Stephen Kuusisto is the author of Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and the memoir Planet of the Blind, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He has also published the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges, both out from Copper Canyon Press. Recognized by the New York Times as “a powerful writer with a musical ear for language and a gift for emotional candor,” Kuusisto has made appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Dateline NBC, National Public Radio, and the BBC.
Okla Elliott: You have written in multiple genres, most significantly in creative nonfiction and poetry, though also some cultural commentary. How do you navigate the various tactics of these genres?
Stephen Kuusisto: I like your use of “tactics” since literary writing is both a game—a playful contest—and a battle. Odysseus was characterized by Homer as being a great tactician which meant he had an excellent mind whether he was fighting or speaking. In this way the tactician is one who’s possessed of ardor, curiosity, plays chess by his own rules (Marcel Duchamp) and takes risks. I am essentially a lyric writer and I often don’t know where my language is taking me. As Jackson Pollock said famously: “When I’m in my painting, I’m in my painting. Then I step back and see what I’ve been about.” I won’t call my method automatic writing or exquisite corpse because I tend to mind the qualities of daylight at the windows—I pay attention to the groundswell of feelings that animate me at any given moment. Accordingly I let the language go where it’s going whether I’m writing a poem or a polemic or a personal essay. The difference between the genres is then, for me, only about the shaping. And finally it’s also about intentionality. Who is the audience? If I’m writing for the New York Times I can’t sound too much like Ezra Pound talking about Chinese ideographs. Genre to genre my tactics remain the same, but the intentionality may differ as I consider the audience.
OE: What have you learned from one genre that you have imported into another?
SK: When I was writing my first memoir, Planet of the Blind, I discovered that I could write lyric prose. I’d gone to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the 70’s to study poetry writing with Donald Justice and Marvin Bell. Throughout the 1980’s I worked and reworked my first book of poems, and translated poetry by Finnish writers but I didn’t venture into prose. With the encouragement of my late friend, the poet and memoirist Deborah Tall, I took up nonfiction writing–largely as a kind of political act. I was visually impaired and I saw while looking through the library that there were few literary books by blind people. I felt like there had to be a place for a book that would take the reader inside the experience of visual disability. And in turn I felt that this ought to be a lyrical engagement. The prose in Planet of the Blind is mostly prose poetry, driven by images and tones. I learned from poetry how to express what they used to call the “deep image”—the aleotoric, lucky, and surprising qualities of association that make surrealism tick. I saw that I could push this into prose and then add short narrative bridges over the watery pools. The trick for me was to learn how to write narrative links between the lyric spaces.
OE: What difficulties do you find unique to each effort? And do you think of yourself as having a primary genre?
SK: Well, writing, creative writing, both is and is not your own discovery. There are circumstances, influences, occasions, lightning strikes (Roethke) allusions, chance things overheard, the rubble of dreams, and politics. So in every genre the difficulty lies in being clear. Over the past thirty years English professors (driven by cultural and textual theory) have tended to eschew clarity as being some kind of bourgeois value. But clarity (Orwell) is freedom. And we fight for that both as writers and citizens. As a primary genre I’m a poet who doesn’t know any better and walks into the adult party of the prose writers.
OE: Let’s switch gears a bit. You have written about disability and are an activist for disability rights. I would like to ask about a somewhat theoretical question relating to disability and aesthetics. I notice that many able-bodied writers use metaphors of disability in ways they would never feel comfortable doing with metaphors of race or gender. For example, I have no trouble imagining a line in a contemporary poem by an able-bodied poet which reads something like “I walk the streets like an amputee” yet I cannot imagine a line by a white poet reading something like “I walk the streets like a black man.” Of course, there are some underlying differences here, but I tend to think the real reason the former is just fine in contemporary literature while the latter is utterly offensive is that we have built up a discourse around racism, but we have not yet built up a culture-wide discourse around discrimination on the basis of disabilities. What are your feelings about such metaphors? Are there some that feel less offensive or inaccurate than others? How do we begin to raise awareness about this and increase our cultural sensitivity?
