Season 2
43 Minutes

E58 | Stephen Kuusisto | What My Blindness Keeps Teaching Me About Life

Steve Kuusisto is an acclaimed poet, teacher and disability activist. He is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening, and Planet of the Blind, a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year” that landed him on Oprah, a feature story on 48 Hours and endless international media.

A Fulbright scholar with an accomplished teaching career, Steve is also the author of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a professorship in the Center on Human Policy, Law, and Disability Studies.

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Stephen Kuusisto  00:00

In the 50s, especially even earlier I guess throughout American history, right, European history, disability has always been thought of as a prescription for distress tragedy. That child has to be removed from the world. Maybe a special hospital where you live the rest of your life whatever it is. My mother was terrified of this prospect and so she insisted that I just go out in the world and pretend to be able to see which sounds like it’s just my story but then when I wrote my first memoir Planet of the blind, which talks about this, I got hundreds of letters from people saying that was my story you know, they I couldn’t see ship and they’d send me into the world just go play in traffic kid, you know?

Achim Nowak  00:47

Hey, this is Achim Nowak, executive coach and host of the MY FOURTH ACTMY FOURTH ACT podcast. If life is a five act play, how will you spend your for that? I have conversations with exceptional humans who have created bold and unexpected Their FOURTH ACT, listen, and to be inspired. And please rate us and subscribe on whatever platform you are listening on. Let’s get started. Just delighted to welcome Steve Kuusisto to the MY FOURTH ACT podcast. Let me tell you for your words about him. Steve is an acclaimed poet, teacher and disability activist. He is the author of The Memoirs have dog will travel Planet of the blind, which was a New York Times notable book of the year and got lots of attention, and eavesdropping A Memoir of blindness and listening, as well as the poetry collections only bright only light and letters to Borgias, a Fulbright scholar with an accomplished teaching career Steve currently teaches at Syracuse University, where he holds a professorship in the center of human policy, law and disability studies. Uh, welcome, Steve.

Stephen Kuusisto  02:07

Thank you, Achim. I’m so delighted to be here, what a joy.

Achim Nowak  02:10

I am delighted you’re here as well. So just just to to let folks know, we first crossed paths almost 30 years ago, like 25 to 30 years ago at a marvelous place called Blue Mountain Center in the Adirondacks. And I happen to know your sister and so we have a bit of history together. Many reasons why I want to speak with you. But you know, this podcast is really about transitions and life transitions, and especially also later in life. But gosh, when I first met you, you are going through a major life transition. So let me start with a question that I love to ask each guest is when you were when you were a young boy or teenager growing up and when did mom and dad asked you ever ask you like, Who do you want to be when you grow up? And and what did little Steve say?

Stephen Kuusisto  03:06

Well, I don’t know about you or many of your viewers, but I just took the I took the lead with that question. I didn’t wait for my parents to ask. Uh huh. Yeah, I was one of those little kids who just saw stuff and thought, wow, that’d be good. I’d like to do that. My parents remembered fondly how I became fascinated with the mailman. I got a leather bag that my mother had bought in Finland, and I stuffed it with my father’s filled it with New York Times is and I would go up and down the street and ring the neighbor’s doorbells and hand them a New York Times. I wanted this was a Yeah, I must have been, you know, five years old. I wanted to be a postman. Then I discovered the Today Show which came out right about that time very early today show. And I wanted to be Dave Garraway, the presenter on the early today show. And I got a little toilet paper roll and put it on a desk and I sat behind the desk and I would do my little today show imitation, you know, circa 1960. And one of my lines was today, one man died in Moscow.

Achim Nowak  04:18

Oh, gosh, we could have a conversation about that given what’s going on in the world.

Stephen Kuusisto  04:23

Oh, man. Yeah, so I don’t know. I just jumped in early and thought everything looks like a good thing to do.

Achim Nowak  04:29

What always interests me is as you say that the the mom and dad encouraged you to bite their tongues. What was their reaction to your latest? Oh, I

Stephen Kuusisto  04:39

think they were terrifically amused. Especially since I was a disabled kid. And I had a lot of trouble though. I couldn’t play baseball. You know, there’s a lot of stuff. So they thought yeah, go get them. You know, I mean, they were amused.

