Poet, author, and advocate for those with disabilities, Professor Stephen Kuusisto, who has been blind since birth, is the author of“Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening” and the acclaimed memoir “Planet of the Blind”, a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”. He has also published “Only Bread, Only Light“, a collection of poems from Copper Canyon Press.
Steve is recognized by the New York Times as “a powerful writer with a musical ear for language and a gift for emotional candor.”
A BRIEF EXCERPT from SPI’s recording of Stephen:
When I was a child it was very clear, growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, that being a person with a disability made me an outlier. Teachers didn’t want me in public school. My mother did want me in public school because she thought that I really would have a limited experience of life if I went to The Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. She felt strongly that I should live in the world. But the world was very conditional. It was long before the Americans with Disabilities Act. And so early in my life I felt a sense of ostracism and loneliness. Able-bodied kids didn’t want me to play with them. There were no sporting programs for kids with disabilities. And so my world became the world familiar I think to all artists who discover the arts early in life. It became an isolated and rather beautiful – but very private – kind of experience. Even by the age of seven or eight I had a very, very intense kind of inner life. And that inner life a lot of artists will tell you – whether they’re dancers or painters or poets – that they early on had that sense of the wonder and strangeness of being alive.
A graduate of the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, and a Fulbright Scholar, Steve holds the position of director of the Renée Crown University Honors Program at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in the Center on Human Policy. He speaks widely on diversity, disability, education, and public policy. His essays and poems have appeared in numerous anthologies and literary magazines including Harper’s’ The New York Times Magazine; Poetry; andPartisan Review.
About his memoir PLANET OF THE BLIND
As a boy he careened down the street on the bicycle his mother bought him. As a teenager he traveled to Europe and played basketball. As a young man he won scholarships, taught classes, went bird watching. And all the while, Stephen Kuusisto would not utter, even to himself, the one central truth of his life: he could not see. With 20/200 vision in his better eye, he was legally blind. Writes Kuusisto: “I see like a person who looks through a kaleidoscope; my impressions of the world at once beautiful and largely useless.”
In this breathtaking memoir, Stephen Kuusisto leads us on a vividly painted odyssey into a landscape that is both beautiful, terrifying, and magical. A work of exquisite intelligence and passionate heart, Planet of the Blind is for anyone who has viewed the world through a unique lens – and ultimately seen the truth.
“The world is a surreal pageant,” writes Stephen Kuusisto. “Ahead of me the shapes and colors suggest the sails of Tristan’s ship or an elephant’s ear floating in air, though in reality it is a middle-aged man in a London Fog rain coat which billows behind him in the April wind.”
So begins Kuusisto’s memoir, Planet of the Blind, a journey through the kaleidoscope geography of the partially-sighted, where everyday encounters become revelations, struggles, or simple triumphs. Not fully blind, not fully sighted, the author lives in what he describes as “the customs-house of the blind”, a midway point between vision and blindness that makes possible his unique perception of the world. In this singular memoir, Kuusisto charts the years of a childhood spent behind bottle-lens glasses trying to pass as a normal boy, the depression that brought him from obesity to anorexia, the struggle through high school, college, first love, and sex. Ridiculed by his classmates, his parents in denial, here is the story of a man caught in a perilous world with no one to trust–until a devastating accident forces him to accept his own disability and place his confidence in the one relationship that can reconnect him to the world–the relationship with his guide dog, a golden Labrador retriever named Corky. With Corky at his side, Kuusisto is again awakened to his abilities, his voice as a writer and his own particular place in the world around him.
Written with all the emotional precision of poetry, Kuusisto’s evocative memoir explores the painful irony of a visually sensitive individual–in love with reading, painting, and the everyday images of the natural world–faced with his gradual descent into blindness. Folded into his own experience is the rich folklore the phenomenon of blindness has inspired throughout history and legend.
LETTERS TO BORGES / Copper Canyon Press:
From their website:
“Poetry carves a topiary garden out of dust,” writes Stephen Kuusisto in his second collection of poetry, Letters to Borges. Despite blindness, Kuusisto “carves out his own garden” writing to Jorge Luis Borges, a blind writer as well, with synesthetic visuals and imaginative description. Kuusisto writes from different cities, altering and shifting them, unrestrained by time or concreteness. Each one in turn becomes his own city depicted for Borges as a traveler journaling to a distant friend. Laced amongst these artful letters Kuusisto includes fragments of his past, earnest and humorous divagations, elegies for poets, musicians, and friends while always retaining a sense of place. Kuusisto is a guide delving us into his unique and dynamic sensory world. For Kuusisto, blindness is no debilitation, but instead an opening through the unperceived.
To hear Stephen’s oral history, click on links below. Audio is a production of Story Preservation Initiative. All rights reserved.