AN INTERVIEW WITH STEPHEN KUUSISTO
To have a conversation with Stephen Kuusisto is to step outside of time. Or maybe more into it. Kuusisto thinks and swings with the cosmos. When you mention the work of another writer to him, he responds with a quote from their body of work. When you contemplate an abstraction in his presence, he wrangles clarity, and offers new ideas—adagio to allegro—that satisfy both soul and smile. You begin to forget that you’re in a conversation, and not a concert hall, and yet this kind of inclusive instrumentation of thinking and writing that Kuusisto masters, is also an aesthetic embrace of the pleasure of being lost—lost while at play, lost so that things are always new, lost so that you’re actually always finding; and so a conversation with Kuusisto always feels like a batch of coalescing lyrics. The trouble, then, is that there are so many possible encores in speaking with the writer that the show always goes on. I find myself speaking to him long after I’ve left our shared space, wondering what tune he’s currently noodling.
Kuusisto welcomes me into his home on an early April morning. He opens the door holding one of his two dogs, a Lhasa Apso, and tells me about how the breed has served for centuries as a guard, perching themselves at the tips of Buddhist monasteries and summits. Lhasa is the captial city of Tibet, and the word “apso” means bearded, so at once I’m entering the bearded capital and I immediately think of the summit I myself have taken to get to this door—for years I’ve been reading Steve’s work, and for the past three weeks I’ve done nothing but roll around in his books; now I’m walking across the long path from his driveway to his door, tiptoeing around a few fresh worms, early in the week, to speak and listen to him. Steve’s other dog, the guide dog Caitlin, is a calm and ever-present Labrador. She greets me in a tender but straightforward manner. I can tell she’s both at work and at home.
Kuusisto has just turned 64 and we joke about The Beatles song, both of us suddenly singing it before he offers me a cup of black coffee. We settle into his living room (a series of differently textured couches present themselves and Steve lets me pick one to sit down on) and for the next three hours we discuss Carl Jung, Walt Whitman, politics, disability rights, and all the skittering interludes of writing and thinking. Most of all, we discuss how words find their way into our lives, and how lives are words. It is here where I feel even more cannily, shall I say, Kuusisto’d—struck and smitten by his wide arrangement of conversational thoughtfulness. Steve’s ability to equally inquire about another’s interests, while inquiring his own mind, makes a conversation with him a shared discovery.
At three distinct points in our conversation, Caitlin lets out a hearty bark from the entryway, and I can’t help but think she’s signaling the three musical acts of our interview. My impulse is to say these acts are themed, but they are more like what we discuss later in our conversation, and in relation to the pianist Keith Jarrett, a sort of trained feeling-through, with an acceptance of leaning.
Steve reads numerous poems during our conversation, and you can read five of his new poems right here, in this current issue.
—Tyler Flynn Dorholt (May, 2019)
Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.
DORHOLT: I’d like to begin with the morning. We’re in Syracuse and it’s just after 9:00 a.m. There’s this wonderful moment in your book Planet of the Blind where you write, “I didn’t know the dog would bring me the morning.” I think readers understand what you mean by this, as it’s in the context of learning to live a life with a guide dog, but I’m curious about what an ideal morning is for you.
KUUSISTO: I think the morning is the clean slate. If you’re able to apprehend it that way. If you’re depressed, or in sorrow, the morning is just another gray flapping curtain that you can’t roll up or down. But when you’re feeling good, and everything is right, the morning is fresh, flexible, surprising. You experience things that are joyous. They come at you unmediated by the quotidian effects of a long day, where you’ve been to the office and the clock is after you. The early morning is really astonishing. There’s a wonderful little poem by Charles Simic about getting up early and being astonished by morning and bending over to tie his shoes and feeling as though he could fly beautifully into the earth. It is that quality of the morning, as a space of apprehension and wonder, which are of course the things we’re after in poetry; certainly, lyrical poetry is after that. Runners know this. Runners who get up and run early—you see two crows rubbing beaks; you see droplets of water hanging off a spider’s web. You see these things as a child would see them, with clear eyes. There’s a Robert Bly poem in his first book, Silence in the Snowy Fields, called “Watering the Horse,” and it’s just a little Zen-like poem. Bly actually owned horses, so this isn’t just some literary device. He’s putting water in the horse’s tank and he says, “suddenly I see with such clear eyes the white flake of snow that has just fallen on the horse’s mane.” It doesn’t mean you can’t be surprised at night. At least in my case it’s more likely in the mornings. When I have a guide dog, she has to get up. She has to go out. You can’t lie in bed, feeling sorry for yourself. The dog comes and shows your shoe in your face and says, hey, we’re going out, and you go out and you’re walking around and hey, it’s a beautiful day. It’s also the case that the dog is sort of a tutelary anti-depressant.
DORHOLT: Do you think that’s the true meaning behind the expression, hair of the dog?
KUSSISTO: That’s a really interesting question. I suspect that comes from 17th century Scotland. I have a book downstairs called The Oxford Dictionary of Superstitions. It’s fabulous. You discover, for instance, that in Scotland, even as late as the 18th century, it was believed that if the first thing you saw in the morning, coming out of your house, was a blind person, in order to forestall going blind yourself (because we all know that’s how it happens, right?) you had to go to the woods, find a tree where two trunks grew together and formed a crotch in the tree where water would collect—“spunk water,” as Mark Twain calls it—and you had to gather that water, and then you had to find the hair of a black cat and burn it, and put the ashes in the spunk water and rub it in your eyes and if you did that, you wouldn’t go blind.
DORHOLT: Well, I think a lot of people must’ve gone blind because they were too lazy to do all of that then.
KUUSISTO: I think that’s right. That’s the proof. The hair of the dog just has that quality of old superstition to it.
DORHOLT: I want to talk a little about Eavesdropping. I really admire how you key into the marvel of pianist Ruben Gonzalez. You speak of how he can stop and then let time back out, how “he was the sole proprietor of the ticking seconds.” I feel that this is one of many moments in this book in which your acute descriptions of sound offer up possible definitions for what poetry—at least good poetry—can do. Can you speak to the connections between music—specifically soloists—and the poet?