Achim Nowak  04:53

From what I know. Early on as a child, you were dealing with your side deadness or dealing with having some high corrections or trying to have corrections. Can you give us a little snapshot of what that was like to be a young boy and folks tinkering with your eyes are trying to help you see better? Yeah,

Stephen Kuusisto  05:16

well, so in the 1950s, many children born prematurely as I was, were incubated as premature infants are today. Safe that back then, it was a sort of common assumption in the medical community that if they added more oxygen to the incubator, it would strengthen the struggling infant. And what they didn’t understand and didn’t figure out until the early 60s Was that premature infants have unformed retinas in the backs of their eyes. And adding oxygen slowed and prevented the development of capillaries, crucial to the development of the retina. And so an enormous number of premature infants from the 50s, in fact, became blind. And the condition is called retinopathy of prematurity. It still exists, even today, some premature infants will get this condition even without the oxygen. But in general, that’s what happened. And so what it meant was that I couldn’t see out of my right eye at all, which I still can’t. And my left, I was legally blind. You know, with glasses, it’s legally blind. But my parents thought this was a terrible misfortune. In the 50s, especially even earlier, I guess, throughout American history, right? European history, disability has always been thought of as a prescription for distress tragedy, that child has to be removed from the world. Maybe a special hospital where you live the rest of your life, whatever it is. My mother was terrified of this prospect. And so she insisted that I just go out in the world and pretend to be able to see, which sounds like it’s just my story. But then when I wrote my first memoir, Planet of the blind, which talks about this, I got hundreds of letters from people saying, that was my story. You know, they, I couldn’t see shit and they’d send me into the world just go play in traffic kid. You know. When I was writing planning to the blind, it really became very clear to me that I was writing about an era in which disabled children had no place to go. That led me to wonderful, sweet, strange, unexpected encounters with the small world available to a kid who wasn’t playing baseball. So for instance, right now, I’m writing about how as a child, I discovered a wind up Victrola in my grandmother’s attic, and there were Caruso records. And I began playing those records. And I didn’t know who Caruso was. But I was thrilled that such a thing existed. What an astonishing voice. And you know, Caruso and Nellie Melba, I had these records in the attic of my grandmother’s Victorian house. That was my first experience of poetry. I even describe how I made up a game in the attic, I’d play the record Caruso singing a Puccini Aria. And in the three minutes it took for that record to play. I would feel around in the darkness of the attic and touch everything I could find. So it became Caruso and three minute group. So that was that was

Achim Nowak  08:45

thank you for the growth part. I appreciate it. Yeah. But I want to ask you a very pragmatic way. Because when you and I met, my memory of it is which could be completely different from your reality. So then welcome. Your reality was that you had you were just coming to terms with I’m going to be blind for the rest of my life or legally blind you had. But you were in your late 30s. We were both were born the same year were both born in 1955 were the same age. So I immediately go

Stephen Kuusisto  09:25

how’s that possible?

Achim Nowak  09:26

How is that possible? Your late 30s? Like how did you pass in your 20s? And 30s? would get it because you went to William and Hobart you taught you’re a poet. Right? What led to this coming to terms at this stage in your life?

Stephen Kuusisto  09:42

So let me reverse engineer that question. Yes, please do when you and I met I had lost my job as an adjunct professor at Hobart and William Smith colleges, which are small liberal arts colleges in Western New York. I had gone there as An undergraduate because my father worked there. And I couldn’t see worth a shit. But I could I could navigate the campus because I knew what it was. And so in order to live a life where you don’t fully reveal how impaired you are, you have to find little me’s on sin stage sets where you can play this out. For me, that was the campus of the college where my father worked, and I knew how to get around it. And although I couldn’t see worth a shit, I worked out ways to listen to books on tape, and I could, you know, had a I had a photographic memory for whatever reason, and I could go into a classroom and, you know, recite 22 poems by Garcia Lorca and get the students talking about it. But I lost that job almost overnight. And I suddenly realized, holy cow, and I was realizing this, well, we were together at that Art Center. That’s the great thing about an art center for your viewers who don’t know, they provide artists and thinkers, with spaces to just kind of think deeply outside the daily grind. And they

Achim Nowak  11:12

do and they feed you and which was a wonderful thing.

