Sunday, July 31, 2005

Not Quite Crisis

by Zinta Aistars

Z, senior year, Comstock High School

I was eighteen and the world,
as they say, was my oyster--
the kind you drink down raw,
let it slide easy down your throat,
lightly spiced, a touch peppery,
a slick and succulent aphrodisiac.

Even the pearl was mine,
grit mulled and churned and chewed,
worked over and over
by those with swelling hearts.

I'm three decades past that now.
The string of pearls has broken.
I chew new grit, tongue tip
drawn to that sore place
at the back tooth, a vague throbbing,
just enough to keep me up nights.

Empty oyster shells litter my pantry.
Sand spills between my fingers.

The swelling heart is mine--
fermenting dreams long gone to vinegar,
counterfeit loves that never quite warmed
beyond room temperature,
faith that remains lagging
but hopeful, ever hopeful
for another chance at the prom.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Point of Diminishing Return

by Zinta Aistars

"Purva," watercolor, by Viestarts Aistars

It’s just beyond—that place we long to reach,
a bleeding and slow laboring light, evidence of desire,
trembling like a mirage on the far horizon
and knifing the sky, seam to seam, like a split wound.

Just beyond, if only our reach might extend
an inch or two farther than our grasp.
Still standing with our feet in the muck of today
while tomorrow beckons—a clearing
crowned with morning fire.

Thursday, July 28, 2005


"Vientuliba," watercolor, Viestarts Aistars

The prairie wind grows still
and slumbers.
It settles soft
into the rust of sun swept grasses.
Another day, perhaps.
This day silence blesses—
its dreamless sleep a velvet cloak
spread across the eyes,
a body lying warm beside you,
beloved face already stamped
across your weighted mind.
All is well, even now,
when my hand holds yours
across a distance,
even now, when you’re convinced
you stand alone,
this silence sanctified.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Laundry Day

by Zinta Aistars

"Vela zavejas," watercolor, by Viestarts Aistars

Slap flapping in the wind,
sheets setting sail
to an imagined neverland,
a feigned journey of shifty
clothespin pirates,
their snagged bevy
of shanghaied petticoats
twisting on the wire.
Brazen buccaneers
with wooden knobby faces
pinning satin delicates
against a shameless pillowed sky;
whipped into a frenzy
this sun-spilt day has fast become
their sun crazed and billowing ball.

On this line, strained taut
from nail to nail,
begin all maiden voyages:
a roiling sea of sand
beneath a dance of empty dresses
and fluttering loose stockings
that twine in slinky scandal
around a waltzing pant leg,
a cuff that glances on a skirt pleat,
a sleeve that lingers lightly on a blouse,
the coy invitation of a shirt
with all its buttons
come undone.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran: The Power of Place and Story

by Zinta Aistars

Kalamazoo College's new president, Dr. Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran, has moved into her office. The power of her leadership is a matter of place and story. Published in the Summer 2005 issue of LuxEsto, the College alumni magazine.

"We must tell our story of transforming lives."
--Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran

The red brick buildings, the grand white colonnades, the front steps leading down to a cobblestone road called Academy Street—these are uncannily similar at Salem College and Kalamazoo College. Dr. Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran won't even have to change addresses. Her office was and is on Academy Street.

There is this difference: on the door of her office at Salem College (Winston-Salem, North Carolina), the plaque says: Vice President and Dean of the College; on the door of her office in Mandelle Hall at Kalamazoo College, the plaque reads: President.

On December 11, 2004, the Board of Trustees of Kalamazoo College unanimously elected Dr. Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran the 17th president, the first woman president, and the first African-American president, of Kalamazoo College. She moved to the Academy Street office at Kalamazoo College last month.

"From one good place to another good place," Eileen says. “The power of place…” and her thoughts veer towards making connections, to crossing borders, and about the manner in which education allows us to pass beyond our personal boundaries to ever new and changing places.

It may be that the similarities of these two places—Salem College and Kalamazoo College—in the life and career of Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran far outweigh the differences. Like Kalamazoo, Salem College is a small, residential liberal arts college, founded more than two centuries ago. Like the Kalamazoo Plan, integrating rigorous academics, career development programs, study abroad, and a senior individualized project, Salem College has its Salem Signature Program, building leadership skills through internships, journaling for self-exploration, and an array of outreach programs. Both schools give top priority to teaching their students to be lifelong learners, and both encourage them to never be limited by the border of any one place.

Eileen sees the similarities: "Salem and Kalamazoo College share a deep commitment that begins in the classroom and goes beyond it. What we learn in these institutions is grounded in the academic world, but practical in the world outside. The focus is on greater values, on having a global perspective, and on being a citizen of a diverse global community."

Eileen says there comes a time to leave one's accustomed place and move forward, to embrace change, and to seek new challenges. Kalamazoo College was that calling. "I had heard about Kalamazoo," she says, "and I was aware of the strong reputation of this institution. I have been reading the history of Kalamazoo College, and I've met with people who represent this college—because it is the people who give the true st sense of what a place is—and with each meeting grew my conviction: Kalamazoo College and I, we fit."

Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, and students, individually and in groups, have met with the new president, and they agree: the fit is right. Education has always been Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran’s passport to move from one good place to another. Her dedication to excellence in education has led her to her new home.

Born in Los Angeles, California, Eileen earned her B.A. in sociology from Pomona College, an M.A. and Ph.D. in education from the Claremont Graduate University in California. She served as associate professor and chair of the department of education at Winston-Salem State University, and she was visiting scholar in education at North Carolina Wesleyan College. She taught in the departments of education and psychology at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in Nigeria for 14 years and served as acting head of the department of psychology there for five years. While in Nigeria she was a consultant for UNICEF (Nigeria) in the area of early childhood development. In 1995, she became Dean of the College at Salem College, and later rose to the position of Vice President and Dean of the College for Salem Academy and College. She served as acting president of the institution from November 2003 to March 2004, during the sabbatical of Salem's president Julianne Still Thrift.

