I’m writing today’s name:
Broken footed table.
Now I carry the table into tomorrow’s garden
Where sparrows walk on it.
—from a notebook, Finland, 1982
People tend to ask writers when they started writing. I like the question because I can’t answer it. I remember writing stories about animals when I was approximately four years old and I distinctly recall a moment when in the fifth grade I concocted a short essay about the distressed lives of bumble bees. It was reasonably clever for a child of eleven, so much so that a classmate said I clearly stole the essay from an adult. I began saying I wished to be a writer that same year. There’s nothing like a schoolyard critic to spur ambition.
It wasn’t until I got to college that I really found my writing voice. I studied during my undergraduate years at Hobart and William Smith Colleges where I caught “the poetry bug” and was later fortunate to gain admission to the University of Iowa’s “Writer’s Workshop” where I worked with poets Marvin Bell and Donald Justice.
After graduate school I was awarded a Fulbright to study in Finland where I researched Finnish poetry after World War II—a period of international engagement in Scandinavian writing, much like the burgeoning global awareness in American poetry during the sixties and seventies. Because I was legally blind, my reading (both in Finnish and English) was slow, careful, always difficult. In those years I grew to appreciate necessity in poetry and prose—bad eyes tell you a text should be worth reading. As a Fulbrighter I tried to understand what makes first rate poetry and prose succeed.
My first two books appeared almost simultaneously: a memoir from Dial Press entitled “Planet of the Blind” (a New York Times “notable book”) and a collection of poems from Copper Canyon Press, “Only Bread, Only Light.” Over the course of the last fifteen years I’ve published three books of nonfiction and a second volume of poems “Letters to Borges.” My latest book, “Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey” will appear in March 2018 from Simon & Schuster.
So much for the curriculum vitae. I wake most mornings quite early and drink coffee before the sun has risen and write straight off the top of my head. I never know what I’m doing in advance, or at least I seldom do. For this reason I’ve always loved the painter Jackson Pollock who was famous for painting in trances.
This morning I wrote:
Green feathers in memory—transatlantic shipboard, 1958, old woman’s hat
Snow, apple branches, sky gone gray, the neighborhood quiet
What’s winter for? To remember ocean going hats…
As Jack Kerouac famously said: “first thought, best thought”—which in my case means I can get some freshness on the page without thinking too hard about the coming day and its entrapments.
Yesterday I wrote:
The Half-Finished Garden
Up early, dead father in mind, walking my dog
Thinking: “don’t moan, keep going”
Last summer’s plantings under snow
How many seasons remain?
Challenge, inventing hopeful names
Along the road—Locust Dharma
Branch to branch Bodhisatva….
Oh I could kiss you Transtromer—
Darkness against my cheek
Your Haydn, not mine, playing
Under my feet… Piano
For native country
How does it go?
This poem is a tribute to the Nobel Prize winning Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer and it’s probably not for everyone but it was my thinking at 5 AM. It feels close to being a finished piece. Writing early is my way of savoring the blank page.
And yes this is for me the whole point—the writing has to be gratifying which means surprising. This astonishing thing may be gloomy—dead father in mind; it might be playful—imagining names for rebirth like Locust Dharma. Early the imagination is still quick from a night of dreaming.
Writing prose is much the same. I go at it without regard to what’s coming next. This allows for lyrical discoveries though it’s not so good for adhering to plot. In my first memoir Planet of the Blind I wrote a litany about what life might be like on a planet where only blind people live. These lines came all at once and without rehearsal:
Late at night, awake as usual, I toy with the idea of a television channel for the blind. At first, I have silly revenge fantasies. That is, the programming would inflict on the sighted what the blind invariably experience. But thinking about television, I remember that the public broadcasting channel is now pioneering a video description service for blind viewers. Skilled narrators interpose incisive descriptions of the visual images on the screen between breaks in the soundtrack. Thinking about the tender voices on PBS and the medium of television, I picture the curve of the earth, and the rising stars, and the stylized rays of broadcast energy moving into space. I imagine that somewhere out there exists a planet of the blind, where the video description from earth might be overheard. They, in turn, would send back their own descriptive signals. How marvelous to conceive that our first contact with intelligent life would, in fact, be blind life. I invoke the planet at three a.m.:
On the planet of the blind, no one needs to be cured.
Blindness is another form of music, like the solo clarinet in the mind of Bartok.