Stephen Kuusisto  11:15

It’s true. And the food there was tremendous. And you and I would swim across the lake, you’re going 10 times faster than me, but I was still aerobic in those days, you know, a mile swim back and forth. And then you’d go and sit under a tree and just think, and what I realized is holy cow, I don’t know how to go anywhere in the world, independently and without fear. So how did I get to be 30 that way? Well, for one thing, living a life in small places that I could manage seemed like an accommodation. But it wasn’t necessarily a good one. It’s also the case. And I talk about this more in in the later memoir, have dog will travel, which is about what happened after we met, when I went to get a guide dog. And you know, Corky, you met Corky. But that opened up the world for me in a way that I just couldn’t have imagined, right, I could go to New York on my own. There’s a whole section in the new book where I described just riding around New York on the subways with Corky for the sheer hell of it, right, I go to frickin Coney Island, and I go to Shea Stadium, and I go to jazz clubs, and I’m 37 years old. And this is the first time in my life, I’ve been able to do what everybody else I knew was already doing. What a joy, right? I even liked the smell of the subway, you know, I mean, it’s like the Hemingway’s description of a dry fountain in Madrid smelling like joy and death, this subway shit. So the reverse engineering is that I finally realized, well, I can’t live in the world unless I break out of this mold. And part of the reason I was in that mold was that I was the child of an alcoholic mother, who I was trying to keep alive. While she was the force that told me I shouldn’t be blind. She was also a deeply tragic figure. And I poured enormous amounts of energy into getting trying to keep her going. I finally went to Al Anon had these great experiences with really cool people. And I realized, you know what, I can’t save her. And she’s a boat anchor in my life. And I’m going to I’m going to live my life, right. But that often can come late, believe it or not.

Achim Nowak  13:36

I’m so appreciate the phrase you used our breaking the mold. In this case, you’re your own mold, because we may have listeners who are not disabled or not blind, but we all have our version of the mold, right? And we it’s up to us to notice it and make decisions about it. Right. You’ve already mentioned planted the blind several times. You became a celebrity of sorts with that book, you were on Oprah, you were everywhere. And you just describe what led up to that all this happened in the 90s, you know, the beginning of 90s. And suddenly, at the end of the decade, you have this book that you are, in a way you becoming the voice for blind people who hadn’t had a chance to tell this story. And you told it. What was that like to suddenly know going from having been an adjunct and in the small town in upstate New York to celebrity for writing a book called Planet of the blind.

Stephen Kuusisto  14:38

Well, I was shocked. And you know, you’ll appreciate this right? What was my training? I went to graduate school in poetry writing. Yeah, I knew how to write poetry. I did. And in fact, Planet of the blind the first draft was really 365 days of prose poetry. I just wrote little prose units that were beautiful and sort of impressionistic, I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to describe how little I can see and how amazing it is right to make that part of the book that there’s an interesting element to being disabled, which non disabled people can’t conceive of. So that’s sort of aesthetics meets politics in a way, right. But the book suddenly came out. And Michiko Kakutani, who never wrote a good review about anybody writes this review in the New York Times that just says, this is the lyrical memoir of a poet. And I was done. And unprepared for it. You know, I thought, my five excellent friends, and you would read it. And that would be it, right? I mean, that’s the expectation of the poet so that it became a best seller that it landed me on all kinds of media, including abroad, right, Italy, Germany, England, Christ, I was on the BBC, that was quite astonishing. The number one thing I remember most vividly from that moment, was that there was a struggle between the reception of the book in the tabloid media versus the intelligent review that Michiko Kakutani had written because she understood that this was poetry in the service of explaining the epistemology and interiority of disability. She got it. But there’s an element in the book that’s very colorful, right in which I described, the Charlie Chaplin esque meets Sid Vicious dynamics of trying to pretend you can see which is often not so not so fun, right? And NBCs show Dateline did a special piece on the book. And I let them tabloid me into kind of misery, what they did was they wanted to play up, he lived a lie. This man lived a lot. I let them do that. Because I didn’t have the sophisticated political chops to talk back as fiercely as one should have, which is to say nowhere in the book does it say that? What it says is that disability was hard. And no one had a vocabulary for it. And so this is how you live without autonomy and dignity. That would have been the answer, but I didn’t know how to do that. So when I wound up on Oprah, she wanted to play that up. Yeah. And I started talking back to her, I said, No, this book was about the disabled who had no autonomy and, and she didn’t like it. She wanted me to fit the tabloid format. This man was a rich, I use the Walter Cronkite voice, but that’s what tabloid media does. That was shocking to me. But I learned a lot from that, right? That if you’re going to be a disability activist on the big stage, you cannot let the dominant culture tell your story. Queer people figured this out women, feminists, women of color. People who have historically been marginalized, get hip to this very quickly.