KUUSISTO: I’ve never been able to write narrative very well, so lyric, for me, is that place of throwing down the notes, noodling—as they say in jazz—seeing where things go, driven by feeling. However, also flanked by knowledge, experience in the craft. The jazz pianist who explores isn’t creating a note salad—they know how to take themes and sudden discovers and work things and make them happen. So the freshness in lyric is always there because, As Ezra Pound says, “it’s news that stays news.” The discovery the poet makes in the writing of the poem reverberates throughout the poem; it blows backwards into the poem; that closing moment blows backwards and informs the whole poem. It’s almost like reverse DNA. In that way, the poem remains surprising, no matter how many times you’ve read it. I don’t know how many times I’ve read Pounds “In a Station at the Metro,” where he concludes “The apparition of these faces in a crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough.” You’re always thrilled by that. That’s the thing about the lyric. It stays. It keeps surprising us. That’s why we can go back and listen to a jazz pianist, to Keith Jarrett’s Köln concert. Every time you hear that it’s fresh. He’s making that up as he goes along. I mean, he knows roughly what he’s going to do but he’s embellishing it all the way through. There are no two Keith Jarrett concerts alike, and yet we go back and listen to that album and once again, we’re astonished. It’s the power of the lyric. This is why poets like Edgar Allen Poe, or my teacher at Iowa, Donald Justice, always insisted that you write the short poem. You’re more likely to capture that in the short poem than you are if you go on and on.
That’s an interesting dynamic too. Shortness has something to do with the odd capture of image, sound, a kind of toreador dance with time. A kind of urgent precision that leads to a sense of wonder.
DORHOLT: There is a connection here to what you talk about in Eavesdropping when you quote Seamus Heaney—“the movement is from delight to wisdom and not vice versa.” He’s playing a take on Frost’s words and you add to that by speaking about how Heaney is interested in speaking about both the moment when the poem arrives but also that he is hearing something new. I’m interested in how these things work together. Heaney, for instance, speaks about this in depth in his essay “The Redress of Poetry,” especially when he speaks about Borges. He references the space between the poem and the reader, specifically noting that poetry lies in the meeting of a poem and a reader. In addition, that it is in this meeting where we might fulfill our need to experience something because, as Borges notes, we need to “recover a past or prefigure a future.” I go here because of your connection to Borges in your writing, but it makes me think too about the personal versus the communal receptions of poetry. And the space between the poem and the reader. How are these areas are of an awareness to you?
KUUSISTO: So one of the things that I think many poets instinctively understand, is that we’re tricked by time. Myth is basically the occasion where you take the past, the present, and the future and meld them all together. Mythic time is this wonderfully evocative transmutation of the past and the present and the future, into this fabulous dynamic, sacred, imaginative space. I think Jung calls it the illud tempus, the time outside of time, which is vast and beyond our ken, our ability to suss it out, as they say in the vernacular. And yet, poets, understanding this, often can play with this in interesting ways. A teacher of mine, the poet Jim Crenner, who founded Seneca Review and is now retired and in his 80’s, wrote a wonderful poem called “A Birthday Poem from Poe to Me at 36.” He wrote this now nearly 50 years ago, but it begins, “A steady blizzard of deaths blows backwards into history, aiming to knock off one more American in his 40’s.” That’s the kind of play that poets understand, that all artists understand. As Horace says, “Ars longa, vita brevis,” art is supposed to last. Life is short. We look for ways to twist that into mythic space. We know it when we hear it in music. The last quartets of Beethoven, which I consider the greatest compositions ever devised, when you listen to them, because of all the playing he’s doing with time signatures, and moving with tempo, you actually, at whole moments, can feel like your hair is adhering to distant stars. It is vatic, profound music. That is to be at the outer edge of our understanding of time, like those astronauts who don’t quite get into space but are flying that first thing that just creases space and comes back to earth. That’s what we do, we try to work time, slip its knots, get close to that feeling of the sublime. That no-name nothingness that we play with. Borges was really good at this. I expect that Borges and Beethoven spend time together, wherever they are now.
DORHOLT: It reminds me of that poem of yours, “Waiting,” in Only Bread Only Light, in how the reiteration of being a part of something becomes vastness. I am thinking of the communal as the vastness.
KUUSISTO: If you accept this in the right way, perhaps the Jungian way, It’s close to Whitman’s famous statement that “to die is luckier than we suppose.” That nothing ends. That all goes onward and outward, says Whitman. This is the whole idea behind Leaves of Grass, right? You know, where are they now, the old men with their red mouths? Well, they’re under the grass and they’re being eaten by cows and we eat the cows. In a way it’s a kind of atomistic, primitive view of life’s energies, and yet we know it’s true.
DORHOLT: Borges’ Norton lecture relates to this. He says, “But when something is merely said or—better still—hinted at, there is a kind of hospitality in our imagination. We are ready to accept it. I remember reading, some thirty years ago, the works of Martin Buber—I thought of them as being wonderful poems. Then, when I went to Buenos Aries, I read a book by a friend of mine, Dujovene, and I found in its pages, much to my astonishment, that Martin Buber was a philosopher and that all his philosophy lay in the books I had read as poetry. Perhaps I had accepted those books because they came to me through poetry, and not as arguments. I think that somewhere in Walt Whitman the same idea can be found: the idea of reasons being unconvincing. I think he says somewhere that he finds the night air, the large few stars, far more convincing than mere arguments.”
KUUSISTO: That’s that famous moment where’s he listening to the learned astronomer. He listens and he can’t take it anymore and goes outside and he sees that vast network of stars swaying, in the way that only Whitman can. He fills you with that sense of imminence and wonder.
DORHOLT: So when a poem reaches wisdom, it returns a reader to delight, and if they stay with delight they go back out again to find more about what the connection is?
KUUSISTO: That’s right. That connection between wisdom and wonder. My friend Ed Folsom, who is the leading Whitman scholar in the world, told me recently that Whitman had read that stars were already dead, that in the starlight we see the star has already burned out. So he knew that. The closing moment of that poem is also connected to the knowledge that things are moving all the time, that cycles are going on and on. A lot of people think of Whitman as a sort of rude farmer in his underwear, exulting all the time, but he was a deeply well-read man, also in philosophy. So all that wonder is infused with working knowledge. He’s my favorite poet, if you can’t tell.
DORHOLT: In further thinking about Eavesdropping, I’m really drawn toward how you started to think of eavesdropping as a method. It goes beyond a common thing we’d normally perceive as having the intention of overhearing, rather than extra hearing, or attention to hearing. So the moment in the book where you speak about first understanding yourself as an ecstatic hearer—when you had to be a witness after hearing your mother get hit with the grocery store doors—and the moment in which you’re listening to Caruso on the Victrola …
KUUSISTO: I’m now writing a whole book about that. It’s part memoir, part fiction, where I detour into fantasies about Caruso.
DORHOLT: Do you carry his shoe the whole time?
KUUSISTO: I want you to know the tenor had a heavy shoe.
DORHOLT: Heavy though small shoe?
KUUSISTO: Heavey though small.
DORHOLT: So the word, eavesdropping, when that became the title of this book, and even reaching back to when you accepted that you were hearing things more deeply, can you touch on that evolution?
