Michael Hettich interviews
MH: First of all, it’s a pleasure to finally “meet” you—so to speak—after years of reading your poetry and prose. I know we went to the same college, Hobart, where your father served as President, and I know we’re about the same age (you’re a few years younger). I also know we studied poetry with the same professors there, including James Crenner and Anselm Hollo. Despite these things, we’ve never met in person, and in fact I’m not even sure you were at Hobart when I was, which was between 1971-1975. To get us started, could you talk briefly about your experience at Hobart, the years you attended and the professors you studied with. And then maybe talk a bit about your time in Iowa City, and your MFA work there.
SK: I transferred to Hobart and William Smith Colleges in the summer of 1974 after a year as a freshman at the University of New Hampshire. At UNH I’d studied with the poet Stephen Dobyns and I was fully alive to studying writing. But I found the ice hockey fueled destruction of my undergrad classmates to be rather ghastly and I decided to high tail it out of town. Because my father was President of HWS transferring was relatively easy and cheap. I knew the poet James Crenner from my years in high school in Geneva—he’d graciously read my fledgling poems which were quite awful and showed me how to twist them like balloon animals into a different shape. So when I came to Geneva in the fall of 1974 I immediately signed up for a course with Crenner and also a very tough course on 19th century American literature with Professor John Lydenberg. Much to my surprise and delight no one bothered me about being related to the Prez. Those were great years for poetry on campus as we had a range of faculty and a fabulous array of visiting poets. Ted Berrigan, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Bly, James Tate, Charles Simic, Bill Knott. Nowadays one sees how white and male the poets were but it was still a heady time to be introduced to poetry.
MH: You’ve written three books of poetry and three memoirs (correct me if I have these numbers wrong). How did you begin as a writer, and what were your aspirations then?
SK: The beginning for me was tied to my blindness and attendant depression. I was hospitalized for severe anorexia in 1972. I was given the gift of Kenneth Rexroth’s poems. To this day his One Hundred Poems from the Chinese occupies an important place, both in my imagination and on my bookshelf. Rexroth’s Complete Poems (available from Copper Canyon Press) is a must read for anyone who cares about American poetry and intellectual independence. Anyway Rexroth was my gateway poet.
MH: Anyone who knows your work even slightly knows that your blindness is one of the central facts of your life and one of the defining subjects of your writing. I will have more to ask about this as our conversation develops, but for now I’m interested in learning the extent to which your blindness influenced or coincided with your need to write. Here I’m interested specifically in hearing about the relationship(s) between your blindness and your turn to poetry in particular.
SK: In 1961 my mother Evelyn built a bomb shelter under our family’s small house in Durham, New Hampshire. She was a year ahead of the “Cuban Missile Crisis” and neighbors made fun of her but she didn’t care. She didn’t give a damn about easy opinions. Anyway she filled it with canned goods and jars of water. One afternoon I went in there after being abused by a neighbor kid who flat out hated me because the world gave him permission—who after all wanted a blind child next door? And so it was the bomb shelter for me. I lay on cool cement and whispered stories to no one. That’s how storying unfolded, talking in the dark, breathing the odor of Army blankets. Who loves you, who doesn’t, where’s a lucky window, how high the sun, my lips moving. To this day I talk to myself. My wife sees me, says, “What are you saying?” I shrug. How can I say? I’m reciting fragments the way some skip pebbles. It might be someone else’s words. Maybe Ezra Pound: “And the days are not full enough/And the nights are not full enough/And life slips by like a field mouse/Not shaking the grass”… Or sometimes it’s just me: “Trace the veins of a barberry leaf, that’s Braille enough…” Talking in sidelong darknesses of broken manners, when the day is insufficient, the minutes not feeding me… Up river go the words, the lonely words. Oh anything will do. Kropotkin I love you. I have excellent hands. How the kings of France loved tennis.
Poetry began for me in solitude enforced by what we nowadays call “ableism” and I found my ways and means of turning blind life into art in college and then graduate school at Iowa.