SK: Almost all metaphors of disability employed by abled-bodied people are shortcuts for varying existential clichés. Blindness or deafness or lameness are imposed as metaphors for lack of knowledge, lack of acquisition of knowledge, or, finally, a kind of gnawing hopelessness. David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder describe this process in their groundbreaking book Narrative Prosthesis in which they argue that disablement is often used within a narrative to complete tragic plots. Obviously real people with disabilities do not live their lives within the figurative confines of existential despair. Disability Studies as an emergent academic discipline examines how the discourse of compulsory able-bodiedness or, what the critic Lennard Davis calls “the social construction of normalcy” are contiguous with the advent of the industrial revolution which demanded overnight, a vast set of standardized bodies to work in the factories. A co-determinate process (discourse) is observable in the emergence of the novel as a middle class entertainment. Davis argues in his book Resisting Novels: Fiction and Ideology that the novel coincides with the pressures of industrialization and imperial expansion and in turn, creates the figuration of narrowly acceptable embodiments. This is a big subject. In general terms, non-disabled writers use physical or mental disabilities as merely figurative shortcuts for abjection. One of the few non-disabled writers I know who writes compellingly and movingly about disability is Toni Morrison, whose understanding of marginal culture includes wounded veterans. Many contemporary poets who apparently have no disabilities have written poems with disability figuration that I find objectionable—all are poets I otherwise like—including Marie Howe, Charles Simic, James Tate, it’s a long list really. There’s a terrific new anthology of first rate poetry by poets with disabilities called Beauty is a Verb that’s well worth reading, both for its shrewd introduction and the poems themselves.
OE: I have gotten very interested lately in what I call the productivity error. What I mean by this is the good that can come from errors or mistakes. For example, take a writer who fails out of college, which is generally considered a mistake, but who then gets a job on an oil tanker or in a public health clinic (or whatever) and later writes a bestselling book about that experience. There are other examples of what I mean by the productivity of error, even things that take place within a single writing session. My question to you is this: What sorts of errors or mistakes can you find in your life or your writing that have in fact led to greater success in your career or your artistry?
SK: I think that disability in general and blindness in particular creates profound and nearly unending moments of serendipity–what the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend calls “working against method”. Discoveries happen by accident not by forethought. My new book, Letters to Borges (forthcoming in November from Copper Canyon Press) contains poems addressed to the late Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges. Borges went blind in early middle age and never became a confident independent traveler. The poems in my book talk about traveling solo in various parts of the world and owing to my own blindness, I get productively lost. Here is an example:
“Letter to Borges from Estonia“
Where I go is of considerable doubt.
Winter, Tallinn, I climb aboard the wrong trolley.
Always a singular beam of light leads me astray…
After thousands of cities I am safe when I say “it is always the wrong
Didn’t I love you with my whole heart? Athens? Dublin?
Solo gravitational effects: my body is light as a child’s beside the botanical
But turning a corner one feels very old in the shadow of the mariner’s
I ask strangers to tell me where I am.
Their voices are lovely, young and old.
Yes I loved you with my whole heart.
I never had a map…
Coordinated, Platonic movement in deep snow…
Crooked doors & radios in the bread shops…
In general terms, all poetry, and all lyric writing is about never having a map. As Theodore Roethke famously says: “We learn by going where we have to go.”
Of course Roethke’s line is anchored by the opening of his poem which expresses liminality, hypnogogia, being half awake and half asleep—the best place for creative accidents.
OE: Plenty of others have found occasion to discuss the perennial MFA debate. I think that ground has been covered in about as many ways as can be done. The question I want to hear more about is the PhD in Creative Writing debate. I am doing a traditional PhD in Comparative Literature, but several of my friends have done or are doing a PhD in Creative Writing, and I tend to think they are good for several reasons. But, my opinions on the matter aside, I wonder if you have any thoughts on the subject. I am particularly interested in, for example, the way the programs require writers to gain a larger historical and critical-theoretical understanding of literature and cultural production in general, and how they merge the MFA and the traditional PhD in English, thus blurring the lines in that (occasional) turf war. But I am also interested in the professional/practical aspects of these programs, so that is fair game as well. Thoughts?