KUUSISTO: It came out of a kind of fantasy. The great Finish composer, Jean Sibelius, began his life as a violinist, and he would go out into the woods and play his violin in the words. Even on his honeymoon, he went into Karelia, into the deep woods of eastern Finland, with his wife Aino, and he had laboring men bring a piano and they rafted it across lakes so that he could play the piano in the woods. Thinking about that, I began to imagine that doing that, somehow, would lead him to everything. It would be like Kalevala, the ancient Finish epic where the main character Väinämöinen is both the poet who creates the world and he’s also this sort of shamanic figure who can visit the dead and come back and move along the living and he knows all the secret words behind everything. I began to imagine Sibelius as a sort of modern day Väinämöinen who begins to hear the leaves talking and the staccato tic-toc of bark in the tree and that he becomes sort of caught up in this phantasmagoria of perfect hearing. Which would drive almost anyone mad. George Eliot says somewhere that if you could hear everything you would go out of your mind. But I got off on that idea—as they said back in the 60’s—and I began to think that, in a way, that’s my story/ That’s not Sibelius at all. It’s my story. From a very early age, I began listening acutely. So I ditched Sibelius.
DORHOLT: You left him alone in the woods.
KUUSISTO: I left him in the woods of Karelia! He apparently sat naked in the woods, playing for his wife. He was a kind of hippie.
DORHOLT: There’s comedy in Eavesdropping, a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, and I think it’s a lovely combination of an acceptance/wielding of pun and just reacting to things as they are, and treating them in that respect. How has humor played a role in your upbringing, your writing?
KUUSISTO: Well humor comes out of surprise. If it’s not too painful, you can laugh it. One remembers the famous Mel Books line—“Tragedy is if I cut my finger, comedy is if you fall in an open sewer and die.” The only reason that is funny is because you haven’t fallen in the sewer. Surprise can be funny. There’s a moment in Eavesdropping where I go into a horse barn, having run away from home at the crack of dawn. The horse is in there going “pfhgpfgh!” Making those exhalations, and I begin doing it with my arm, making fart noises with the horse, and to me that was childhood hilarity. I was in the barn fart-talking with a horse. So I began to understand pretty early that chance things can be pretty funny. I remember, as a very little kid in Helsinki, seeing a reindeer wearing pants. I thought that was very funny, as it is. It remains funny. You learn that there are these beautiful, unforeseeable, unasked-for moments, when the aural reality gives you things, and they can be rather delicious. I feel bad for all of today’s college students—and for that matter, all the people on the street walking around listening to their own music—in that they’ve been completely commodified into a perfect entertainment, but they’re also completely consumers and they’re e not hearing what’s going on around them, which is often quite astonishing and sometimes really funny. The last time I was in New York I was walking along and I heard these classic-sounding New York guys. They sounded like they were from the Bronx, a couple of middle-aged guys—you can picture them in their New York accents, and one goes, “Yeah, back in our day, we never had any homework.” And then the other guy says, “Well No. No. We had lots of homework. We had way more homework than today’s kids. But of course we never did it.” I thought that was hilarious. It’s just the chance things that you hear. Listening is a joy. It can be something more impressionistic and lovely, hearing a couple of crows talking in a tree late at night. Chance sound is amazing. We can all be John Cage if we put our minds to it. That’s part of what he was trying to teach. He’s the master.
DORHOLT: You call him the “maestro of spoiled environments.”
KUUSISTO: He is to sound as Jackson Pollock was to nonfigurative painting. He made astonishingly beautiful things happen, in ways the Time-magazine-coffee-table-book-crowd would think was ugly. But it wasn’t.
DORHOLT: Brian Eno has done similar things. More in the ambient space.
KUUSISTO: You bet.
DORHOLT: I remember hearing Eno’s Music for Airports for the first time. I grew up in Minnesota and I recall my dad telling me that it was installed at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. They actually played it there.
KUUSISTO: Did they?
DORHOLT: It must’ve had a short tenure. If we just had more Eno in the airports!
KUUSISTO: No, they had to go back to playing one-hundred-and one strings play The Beatles.
DORHOLT: You know I think that, more than anything, your poems, and the way in which you speak about listening, have you tapped so much more deeply into what voice is than most writers. For instance, when you speak about John Wayne’s voice in Eavesdropping, your description is so pinning. You say, “I knew this voice because I’d practiced it myself. It’s the voice of all kids who grow up alone. You talk to the dark. You take it in and spit it out and you just decide you know what you’re talking about because no one else is ever going to help you.” Knowing the voice becomes this greater thing. I feel like that’s the best discovery I experienced in reading the book, just knowing your own voice and trusting that you can inhabit another person’s voice.
KUUSISTO: Yes, and that’s also tied to understanding, fairly early, that when you use your imagination, terrific things happen. What was I, six years-old, on a playground and this bully came up to me, starts harassing me. He’s got this handful of dirt and says to me, hey, you’re going to eat this dirt. So I said to him, okay, that’s great, but before I eat that, you should try some of these, and I handed him shelled acorns. And I said, these are acorns, they’re delicious, the squirrels love them, you should try them. He tried them and of course his mouth puffs up and his skin turns red. They’re made of pure alum. Tears are coming out of his eyes, he staggers away; he never bothered me again. You remember the movie Chicago? It’s razzle-dazzle ’em. You figure out that there’s this sort of exquisite bullshit to the imagination that you can employ for your own purposes. Now there’s a dark side to that. You could become a con man or a pathological liar. I think knowing the difference is crucial. You learn that the imagination is powerful. And then you learn that, if you’ve had sufficient therapy, that 80% of what the imagination tells you is wrong. I’m fond of saying this in creative writing classes—I stunned a group of creative nonfiction writing students at Iowa when I said this—that most of what the imagination tells you is wrong. This is where depression comes from. If you’ve had good therapy, you realize it. You know which parts of the imagination to employ and which to resist, because it doesn’t have any dividers, it’s just a stream. So you learn early that there’s a real joy to making things up, and that this is tied to language and language is powerful. Then you start studying the way other people use language, for good or ill, and I think kids are very perceptive about this. By the time I was 10 or 11 I was really actively listening to the way adults spoke, and the cadences in their voices, and how they navigated. I remember a very funny story that illustrates this: my grandmother on the Finnish side of my family was very negative and dour and deeply conservative; deeply conservative in a Lutheran way. She believed any fun was sinful, and was very dominant in her personality. You’d tell her you have an ice cream cone and she’d say all is vanity. She was really a piece of work. One day we were riding along in our family station wagon. My father was driving and the old grandmother in the back starts opining that it’s an incredibly beautiful day and that the trees are lovely and that the greenery is amazing and that there are flowers, and she’s never said a positive thing in her entire life, never, and she’s got this Finnish accent and she’s saying, “Oh everything is so looooovely,” and my father thinks to himself, “oh my god, we’re getting carbon monoxide poisoning,” and he takes the car to the garage and it’s true! We were getting poisoned! I was in the car and I remember her sudden swoon into a delight that her voice and accent could not support, and understanding that she’d slipped into some strange space. I didn’t fully understand the story until later, but if you’re listening carefully to the way that people employ their vocables and their syllables and tone and pitch, you become fascinated by voice, and you then begin to discover, because of this fascination, who is not telling the truth, and who is, and you start to pick up on delicate nuances and scruple in what you’re hearing.