Achim Nowak  18:02

Yeah. How do you because you speak about so eloquently. You’re a visible activist, you’ve done cool stuff, you’re doing cool things now, which I want to get to toward the end of the conversation. You know, but there’s always the danger of being being the one who represents all which you can write. And you are an individual person within an individual’s story. How do you navigate those potential contradictions?

Stephen Kuusisto  18:27

One thing’s for sure you put into your own personal lexicon, the following phrase, okay, I’m only one of 8 billion, right? So you have to do that. Because otherwise, you’re occupying other people’s experiences, and you’re just another talking head. And no one wants to be that, right? You want to be an empathetic community agent for change. I always try to bring that up right away. And I try not to forget it. Right. I’m also very aware and every day when I put on my shoes and socks, I’m, I think of it. I’m part of the 20% of the disabled, who managed to have a job. You know, 80% of the disabled in these United States. And this is a global statistic, remain unemployed despite, or regardless of their level of education in their talents. Yeah. And that haunts me. So I’m constantly pushing and working with others to try to promote disability employment. And you may remember this, I’m sure you do. There was a very goofy moment after Planet of the blind came out when the New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani offered me a job as the director of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities for this I had

Achim Nowak  19:48

no idea.

Stephen Kuusisto  19:51

I met him at City Hall. This is the year 2000. He hadn’t yet become America’s mayor. Right. We knew he He was kind of a quasi fascist, but we didn’t know how badly that would turn out. I didn’t like him very much. But I got the opportunity to meet him. And I sat there and told him how the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities for the city of New York should be a bully pulpit for getting people with disabilities in New York City real jobs. But he offered me the position and then I went home and went Jesus. Now what do I do? I don’t want to work for Juliana.

Achim Nowak  20:29

A word from your sponsor. That’s me. I invite you to go to the website associated with this podcast Fourth, you will find other equally inspiring conversation with great humans. And you will also learn more about the my fourth act mastermind groups where cool people figure out how to chart their own fourth acts. Please check it out. And now back to the conversation. Let me just try this out. Because you’re talking about 20% Only are employed, correct our list of qualifications, right?

Stephen Kuusisto  21:11

You can have a PhD and be unemployable as with a disability.

Achim Nowak  21:16

You are infectiously charming, bright, engaging. So I would imagine people want to hire you. I’m not saying that other people who are disabled are not. But I’m thinking is this, you’ll have a distinct social asset, which is a think a gregariousness, which you’d seem to have exhibited as a young boy based on dong ding dong, which serves you well.

Stephen Kuusisto  21:46

I’m here with some exquisite bullshit. Here I am. Right

Achim Nowak  21:50

at the other stuff. You talked about the different types of media and the stories they tell about disabled people. And at the same time, you mentioned Giuliani and it’s clear that your the success of plan of the blind open doors for you? Right, it is added complexity, including the door to being more of an activist. Have you chosen about sort of, well, this is the door I want to walk through this is the door I don’t given that you have been afforded some opportunities?

Stephen Kuusisto  22:23

That’s a great question. One thing is that I see disability as a connector with every other aspect of human experience, and every other social and political identity right or politicized identity. So queer people, profound experiences with disability, people of color, have been experimented on in a man Galleon kind of horror show around disability, the whole Tuskegee experiment, Henrietta Lacks, the intersections between disability and multiculturalism and diversity, equity, are really profound. Because this is an unshakable truth that makes this business of advocating for the disabled even more powerful and necessary for me. And then I get these opportunities because that book, Planet of the blind and successive ones have gotten attention. Like I got invited by the State Department to travel to various places and talk to disabled children, and disability activists. For instance, I was in Kazakhstan of all places. And I met with disabled children, many of them blind at a special school. Many of them were encouraged to perform for me, they sang music and sang songs and emoted and so forth. And but I talked about how the world is changing, and that the doors to opportunity that were close to the disabled are opening worldwide, I gave a very optimistic vision of what the future will be for the disabled. The mother of a blind child came up to me at the end, and she said, Oh, I hope you’re right, because I don’t see how my child will ever get out of this institution. Right. But the bar for blindness in Kazakhstan is what it was in the US in 1910. Right? So you feel that right, that goes right through your entire body. It’s an x ray experience. And if you’re not an ego monster, and you have empathy for other human beings, you carry that away, and you don’t forget it, right? You have been very, very unstoppable as a person who stands for Human Rights and looks for ways to encourage people to be fully in the world.