On the planet of the blind, the citizens live in the susurrus of cricket wings
twinkling in inner space.
You can hear the stars on the windless nights of June.
On the planet of the blind, people talk about what they do not see, like Wallace Stevens, who freely chased tigers in red weather.
Here, mistaken identities are not the stuff of farce.
Instead, unvexed, the mistaken discover new and friendly adjacent arms to touch.
On this particular planet, the greyhounds get to snooze at last in the tall grass.
The sighted are beloved visitors, their fears of blindness assuaged with fragrant reeds. On the planet of the blind, everyone is free to touch faces, paintings, gardens—
even the priests who have come here to retire.
There is no hunger in the belly or in the eyes.
And the furniture is always soft.
Chairs and tables are never in the way.
On the planet of the blind, the winds of will are fresh as a Norwegian summer.
And the sky is always between moonshine and morning star.
God is edible.
On the planet of the blind self-contempt is a museum.
When I set out to write Planet of the Blind I had a goal—I wanted non-disabled readers to understand the interiority of disability. Moreover I hoped they’d come away from my book recognizing disability is no impediment to imagination. Poetry was the answer. The book’s first draft was essentially a daily notebook of prose poems written over the course of a year. Later I wrote descriptive prose, or stream of consciousness, or scenes as links between the poetry. Planet of the Blind reads like a memoir but its timbers are entirely made of poetry fragments. I trusted this method and I continue to write prose in this manner.
When blogging became a “thing” around 2005 I decided to launch a blog extension of my first memoir and continue the practice of writing quick poetic prose. I’ve been posting top of the head fragments on the site for ten years now. I post first drafts of poems, found poetry, fist shaking opinion essays, links to other literature sites or disability forums, whatever strikes my fancy. Since I’ve kept notebooks from my college days onward, writing in fragments has been fairly easy. I like the idea that friends and strangers can read my evolving journals. I’ve nothing lurid or sinister in my notebookish life. I am opinionated.
Here’s a sample of my bloggish contrarianism:
Dear cripples and friends of cripples: breath a bit, imagine a moment when contrarian intellectual principles stood for possibility (as opposed to post-modernity’s dystopia and suspicion.) Theodor Adorno: “Intelligence is a moral category.” One’s stance toward the function of thought shouldn’t be overlooked. If you’re a person with a disability its important to hold some ideas about human progress.
Here I’m thinking of Walter Benjamin’s assertion: “The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.”
In the US we are witnessing an election in which neo-conservative rhetoric about the provision of social services, especially for the elderly and people with disabilities, has been presented as the main ingredient in the Republican party’s reaction against taxes and the role of government. In this way the GOP is arguably the most post-modern political party you can find, for its embrace of trans-national capital, deregulation, the shipment of jobs oversees, and of union busting at home are built on dystopic visions of capital–that is, capital must always be in the hands of those who will grow it–government intervention on behalf of the poor and the infirm is now officially a matter of suspicion.
For suspicion one may substitute cultural relativity–you see those people over there? They’re none of our business. Or, conversely, they’re our business only if they get in the way of business. Bush’s war in Iraq was about business, and Christopher Hitchens got it wrong. It was never a war of liberation. If Adorno was right, and I think he was, the moral category must include an appreciation of people who cannot rightly speak for themselves–especially in the age of trans-national capital and reductionist rhetorics about human progress. In our post-modern age capital is largely concerned with gobbling up the planet’s resources (China in Africa, America at the North Pole).
Against this stands the movement toward human rights–concurrent with the United Nations charter on the rights of people with disabilities. And here at home, tied to the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is unlawful to throw people with physical or mental disabilities into the streets though the people behind Paul Ryan’s plan haven’t fully conceived of the matter. The GOP’s plan to lop 30% off the top of Medicare, slash Medicaid, and then give the rest back to the states is likely illegal.
And so my argument is that people with disabilities may be holding the moral cards in what is otherwise a dark time. I am not sentimental. I do not believe the goal of life is to lose teeth and still smile. But this is a time when groups like ADAPT and NAMI and Blinded Veterans of America, and Paralyzed Veterans of America, the AAPD, and many other groups, can drive a moral conversation in a cynical age.
Most days I find I cannot separate my disabled reality from my literary ones. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Stephen Kuusisto is co-editor and co-publisher of Nine Mile Magazine and Nine Mile Books. This piece was written for Wordgathering, one of the premier literary journals devoted to disability writing in the U.S.