DORHOLT: This makes me think of two things. I know you’ve been teaching nonfiction for a while, and I’ve recently been teaching it, and my students and I have been talking a lot about the differences between using your imagination to go toward the memory and not to confuse those two things; and also to accept the emotional truth of the matter versus the factual truth, and to find that ground in between …
KUUSISTO: That’s the most important part in nonfiction right there.
DORHOLT: The emotional truth?
KUUSISTO: Yes. Go on.
DORHOLT: So we were reading John McPhee’s essays, “In Search of Marvin Gardens,” last week aloud. And I wanted us to, as a class, talk about block by prose block, because you can see McPhee bringing emotional truth and truth closer together. And so, in your own writing, and in your own teaching of nonfiction, how much does this topic of emotional truth arise?
KUUSISTO: That’s a really interesting question. You know, Tom Wolfe wrote an introduction to an anthology called The New Journalism that came out in the early 70’s, and the introduction to that book is brilliant. Reading it, you learn about 80% of what you need to know to write nonfiction. What later became called creative nonfiction we called new journalism at first, but they’re very similar. So he says well, really all you need to know are a handful of things. You’re borrowing from fiction, so scene-by-scene construction, write vivid scenes with imagery and detail, you got that and that’s how you construct it, out of scenes, write scenes and it begins to take its own shape; then he says dialogue: use dialogue the way a fiction writer would, let the characters talk; and then he says something like stream-of-consciousness: you want to be inside a character’s head to the best of your ability—you can actually accomplish that in nonfiction, though people didn’t think you could; you interview somebody sufficiently, you know what they are thinking. It’s still impressionistic but it’s a vital way of working, and you can certainly put your narrator’s steam-of-consciousness into a thing. Then he says “status-life detail.” It basically means, if it’s a working class person’s apartment that you’re in, show us the shit that’s on the wall, the iridescent moon glow Elvis and the torn couch—that will tell you an enormous amount. That goes with scene-by-scene construction, that you want to get those details in there; does a person drive a Mercedes or do they drive a Yugo? I think he used, as an example of that, a famous early essay by Gay Talese, who goes to interview the retired famous heavyweight champion Joe Louis—he knocks on Joe Louis’s door and Louis opens the door and smiles and he’s got gold teeth. That’s a status-life detail, it just reverberates out of that. And all of that is terrific, those are the structural dynamics of how to put creative nonfiction together. But the most important thing he leaves out. To me the most important thing is comic or dramatic irony, which gets at your question, and for those who don’t know what that might be … basically, Shakespeare invents it, and it can only happen once a population knows how to read (it’s a literate cultural kind of dynamic, but it’s an aesthetic thing), you’re in the audience watching A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream or The Tempest and Shakespeare allows you to know more than the characters know, so that you’re looking in at the proscenium arch and you’re seeing people behave—which is an important part of any story—and you’re thinking, oh man don’t do it, you did it, oh no! Or you’re thinking oh yes, you’re finally getting it. That’s an aesthetic form of pleasure, and Shakespeare’s the first person to really fully employ it, and you can take that idea of comic or dramatic irony and employ it in your own narrator when you’re writing creative nonfiction. So, how do you do that? It’s subtle, you can’t overdo it or it will become exposition and you don’t want that. You can have a tiny bit of exposition but not a lot You’re basically admitting to the reader that you know more now that you did before you began the essay, before you began this paragraph, before you began that sentence. It’s about emotional growth and emotional intelligence, and you can’t lay that on too thick. It’s really a deft touch that you have to have, but it’s incredibly important in literary nonfiction, it’s what makes it literary nonfiction and not “what I did on my summer vacation.”
DORHOLT: It also relates to recognizing where you’re doing and accomplishing narration, recognizing where you’re accomplishing reflection upon what you’ve narrated, and then recognizing the need to see that, if you’re reflecting in a certain way, you might then need to do research to understand why the reflection matters in this sense.
DORHOLT: So the third and often invisible thing is the research element—yes, I’m reflecting on something, but what can I now bring in to support this, and/or transport it to another place.
KUUSISTO: So in my latest book, Have Dog Will Travel, I do exactly that thing. I’m training to get a guide dog at this isolated training center, and I begin reading about the history of the guide dog, how it was invented, discovered, how it came to the United States, who is the first person in the U.S. to have one, what did he have to do, how did he have to navigate. In the book I start to reflect on how I’m joining a cadre of people who have gone before me and I want to do this right. I want to be a really good guide-dog handler, in homage to Morris Frank, who was the first person to use one in the U.S. And that means following the rules, it means not letting your dog eat cheese in the supermarket, and making it sit obediently and making sure it’s not jumping on people when it’s in a harness and in work mode, really strictly following those rules so that wherever you go that dog is a professional and you’re a professional. That’s just sort of an example of how doing the research while I was in the process of getting the dog brought me to an understanding that I wanted to have some adult professionalism about how I handled this, and that was a moment of self-awareness for me. We’re living in a moment now where anything that seems square is somehow to be eschewed or even treated with contempt. There’s a kind of Boy Scout Girl Scout dynamic to training with a guide dog, and I realized I wanted to be the Boy Scout, and that was a moment of important self-awareness. One of my favorite poets, James Wright, said I want to write the poetry of a grown man, so it was a moment of growing up.
DORHOLT: In terms of what you describe in Planet of the Blind, and later on in your writing, in just the act choosing to use a guide dog, of going to the school and working with and knowing that you’re going to bring a dog into your life, do you see a percentage of people who can’t make that leap, or choose not to make it?
KUUSISTO: First of all, no two people with a disability are alike. Just like no two cab drivers in NY are alike. Certainly no two blind people are alike. But I have seen people in the process of training with a guide dog who for whatever reason can’t bond with the dog. They talk to it robotically. They don’t feel affection for it. Affection is really important, affection for the animal, and, how many self-help books say this—you can’t love someone else until you learn to love yourself. We know this is true. That’s therapy on a micro dot right there. You see people who really open up and establish a bond with the dog and they’re also establishing a better bond with themselves, and then you see people who really can’t. But even those who can’t still go home with the dog and work it in the streets and it’s okay, but they don’t have that breakthrough where they feel better. We see wounded people, disabled or non-disabled, walking around every day.
DORHOLT: You have very distinct and great descriptions of walking around. I’ve been thinking about your descriptions of wind while walking, first when you were with your previous dog Corky, when Corky is pulling you back from Michigan Avenue and saving your life, but then too your incredible descriptions of wind on 5th avenue in Manhattan …
KUUSISTO: Oh yeah. I almost got killed there too!
