Stephen Kuusisto, A Voice Worth Hearing

by Kevin Burton

   If you’re interested in disability rights, the name of Stephen Kuusisto is one you need to know if you don’t already. 

   The latest honor to come his way: He has been awarded a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry. Syracuse University, where Kuusisto works, made the announcement in a press release April 9. 

   The award is for his project “Eavesdropping: The Poetry of Blind Listening.”

   “His work explores the reality that blind people are not casual listeners,” reads the release. “His writings describe and celebrate the aural landscape that he navigates and the soundscapes that he experiences in nature, music, travel and daily life.”   

   Kuusisto writes the “Planet of the Blind” blog on WordPress, which makes him my neighbor, sort of.  Do yourself a favor and look it up.  But first, you need to promise, promise, promise that you will continue to read Page 7.  Deal?

   His books, “Eavesdropping: A life By Ear,” “Planet of the Blind,” “Have Dog Will Travel,” and “Only Bread, Only Light: Poems” are available for download on BARD, the digital talking book service.

   Kuusisto is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and is a Fulbright Scholar.

   He is a ferocious champion of the blind and other disabled people. He writes with equal parts truth and wit about the slights directed at the disabled.

   Sunday he came out swinging against the New York Times and writer Maya Philips for promulgating stereotypes of the blind.

   “In a review of the theatrical staging of Jose Saramago’s novel ‘Blindness’

Maya Philips can’t resist telling readers that the hackneyed trope of vision loss as catastrophe is ‘stimulating and immersive,’” Kuusisto writes. “As Philips is a poet one expects more than this.”

    “Ableism remains as inauthentic, cliched, and destructive as racist depictions of Black folks or trivial displays of weakened femininity,” he writes, adding, “…bad art does real damage to the blind: it reinforces the ancient idea that there’s something sinister and even predatory about blindness in particular and disability in general.”

   But Kuusisto is not just an old crank. He keeps it real. For example, there was this from him Thursday:

   “Being blind has taught me that the world is just what it is and not what I think about it. I have no idea if you’ll understand me. I get things wrong. I think those sighted people in the airport lounge are staring at me. I imagine they’re thinking how lucky they are to not be blind.”

   “But I have it wrong. They’re grieving the loss of their dog and now they come over and ask if they can pet my guide dog, a yellow Labrador named Caitlyn. They know this isn’t ordinarily permitted. Their dog has died. And I understand that I had their story all wrong, that I was foregrounding my own sensitivities. The world is just what it is.”

   “As I get older I find this is the hardest lesson I’ve learned. Hard because I’ve learned this badly, often after great pain or having made serious mistakes. I have misunderstood people. Have imputed bad motives to others when they didn’t have them. I’ve worn my sense of alienation on my sleeve.”

   “And so this is the trick: avoiding the brittle insertions of ego and fantasy; the self-absorption of it; keeping clear; forgiving myself and others when I have the chance.”

   There are times when I can’t fully appreciate his posts because he makes reference to works I have not read. But even when that is the case there is usually some gift for me to glean just based on how he puts his words and thoughts together. 

   I love it that after he received a big-deal grant, instead of blowing his own horn on his blog, he took a shot at the New York Times, which is one of the papers that has published some of his essays.

   About 175 scholarships are awarded from 3,000 applications annually, according to the Guggenheim Foundation’s website.  They are cash grants awarded to “individuals who have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.”

   The subtitle to his Planet of the Blind blog is, “It’s not as dark as you think.” That sums up his message.  Kuusisto is singing from my songbook, but singing in a much loftier language than I could ever manage.

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