"I grew up in a family that placed great importance on education," she says of her childhood in southern California, where her parents, Welford and Juanita Wilson, raised her and her sister Carol. "We were privileged to go to the best primary schools where we were taught to meet the highest expectations. Our teachers remained in contact with us through our college years, like members of our family, guiding our way."

Her study abroad experience, she smiles, was only a partial stretch of her comfort zone. She chose England "because I spoke the language." But the experience was a critical one, and Eileen's work there with immigrant children from West Africa, South Africa, and the Caribbean, determined her lifelong scholarly interest in child development and multicultural education.

"The experience was transformative," she says. "I left England committed to understanding a wider world, fascinated with the notion of the African Diaspora, and determined to travel and study abroad more extensively."

Eileen firmly decided that her next trip was to be to Africa, and that she would not allow language to be a barrier. Upon graduating from Pomona College, she was awarded a Thomas J. Watson Traveling Fellowship that allowed her to spend 16 months traveling and studying in Ghana, Nigeria, and Tanzania, developing curriculum materials for students in the United States. No less important on study abroad were the adventures outside of academic curriculum, and so Eileen took time to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya and to explore the Dogon villages in Mali, West Africa.

"From these study abroad experiences coalesced my appreciation for the power of cross-cultural study and my commitment to foster a more international focus on our school campuses and within the curriculum."

After completing her doctoral work in childhood development and early childhood education, Eileen accepted her first academic position at the University of Ife in Nigeria. Ife and Nigeria would be her career and her home for the next 14 years. By 1982, she was chairperson of the newly created department of psychology.

"Today's world is so much more connected than it was 30 years ago," she says. “I am a strong proponent of intercultural and international education; it is important not only to send our students out into the world, but to also build and strengthen a diverse community on our campuses. One of my top goals at Kalamazoo College is to more consciously and deeply integrate the experiences of our students abroad with experiences back on campus and in the Kalamazoo community. We need to understand the complexities of living and studying abroad and then apply that understanding to cultivate the full educational potential of students’ reintegrating themselves and what they have learned into their lives, communities, and culture.”

The world grows smaller. And growing larger is the importance of understanding people who see life from the standpoint of cultures and ethnic, racial, or religious backgrounds that differ from our own. In this state of change (characterized by excitement and stress) Eileen has built a reputation as “a gentle bridge builder,” according to a recent article in the Winston-Salem Journal. This aspect of her work has become her legacy and a continuing goal.

Eileen recalls hearing Martin Luther King speak when she was a child. His words took root in her. “You can’t live the dream if you don’t know it,” she says. Cross-cultural education is the means of knowing the dreams of others, a bridge built by an immersion that involving the mind, the body, and the spirit. That bridge, in turn, helps build a more understanding and tolerant society.

“I am drawn to Kalamazoo College for many reasons,” Eileen says, “but I am most intrigued by the College’s desire to develop ‘a culture and climate in which internationalism, multiculturism, and diversity flourish.’ I am also drawn to the commitment of Kalamazoo College to community and to the highest ethical standards, respect for all persons, and leadership with integrity. These are the values that resonate deeply with me. They are what I hope others would say my life has been about.”

Eileen’s awards and honors are legion. They include the Kent Fellowship and the Ford Foundation National Fellowship for graduate study; the Ada Mae Fitts Woman of the Year, awarded to the most outstanding senior woman by the Pomona College faculty; the Thomas J. Watson Traveling Fellowship, the Claremont College’s Black Studies Center Visionary Leadership Award, and the American Council on Education Fellowship, one of the most prestigious leadership training programs in higher education. She spent that fellowship year working with the president and provost of Wake Forest University. In 1999 she was awarded the Gender Equity Architect Award by the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education in recognition of her work in leadership development and mentoring young women and girls. In 2002 the Salvation Army honored her with the Strong, Smart, Bold Award in recognition of her service to women and girls in Forsyth County, North Carolina.

At Kalamazoo, Eileen is eager to immerse herself in the College’s evolving vision of an excellent liberal arts education. She is eager to explore and extend the service learning and outreach programs that connect the College to the surrounding community. She talks about the importance of outreach: “We want to tell our liberal arts story to students in elementary and middle schools, so that when it is time for them to consider college, they will think of Kalamazoo.”

Eileen is concerned with the challenges that face small, liberal arts colleges, and she is eager to meet the challenge by calling the Kalamazoo College community to work alongside her.

"Small liberal arts colleges like Kalamazoo are losing their share of the educational market. In 1953, 29 percent of all undergraduate students attended small residential colleges. By 1993, that figure dropped to only 9 percent. At a time when Division I sports and large universities seem to be everything, we do not have the desirability or visibility of these institutions. We lack the large numbers of alumni. Parents and students are stunned by our tuition costs. Today, more than 75 percent of all full-time undergraduates attend a college or university that costs less than $8,000 per academic year. They want to know what the value will be of the additional dollars needed to attend Kalamazoo College.

"The entire Kalamazoo College community must do a better job explaining the added value of a liberal arts education,” says Eileen. “In an era of rapid change, we must explain the crucial difference that a liberal arts education at small residential colleges offers: the preparation for lifelong learning, the focus on the entire student, access to faculty, small, personal classes, and individualized attention. Our students are more likely to graduate within four years, and they are more likely to go on to complete advanced degrees. We have the capability to transform lives."

One of her roles as Kalamazoo College president is to be this storyteller, but she plans to involve the entire College community. "Who better to tell our story than those of us who have lived it? Our own students, especially as they return from their study abroad, our recent graduates, and our alumni can tell this story. Larger institutions are often 'branded' by their sports teams, but it is up to us to 'brand' our college for its excellent educational value."