Achim Nowak  24:48

But it’s interesting, since you mentioned like, because I you know, my story, I was tested HIV positive late 80s. And, and I was told I had two years to live and I’ve been blessed to be here. wealthy, longtime, and have a really good life for about I’d say 10 years, part of my public story I very much that was important for me to be a voice for people who could live well. The longer I live very open about it because I’ve written about a lot, but then also go okay, that’s just one part of my identity. You know, I know on level one level, you’re married to Connie, you have a dog, you live a simple life on another level, you’re in Kazakhstan visiting children, you travel many different worlds at the same time, the mantle of being an activist for something that’s very important that you of course, embody and easily own. Do you ever go I wish just put the day? I didn’t have to think about that. Or is that? Is that a fantasy of an able bodied person like me?

Stephen Kuusisto  25:52

I think we all have, I think we all have to do that. And I think identity politics is actually a very important engine, right? Well, the coma hace statement right? That all politics is personal. If you hail from a marginalized place, or even if you don’t suppose you’re just a you know, cisgendered, hetero white man walking around. But your life is influenced by political decisions made far away and can narrow the scope of how you can live and what you can do. I’m just reading a new book about the emergence and history of Neo liberalism. That just got reviewed in the Washington Post. And, you know, let’s be clear, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton made decisions that narrowed the opportunities for people of whatever background to achieve success in order to give more goodies to the corporate overlords. So everything really is finally political once you’re fully aware of it. But the flip side of identity politics is that you got to put it aside and enjoy watching the Boston Celtics or go waterskiing or my wife has two adoptive horses. I go, You know what, I just go and I’m The Candy Man, Man, I go and feed those horses carrots and and groom them and talk to them for whole long periods that are therapeutic, unnecessary. You’re not, you know, Mr. or Ms. Culture warrior. There’s something else, right? Yeah. Isn’t that a blessing, right?

Achim Nowak  27:28

It is a blessing.

Stephen Kuusisto  27:29

Yeah, we’re complex beings.

Achim Nowak  27:33

I want to take us to your life. Just now. 2022. One thing that struck me you were tenured at the University of Iowa. And then you were lured away to Syracuse, where you have this cool professorship, and you know, some people, metaphorically speaking, would kill to be tenure at the University of Iowa and have a cushy, little longtime job were with financial security and freedom. And you. You said, I want to keep going, can you walk us through that decision? What prompted you to do that?

Stephen Kuusisto  28:12

Well, I don’t see disability, or poetry. The craft and art of thinking about and teaching about writing as being all that I do, right? So when Syracuse said, Come here, and teach whatever you like, Well, that was an extraordinary thing, right. And so to give you an example, I just taught a course here for undergraduate honors students, all of them pre med, on on the history of DNA. We talked about everything from how Crick and Watson played a mind game to figure out the structure, the molecular structure of DNA, by just moving little model pieces around, figuring it had to be it had to be beautiful. And if they just found a way to put the molecules together in a beautiful structure, that would be you know, but they also stole intellectual property from Rosalind Franklin. So we talked about ethics, serendipity, game playing, and ethics. That’s the first couple of weeks of the course. Then we branch into, well, what is popular culture make of DNA? So when we start looking at, we look at Jurassic Park, and we look at Gattaca and we look at the science fictiony sort of versions of what genetic research is going to mean. So then we talk a little bit about that. Then we shift into eugenics, social Darwinism, and the exploitation of races and the disabled and women and the frightening dynamics of this and how we haven’t lost that yet. It’s still in the culture, and what that may mean for the future of genetic research, which leads us into ethics. and bioethics, who’s going to make the decisions about our increasing sophistication with genetic research? Then we talked about CRISPR, which was in its infancy at that moment, and we talk about, you know, what does it mean that we can actually modify genes? Now, what’s the upside of that? I would argue that there is, even though I believe that disability is a perfectly fine identity, I don’t want anybody to have Lou Gehrig’s disease. What if we can get rid of it with genetic modification? Well, that’s an incredible opportunity. On the other hand, right? What if unethical things happen? And during the course of this course, you know, the story broke worldwide that a Chinese genetic researcher had modified to unborn twin baby girls. Well, modifying the germ line of someone’s DNA is irreversible. We live in a brave new world, and it’s both dynamically inspiring and also absolutely terrifying.