DORHOLT: The areas where you’ve almost been killed, but this wind, wind as a force! And you talk about different types of wind and even now, I can feel and see the wind working on a pine outside your window, and I don’t even know if this is a question, but you have me thinking about gusts and the way wind works.
KUUSISTO: You know I once went to Sibelius’ house, which is a museum, and I’m standing in his living room, and there’s a big-old wooden chair that looks very uncomfortable, but that was his chair and he’d sit in the damn thing, and I asked the women, the docent, may I sit in that chair, and for whatever reason she said yes. They let me sit in Sibelius’ chair, and it’s right by a window, and outside the window I’m hearing pine branches just rat-tat-tat against the window, and I’m thinking, well, quite likely he heard that, and where does that go in the composition of the Finlandia symphony? It might not be true, maybe the pine tree was way bigger by the time I got there, but the point is that you become aware of how the wind and the natural world are making compositions. You may not know what to do with the knowledge at the moment you get it, but it will come to you later, like everything else in poetry, it comes to you later.
DORHOLT: I guess I’m thinking about this poetically then. Even in a poem, when we speak back to Justice’s dictum, or the moment of the short poem, what about when you know a poem can’t be short? When something’s opening it up, how do you stay with that? How do you move on with it?
KUUSISTO: Well you won’t like this answer, because it’s sort of rascally, but what I do then is I turn it into nonfiction. That’s because I just can’t write long poems. For me, a two to two-and-a-half page poem is a long poem, and yet, if I’ve entered into a territory where I’ve gotten some poetic, lyric, emotive, musical, probative things going and it’s not lending itself to a certain kind of closure, I may look at that and say this is the beginning of something larger; and then, for me, I have to make a shift into writing it as prose, because for some reason, I can go forward in lyric prose in ways that I haven’t been able to figure out how to do in poetry, and that is a confession on my part. It may be that, having studied with Donald Justice, who was a very exquisite and parsimonious poet, who was in turn influenced by Yvor Winters—who famously wrote, “write little, do it well”—it may be that there is some after effect of that, but moving into the more capacious area of prose allows me to put out my elbows, flex my wings, be more exploratory. I mean, certainly that was the case with Planet of the Blind, which was my breakthrough discovery of using lyric prose to make something large. The first draft of it was like 365 days of prose poetry, and then I stitched it all together with connective tissue.
DORHOLT: That makes sense. I don’t encounter a lot of contemporary poets working in the long poem, but I do encounter, even in my own writing, how poems work in collaborative fragments, sometimes without a sense of closure. Fragments that come together to do something similar but there’s not necessarily closure. It’s like you see a tree and you think it’s quite wonderful and then you notice that one branch dropped off and you start to look closer and begin to ask yourself things like, why are these leaves still here? It’s made me scrutinize my own work. I’ve started to accept the poem moving into prose more, because lyrical prose is still relatively new as a valuable and engaging form. I mean it’s always been there, but I’m thinking about it in terms of how it’s more widely read.
KUUSISTO: It’s always been there. I would argue that since lyric in part is about not knowing where it’s going. You’re letting the imagination craft and dictate a version of the world. I like to joke that it’s like Star Trek, “boldly go where no man has ever gone before.” The lyric does that. It says, I don’t know where the ending is going to be, let’s see. Certainly Montaigne was doing that. When he writes about cannibals he was just writing about playful, imaginative, razzle-dazzle … it was the mid 1990’s and I was teaching adjunctly at Hobart & William Smith colleges and Deborah Tall was there, teaching both nonfiction and poetry, and her student John D’Agata was there, and we sat around and talked about lyric prose, a lot. Later Deborah called it the lyric essay and John has been a great booster of it as a literary form, or anti-form, as the case may be. But it was out of those conversations around the coffee poet that I first conceived of the possibility that I could write Planet of the Blind, in a sequence of scene-by-scene prose poem constructions, borrowing from Tom Wolfe, and that the story would take its own shape. We know the term, immersion journalism—you enter the story, you become a character in the story as you’re discovering it. Halfway through, I went to the guide dog school and I became a character in my own emerging story and I found that really refreshing.
DORHOLT: So you’ve been writing in epistolary fashion as well, in terms of how you wrote Letters to Borges. There’s a certain epistolary inflection. And yet they all take off from a very specific geographical place …
KUUSISTO: Right, and I can explain that in a minute …
DORHOLT: … and they end up wrestled into this arch of wisdom. So how does the delightful beginning of addressing Borges bring you into a somewhere?
KUUSISTO: You know, I saw Borges once, at a conference at Cornell University, and he was led about by a sort of man servant. After going into the world and learning how to travel independently with a guide dog, and having gone to 47 U.S. states and 7 foreign countries with my first guide dog Corky, and feeling the thrill of just being able to say, yeah, I’m going to explore East Berlin all day by myself, that’s an astonishing liberation, and it’s a liberation for the imagination, because getting lost is always about discovery. That’s another element of the lyric. I began to meditate on Borges as a blind person, for whom a lot of sighted people think—borrowing the idea of Tiresias—using the metaphor of that blind person as a seer—and that they metaphorize Borges that way, and Borges was not reluctant to dispel that idea, but Borges would have been the same writer whether he was blind or not. His imagination might’ve been directed toward more fierce introspection because of disability, but even that’s not provable. He was such linguist, he was such a comparative literature machine, he might very well have written the same kinds of things, blindness aside. And that’s a fairly sophisticated understanding of disability, that disability is not what the able-bodied say about it. It seldom is. And so with that in mind, I thought about trying to write to Borges about the strangeness of navigating the world, blind and independently. I don’t want to say I felt sorry for Borges, but because he never learned to be an independent traveler in any meaningful way, I think he missed certain things. In a way, the book is about disability as epistemology, it’s about navigating and letting surprise touch you. What’s the term … intentionality, as the English departments would say, that was part of the intentionality.
DORHOLT: I really love that you end that book from Syracuse, and I think it might be one of my two favorite poems in this book. I’m wondering if we could hear that poem from you.
Kuusisto reads “Letter to Borges from Syracuse”
DORHOLT: When a book just drops you at its end like that, it’s really something.
KUUSISTO: Thank you.
DORHOLT: I like talking about this space between poetry and nonfiction, and the natural arrival you seem to have had in moving these ways. I must admit, I haven’t read your latest book, Have Dog, Will Travel …
KUUSISTO: Oh it’s dirty. It’s a dirty book.
DORHOLT: … and so I was doing some research and came across this primer you wrote, “Do Not Interrupt, a Playful Take on the Art of Conversation,” and chose not to read it. I didn’t want to read it and have it rocking me into jitters.
KUUSISTO: It’s a book-length essay, about talking to people.
DORHOLT: I’m fascinated with conversation, the art of it. Do you feel that people are still having good conversations these days?