SK: It’s difficult for me to answer your questions as I tend to believe that a serious and talented writer can be entirely self-educated, or educated in ways that have nothing to do with English departments. Kenneth Rexroth read every book in the Chicago Public Library–almost quite literally and never attended college; Kurt Vonnegut studied anthropology; the autodidacts make a long list as you know. I honestly believe that the majority of writing programs have devolved over the past twenty years and that they mostly teach imitation of and fealty to decadence. Accordingly I can’t say with fervor that the PhD in creative writing holds any advantage over the MFA since I don’t think the “study” of creative writing is worth much anymore. I do think a scholarly PhD is a mark of substantive research and critical thinking. Creative writers who take a few more literature classes to get an MFA disguised as a doctorate are simply doing the reading that any smart writer would do, and meanwhile they’re taking more bleached and deveined workshops.
So you see, I’m a contrarian. Read the Phaedrus, or the Mabbinogion or Kalevala or Minturno, and write.
OE: I agree with much of what you’ve said, particularly about the efforts of the autodidact, which ought to include, in my opinion, a bit of world travel if possible. I know you recently have taken a trip to Japan. Would you tell us a bit about that trip, its goals and outcomes?
SK: Travel is good for everyone, not just artists. I love how Mark Twain’s wit and his sense of justice blossom as a result of his travels. While tourist merely aim to find novelty and relaxation (which are really forms of confirmation) the writer tends to see the comic or tragic ironies in foreignness–Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” takes place in Burma, but it’s really about Britain’s boarding schools. Going out enlarges writers. I went recently to Japan to see what the Japanese guide dog schools are doing—how do conditions and training compare to the US—and what I found is that blind people in Japan still live marginal lives. This was sobering to discover and helped refine my belief in international efforts to ratify disability rights. I guess what I’m saying is that traveling ought not make writers too comfortable.
OE: For my last my last question, I want to zoom out of the literary world a bit and into the culture at large. What do you feel is the writer’s place in society today? It has been said that we live in the age of craft, and so politically charged literature or philosophically intense literature does not have the place it once did. Is this true? And if so, should we be trying to change that?
SK: I’m not sure that we live exclusively in one era–nor do I imagine issues of structure (craft) are universally imposed above narrative theme. I do think that in the US, owing to university centered creative writing programs there’s a lot of talk about form and style and I don’t believe that’s bad. I do tend to like writing that has philosophical “heft” and perhaps this is why I’m a lyric writer—the lyric works often with fragments and palimpsests, is allusive. I prefer Charles Simic to confessional poetry; prefer Adrienne Rich to narrative poetry. I like writing that carries the weight of ideas. For this reason I love Mallarmé more than Baudelaire; love Miłosz more than Larkin; prefer Robert Bly to most of the New York school. When I say we don’t necessarily live in one era I mean that when we’re pushed by ideas we can transcend or transverse or moment. Whitman does this rather famously in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and Kenneth Rexroth’s later poems do this with their marvelous Asian influences. So we can be in more time than one. (Mythopoetics) A writer’s place is the place she or he makes in the world of imagination. If that place is more literary than popular, it will likely be built from many books and traditions. I think there’s some amazing politically charged writing happening in our time. The festival and website “Split This Rock” has been leading the anti-war poetry movement for some time. Poets like Kwame Dawes, Ethelbert Miller, Sam Hamill—just to name a few—have been publishing smart political poetry for some time. The trouble is that the popular culture is less interested in challenging writing and looks more for what Tom Wolfe called “brain candy” and it’s rare therefore to see serious work being widely read. I’m lately rather delighted to see that George Saunders’ new short story collection is being read like crazy—there’s still hope!