MH: In commenting on your memoir Planet of the Blind, a reviewer for The Sunday Times (London) said, “His poetry has given him extra sight.” In what ways has this been so?
SK: That's a lovely trope of course and one wants to adopt it but the only talent I have is my ability to listen carefully and a strong facility for expressive lingo. I'm certainly no Tireisias.
MH: Did you have any particular mentors initially and/or as you began developing as a writer?
Well, Jim Crenner of course, who founded the journal , but also and oddly enough, Robert Bly who befriended me while I was still a college student and who corresponded with me, invited me to his house, and generally encouraged me. One of Bly’s influences was to be brave about the poetry thing—go to Finland, be lonely, write in the darkness, don’t imagine the university will be your friend. I did go to Iowa for grad school and then I hightailed it for Helsinki, Lapland, provincial places where one could think. The poet Marvin Bell was also very important to me as he saw poetry writing as a kind of philosophical play and helped me see that the mind is as central to poetry as imagery or stresses.
MH: The Finnish/American poet and translator Anselm Hollo was my first true mentor in poetry, and I know you knew him as well—probably better than I did. He was an incredibly vivid figure. Can you talk briefly about your relationship with him and any influence you think he might have had on your poetry?
SK: When I went to Hobart I was too shy to talk to Anselm. He seemed worldly and I was living in the mind like a hermit crab in someone else’s shell. So I went to every event he sponsored, sat in back of the room and absorbed. When he brought Ted Berrigian to campus I was absolutely thrilled. Those were the days when American poets thought of poetry as being divided between the “cooked” (academic and formal poets) vs. “the raw” (Black Mountain, the beats, Charles Olson etc.) Perhaps it was my disabled childhood, you know, not fitting in, but I didn’t aspire to be a member of either group. I loved Berrigan and Anthony Hecht. Anselm was especially important for me because he had translated Paavvo Haavikko into English and also some early poems by Pentti Saarikoski. This led me to ultimately go to Finland to read and translate Finnish poetry.
MH: Could you talk briefly about your connection to Finland and to Finnish poetry? You have translated quite extensively from the Finnish, too. Discuss, please.
SK: I haven’t translated as much Finnish poetry as I should. I think about it and then something seizes me from the life before me. What I love about the Finnish sensibility is its stoic quirkiness…here’s a little poem by Niilo Rauhala:
when you open the book of life
if I hear my name
do I get to go look at it?”
translated from the Finnish by SK
And here’s Haavikko as translated by Anselm Hollo:
This poem wants to be a description,
And I want poems to have
Only the faintest of tastes.
Myself I see as a creature, hopeful
As the grass.
These lines are almost improbable,
This is a journey through familiar speech
Towards the region that is no place,
This poem has to be sung, standing up,
Or read without voice, alone.
When I say the Finns have a quirky stoicism I’m alluding in part to the collective intelligence of a very old provincial culture. I once met a successful banker in Helsinki who revealed he had a special rock in the woods that he visited several times a year. In Finland everyone has his or her own private hunting lodge. “The region that is no place” is everyplace. The thing is, this may or may not be spoken aloud. Finnish people are notoriously quiet, especially with foreigners. This is changing somewhat owing to globalization and in my view it’s a good thing. Younger people in Finland are more open to the world than their parents or grandparents. But it’s a land of sharpened and guarded introspections. I remember when the American poet Robert Creeley decided to go to Finland on a Fulbright. He thought he would discover a whole country of outgoing talkative Finns who would be like Anselm Hollo. Instead he found a dark, cold, efficient nation that didn’t want to know him. Even with Anselm’s help, Paavvo Havvikko wouldn’t meet with Creeley. Imagine! A great poet visits your country and wants to meet you and you won’t bother! Creeley was hurt. When I read this I just nodded to myself. I’d been a Fulbrighter in Finland a few years before Creeley and found that, in general terms, one was on his own. As I say, that’s changing. But the line above, “read without voice, alone” is a very Finnish trope to be sure.