Part of meeting this challenge, Eileen says, is the challenge to sustain and grow our endowment. To become an inclusive community and a diverse student body, "We have to find ways to finance any student who wishes to come to Kalamazoo College. Ten years from now, I would like to see the resources and the scholarships in place so that our campus is open to all."

Feeling welcome is also a matter of place. "We must improve our campus climate to match the excellence of our academic heart, which is the authentic and vital engagement between a great teacher and student. But we also need a heart of a social nature, and to help develop that we need comfortable and inviting campus spaces for students to gather and interact with each other. That, too, is a part of their educational experience."

Campus climate is one of several issues about which Eileen has heard from the Kalamazoo College community as she walks the campus and meets with students, faculty, staff, and alumni. She is listening closely. The strength of the College, she believes, is not only in the excellence of our academic programs, but also found in our living human resources.

"And that is how I lead," she says. "I begin to know a place and its people by listening. Before determining a course of action, I consult broadly, listen carefully, review all reliable data, and consider alternative possibilities. One of my strengths is the capacity to build consensus among individuals who hold differing perspectives without closing off the necessary, sometimes difficult, conversations. I am a strong proponent of shared governance, and I work always towards a vision that is jointly crafted. But when difficult decisions must be made, I can make them."

At the end of the day, Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran knows the value of rejuvenation. Her hands are full, she says, and there is much to do as she makes this new good place her own. Her family is her joy and support—husband Dr. Olasope Oyelaran, whom she fondly calls Sope (pronounced Soap-way), and their four adult children: Doyin, Oyinda, Salewa, Yinka. Raising her family is one of their proudest achievements, but now that the home nest is empty—"but for the occasional returning child," Eileen laughs. She makes time for yoga—"that time of day is not to be touched;" reading—"usually several books at once;" and, however rarely, a television show or two—"I love British comedy;" or even a bit of adventure—"I enjoy body surfing."

But the workday holds great promise, and Monday is a day she greets with enthusiasm at Kalamazoo College. When entering her new office on Academy Street, this time in Michigan, her smile broadens. "I am excited," she says simply, "by all that we can accomplish here together. Kalamazoo College is a great institution with tremendous potential. I am here to open doors and build bridges and welcome all to our campus that is but a small corner of the world. Let us move forward together to realize the Kalamazoo College we all imagine."

Success for Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran, she adds, works this way: "I am an old girl scout. I always try to leave a place better than I found it."

SIDEBAR - Name Talk: Sope's Story

December 2004

What’s in a name? For some of us, a different sense of home.

Like the rest of the Kalamazoo College community, I am filled with excitement at the prospect of meeting our new “first family,” Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran and her husband, Olasope Oyelaran, wishing to welcome them to their new home. The announcement has gone out to the College community: we have a new president. Introductions have been made. A first presidential speech has been given, and the buzz is electric across the campus.

Taking a moment away from the many introductions, Eileen and Olasope Oyelaran sit down to lunch with a group of Kalamazoo College staff. An open seat beside him, Olasope nods to me to take it. “Call me Sope,” he says. Soh-pay, I repeat, trying out the pronunciation.

I extend my hand. “And mine is Zinta,” and our talk turns to our names—Sope and Zinta. Along with nuances of speech and dialect, unusual names are among the first clue that one is far from home. Sope’s home is a Nigerian village called Ajaawa, in Southwest Africa. Mine? –well, I am still looking for mine. My ethnic roots and one of my dual citizenships branch back to Latvia, a small country on the Baltic Sea, but I was born in the United States, daughter of two World War II refugees escaping the Soviet Army. My upbringing was firmly rooted in the Latvian culture and I attended private Latvian school on weekends and public school, where I learned English, on weekdays. When I was fifteen, I made my first trip overseas to feel the soil of my ancestors’ home beneath my feet. The immediate sense of coming home was powerful.

“And yet,” I said to Sope, “I was simultaneously homesick for this country, too. Wherever I am, I long for the place I am not.”

Sope nodded and smiled warmly with understanding. He and Eileen return to Nigeria whenever the opportunity arises—about every other year—and when it does not, “my family in the village is well connected with cell phones,” Sope chuckles.

Family, Sope tells me, is a tightly knit and supportive network. “So close you can’t see between them,” he says. “I was born into a large family, but not the kind of nuclear family as we define it here in the United States. We were many children raised by many mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, and cousins.”

Sope’s family embraced education, even if it meant leaving home. The “westernized” school in Ajaawa was run by the Baptist church. Children moved from grammar school in the village to a “secondary school” in a larger community. If exams were passed satisfactorily, children moved on up to advanced schools called “Sixth Form” or university. Sope passed his exams, and he competed for scholarships that could open for him the road to the United States for further study.

“It was a very competitive program, and only 23 students out of a pool of some 3,000 persons won the scholarships. I was among them. I was the first from my family to study overseas. But with my family’s support, nothing could intimidate me. My grandfather’s sister was a powerful force in my family, and she considered education to be ‘an intellectual adventure.’ She encouraged me to go, learn, return, and bring what I had learned back to Ajaawa.”

A short distance from Salem College and Academy, where Eileen was Dean and Vice President, Dr. Olasope Oyelaran was Director of International Programs and associate professor of English. He speaks seven languages, holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from Stanford University, and, like his wife, is dedicated to cross-cultural education.

“I was invited to return to Nigeria in 1970 to build an authentically African institution of higher education,” he says. After years of study in the United States and in France, Sope returned to Nigeria to establish a department of African languages and literature, “thinking I was home safe,” as in unmarried, he chuckles. “So many who had studied abroad came home with wives from America or from Europe. I came home alone.”

