Syracuse University Magazine

Enlivening Language


Stephen Kuusisto

For poet Stephen Kuusisto, language is delicious and powerful and survival. He knows from bittersweet experience. “I often tell the story of being a blind kid on the playground in 1960 and convincing a bully not to beat me up by just simply dazzling him with invention,” says Kuusisto, University Professor and director of the Renée Crown University Honors Program. “My grandmother used to laugh that the kids in the neighborhood followed me around because I was a very imaginative, funny kid.” It was inevitable that he would put his words to form. “The jokester in me likes to say, ‘Being blind, I was never any good at baseball. Poetry was a better career,’” says Kuusisto, who is accompanied around campus by his guide dog, Nira.

Born with a condition in which his retinas were underdeveloped, Kuusisto sees shapes and colors only as a blurry, distorted panorama. Memory and his other senses compensate to help him tell stories in verse. His poems reveal texture and imagery that are vivid and observant as in “Summer at North Farm” (Only Bread, Only Light, Copper Canyon Press, 2000): “Fires, always fires after midnight, / the sun depending in the purple birches / and gleaming like a copper kettle.”

A graduate of the acclaimed University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Kuusisto traveled to Scandinavia to translate contemporary Finnish poetry as a Fulbright Scholar. He ventured into nonfiction writing around the time of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. “I realized then that essentially I had spent my entire life without civil rights,” Kuusisto says. Although he attended public schools, Kuusisto was educated at a time when there were no laws in place to assist those with special needs. His first-grade teacher worked with him to help him read as he pressed his face into the pages of reading primers.

Kuusisto’s memoir, Planet of the Blind (The Dial Press, 1998), a New York Times’ “Notable Book of the Year,” details his life growing up but also, in a sense, it tells the story of many other individuals who are blind. “I needed to write an autobiographical account because I was part of a historic movement of that first wave of people with disabilities entering the public square,” he says. His other works include more than 100 essays, articles, and poems, which have appeared in national publications, and the forthcoming Letters to Borges (Copper Canyon Press, 2013). 

In 2011, his commitment to disability rights brought him to SU, where he recognizes the work being done in disability studies at the School of Education, among other programs. “The idea that Syracuse embraces scholarship that is tied to community engagement and the well-being of people, many of whom have been marginalized historically, was really powerful for me,” says Kuusisto, who along with his wife, Connie, founded a consulting business that assists companies on the best practices in serving customers with disabilities. 

After he began as director, the honors program helped launch the Center for Fellowship and Scholarship Advising, a campus-wide initiative to help students find opportunities for post-graduate fellowships and scholarships. Kuusisto is also working with administrators to relocate the honors program from Bowne Hall to a larger space to better accommodate the program’s 900 students. 

Kuusisto, who was an English professor at the University of Iowa, also engages with students through his honors seminars on poetry and creative non-fiction. His most important lesson: read a lot of good writing—such as Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. “A lot of good writing is romantic and strange and not at all simple journalism,” he says. “You want students reading the wonderfully improbable and beautiful writing of real artists, so they can understand great storytelling has to be memorable—and break new ground.”  —Kathleen Haley

Photo by Steve Sartori