MH: Please discuss your practice as a writer. Do you write every day? I know you direct the Burton Blatt Institute’s Programs in Disability at Syracuse and that you also hold a University Professorship there. Given these significant responsibilities, how—and when—do you find time to write?
SK: I do write every day. Long ago I learned that if I don’t attack the keyboard daily I will drift and maybe even stop. So I wake early and drink a cup of strong coffee and get right to it. I often do my best writing early in the morning. I can of course write at other times but I prefer the freshness of mornings. But I’ve also learned to write in airports, hotels, on trains, and even in the middle of boring meetings. The invention of noise cancelling headphones is a blessing. I think I got the write in the early morning idea from William Stafford who always extolled this method.
MH: I see an interesting growth in the music of your poetry from your fist book, Only Bread, Only Light, to your second, Letters to Borges. In the second book, your lines feel more relaxed—in general—and I hear a greater modulation of cadence, more variation in line breaks, and in general a more various music. Do you see this? Was it intentional or simply the result of a natural evolution?
SK: So what I think (which could be quite wrong of course) is that after writing two “lyric memoirs” I found a way to relax my lines in verse. It’s also the case that the poems in are often addressed to Borges’ ghost and are intentionally informal, like talking to an old friend. The incitement for the Borges poems came from seeing him at Cornell University in the early 1980’s. It became clear to me that Borges had never been taught the art of independent traveling and that as a blind person he had to be accompanied by a sighted companion at all times. This struck me as sad since traveling solo when blind is, in fact, not only possible but thrilling. So the poems in the collection work off of that—often written from strange places where happenstance and serendipity inform what’s happening to me. Although they’re not quite epistolary poems in the classic sense that’s the notional idea behind them.
MH: Finally (for now): Robert Bly is an obvious influence, though the particulars of that influence are covert (I think). Hugo, too, certainly in your second book. And Merwin. These all feel like “shadow” influences, to me, real though hard to define. I also see Donald Justice, also shadowy but a presence. All men of our fathers’ generation, a great generation in American poetry. Among younger writers, Ted Berrigan also pops up from time to time, though I see no influence there—except perhaps in the vividness of his personality. Talk about these figures, and about any other contemporary or near-contemporary poets who may have influenced you.
SK: It’s interesting when one thinks about influences—as you say, some are overt and others more shadowy. I studied with Donald Justice and while I admire many of his poems I found him to be a flinty and ungenerous teacher in the classroom. By the time I got to Iowa, Don had been teaching for a long time. He’d developed that habit that long-time teachers—perhaps all of us—tend to arrive at where we imagine things were better in the past. Don thought Cole Porter was great and the Beatles were junk and accordingly he’d lost enthusiasm for young people. At Iowa the poet with the most curiosity about students was Marvin Bell, who I remained close to until his death a few short months ago. Marvin knew how to talk, listen, play with the intellect both on and off the page. So he didn’t care about generation gaps. I admire his poems greatly and though I don’t write as he did, I tend to read a lot of philosophy as he did. Ted Berrigan’s insouciance (along with Anselm’s) matters a lot; depth psychology and Jung’s work mean a good deal to me. I prefer Robert Bly’s early work— and to his middle period. However his last two books of poems were rather extraordinary. The “men’s movement” stuff is mostly goofy though I think Robert was trying to help men whose fathers had abandoned them feel something nurturing which isn’t a bad thing. Today the term “toxic masculinity” is better understood. But I have other overt influences—Adrienne helped me figure out how to be bold about disability; Audre Lorde’s book was also incredibly important to me and, though I never know either of them personally, I’ve spent years reading and re-reading their work. I like culture worker poets. I think one large influence on my work has been the Finnish poet Pentti Saarikoski, who was a polymath political outsider in Finland, daring to be a loud Communist in a country that had fought three brutal wars against the Russians. He distrusted capitalism’s capacity to winnow the souls of people, what today we call the commodified person. He smelled neo-liberalism coming. This takes me back to Rexroth who wrote: “Since all society is organized in the interest of exploiting classes and since if men knew this they would cease to work and society would fall apart, it has always been necessary, at least since the urban revolutions, for societies to be governed ideologically by a system of fraud.” I like the poets who can ruin a dinner party.