Eileen, in Nigeria on the Thomas J. Watson Traveling Fellowship, met Sope on his own territory. They became close friends, and Eileen visited his village and quickly befriended Sope’s extended family there as well. “Everyone in the village was talking about Eileen, Eileen, Eileen. They all had fallen in love with Eileen,” Sope says, and it is clear that he, too, came to see this energetic and personable woman as far more than a friend. The two were married in 1980, and their intention was to build a life in Nigeria, pursuing careers in education. But new opportunities and the needs of Eileen’s aging parents brought the couple and their four children to North Carolina in 1988.

March 2005

I again meet with Eileen and Sope, this time in Winston-Salem. Sope brings me to his office at Winston-Salem State University. The Office of International Programs is small but bustling with activity, photos on the walls from many of the 43 countries where Winston-Salem students study abroad. Sope has been a driving force in establishing the university’s international programs.

We are standing in the atrium of the Winston-Salem State University’s C.G. O’Kelly Library. Sope has brought me here to show me two immense murals on the wall, painted by John and James Biggers in the early 1990s. The murals represent an integration of knowledge from many academic disciplines: African mythology and folklore, mathematics, science, literature and American history, sociology and religion. The murals are stunning, and Sope is visibly moved by them. Watching him observe them and listening to him speak about them becomes, for me, a window into Sope’s heart.

He opens international doors to his students, and his own travels and studies frequently take him across the globe. So I ask Sope, “Where is home?” He smiles, then says: “Nigeria will always be home. Someday, we hope to return. But we go where there are new challenges to meet, where we can make a difference. We have done our work here in North Carolina, and now it is time to meet a new challenge. Eileen and I are very excited to be at Kalamazoo College, and we are both eager to make Kalamazoo our new home.”

For more information about Kalamazoo College, see

Sunday, July 17, 2005

After the Storm

by Zinta Aistars

Painting, "Pec vetras," by Viestarts Aistars

Light, a pale bride, scorned, drags her veil
across the land, curled into its contours.
The lake remembers in its many mirrors
the dark anger of the skies,
crooning softly now, lapping in gentle caress,
shushing and rocking the many bruised places,
the rattled cattails, the flat, round lily pad faces,
in its embrace, mother to all.

Still the thundering woods surround,
torn cloud wisps leaving the procession
in an arrogant huff, one last look
over the shoulder:

I made you tremble.
You will not forget me.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Be Still, Listen to Nothing

by Zinta Aistars

The murmurs subside.
For a moment, a moment only:
stillness returns,
the heart slowing
into a molasses comfort,
sticky sweet, slow, swimming
in its own dark sugar.
Even the breeze curls
into its nest, circling
upon itself, tail tucked in,
ears folded back
against a warm fuzzed skull.

Even the eyes close,
unseeking and dry,
rolling in towards hidden places
where the beasts tease demons,
where their war games collide,
but for now, now only,
they sit prissing and preening,
leaning into each other
to nab the occasional flea,
a gracious nitpicking
of each other’s thickened hides.

Listen: silence.
All is at rest.
No weeping, no mourning,
no ashes rubbed on a pale forehead,
no breast beating or bawling,
no sackcloth bellyaching.
Unquestioned but welcomed,
life becomes a simple thing—
a hand held open,
a sweet fruit placed within.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Of Bears and Bearded Men

A short story by Zinta Aistars

At the moment of deepest dark, she opens her eyes. Night. The deepest part, when blackness permeates the walls, the floor, the ceiling, the soul of the woman lying on the bed. She is awake in a distant motel room, and alone.

Voices echo and sound from an unsure distance, young, rowdy, boisterous, restless, and they frighten her. She doesn't frighten easy, but it is the deepest dark of the night, she is alone, and she shivers lightly. She had stopped minding nights alone a long time ago, allowing only for an occasional glimmer of human disturbance to keep it from becoming a habit, but this moment is new. She closes her eyes, listening, trying not to listen, but the voices invade, and she shivers, again, involuntarily. The sheets that smell of strange are cold, and she pushes them away, off her, away, suddenly needing out of here, out of this bed, and out of this room. But the voices.

Faint whoosh of passing traffic, that too a distant noise like dreams. Her own shadow, in the wall mirror, like a passing ghost. She stands with her shoulder against the wall, cheap paneling, and waits for nothing. Only waits, feeling the beating of her own heart. They shared a drink, she and the bearded man who sleeps on the other side of the wall, shared partial secrets, but mostly each kept their own, and parted for the night with a friendly nod. He slept soundly, she did not doubt it. He was the sort. Beautiful bearded men sleep deep and sweet and well, never shivering in the chill of their sheets.

Back to the wall, she unbuttons her flannel shirt and lets it drop to the floor, listening for the echoes, a jeering, then laughter, ugly and coarse. She waits for silence. It comes. Cool of the paneling, full length of her, she fights the ripping inside her, the fear, the shaking, the gut wrench, the urge to run. Instead, she presses the full length of her chilled exposed body to the wall and closes her eyes and breathes in the beauty of the bearded man sleeping undisturbed on the other side on whose door she would never knock, who she would never tell, not the secrets, nor show the scars, nor tell him about this wall, nor her flannel shirt on the floor.

Come morning, she would stand before a polished pane of store window glass and stare like a child at a great stuffed bear, luxuriously furred and soft, with shining dark eyes, and great suede padded paws. She wets her lip with the tip of her tongue. "I've never had a teddy bear," she says, revealing her first secret, and behind her the bearded man stops. Her eyes flick to the reflection of his in the glass.

"I'll buy you one," he says. Although she may have imagined that.