KUUSISTO: I think they are. It’s easy to say we’re not because everybody’s on Facebook and people are having this collective, digital, neurological, fight-or-flee hijacking all the time with their emotions and they’re just screaming at each other in cyberspace. But it’s also the case that people do gather, have things like reading clubs. Book clubs are popular right now. Book clubs are really an opportunity to get together and talk. I think the extraordinary popularity of book clubs speaks to that. My wife Connie recently organized, online, a kind of invitation to women in Syracuse who are over 50 and, for whatever reason—they’re divorced, they’ve just moved, they don’t know anybody, and they want to meet other women—and she used this app to bring these women together and they have a group of twenty and they meet regularly and they talk, and I think that’s happening all over the place. People are hungry for talk. I’m not in despair at all, nor am I one of those technology bashers. You see posts and articles, in places like the The Atlantic Monthly, that the computer and cell phone are ruining and alienating people. I don’t know if that’s the case. It sounds convincing, but if you’re sophisticated enough about the nature of reality, you have to ask well, what’s wrong with that story. I know plenty of disabled people who have been able to come together because of online social media applications, who otherwise wouldn’t know anybody. I think that’s fabulous.
DORHOLT: There is this space between criticizing current and/or youthful usage of these things and then having to adapt to or adopt them yourselves. I think of my parent’s generation, maybe being somewhat critical of how the young use different variations of technology but also probably currently being the predominate users of Facebook. I’m becoming more aware of how to make a routine out of using some of these things less. I was running around a pond the other day and saw four couples. Near all of them were on their phones simultaneously. I wanted to yell, “you’re by a pond,” but it also made me recognize how I can step back. I see how it changes the speed of the poems being produced today, and perhaps the need to recognize the technology of that which also lives in this time of technology and narrative, and I don’t have anything specifically critical to say about that, just that it’s so very much in the air that I find myself trying to reconcile with it in my own work more than I normally would.
KUUSISTO: I think there are a lot of people who can’t walk around without their cell phones, so they’re staring at them beside the pond, and so they’re missing lots of things. On the other hand, I went to the college in the early 1970’s—which was really still the late 60’s—and it’s not an exaggeration to say that 2/3 of the people I went to college with were stoned, on pot, all the time. Were they getting a lot out of college? It’s doubtful. I see students today walking across campus glued to their phones. To me that’s a shame because they could be watching cloud patterns or seeing birds or listening to stray conversation, but on the other hand, they’re not all stoned, as far as we know. I don’t see that as any more of a deleterious affect than people being bonked out of their minds on illicit drugs. They’re also on their phones because they’re connecting with their friends. I’m not sure it’s a bad thing, it’s just a different way of doing it. In other words, I’m not trying to sentimentalize things, and I’m trying to be especially attentive to that as I grow older. If like me you’re in your 60’s and you start thinking, I wish I had that Beatles lunch box that I had in the 4th grade, that thing was cool, and when I think stuff like that I think, oh my god, I was miserable in the 4th grade. We have this kind of sentiment nostalgia thing going on in America all the time, and maybe it’s a coefficient of the commodification of everything. But, you know, I don’t think the world was better when we had rotary telephones and cars without seat belts. I see how the cell phone has brought people together in remarkable ways. I can talk to a blind poet in Uganda today and I couldn’t do that when I was in college. I really don’t like these articles—I’m picking on The Atlantic today because I think it’s declined as a magazine considerably; it’s mostly become neo-liberal junk, and they no longer publish imaginative writing of any kind, it’s all punditry—that say it’s a generation that can’t live without their … I mean, I just taught a class on DNA, the history of its discovery and the how it’s being applied today across different dynamics—from big Pharma to agronomy to questions of ethics to popular culture in movies—and this was the best course I’ve taught in my 35 years of teaching, they were the best students I’ve ever had. So I don’t see this vast diminution because of the subversive and decorticating quality of digital machinery. I don’t think it’s real, but it makes a good article in The Atlantic. And people are reading more poetry now than ever before. I try to resist these enforced reconstructions of what’s going on, to suit this idea that everything is in decline.
DORHOLT: So was this class open to all majors?
KUUSISTO: It was an Honors class to students could take it from any major. But they got exposed to contemporary CRISPR technology and how we’ve now learned how to edit genes right down to the most intricate deformities in our genomes. So we start the semester watching Gattica and how there’s a potential future where people are genetically engineered, and there are have-nots in that world, and in the very end of the semester a Chinese physician genetically modifies two unborn children who are born with artificial genomes. So the class, from the moment it was started, it offered a paradigmatic view of the bio-ethical issues that we’re contending with in a very brave new world. I have great optimism for today’s students.
My biggest fear, not that you asked …
DORHOLT: I’ll take it.
KUUSISTO: So there’s a book by Kwame Apia, a new one about identity, the perils of it. He’s a philosopher. He’s certainly familiar with black diaspora. He comes from a minority, outlier position, but he argues very cogently that there’s a trap in identity, that if you see yourself only as a person of color, or only as a marginalized person from any kind of group, that it renders you potentially incapable of navigating beyond that self-colonizing position. He’s much more elegant about it than I; but I worry about that, because I teach disability studies at various moments and I teach disabled students who only identify as militant disabled students. As the folk singer Greg Brown says, “the world ain’t what you think it is, it just is,” and so, in an odd way, while there’s power in identifying as a historically marginalized person, and knowing the history of that marginalization—knowledge is power—it is possible to want only to live in a very narrow space, culturally, civically. This is what Barack Obama meant the other day when he said democrats need to be wary of creating a circular firing squad. I worry about that, that we’re living in a moment of extreme identify victimhood. America is very good at victimization. This is how Trump won the presidency.
DORHOLT: And, potentially, if you have seventeen plus candidates running for nomination in the democratic party, all the different ways in which each of them highlights one form of victimization over another, then you have this roster of accomplices, or false accomplices, that can skew or encourage the issues.
KUUSISTO: You know, we’re also in a moment where it’s unfashionable to imagine the other. You’re complicit with the other if you try to engage with them. There’s this kind of litmus of purity, which is tied to a sense of woundedness and victimization, and that’s become a huge cultural problem. In the days of union halls, people from every background gathered and engaged with each other for progressive ideals. Now we’re actually hearing, “is Kamala Harris black enough; is Cory Booker an Uncle Tom, because he wants to engage in real politic and negotiate with people; Pete Buttigieg, who I think is pretty terrific, says he wants to actually engage with the republicans and understand them and people say he’s not queer enough … you see this stuff on social media and you think, my god, just stop it.
DORHOLT: Yes. For each of the candidates, you can line them up and there’s already been an “are they too ____” across the board, whereas as the other side it’s “they are already too much” so what are they also not?
KUUSISTO: Obama was right when he said this over the weekend, that’s the big nightmare.