I envy Pentti Saarikoski his early education, reading all that Greek while snow fell in the Helsinki darkness. It’s provincial culture and the adaptable intelligences I love. Saarikoski could mix ancient poetry with contemporary thinking almost effortlessly and line by line. Here’s an example:
I make the kind of observations a depressed person makes
the boat's been left over there
to rot on the beach
now that the man who used to row it
This isn't an American sensibility. The American poet would tidy this up by introducing some extra lines about how the vanished dead man used to know his grandmother. Saarikoski shoves the reader straight into the river Styx. That's his Greek influence. He translated the Iliad and Odyssey into Finnish.
Saarikoski knew Anselm as they were both young poets in Helsinki in the late 1950’s. Anselm’s father was a well-known scholar—a philosopher—and both loved foreign writers and languages. Both went to London and did translation work for the BBC.
By the mid-sixties Anselm had emigrated to the US for good and adopted English as his writing language. Later the Romanian poet Andrei Codrescu did the same thing. American English can be freeing when used the right way.
Pentti Saarikoski became a serious alcoholic and died by the time he was in his early forties.
I didn't know Anselm in person but only via frequent correspondence.
MH: In reading all your poems, I’m consistently impressed by your ability to make images that, paraphrasing Donald Hall, “say the unsayable.” Focusing now on your first book of poems, Only Bread, Only Light, I’d like to hear what you have to say about the following poems and their images:
When I walked in the yard
I made my way among patches of dew—
Those constellations on the darkened grass.
The webs drifted like anemones,
And I thought of lifting them
As if they were skeins of brilliant yarn
That I could give to my mother
Who’d keep them
Until we knew what to make.
I pictured a shirt—
How I’d pull it over my head
And vanish in the sudden light.
I love this poem for its almost “metaphysical” use of image-into-metaphor. It’s beautifully realized and complete.
Or the images in this passage, from a bit later in the book:
The old love seeps
Like pond water
In your shoes,
And the field is bracken
Who loves you, who doesn’t:
Each curls like burning paper
And blooms upward
In the winter dusk…
or these, from “Ode to Ogden Nash”:
It’s the middle of the sweating night
And what good does it do to know
That the light in every shadow
Is the shadow?
I’d like to hear what you might have to say about these poems and images in particular, but I also wonder the extent to which the so-called “Deep Image” poets feel like an influence to you here. Specifically I hear some of James Wright in these lines.
SK: This is interesting. As a young poet starting out in the early 1970’s I was reading lots of poetry by James Wright, Robert Bly, W.S. Merwin, Charles Simic and so forth. I particularly loved the Spanish poets—Lorca especially. I read and re-read Bly’s early essay “A Wrong Turning in American Poetry” where he argued that poetry should evoke the unconscious with images that are either overtly or vaguely irrational. I didn’t know at the time that he was picking up the mantle of the Dadaists who, after WW I felt that the rational mind was the cause of war. What I did know was that the unsettling images of surreal techniques were surprising and much more interesting that photo realism. As I grew older I began to feel that the urgencies and astonishments of the “deep image” school weren’t enough for me. Or to put it another way, because I couldn’t see beyond the most minimal way it would be better for me to aim for surprise but also verisimilitude if such a thing could be done. In my first memoir Planet to the Blind, I describe Grand Central Station this way:
“I’ve entered Grand Central Station with guide dog Corky, my yellow Labrador. We stand uncertain, man and dog collecting our wits while thousands of five o’clock commuters jostle around us. Beside them, Corky and I are in slow motion, like two sea lions. We’ve suddenly found ourselves in the ocean, and here in this railway terminal, where pickpockets and knife artists roam the crowds, we’re moving in a different tempo. There is something about us, the perfect poise of the dog, the uprightness of the man, I don’t know, a spirit maybe, fresh as the gibbous moon, the moon we’ve waited for, the one with the new light.”
