019).