DORHOLT: I wonder if and when and how he will speak more directly to and for the current contenders.
KUUSISTO: I think Pete’s going to win. I think he’s the Obama of the moment. I think he’s going to come riding out of the mist. I will not be surprised; I see the aura around him. And if that happens it’s probably the best thing that will happen because he’s the most pragmatic. We still got to win back 15% of the republicans who voted for Trump. He’s the guy most likely to do it. He was in the navy—“he was in the Navy so he must be a capitalistic rat” but no, poor people go in the navy! He explains in his memoir that he went in because he felt guilty, because he was at Harvard and all these poor people he knew from high school were going into the armed forces and he was privileged, and he said I can’t let that happen. I admire that. I don’t know that I would’ve done it.
DORHOLT: It’s a different kind of guilt to act on. It’s a public guilt, publicized by his action.
KUUSISTO: He writes in his memoir that privileged people never go into the armed forces, and I found that interesting. If you like baseball, you know that the greatest hitter of all time was Ted Williams for the Boston Red Sox. He twice served in the armed forces, as a pilot in WWII and in the Korean War, and people say that about Ted Williams—he lost five years of his baseball career and might’ve surpassed Babe Ruth in the home run department—but the point is, Williams didn’t want to go in the military. He was privileged. He did not want to do it and he took a beating in the press during WWII for not doing it so he joined up, reluctantly, and then he got drafted into the Korean War and he couldn’t get out of it. Privilege in America tends to be, especially since we abolished the draft, the cut off, so I admire that about Buttigieg. In his memoir he talks about this. He looked up the statistics—only 6% of Harvard students have joined the military since the end of Vietnam; 7% at Princeton; he just goes down the line. That has everything to do with the fact that there’s no drafts and you can let the poor people do that.
DORHOLT: I remember growing up and the fear was in the air. My parents are of the Vietnam generation and I remember the first time some kind of military recruiter coming to the door and my mom saying some version of “you get the hell out of here,” and I could see in that moment that, although it was different and we couldn’t be actively drafted, that we could still be recruited into a place that held a sense of violence, and then in my first year of college the U.S. invaded Iraq.
KUUSISTO: It’s that “don’t you want to be a man” thing.
DORHOLT: Indeed. So I’d like to touch on poetry again by speaking about your first book, Only Bread, Only Light. It’s an incredible book. Poems like “Elegy for Ted Berrigan” are so moving and astute. And you end the book with a smashing stanza. I’m wondering if we can hear the last poem in the book, “Night Seasons.”
Kuusisto reads “Night Seasons”
DORHOLT: Do you recall writing that one, where you were?
KUUSISTO: Yes. I was in Westchester Country, outside of NYC. I was just pulling books off the shelf and putting them on this flatbed scanner and letting it scan them and read them, and realizing, of course, as we were saying earlier, that fragments are fascinating.
DORHOLT: Did it scan it fast?
KUUSISTO: Nowadays it’s instantaneous, but back in those days it was slow, and you had to wait while it thought about what it was doing. Here, I’ll read you a poem I wrote this morning. I had a friend, a Finnish poet, who died, and we spent time together in Helsinki and I translated some of his poems, and I got to thinking about him this morning. It’s about being a young poet, you remember that?
DORHOLT: Oh yes. You’ll take anything. Anyone who says the word poem or for whom it’s a part of their make-up, gets you working.
KUUSISTO: There’s a kind of sassy irreverence to it. So this is called “Dear Jarkko.”
Kuusisto reads from “Dear Jarkko”
KUUSISTO: I think that’s the other thing, we never want to abandon the irreverent fun, the subversiveness of poetry.
DORHOLT: We have to be reminded to get back to that. I’m glad you bring back what it’s like to be young, to be a poet. It also makes me think of what might be my last question, and that’s what it’s like to unearth something and also what it’s like to tell a story. You talk about this in a few different ways, the importance of storytelling, about the story meaning something more to you than just something being told. How does the word story play out in your thinking and your teaching.
KUUSISTO: You know, in Eavesdropping there’s a section where I go into the woods and I sit all day under a tree and I listen to the birds, and the birds are fighting and carrying on and singing and engaging and there are different kinds of birds. There are walking birds and there are flying birds, and I spend all this time thinking about them, letting them come to me, simply by being in nature, feeling the flow, the electrolysis, the electricity of what is real, which is nature. I’m just trying to let that wash through. Yes, that’s part of listening, but it’s part of an understanding that nature is poetry. No one is better at that than Gary Snyder—Mary Oliver, Robert Bly, they’ve all been very instrumental in reminding us that in nature one finds what the 16th century German Mystic Jakob Böhme talked about, that there’s that electricity of the divine flowing through everything. It’s an atomistic idea. Jung would say that the carbon in our brains is completely the same as the carbon outside your house in the tree, and so to understand that as a way and means of thinking about nature and its relationship to your own imagination is important. So I think about that dynamic in storytelling a lot.
I’ll read one more poem here. This is an example of how, in paying attention, nature turns you to the discovery in the ordinary. It’s a throwaway title but this is called “I Believe Impossible Things.”
Kuusisto reads from “I Believe Impossible Things”
KUUSISTO: So that’s a you’re-just-out-walking-and-you-see-a-thing, but like you said, you do a little research and you discover that this weird mushroom that circles the bottoms of birch trees was believed by Saxon warriors that if you crushed it up and used it in your shields you’d never get hit. This is why I like The Oxford Book of Superstitions so much.
DORHOLT: It’s like when you talk about in Eavesdropping … well, first of all, it’s so magical that you saw Buena Vista Social Club in Reykjavik.
KUUSISTO: I don’t even need a bucket list.
DORHOLT: It’s like you’ve cleared off everyone else’s bucket lists.
KUUSISTO: That’s the highest praise you can give a writer, that’s great. You know, I heard about it, I heard that the Buena Vista Social Club was playing in Reykjavik and I thought, damn, there’s an immersion journalism story.
DORHOLT: That’s all you need.
KUUSISTO: It’s all you need. And the place is so weird. Iceland is really weird. I mean, you get out of the airport and you really do expect to see Leonard Nimoy walking across the lava. It’s all lava. It’s just black lava, rocks, and steams. There’s no trees. There must be three trees in all of Iceland.
DORHOLT: Are there places you want to get back to, or places that are a “yes, I need to get there?”
KUUSISTO: Well, there’s two kinds of trips. One is eccentric and you have no idea what’s going to happen—I’m going to Kazakhstan in a few weeks. I was in Uzbekistan a few years ago. I’m interested in Central Asia and it’s a place westerners don’t generally go; I’m going with a group of writers and it will be interesting. Of the places I’ve been that I would like to return to? Obviously I’m really fond of the Finnish woods and I’ve got this idea of renting a cabin for a month, by a lake, with a sauna, and just enjoying that. My wife would really like to go to Costa Rica. But I don’t have any of these places I really want to go to.