So you see the aim is to be oddly realistic about the matter. This is my railway station. The one a blind guy experiences. One who’s been a student of the image, who wants you to see how extraordinary the ordinary is—which is what poetry should strive to do. The passage above continues:
“This blindness of mine still allows me to see colors and shapes that seem windblown; the great terminal is supremely lovely in its swaying hemlock darknesses and sudden pools of rose-colored electric light. We don’t know where we are, and though the world is dangerous, it’s also haunting in its beauty. Even to a lost man with a speck of something like seeing, this minute here, just standing, taking in the air as a living circus, this is what tears of joy are for.
A railway employee has offered to guide me to my train. I hold his elbow gently, Corky heeling beside us, and we descend through the tunnels under the building. I’ve decided to trust a stranger.
Welcome to the planet of the blind.”
I learned how to surpass the easy trickery of the sixties “deep image” school—“a pirate ship plows through a field of flowers” (Bly, as I recall his line). Blind advantage is being able to say swaying hemlock darknesses and sudden pools of rose-colored electric light.”
This is surrealism as confession. In the poems above the images are anchored to the mid-ocean experience of seeing and not seeing; the heart leap and sense of fragility that comes with every feeling. I should add that Auden and Yeats have been of equal importance to me as there’s an almost holy attention in their work toward fealty to the orphaned heart. We’re back to Lorca; under the full moon we’re terribly alone.
MH: Could you comment on the following lines, obvious in their statement but a bit disconcerting (at least for me) in their implications:
We have to choose between the wild in us
And the sober, between the painter
And the stamp collector…
I wonder at this, as it seems to me that the real goal—in life and in art—to somehow yoke those two impulses—those two ways of being--into something that can be both grounded and wild. And isn’t that on some level the true function of form? Still, I do understand what you’re getting at here. Can you elucidate?
SK: I love that you focused on these lines. I’m aiming of course to be ironic, “we have to choose” is the voice of the autocratic schoolteacher and even poets carry wisps of that bullshit around with us. By which, in those lines, I mean to say we don’t choose at all because if we’re successful we’re all of these things.
MH: Turning now to your second book of poems, Letters to Borges, I find (as I mentioned earlier) a greater variety of line lengths and cadences, and, in many cases, a different strategy of closure—that is, many of these poems feel less tightly closed, less like well-made boxes and more like echoing songs. Does that observation match your intentions; that is, were you consciously creating these new effects, or did they instead grow organically from the material?
SK: Yes you’ve hit the nail on the head. I was aiming for the fore and aft mizzen walk across the deck of a ship in each of the poems. This is a gait, a stomp, a hornpipe, a matter of getting lost in strange places and enjoying the hell out of it. It made me terribly sad after I got my first guide dog and was liberated—able to walk anywhere without anyone else; freed to go to cities I’d never visited and just wander—a sequence of thrills to be sure—as I say, it made me sad to realize that Borges never learned to travel independently as a blind person and always had to have a sighted companion to lead him around. There’s nothing wrong with this and often I like it too—I love for instance going to the art museum with a pal who can describe the paintings as she or he sees them—it’s fabulous, but it’s not the same as wandering around Galway, Ireland by yourself, drawn by sounds, by the laughter of passersby, by street music, by the smell of cooking, discovering a stray donkey outside a pub—these things are aleatoric and lovely and Borges never knew them. Getting lost in odd places is wonderful for an artist. And the people you meet, well, you’re not dependent on them as Borges was. I wanted to write tender but firm poems to the ghost of Borges. So they’re baggy pieces even jagged in some places.
MH: Could you talk a little about your process of translation, particularly in regard to the beautiful “If You Ask,” by Risto Rasa, which contains the following lines:
And there were many horses watching
As we slipped through the wet grass,
And some flowers sparkled like match heads.
We went home with new ideas.
It was like wearing eyeglasses;
It was like sleeping
Inside a window.