Achim Nowak  30:58

Well, what I’m hearing as I’m listening to you is, and I want to relate this to our listeners is, there is an wide intellectual curiosity that you have, yes. You’re blessed to be in a playground where you get to explore and indulge that. Yeah. And and the connection I want to draw, because I acknowledge both of you and I were born in 1955, was 67 years old. And some people retire at this time. But obviously, that’s not the conversation we’re having right now. You are. You are creating all sorts of other things that are poetry related activism related, can you give us a sense of just today? 2022? What are some other things that are percolating in your world that you are championing?

Stephen Kuusisto  31:48

Yeah, so that’s great. Thanks for that question. So I just got a big award from a donor to publish books of poetry by disabled poets. So over the next five years, I’m going to be publishing really top notch disabled poets. That’s extremely exciting to me. And we’ll be able to pay those poets, as they do at other poetry presses like Copper Canyon, or whatever, and, and we’ll be able to host poetry readings by these poets and maybe even do them around the country. That’s extremely exciting to me. And I’m also running a workshop for disabled teens, in poetry writing, we do that via zoom, we were going to do it in person at Syracuse University, and then COVID struck, and then we made it a zoom only event. And it’s been really terrific. And so I’m hoping to grow that program. even make it International. I’m working on that. In a way, if you really think about that, right, that you and I were born in an era of optimism.

Achim Nowak  32:51


Stephen Kuusisto  32:53

And I can’t shake it. I just can’t shake it. You know, I know all the reasons I made a joke the other day, I said, I’m just I was talking to a friend who was lamenting something. And I said, Yeah, well, after this conversation, I’m going to chained myself to my furnace and drink tiny airline liquor bottles. You know, I mean, we can be pessimistic. Yeah. But I’m not sure that’s what we’re here for. You know, I think we’re here to imagine the astonishing things that can happen, and to do our best to try to make them happen. I can’t change the big world the way I want to. I joked last night to my wife. I would love it if we could get the Israelis to go into the Kremlin, and take Putin just send him the Commandos, you know, but I can’t influence the world that way. But I can get teams writing poetry, who many of them are non speaking, they type you know, to communicate well, this is awesome.

Achim Nowak  33:54

You’re right. Yeah. Your story of how I hope this doesn’t sound too tabloid. But how I hear your story is one who embraced his disability and found some beauty in it, and that you’re championing that for others. And you’ve had a big life, looking forward with a lot of life left. Do you ever think like, Oh, these are some things I would like to do more of a things I would like to do less of, or do you just take things as they come?

Stephen Kuusisto  34:32

Well, I think that if I had my druthers, I would find the right kind of external support to expand this disability creative writing program into something global. Because I remember those kids in Kazakhstan and visited disabled children in China, and the idea that they could be part of the mainstream is still not understood. Think about all the people out there who are like me as a kid, I discovered the Victrola in the attic and the world’s greatest tenor, and carved out for myself an inner life that was very rich. And then, despite the obstacles, the parents who didn’t want me to be blind, I managed to get a scholarship to the Iowa writers workshop, where I was able to study with amazing poets. And those things have made all the difference in my life. I want other people to have that. Right. Nice. I will say this, I find a lot of academics, not just at Syracuse, but all the places I’ve visited, right to be very narrow. Even the poet’s right, they, my next book will be entirely a synchronous of connected sonnets about me. And you know, we’ve seen these types, right. We’ve been in the arts, right, you know, and I just stand there. And I think, man, I’m from a different planet, you know, I’m not interested in me. I mean, yeah, I love writing poetry. And I love being, as you would say, somewhat gregarious, charming, public figure. I mean, that’s in me, though, that’s still the child who rang the doorbells and said, How about an old New York Times? You know, but I just I don’t know, it’s a communitarian sense that you’re, you know, you want to fight for others who haven’t had the advantages that you had what Rosa theater note, Franklin Roosevelt said, if you’re able to climb up the ladder, you should put it back down for others, right?