DORHOLT: I just want to go eight miles east of here, wherever that is.
KUUSISTO: Have you gone kayaking on Green Lakes, or just walked around it?
DORHOLT: You know, I got these nice ice running shoes this past winter and I’d go there when it snowed heavily. I liked emerging in these thick flakes, geese gathering and refusing to leave, flocking through the white, and I wouldn’t see many people. It’s an appropriate kind of loss. You don’t understand what’s ahead of you. And the terrain—snow above ice so every little leap is treacherous. I think it brings me back to where I grew up and maybe to what I think about the part of Norway my ancestors are from, which I haven’t been to.
But here’s one more question. As a writer and scholar and teacher, and having had influences along the way, how does your work in editing and reading the work of others inform your work?
KUUSISTO: There was a Finnish poet named Pentti Saarikoski, who was a good friend of Anselm Hollo’s, and he wrote voluminously in notebook form, and then I got interested in the notebook and Deborah Tall and I did this book with W.W. Norton, an anthology of notebooks. I love the vitality of the notebook, the way in which something tossed down—almost like Pollock throwing paint—just reverberates and shimmers. That the poet is liberated from too much discursive and yet obliterating thinking, that there’s that sort of directed energy. That’s what I love about the New York poets. At the same time, when you’re editing something, when you’re reading poems or essays that come over the transom—remember when doors had transoms?—you need to put aside your own awed, pre-calculated discernment or prejudices and really open yourself up, and that’s the thing I like about editing. You see things that you wouldn’t write but you recognize in them a kind of wonder and strangeness and peculiarity that is particular to that person’s voice, so you get to hear all these different voices. And of course, as you doubtless know, you see things that you can’t possibly publish because they’re not there yet. But then these surprising things happen, things arrive. I guess it’s a funny thing—in my own life, I see poets who are my age, or maybe older, who have built their careers around a very strict sense of what they think poetry is, whether they’re in some sense formalists or they have an engagement in the old Black Mountain School or whatever, they tend toward a sameness of engagement, as though they’ve found their baseball team, and for me, having studied high Modernist Finnish poetry, and having loved poetry from Central and South America, and Japanese Zen, and Adrienne Rich, who taught me a lot—not as a friend—about the dynamic sudden wonder of simply powerfully being who you are and making that happen in poetry. All those things matter to me, so I’m interested in an awfully wide range of poetry. Even when I was in the Writer’s Workshop as a guy in his mid-20’s Donald Justice said to me, “you have a quite a bookshelf,” and of course I could never figure out if he meant that as praise or damnation, but it’s true. I’m interested from everyone from Rimbaud to Rexroth to Adrienne Rich and back again.
DORHOLT: And those are just the R’s.
KUUSISTO: Those are just the R’s. People talk endlessly about the importance of Pound and Eliot and Stevens. But you’re missing out because the greatest poet in the English language in the 20th century was Langston Hughes, absolutely. It’s that Catholic with a small c. That’s what makes editing fun. Stuff comes your way.
DORHOLT: Should I leave the recorder on now, in case you want to interview yourself?
KUUSISTO: “Never put your finger in the kitchen bottle, mother said, it’ll get stuck and we’ll have to call the fire department!” No, I don’t want to do that, though it is the case, and my wife would say it if she wasn’t upstairs doing our taxes, the truth is that I’m never bored. I’m happy about that. I like that. I like the imagination. Wallace Stevens says “the world is ugly and the people are sad” and you want to say, shut up, Wally, there’s more going on than that.
DORHOLT: You talk about Yeats, and Yeats being perhaps a little too married to language. And you talk about Bly and his translations being amazing.
KUUSISTO: Well I come from that generation of poets for whom the discovery of Neruda and Vallejo and Juan Ramon Jimenez came through Robert Bly and James Wright, from their magazine The 50’s and The 60’s and that was a remarkable and stunning discovery. By the late 60’s, an enormous number of American poets who would publish regularly in that little magazine Kayak—the ones coming up after Bly and Wright would be Simic and James Tate and Bill Knott and others—embraced that sense of the surprising free association of the surreal and dada image, and it was a poetry that was so fresh and so strange and so vital. The idea that the subconscious is a wealth of not only surprise but disclosure, and the embrace of intuition, all of that was really remarkable to a lot of younger poets. I still think Robert Bly’s Silence in the Snowy Fields is the most important book of American poetry since 1960. There are other people I think are really important, but that book just did something that nobody had done. Silence in the Snowy Fields is a stunning book. Even some of the later Bly poems are remarkable. Bringing world poetry into the United States—which was a very provincial place—Bly did that, and then he turned on a whole generation of younger poets to look globally. That was something new, and I was lucky to discover poetry at that moment.
DORHOLT: Was that in college?
KUUSISTO: First I went to the University of New Hampshire and Charles Simic and Stephen Dobyns were there. Then I transferred to Hobart because I could go there for free, and Anselm Hollo and Jim Crenner were there. It was just a revolving door of great people coming through all the time. And Bly was one of them. I got to know him and kept up a correspondence with him. He invited me to come visit him in Moose Lake, Minnesota, and I took Jarkko Laine—the Finish poet who that elegy was for—out to visit Bly at Moose Lake. It was exciting, and also the case that Bly’s attachment for Scandinavia was interesting to me because of my own Finnish proclivities. Because of the work he had done translating others, I decided to go to Finland on a Fulbright to study how global poetry was transforming Finnish poetry, since the 60’s, so that international movement of imaginations really fascinates me.
DORHOLT: What were the correlations that you became aware of, between Finnish poetry and poetry from other countries?
KUUSISTO: Finnish poetry since 1960 tends to be lyric. It tends to be, just like we’re talking about, engaged with fragments, urgent fragments—shattered cups, seeing where things will go. Pentti Saarikoski was an incredibly important Finnish poet. He died young but he had a profound influence on Anselm. He wrote in vivid, complex ideographs and fragments that were fully informed by his own training as a classicist. He translated the Greek lyric poets and the Roman Latin poets. He also translated James Joyce’s Ulysses into Finnish. He was all about the lyric and the Modernist and, in some respects, Saarikoski is considered by scholars now to have quite possibly have been the first authentically post-modernist poet. In some respects he’s like Ezra Pound, only more humane and better and with a deeper understanding of the local. Saarikoski could write about taking a bus to go buy a bottle of wine and getting off a bus in a strange spot just to look at the mushrooms and somehow tie that to a poet from the 3rd century B.C. and then wind up leaving you thinking about a scary jet engine factory that they’re building over the next mountain and the poem it just all coheres, because of the urgency of the lyric observation, the shards. I love that, I love Kurt Schwitters picking up trash in the streets of Vienna, reassembling these things into these fabulous stained glass windows of crap. I love that.