I find these lines achingly beautiful, and I wonder at the linguistic dilemmas you had to wrestle with, bringing the poem into English.
SK: I’m pleased you like this one. Risto Rasa writes achingly beautiful short lyrics in Finnish. I took some of his lines, translated them, and put them into my own poem about being young and in love and of course, astonished. The poem is half Rasa half me. I used to fall in love rather hard!
MH: One more poem I’d like to hear you talk about is “Life in Wartime,” which to my ear carries echoes of early Robert Bly while making some of the strategies he employed feel new and fresh, supple and fully-controlled, in ways his work never quite achieved (to my mind, at least). The opening lines are as follows:
There are bodies that stay home and keep living.
Wisteria and Queen Anne’s lace
But women and children, too.
And countless men at gasoline stations.
Schoolteachers who resemble candles,
Boys with metabolisms geared to the future,
Musicians trying for moon effects…
SK: I was so horrified by the twin Bush wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that I spent several months unable to put words on paper. The late, great Sam Hamill pushed me and I got going. In a way the truest influence in the poem comes from Marvin Bell—his brand of imagery has always a philosophical intelligence to it—there are bodies that stay home and keep living is my homage to Marvin’s kind of mentation—one says “well of course there are” and then says “oh shit!” At the time I wrote the poem I was living in Columbus, Ohio, which is the largest small town in America. Sit in a cafe and you’ll see grunge rockers, (even today) schoolteachers, student athletes…and they all seemed like war victims to me. (More than seemed…) I believe the phrase “moon effects” I actually lifted from Marvin Bell. We could be a great nation but Lord! Look at us!
MH: In many ways, your third book, Old Horse, What is to Be Done, is my favorite of your books. I notice a greater playfulness here, a more improvisational attitude, less concern with polish, and in general what I might call a greater “openness.” I also see a larger number of prose poems and hybrid forms. Again, I wonder how “intentional” this evolution is, and if something in your life experience or reading influenced this evolution, which feels in many ways like a growth in confidence.
SK: I’m so glad to hear you say this. It’s my favorite book too. So here’s the back story: I went to Finland on a Fulbright and studied the poetry and prose of Pentti Saarikoski. As I said earlier in the interview that was a lonesome time. But what I saw while doing that work was the possibility of hybridity in poetry and I carried that sense of things “around” for a long time. After writing three memoirs (admittedly lyric and poetic memoirs) I realized that I could write poems and then lift into a jazz improv in prose and they would go seamlessly together. I was never taught this in a workshop. And of course poets have loved jazz almost from the first—Hart Crane’s “The Bridge” is a jazz poem; one thinks of Rexroth with his jazz combo—heck, Marvin Bell played in a band; if I’m not mistaken so did Hayden Carruth. My point is that the prose addition to the house came over me because I saw how Saarikoski did it. He’d write tight closed poems and then pages later write Whitman-like long lines or diary entries. What I came to understand is that the magnetized power of deep feeling holds these modes together just as scene shifts in a dream work together. I think there’s also something about growing older—for me it means time to play. Get it down. Get it going. Shake and bake! Make the rules then break the rules.
MH: I’m going to list a number of the most striking images and phrases in the book, for your comments (if you have any) and, if not, just to admire them:
I’ve outgrown sentiment like the old apples
On old trees—spirit quiet
Clean with decline…
(“You’ll have to take my word…”)
My trick was to rise early,
Walk out “into” one of those photos
From the last century,
Forget the hell of nothing
And show off my brand new suit
To a circle of crows…
(“The Writing Prompt”)
O & I made solemn work of shadows
Begging the darkness
With my own darkness
A trick of the blind
Always the smallest grains of feeling
This is why the gravity of seasons
Holds me awake…
(“Questions to Answers”)
One of my favorite pieces from this book is “Praxis: Deliberate Beauty.” A hybrid poem
of notebook entries, lines of poetry, quotes from writers and other musings, it strikes me as a genuine breakthrough in your work, a thrilling revelation of possibilities. Though it’s too long to reproduce here, I’d love to hear you talk a bit about the poem, and the process by which you made it.