Published on the February 2002 issue of "Insolent Rudder"

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Copper Canyon Press: A Temple of Words

by Zinta Aistars

At the end of this rainbow is a pot of... copper. Three Kalamazoo College alumni--Michael, Emily, and Amy--unbeknownst to each other, follow their rainbows to Port Townsend, Washington to dedicate their work to poetry. (Published in the Summer 2004 issue ofLuxEsto, the Kalamazoo College alumni magazine.

Port Townsend’s poetic pull proved irresistible to three Kalamazoo College graduates. Each traveled to the tip of the Olympic Peninsula (across Port Townsend Bay from Seattle) for different reasons. But they shared an attraction for poetry, and they share the lodestone of Copper Canyon Press.

Michael Wiegers ‘87 came to Port Townsend more than a decade ago, and he found a small if fiercely devoted office staff of 2 people. Today, Michael is the Executive Editor working with a staff that has tripled.

A high school senior in St. Louis (Mo.), Michael grew up in the Midwest. Broaching college years, he did what he calls “the typical summer college tour. I checked out colleges throughout the Midwest. Beloit, all the Wisconsin schools, Notre Dame. And then there was Kalamazoo. Kalamazoo College won me over with its study abroad program and a curriculum geared towards independent study.”

Michael declared biology his major, studied in Spain, and interned in Philadelphia (Penn.). Nevertheless, his classes in English at Kalamazoo convinced him there was another passion awaiting him.

“I had wonderful professors who transformed me,” he says. “Gail Griffin, Conrad Hilberry, Colette Inez, Herb Bogart. They taught me how to read in the sense that far transcends decoding words on a page. Gail nurtured a sense of other voices, notions of justice, and an ability to look beyond into ways of thinking differently. From Bogart I learned the classics, how important it is not to lose our literary traditions while following the progression of poetry over the ages. Con Hilberry that poetry is not territorial; it is for everyone. Colette Inez showed me that—‘wow, I can write too!’”

Books became Michael’s life. After graduation, he worked various jobs, moving to Boston, and then to Minneapolis. There, he was editor at a small publishing house called “”Coffee House Press. His partner, Kate Garfield ‘87, worked as a bookseller and literary agent. When Michael heard about a job opening in Port Townsend at a press he respected, he applied for the position and was hired. Nowadays, two thousand manuscripts a year now pass through his hands, awaiting judgment.

“Copper Canyon Press values poetry, the relationships built by poetry, and the connections we make with our authors,” he says. “There is a devotion here to the art of the book.”

That art resonates with what Michael learned at Kalamazoo College: Life’s deepest value is found in connections.

“Poetry is language,” he says. “And language connects to the soul, creating an intense experience, not unlike devotion to the divine.”

Copper Canyon Press publishes an average of 18 books a year and maintains an active backlist of 160 titles from major, mid-career and emerging writers. Criteria for publication include the excellence of the work and its fit within the backlist, the stable of published poets by the Press. Michael consults with his staff, listening to anyone who wishes to champion a particular poet.

“We always enjoy discovering a new author, but we also have a commitment to poets that we publish year after year,” Michael says. “Sometimes I need to give a second chance for a manuscript. I’ve turned some down, only to be haunted by the poetry afterwards. We like to look beyond the traditional. Ninety-five percent of the publishing industry today is controlled by big publishers. At a small press like Copper Canyon, we can take a risk on excellence that may not become a guaranteed big seller. It’s up to the small presses to bring in new and diverse voices.”

Emily Warn ‘77, long time board member for Copper Canyon Press, says: “Michael has a genius for being an advocate for authors,” she says. “He forms relationships that tie donors to authors to publishers.”

Talent is in abundant quantity at the Press. Emily is a poet as well as longtime board member. She discovered Sam Hamill in his cabin in the woods, put up her tent nearby, and showed him her manuscript.

“We made an instant intellectual and soul connection,” she says. “And Copper Canyon Press published my first book of poetry, The Leaf Path.”

To find Emily wandering the woods is a common occurrence. Her major at Kalamazoo College was in English, but she always possessed a keen interest in botany. Her passion for words and for nature is evident in her work.

Kalamazoo College strengthened my discipline, and a fundamental education that would serve me in all walks of life,” says Emily. “When I took a writing class with Conrad Hilberry, I found my calling. Until then, I was a stranger wherever I went. Con’s class changed the direction of my life.”

Emily’s calling took her into the wilderness, but always with a good book, or three, under her arm and in her backpack. She worked as a park ranger, often living as a recluse with books for company. She’s also worked on fishing boats and done time in the corporate world, working for Microsoft.

“We learned to thrive in diverse experiences at Kalamazoo College,” she says.

Emily’s more recent poetry collection, also published by Copper Canyon Press, is titled The Novice Insomniac; her two chapbooks are The Book of Esther (Jugum Press) and Highway Street (Limberlost Press). She earned her Master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Washington. She has received many honors and awards including a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University (1992), The Pushcart Prize Anthology Outstanding Writer Award, as well as various grants and poetry commissions. She recently moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, where she teaches English at Lynchburg College.

Amy Schaus Murphy is the most recent of Kalamazoo College graduates to journey to Port Townsend. Soon after graduation, Amy and husband Kevin Murphy (both are members of the Class of 1999), went west to seek their fortunes. They had in mind a life lived in a Montana wilderness cabin. At the last minute, a second couple with whom the Murphy’s had hoped to travel and settle down decided against the trip. Amy and Kevin decided to look for jobs in Seattle, but when they saw the big city sprawl, they knew it was not for them. Port Townsend was just across the bay, and when Amy walked into the small white building with a green roof and shutters, holding out her resume to the executive editor, Michael Wiegers, she had no idea she was facing a fellow Kalamazoo College graduate.

