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This poet’s guide dog helped him discover a new world

Born with a condition that left him legally blind and in a family that kept his disability hidden, it wasn’t until poet and professor Stephen Kuusisto was in his late 30s that he decided to train with a guide dog. Jeffrey Brown talks with Kuusisto about his new memoir, “Have Dog, Will Travel,” and how his life-altering connection with a four-legged companion helped him become his own advocate.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally tonight, a story about the power of man’s best friend.

    In a new memoir, poet and author Stephen Kuusisto details his life-altering connection with a guide dog.

    And, as Jeffrey Brown discovered, it was a change that affected him both as a blind man and as a writer.

    It is the latest from our NewsHour Bookshelf.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    On the campus of Syracuse University, a brisk wind and a very brisk walk.

  • Stephen Kuusisto:

    You know, most of my friends, even my wife, who’s very athletic, they can’t keep up with it.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It’s a perfect match of man and dog, 63-year-old Stephen Kuusisto, poet and professor, and Caitlyn, a 4-year-old yellow lab trained as a guide dog.

  • Stephen Kuusisto:

    University campuses in general are easier than strange cities.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Kuusisto was born with a condition that left him legally blind. He describes his vision as having Vaseline smeared on a lens.

    The author of two volumes of poetry, his new memoir, “Have Dog, Will Travel,” traces his own path, one that began as a child whose mother wanted his blindness hidden.

  • Stephen Kuusisto:

    My job was to really just live without the kinds of assistance and accommodations that I needed and to make it seem OK.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But the way you write, it at least came off as a little worse than that, as in, she made it feel shameful.

  • Stephen Kuusisto:

    She did. And you can’t emerge with a good sense of self-regard and become your own self-advocate in that kind of dynamic.

    “The kid who couldn’t see, he flew right up. His parents came. They banged on pots and pans. They hoped to get him back to earth, but they were far below, and the boy was in the sky of verities.”

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    He describes a limited, small life, a fear of anything new, including new places. It wasn’t until his late 30s, after losing a job, that he came to a realization.

  • Stephen Kuusisto:

    I’m not going to make it in the larger world unless I know how to actually navigate the larger world, and this is really a crisis.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The opening came through a New York-based training school, where Kuusisto was introduced to his first guide dog, Corky, and embarked on a weeks-long process of learning to work together.

  • Stephen Kuusisto:

    At first, I thought, well, this will be easy. You show up, they give you a smart dog, and it’s like picking up a car, and then you leave, right? That’s what I thought.

    And I didn’t realize that you learn more about dogs than you ever knew possible, one, and, two, they are building you up, the trainers, to feel not only that you can do this, but that this was the life you were always meant to have.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    As Kuusisto writes in his book, the benefits of guide dogs arose from the horrors of war, the First World War. Think of the famous John Singer Sargent painting “Gassed,” showing a line of soldiers, their eyes bandaged.

    A German doctor, Gerhard Stalling, seeing how dogs had performed under pressure on the battlefield, began training them to help blind soldiers.

    The first guide dog school in the U.S., The Seeing Eye, was started by Morris Frank in 1929. The movement transformed many lives, including Kuusisto’s.

    You describe the first time, when you were just getting Corky, your first guide dog, going into Manhattan.

  • Stephen Kuusisto:

    Right. Yes.

    It was amazing. That defied my capacity as a writer to fully explain. That feeling was so immense, to be able to go to a jazz club, hop on the subway and go see the Mets.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All things that you would not have been able to do.

  • Stephen Kuusisto:

    No. And I felt secure.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In the harness, Caitlyn is all business, but the moment it comes off at home, she’s all play.

    Look at this.

  • Stephen Kuusisto:

    Get him. Get him.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In addition to his writing and teaching, Kuusisto is also a strong advocate for disability rights, working at Syracuse’s famed Burton Blatt Institute.

  • Michael Schwatz:

    (Through interpreter) My students benefit from interacting with me. They learn to become comfortable with themselves, and comfortable with people with disabilities.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     He regularly meets with other faculty and students to discuss issues of the day.

  • Man:

    People with disabilities doesn’t mean they’re not capable of doing something.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One topic during our visit, the terminology associated with disabilities.

  • Stephen Kuusisto:

    But this is why I don’t believe in the term assistive technology. It’s not just technology for the disabled. All technology is assistive technology.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Kuusisto himself uses a computer program when he writes. A voice reads his words back to him.

    And he recognizes a clear connection between his poetry and the new world he found with guide dogs.

  • Stephen Kuusisto:

    We all know, I think, those of us who read and love poetry, that one of the things poetry does well is to chart awakenings.

    There’s that spiritual aspect to poetry that is slowing down and a coming to real clarity about something. And, as this book proceeded, as I’m writing about what Corky and I did together, right, I began to realize, this is about my opening up and becoming a larger, more courageous, open, curious, flexible, and outgoing person, a person who I didn’t know existed.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Caitlyn is Kuusisto’s fourth guide dog. In “Have Dog, Will Travel,” he writes movingly of the death of Corky, his original four-legged companion, who died at age 13 in 2005.

  • Stephen Kuusisto:

    This is one thing I’m proud of, that when she was lying there on the gurney in the vet’s office, and it was the final moment, and I was about to burst into tears, I realized this is a dog who has cared for me and been concerned for me at every turn.

    And I held her, and I sang to her our favorite little walking song. So, she died while hearing that. And then I fell apart.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in Syracuse, New York.

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