SK: I like to think of Praxis as a long exercise in being attentive. In a way it’s like one of those exercises the surrealists used to do—take in everything in a day. Of course its several days and a collage. Kurt Schwitters. But there’s time travel going on too! The opening lines are from a poem, which appeared in Seneca Review in the early 1970’s, a poem translated (I think from Hungarian) by Josephine Clare—it’s a hard life and art won’t help you live. Perfect! Is it true? All poets wonder about it. It’s the perfect thing to get a poet’s attention! Like bringing an armadillo to a cocktail party. It’s the kind of line that would make Auden seasick. Poetry affirms us; it makes nothing happen. Rinse. Repeat. Then I throw in the line: “Language is a trick. God knows.” That’s not Auden as much as Wallace Stevens. But it’s also me. It’s also Borges. Play a game for God’s sake!
Then, voila, the asterisk. Nonfiction writers love the asterisk. Frank Zappa had his apostrophe. I’m the asterisk man. The word comes from the Greeks. Asteriskos is “little star” so here’s a little refreshing starlight leap. Language is a trick. God knows. Now we’re on an airplane headed for Ashgabat. As I say, “a perfectly unforeseen sentence” which gets us back to the title “deliberate” beauty. Life is wildly improbable as we live it. A blind kid who couldn’t cross the street in rural New Hampshire is now writing about walking and writing as circumstances of faith. Little star indeed.
Then admit you are improvident. A good word for poets. Admit you’re superstitious as well. Kali with her necklace lives in the subconscious. This poetry biz is serious play. A raven in a baby carriage—almost an image out of Goya; wanting to talk to the child I once was and say “I’m sorry” and then a dream of a terrible shirt from a hospital stay in boyhood—a bit of “A Day in the Life” by the Beatles who, to my way of thinking, are the greatest rock and roll band of all time because they could really play their instruments and they understood Stockhausen. The leaps in the poem are (I hope) satisfying to anyone who finds life inexplicable, lovely, sorrowful, oddly comical, and also a fit subject for reflection. If I don’t know why I’m here I can at least yak about it. And poetry love it!
MH: Finally, two assertions you make in this book, one pretty clear but still worthy of your exegesis, and the other more confounding:
“Images make poems, facts make life…” (“1919”)
“I love the Jesus who lets me stay blind…” (“Notes on Christmas Morning”)
The first line is me being puckish. Images do make poems and life is filled with hard unassailable facts—like baby coffins—and yet, look! We can put these bizarre circumstances together. The line about Jesus is my subversive take on Christianity with its goofy insistence that Christ is a miracle worker and the disabled need to be healed. I dislike those miracle narratives. If Jesus could cure the blind then why didn’t he just get rid of blindness? I like who I am. Thanks very much Lord!
MH: Enough! Many thanks for the interview and for all of your work.
Here’s a recent poem that plays with the sentiments above:
Blind like me you hate the song
Though you keep quiet.
Why ruin the party or twist sorrow
Just for effect like a shopper
Who puts his thumbs in cakes
Or a jeweler who tells you
Your watch is always wrong?
Take “see” to mean free
And forgive the sighted.
Once in Venice
I walked the city
With my dog
Reading old doors
As if they were Braille
Though weather alone
Had put the messages there
The words a dialect
Of accidents and rain.
I could feel the pulse
In my wrists.
I said half aloud
And to no one in particular
I can’t love you
Any more than this.
Stephen Kuusisto holds a University Professorship at Syracuse and is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey; 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; Letters to Borges; and Old Horse, What is to Be Done? He travels and lectures widely on human rights, disability, literature, and the advantages of guide dogs and human-animal relationships.
Michael Hettich’s most recent book of poetry, The Mica Mine, won the Lena Shull Book Award from the North Carolina Poetry Society and was published in April, 2021. His website is Michaelhettich.com.