“There we were, an entire country away from little Kalamazoo, and we were both from the same point of origin,” Amy laughs. “No doubt it helped get me hired. That was in the fall of 1999, and I started working as a production intern, a voluntary half-time position assisting Michael.”

At first, Amy shared an office with Michael. His daughter, Ella, had just been born, and he was taking paternity leave, showing up at the office from time to time to check on things. But Michael was so impressed with Amy’s hard work and dedication that she was soon offered the fulltime paid position of production manager.

“I made sure all the t’s were crossed and I made the i’s dotted. My years at Kalamazoo College prepared me well for working at Copper Canyon Press. When I walked into Michael’s office for the first time, holding out my resume, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing!”

According to Amy, a liberal arts education enables one to handle those situations. She had learned how to learn, and she could do it on her feet, she could do it quickly, and she could innovate. Michael’s assures all who will listen: Amy was the most organized person at the Press. She brought order to chaos, made poetry out of dishevelment.

“As an English major,” Amy says, “I also learned how to read and how to write. Sounds basic enough, but it isn’t.”

Amy remembers classes she took with Diane Seuss, who was also her academic advisor, and with Gail Griffin. “Work shopping,” as she calls it, in Di’s class taught her to decide what is working, and what isn’t, in a piece of creative writing. She learned how to proof and to read with a critical eye for detail. In addition to these concrete skills, Amy acquired a “gut instinct to learn.” “That’s a gift for a lifetime,” she says.

Her study abroad in Senegal provided an appreciation for living without luxury and a love of language.

“Translation work at Copper Canyon Press,” Amy says. “reminds me of my time in Senegal. I had studied French and I wanted to go to Paris, but there wasn’t a program available in that city, so I ended up going to Senegal, where I had absolutely no knowledge of Wolof, the indigenous language. I had to learn fast. Today, I sometimes find my dreams and thoughts will tangle into three languages—English, French, Wolof.”

Amy also went to Senegal as a self-described radical feminist. “But I had to take a hard look at feminism as we define it here once I saw it from the viewpoint of another culture,” she explains. “Senegalese women live a segregated life, but it works for them. It works in their culture. From a westernized perspective, it could seem oppressive, but I learned to look at their lifestyle choices as choices they made within the confines of their culture. It expanded my own outlook on being a woman greatly.”

At one time, Amy admits, she might have considered herself something of a wallflower, demure in her approach to life, but being a Kalamazoo College student changed that. She can walk into the unknown, take a challenge face to face, and turn it into poetry.

Perhaps a yearning for the unknown combined with a confidence to venture there, both cultivated at Kalamazoo College, brought Michael, Emily, and Amy to Copper Canyon Press. That, and a love for poetry. And a need for lifelong learning as basic as food, water, and oxygen. All of these qualities are coins of the realm at Copper Canyon and Kalamazoo College.

SIDEBAR—Spirit at the End of the Road

A fine drizzle of rain prisms the afternoon sun, forming the rare wonder of a perfect double rainbow arced across the sky, connecting mountains and bay. At the end of the road that winds between them lies the poet lover’s pot of… copper.

Copper—not gold—as in “Copper Canyon Press.” So reads the modest sign above the small wooden building with creaky and uneven floors, painted white with a green roof and green shutters. Founded in 1972 by a man named Sam Hamill with seed money of $500, Copper Canyon Press is the physical manifestation of the premise that good poetry is essential to the human spirit and to a thriving culture. Hamill started the Press in Denver, naming it for copper as a tribute to the ecological and cultural values of Native Americans. He moved north to Port Townsend when Centrum, a nonprofit arts programming organization, made him an offer. Centrum wanted a literary press-in-residence to encourage and nourish the popular summer Port Townsend Poetry Symposium and to administer high school literary workshops in the winter months. Centrum promised an initially rent-free building, which would convert to modest rent in later years. Hamill moved into a wilderness cabin without electricity or running water, determined to create a Press like no other, and began publishing some of the most promising poets in the country.

Thirty years later Copper Canyon Press enjoys an international reputation for being one of the best poetry publishers anywhere and is one of the few publishers that feature poetry exclusively. Copper has turned to gold. Copper Canyon Press has produced a wealth of poetic riches: more than 240 books and CDs, including work by Nobel Laureates Pablo Neruda, Odysseas Elytis, Octavio Paz, Vincente Aleixandre, and Czeslaw Milosz; Pulitzer Prize-winners Carolyn Kizer, Maxine Kumin, and W.S. Merwin; National Book Award winners Ruth Stone, Hayden Carruth and Lucille Clifton; and some of the most original contemporary poets including Jim Harrison, C.D. Wright, Norman Dubie, Eleanor Wilner, Jane Miller, and Olga Broumas. The Press publishes new collections of poetry, but also anthologies, prose books about poetry, translations of classical and contemporary work from many of the world’s cultures, and re-issues of out-of-print poetry classics.

Visit Copper Canyon Press at

Visit Kalamazoo College at

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Traveler's Mantra

by Zinta Aistars

Watercolor painting, "Buda ziema," by Viestarts Aistars

It won’t leave me: this place of kept secrets
and long ago keepsakes. It haunts.

My orbit circles this haven
like an old dog stepping out the parameters
of his nightly bed,
nose to the ground,
pawing the dirt.

Tread softly the sacrosanct;
there are few such blessings remaining
untrammeled and pure,
braving the unkindest words.

Plod the dark woods, scent the cool air,
vagabond on your own land.

Seeking home is a lifelong pursuit.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005


by Zinta Aistars

Like eating earth, smell of dank soil,
musty secrets and spores, rich
with the footprints of history
and its creation – mouthing the flesh
of my ancestors, the sweat of their efforts,
sodden dreams and buried mysteries
of loves lost, loves regained, passions
subdued and simmered to ash.
At forest edge, clusters and clods,
tiny families pushed through loam,
bunched against the seeping shade.
Blade that cuts their stubby throats
gleams silver against my palm,
tongue tip to the corner of my lips,
dreaming butter.