Achim Nowak  36:44

I believe that. Yeah. But I’d like to end with this question. Because you one of your memoirs, also extols the beauty of listening and the different dimensions of listening. And as a blind person, maybe presumptuous, you’ll perhaps listen to more than others. What would you like to share with our listeners about listening are different ways of listening and different ways of hearing?

Stephen Kuusisto  37:14

You know, there was a poem by Gary Snyder, Zen poet in America, who is still with us in his 90s, in which he said something like, and I’ll get it wrong, but that it is a bad thing that we don’t know the names of the plants and animals in our surroundings. So consequently, I have spent my adult life learning the calls of the birds, and what birds there are in my surroundings. And this it turns out, this isn’t so hard. When I was younger, I had to get long playing records of Birdcalls. And they’d always be some British guy, the plover sounds like this. But now, Cornell University has the world’s best birdcall website. And you can just go on there and you can hear every damn bird in the world. Well, I, you know, I make it a daily practice to go out in my little yard, and just sit and listen to all the birds. It’s an extraordinary symphony, even in the average silly suburban American yard. It’s an amazing thing. And then you think about the tambor and you think about the frequencies, and you think about the pitch. And you think about the energies that are flowing through these birds to produce the sounds. And you think about their place in the mystery of creation. And you’re having a John Cage moment where you’re hearing composition happening around you. That is extraordinary, right? A lot of Eavesdropping is about going places and just sitting and listening. But that came out of my sort of teen era of man, I want to know the birds, you know, I want to know what they are. I want to know who they are. Right? And then I you know, you get to know them well enough, you know, these crows are fighting. And you know, and they’re and they’re actually enjoying it, they’re like Viking marauders up there in that maple tree. And then you start imagining one of them has the eyeball of a mouse and the rest are going for it and well you know, that’s you just went out in your yard. And the world is feeding you interesting stuff. And that comes from listening,

Achim Nowak  39:32

right? Yeah. Listening and also but but you’re listening is also animated. But what I heard you say the desire to know an interest and curiosity which is a beautiful thing. Our listeners want to learn more about you and the work you do and I know they can find your books on Amazon or their local bookstore. But where else would you like to send them or if there are organizations that you champion where you go, you would like our listeners to check these out because they are or represents something that matters to you. Where should we go?

Stephen Kuusisto  40:03

Yeah, well, I just got done saying I don’t want to be one of those people who talks about himself. You know, my new book of sonnet says, but I do have a website, Steven ku Yes, Cousteau is a Finnish name, which means grove of spruce trees. You don’t need to know that. But that’s a place where you can go and see a whole bunch of things that I’ve either written about or linked to about human rights, disability, poetry, those sorts of things. I’m actually a big fan of the organization that was founded by Helen Keller and still exists and is very important. It doesn’t have anything to do with me, but you can learn a lot. It’s called the American Foundation of the blind, a FB, and they have a website. And there are all kinds of resources about blindness on there. And those are really good to know about. Last but not least, this grant that I got is, is for the press that I run called Nine Mile, Nine Mile magazine and Nine Mile books. So if you Google Nine Mile, it’ll take you to nine mile art Corp. And you’ll see all kinds of books of poetry that I’ve been publishing. Most recently, I just published a brand new book by the wonderful poet Sandra McPherson, who is now in her 80s. And momentarily found herself as older people sometimes do sequestered in a psychiatric institution. And it took her time to get out of there, she needed a lawyer. And she’s written a wonderful book of poems about that extraordinary experience. Take a look at my nine mile magazine and Nine Mile books, website. I enjoy it if people dropped in there. All right.

Achim Nowak  42:01

Thank you for the gift of this conversation and the gift of your work. And just the the gift of you, Steve, it was it was a pleasure.

Stephen Kuusisto  42:10

Well, thanks for having me. And kudos to you for all you do to you’ve got such a good spirit and such good heart.

Achim Nowak  42:18

Thank you, Steve. All right. See if I like what you heard. Please go to my fourth And subscribe to receive my updates on upcoming episodes. Please also subscribe to us on the platform of your choice. Rate us give us a review and let us all create some magical fourth acts together. Ciao


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