Born March, 1955, in Exeter, NH; married; wife's name Connie. Education: Hobart College, B.A. (cum laude), 1977; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 1980. Addresses: Home: Syracuse, NY. Agent: Irene Skolnick Literary Agency, 22 W. 23rd St., New York, NY 10010.
Writer and educator. Hobart College, Geneva, NY, adjunct assistant professor and assistant dean, 1985-93; Guiding Eyes for the Blind, director of student services, 1995-2000; Ohio State University, Columbus, assistant professor; Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, director of Renee Crown University Honors Program, university professor of disability studies. Has also taught at the University of Iowa. Cofounder, with wife, Connie, of Kaleidoscope Connections foundation.
Fellowship, Fulbright Foundation, 1982; fellowship, Blue Mountain Center for the Arts, 1991, 1993, 1997, 1998; Distinguished Teaching Award, Hobart & William Smith Colleges, 1992; fellowship, MacDowell Colony, 1993, 1995, 1997; fellowship, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, 1995; fellowship, Villa Montalvo Center for the Arts, 1995; Books for a Better Life Award, Multiple Sclerosis Society of America, 1999; poetry fellowship, Ohio Arts Council, 2002.
- (Editor, with Deborah Tall and David Weiss) Taking Note: From Poets' Notebooks, Hobart and William Smith Colleges Press (Geneva, NY), 1991.
- (Editor, with Deborah Tall and David Weiss) The Poet's Notebook: Excerpts from the Notebooks of Contemporary American Poets, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1995.
- Planet of the Blind (memoir), Dial Press (New York, NY), 1998.
- Only Bread, Only Light: Poems, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 2000.
- Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening (memoir), W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2006.
- Do Not Interrupt: A Playful Take on the Art of Conversation, Sterling (New York, NY), 2010.
- Letters to Borges (prose poems), Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 2013.
- Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet's Journey with an Exceptional Labrador, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2018.
Seneca Review, contributing editor; contributor to literary journals and other periodicals, including Harper's, Poetry, Partisan Review, and theNew York Times Magazine.
Stephen Kuusisto and his twin brother were born three months premature, and his brother did not survive. Kuusisto was placed in an incubator where, as was often the case at the time, he was overly oxygenated. He developed retinopathy (scarred retinas), nystagmus (darting eyes), and strabismus (crossed eyes) as a result. His parents enrolled him in public school rather than in a school structured to accommodate his disability. As Deirdre Donahue noted in USA Today, "His parents' inability to accept that their son really couldn't see was both a blessing and a curse. His father, the president of two colleges in upstate New York, simply never spoke about his son's disability. His mother kept him out of special schools because she didn't want him in a place where they 'teach kids how to cane chairs.' She did not want her son to be stigmatized and offered a life of limited options and sheltered workshops."
Planet of the Blind is Kuusisto's memoir, written with the help of speech synthesizing software, in which he begins with his childhood and ends with his partnership with his seeing-eye dog, Corky. London Guardian reviewer Ian Sansom said that "every page of this extraordinary book is worth refingering and rereading. It's as if the whole thing has been rubbed with gold dust: the prose has a richness not often found in poetry, let alone in memoirs by first-time writers, let alone in memoirs by first-time writers who happen to be blind." Kuusisto writes that he pretended he could see and engaged in the activities of sighted boys, including riding his bicycle. Andrew Rosenheim commented in the Times Literary Supplement that "the real power of his book lies in its opening sections, where his victimization by school peers (countless thefts of his glasses included) and his persistent efforts to seem normal are heartbreakingly recounted." Kuusisto was able to see only slightly out of one eye, and in order to read, he held printed materials inches from his face. His teachers recognized his inability to see and helped him as much as they could, but the young boy suffered physical pain and fatigue as he tried to keep up with his classmates. He writes that "in school, the printed word scurries away from my one 'reading eye'--words in fact seem to me like insects released from a box."
Washington Post Book World critic Georgia Jones-Davis commented that "Kuusisto, a poet, relies on such images to convey his 'speck of something like seeing.' The strange brilliance of this book lies in a nearly sightless man's ability to make us see what his world is like: how a car in motion or a girl walking by becomes a wavering splash of color, surrounded by a nimbus. He navigates through this world of fibrillating shapes using memory as his radar. In new surroundings he is practically helpless yet manages to hoodwink those he associates with into thinking he can see something. He goes bird-watching with a friend and lies about the beauty of the creatures. In fact, he's never seen a bird."
Kuusisto studied English and literary theory and graduated college with honors. He taught and was a translator of Finnish poetry and learned to ski. Los Angeles Times reviewer Jonathan Levi wrote that when Kuusisto "writes of his appreciation of the paintings of Jackson Pollock or of his waking nightmares, where Evelyn Wood, the sultana of speed reading, appears before him in a turban, promising sugarplums of Proust at sixty pages per minute, Kuusisto shows flashes of true voice and spirit." His frustration with his limitations exacted a toll, however. Before he took control of his life, he overate, then became anorexic and depressed.
At the end of his memoir, Kuusisto writes of the impact made on his life when he decided to acquire his guide dog, Corky, which became necessary when the author was nearly forty. Rosenheim noted that "the final pages of Planet of the Blind describe the difficult early stages of their life together. Even if you don't like dogs, it's enough to make you weep, and make you think. If Kuusisto learns one thing from Corky, it's that just as seeing has to be learned, so too does blindness." Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times that Kuusisto "is a powerful writer with a musical ear for language and a gift for emotional candor. He has written a book that makes the reader understand the terrifying experience of blindness and that stands on its own as the lyrical memoir of a poet."