Published in literary e-zine, Flashquake, March 2005.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Old Man

by Zinta Aistars

Pencil drawing by Viestarts Aistars

The stories remain there on his face,
carved into maps, thoroughfares, a webbing of days.
The beginnings that blaze trails to inevitable endings:
a childhood of ebullient dreams,
the frill of fantasy, the chimera of unjaded hopes.

Then: the tedious melancholy of the middling years—
languishing in routines and daily habits,
collapsing into eventual finish lines, race over,
all that plunging into the murky waters of chance,
a gamble of hearts, perhaps, a swilling of random jubilance,
just enough,
spice to heat the many, many days
left arid with unmet goals.

But a semblance of a life he might have wished
upon a falling star. And yet, his.
Its sparkle still glistens
in his hooded eyes, jewel of memory,
all that is left him now.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Hack's Page Eight

by Zinta Aistars

The letter marches on, proud soldier that it is,
straight-spined, stiff, pinched mouth,
with crisp salute: “Salutations! Sir!”
Sharp marching lines, orderly and neat,
paper edge to edge of paper, until

the lines begin to slip –
an almost imperceptible slope
downward, each one degree more
than the one before,
heaping at last in a landslide,
all precariously to balance by a breath
on the point of a pin: the period.

But what have you said? What war won
in this hail of grammatical epiphanies?
What black gold of wisdom
washed clean from this endless
rippling and rippling and puddling
of lines, this frenzied mad life of letters,
these corrupt revelations, these lurid gut spillings,
these spirit festerings and sold soul wailings,
this strip show of the mind?

Page eight – long last the final conclusion:
madness has overtaken all.
The soldier has spilled his seed of discipline,
a sadly crumpled uniform, soiled
gleam of a once golden epaulet,
thrown at the stripper’s bare feet,
her painted toes a chipped and wounded red,
her soles a confession of nightly grime.

Sincerely yours, sir, and best regards.
We have marched in our battle and pole danced,
blinded by an inner siren of false light.
Yet another empty memoir,
whistled away hopes gummed to the back
of an adhesive stamp – where once
there was a flick of moistened tongue
across a minute square of detail

pasted like a kiss, chaste,
expectant, on a pale
forehead, enveloped in anticipation:
I will travel, I will march,
parade from this page
to your virginal eye,
glassy with mute innocence, unaware
of this war of words to besiege
yet another blissfully unwitting mind.

Page nine…

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Letters from Latvia

by Zinta Aistars

(Photo taken 2.14.92 in Houghton, Michigan)

When the literary e-zine, Fiction Attic, asked if I might submit an essay about my experience of living and traveling in Latvia, I found myself going back in memories to my other home and another time...

For seven years I led a double life. Some might have called it an insane life. It required two hearts, or, at least, one that was split down the middle. One part of my heart belonged to my children, who, though Latvian in blood and eight generations of family history, were born and raised in the United States. The other part of my heart beat for my husband, a man I had first met when we were both the wide-eyed age of 15, in the port city of Ventspils, Latvia. Ventspils, a city with an 800-year history, is on the Baltic Sea. Andris had been born and raised there; it was, and is, his home.

For seven years, I balanced a dual citizenship, in constant travel or preparation for travel or recuperation after travel, with one foot firmly planted on either side of the Big Pond and the split in my heart growing ever more bruised and bloodied, ever more harshly tested.

Back when this story first began, my life in the United States and Andris’ life in Latvia could not have been more different. I came from the land of plenty, milk and honey, gold-paved streets and opportunity, flying the flag of freedom as a role model to the rest of the world (or, in perhaps a show of our American arrogance, we liked to think so). He was born into a world of oppression, the Iron Curtain a very real divider between the Soviet-occupied European countries on the perimeters of cruel Mother Russia and the rest of the world. I had been raised by refugee parents, narrowly escaping that oppression as the Red Army invaded tiny Latvia, eventually finding a new life in the States. Still, they raised my sister and me to think of Latvia as true home, some day to be free again, and the United States as our temporary place of exile. Latvian was my first language, the only language spoken in our home. My childhood consisted of bedtime stories of a faraway ancient land, its language, the one I now spoke, one of the most ancient still in use in the modern world. I grew up bilingual and bicultural, attending American public schools on weekdays, Latvian schools on weekends and summers. My personality, perhaps even my appearance, was in a state of constant shifting as I moved seamlessly from one world to the other and back again.

So maybe it made an odd kind of sense, during those seven years, that I lived on two continents. The first time I visited Latvia, my parents took me to Ventspils to see the city where my father had spent his teen years, just prior to World War II. A small stone house a short distance from the city, near a village called Sarnate, was the place where my father spent his childhood summers. Its weathered front faces the Baltic Sea—white sands scattered with pieces of amber, tall pines leaning into the wind, and the house itself holding within it the echoes of seven generations. Seven generations of hard work, love of land and family, many births, many weddings, many funerals, one generation gradually passing into the next, surviving many wars. My father knows Ventspils; his heart, in part, still resides there.

It was a strange feeling, arriving in this place for the very first time, yet feeling myself at home. I was, yes, in a place that I knew instinctively—I belonged. At least, some part of me did and always would. When my parents went to the house of Andris’ parents to meet with old friends, we two met for the first time. The boy with dark hair and dark eyes of unusual intensity greeted me with a firm handshake and a polite nod of his head. As our parents talked over dinner, bridging the lost years and the great divide between the paths their lives had taken, Andris’ eyes never left me. Mine dipped away shyly. In silence, I took in my surroundings. The house was tiny. One room, really, with curtains dividing space at room’s end for a bedroom for his parents, a corner serving as kitchen, and a closet-like space curtained off at the opposite end that was his bedroom. They were fortunate, I learned, to have the luxury of their own home under Soviet occupation, however small. An even greater luxury was to own a telephone, but Andris’ mother quickly took the telephone, pulling the long cord taut, and placed it outside the door of the house while we sat down to dinner inside. Soviet residents knew that telephones were commonly used as listening devices, and few things interested the eavesdroppers more than visitors from the Western world. "Let them listen to the crickets," she said.

Andris spoke to me quietly after dinner. He played his guitar for me. Music, they say, is an international language, crossing all borders, and it melted any remaining between us. By visit’s end we had exchanged addresses, and over the years our letters crossed the ocean, and the Iron Curtain, even as we grew into adults, married, had children, and lived our lives—he as a musician and composer and I as a writer. If his letters on occasion hinted at some stronger emotional bond, I gave it little credence. There was, after all, an Iron Curtain between us, and if the term was a metaphor, its reality was truly one of iron.

Fifteen years after our first meeting, Andris made his first trip to the United States. The Soviets had cautiously begun to allow a crack in the Curtain, a few carefully monitored visitors permitted to travel the world outside, quickly to return again, their property and family members held as something of a ransom. Married couples, for instance, were never allowed to travel together. I did not meet him that first trip. I was married, had two children, and, well, it just didn’t work out. Or, in some deeper part of me, I knew it shouldn’t.

Two years later, when he came to the States again, he found me separated from my husband and living alone with my children. Andris, too, was no longer living with his wife and boys. When I heard the knock on my door, I opened it to a tall, bearded man who little resembled the 15-year-old boy I had met in Ventspils so long ago, if only for the intensity of his penetrating eyes. Suddenly, there were no more barriers.

Only, there was. A vast ocean, after all, separated our homes. We married in a small church in the northern wilderness of Michigan that had a strong resemblance to Latvia. Before we could file papers requesting a change in his citizenship status, Andris’ father died in Ventspils. An only child (his half-sister, Laima, was born to his father in a previous marriage), he returned to help his mother settle her affairs and heal her heart. I soon joined him, my two small children in tow. Around this time, the Soviet Union split open like a rotten fruit, the Iron Curtain crumbled into a rusted heap, and Latvia entered a time of anarchy and rebirth. As excited as we were to see this newborn freedom, it was undeniably a dangerous time, powers being challenged, new governments being formed, and a people struggling to find their way. It was no place to raise two American-born children.

The day of our first anniversary, I returned to the United States with my children. Andris remained in Ventspils. For the next six years, I would travel between these two countries as others move from room to room. To allow for enough time to stay with my husband in Latvia, enough to maintain a marriage, each time I left the States I also left a job, an address, and what few belongings I would keep, carefully boxed and stored in my parents’ garage or basement. Each time I returned, I would have to start my life all over again. Find a new job, lease a new apartment, unpack a few boxes, establish a new if temporary home. Wherever I was, a part of me longed for the place I was not.

My joys in life were simple ones. To be with those I loved was something I never took for granted. In the United States, I raised and nurtured my children, working hard to support our little household. I went to the office, attended parent teacher conferences, drove across town to take care of my many errands as any single parent might. In Latvia, I braided my hair in the manner of Latvian women, and I shopped for fresh produce at the open-air market on a daily basis, washed our laundry by hand, and boiled a large vat of water on the wood-burning stove for our bath water that Andris carried up the stairs in buckets from the well. While life in the capital city of Riga was quickly becoming as modernized as in any city in Europe, the countryside remained as if caught in another time.

One of the happiest days in my memory from those years was an evening spent at my sister-in-law’s house in Ventspils. Hers was a grand two-story place with walls nearly two feet thick, having survived several wars. It had no indoor plumbing, and the stove in her small kitchen was wood-burning, but it always felt like luxury to me. Laima took us out to her garden to pick fresh vegetables for our dinner. I held my shirt out to collect the beans Andris snapped neatly from their stems. Laima dug into the loose soil to pluck out round new potatoes. Her partner, Peteris, cut green onions, his small blade gleaming and sharp. In the kitchen, we rinsed and cut and snapped and prepared our meal, laughing and at moments bursting into song as Andris strummed his sister’s guitar. Surely I had never tasted a better meal than that one, with my family in Latvia warm around me, raising a toast of old cognac in the air—“Prozit!” To us, Laima offered, to our Latvian hearts, surviving all, strong and sure, and to our bright new future ahead.

I last saw Andris on October 15, 1994. It was the hardest, most heart ripping decision I ever had to make. My children could not thrive in such constant change. I was beginning to see signs of damage. They needed me. Full time.

That moment when the steel door at the Riga airport closed on Andris’ face, separating us perhaps forever, haunts me still in my dreams. His dark gaze never wavered as the door slammed shut, never moving from mine.

For months, no, years, I was tormented with the sense that I should never have left. I would wake in the night and, for a moment, not know where I was… here? There? Then, through the dark would come a light rustling, a child’s sigh in dreams, one of my own sleeping in the next room, and I would settle again into the twisted sheets. I am back in the States. Yes, I know: where I belong. With one heart that holds many loves and two homes.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Summer Tryst

by Zinta Aistars

(Pencil drawing by Viestarts Aistars)

It is the smallest pleasures
that matter, delight the days,
cross softly the nights, whispering
of memory, cherished and kept.

The nights are silken, the mornings cool.
They invite: this touch at your temple,
this single kiss behind your ear.
This lean against your arm
as if unaware.

The afternoon cradles a gentle hope,
arms filling with a fragrant bounty,
snapping the crisp stems of daisies
grown in dotted profusion
beyond the hedge,

wandering the field
where you lie still in the waving grass,