Kuusisto followed his memoir with a collection of poems titled Only Bread, Only Light: Poems. Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman wrote that his meditations "remind readers that vision takes many forms, and that feelings of being lost and alone are intrinsic to human nature." Library Journal contributor Graham Christian noted that Kuusisto's "lyricism and humor are so exuberant and strong that they explain our world as well as they explain his."
Since completing Only Bread, Only Light, Kuusisto has authored Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and Do Not Interrupt: A Playful Take on the Art of Conversation. In his second volume of poetry, Letters to Borges, Kuusisto offers a series of poems and prose poems that explore sight through language. Many of these poems, as the title suggests, are literally addressed to Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges, who lost his sight when he was middle-aged. Kuusisto directly addresses Borges's surreal topics and language, indicating that sight is an anchor to reality, and that without that anchor, reality becomes increasingly tenuous and suspect. Kuusisto pens an elegy to Ray Charles, offers songs, folk dances, and letters, and even a fake book review. But ultimately, the author returns to the nature of reality and its perception, of what is seen and what is felt. The result is "a book with wide appeal to many readers," Karla Huston commented in her Library Journal review. Diego Baez, writing in Booklist, was also impressed by Letters to Borges, asserting: "If we account for Kuusisto's restricted sight, the brilliance of his verse acquires deeper resonance." Furthermore, Baez went on to call Kuusisto a "truly gifted poet."
Kuusisto recalls his relationship with Corky, the first guide dog he had, in Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet's Journey with an Exceptional Labrador. He describes the first time he met Corky, noting that she was instantly excited to see him. The two quickly formed a strong bond. Kuusisto was initially unsure of the impact a guide dog would have in his life, but he was surprised to discover the large difference made by having Corky. She gave him confidence that he had lacked and allowed him to become more mobile. In fact, Kuusisto and Corky went on to travel the United States together to help people understand the importance of guide dogs. Kuusisto discusses the reactions people had to Corky. She was popular among adults and children alike. He tells of a particular incident in which a group of veterans from the Korean War were touched when they encountered Kuusisto and Corky at a barbershop.
Critics offered favorable assessments of Have Dog, Will Travel. A contributor to the online version of Kirkus Reviews suggested: "Kuusisto tells the poignant story of a midlife rebirth that led to self-acceptance and also celebrates human/animal interdependence." The same contributor described the book as "an eloquent and heartwarming memoir." A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that the volume offered "insight into not only his experience with blindness, but also the unshakable bond between a guide dog and its owner."
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Kuusisto, Stephen, Planet of the Blind, Dial Books (New York, NY), 1998.
Kuusisto, Stephen, Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2006.
Bloomsbury Review, September-October, 1996, Jamie Miller, review of The Poet's Notebook: Excerpts from the Notebooks of Contemporary American Poets, p. 11.
Booklist, November 15, 1997, Donna Seaman, review of Planet of the Blind, p. 527; September 15, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of Only Bread, Only Light: Poems, p. 205; September 1, 2006, Donna Seaman, review of Eavesdropping, p. 38; February 1, 2013, Diego Baez, review of Letters to Borges, p. 12.
Guardian (London, England), February 5, 1998, Ian Sansom, review of Planet of the Blind, p. T12.
Harper's, August, 1996, excerpt from Planet of the Blind, p. 27.
Library Journal, November 15, 1997, Ximena Chrisagis, review of Planet of the Blind, p. 62; December, 2000, Graham Christian, review of Only Bread, Only Light, p. 145; October 1, 2006, Audrey Snowden, review of Eavesdropping, p. 71; March 1, 2013, Karla Huston, review of Letters to Borges, p. 78.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 26, 1998, Jonathan Levi, review of Planet of the Blind, p. 4.
New Yorker, February 2, 1998, review of Planet of the Blind, p. 78.
New York Times, December 23, 1997, Michiko Kakutani, review of Planet of the Blind, p. E6.
New York Times Book Review, February 15, 1998, Bruce Weber, review of Planet of the Blind, p. 24; October 8, 2006, Rachel Cohen, review of Eavesdropping, p. 31.
Publishers Weekly, October 20, 1997, review of Planet of the Blind, p. 59; August 7, 2006, review of Eavesdropping, p. 48; November 6, 2017, review of Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet's Journey with an Exceptional Labrador, p. 69.
School Library Journal, May, 1998, Pat Bangs, review of Planet of the Blind, p. 177.
Spectator (London, England), February 28, 1998, Sargy Mann, review of Planet of the Blind, p. 27.
Times Literary Supplement, January 22, 1999, Andrew Rosenheim, review of Planet of the Blind, p. 30.
USA Today, February 23, 1998, Deirdre Donahue, review of Planet of the Blind, p. D9.
Washington Post Book World, March 29, 1998, Georgia Jones-Davis, review of Planet of the Blind, p. 4.
Kirkus Reviews Online, https://www.kirkusreviews.com/ (December 15, 2017), review of Have Dog, Will Travel.
Pacific University Oregon Website, https://www.pacificu.edu/ (April 3, 2018), author profile.
Poetry Foundation Website, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/ (April 3, 2018), author profile.
Renee Crown University, Honors Program Website, http://honors.syr.edu/ (October 8, 2013), author profile.
Stephen Kuusisto Website, http://www.stephenkuusisto.com (April 3, 2018).
Syracuse, https://sumagazine.syr.edu/ (May 3, 2018), Kathleen Haley, author interview.*