Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pre-Thanksgiving Gratitude

by Zinta Aistars

Admit it. You don’t really think it will ever be you. Not you. Not me. Not ever our turn to be called, our number up, our unlucky moment of surprise. We pretend to accept that someday it will be our turn, but deep down we are convinced … it will never be us. Always the other guy.

What a delicious sense of freedom when The Boss says, two hours early: go! Be free! It’s holiday, and this is the gravy. I lock up my office and nearly sprint to the parking lot, feeling the next four days unfolding bright before me, all sweet invitation. Thanksgiving is easily one of my favorite holidays. The gift of the day is to be among friends and family, enjoying a meal together and the warmth of community and love. Nice. Perfect day for counting blessings.

But Thanksgiving is tomorrow. I’m not counting yet. I’m on the highway, speeding over the 55 miles home, my audio book on the car stereo amusing me, my thoughts occasionally wandering to consider my trip to Chicago at the break of dawn tomorrow. It does not occur to me that Someone might be flicking numbers Upstairs, considering: this one today? That one? Some ingrate perhaps?

I only notice, with some slight annoyance, that the white Buick ahead of me is slowing, effectively hogging the passing lane. Cars to the right, cars behind me, and this Buick ahead of me, blocking my way. I confess, I have been in the speeding mood today, eager to eat up the miles and be home to sink fully into the buttery sweetness of holiday. How good it will be to get home early … but not when I am stuck behind this road hog.

He slows even more. My eye traveling along his side, I notice then that his front, driver’s side tire is wobbling badly. Maybe that is why he is slowing? He senses something awry, pulls into the lane to the right, and in the next instant, when we are almost exactly side by side, all I suddenly see is a shower of fire-red sparks spray across my windshield, a loose tire rolling and bouncing in front of me, the grate of metal on pavement, shimmying machines, a looming car in my rearview mirror, an eighteen-wheeler closing in on the white Buick, the sharp descent of the shoulder to my left, no place to go, no escape from this trap, and the red and orange sparks spraying like flowering fireworks … there is no time to think, even as the mind switches its own gears into wise reflex, absorbing data faster than my conscious mind can process it. Sparks, metal, spinning machines, eighteen-wheeler, bouncing tire, objects in the mirror are closer than you would hope …

I’ve been making this daily commute of 110 miles round trip between work and home for nearly a year and a half. Through changing seasons, at all hours, many of those hours pitch black, and at various stages of fatigue. In the winter, white-knuckling through long stretches of white-out, lake effect snow blowing over the Interstate from Lake Michigan to the west, I’ve counted as many as 17 accidents on just one side of the highway. Why shouldn’t I be one of them? In this past year, I have had several near misses, and been the target of road rage where I had to call 911 on my cell to finally get the SUV chasing me at 110 miles per hour to back off. I sense that this commute has an expiration date on it and every drive is a nibbling away at the odds.

Today? My reflexes operate of their own volition. I swerve toward the hobbled white Buick even as it veers toward me, avoiding the bouncing tire. The tire past, I swerve back, losing minimal speed so as to keep the vehicle behind me from becoming too intimate a friend. I can hear the wheeze of air brakes as the eighteen-wheeler groans to slow and avoid the crippled car. There’s a lot of praying going on. A lot of cursing, too, I suppose, among our ballet of vehicles, but my own heart hammers a call upward, one that has no words, only the shape of hope and a blind reliance on protection.

And we are heard. The white Buick slows, slows more, and finally pulls into the far shoulder, grinding its naked axle and the remaining rotor until the spray of sparks is but a spit. By now, we have all slowed, as one machine. We are all … spared. I watch in my rearview mirror as one vehicle pulls over to help the man in the white Buick. The semi, too, slows. The tire lies somewhere in the grassy median on its side.

My pulse has quickened to a flutter, and my heart is a hard thud in my chest. Not today. No, not today my number. What then do I say of this blessing a day before we are to count them? A reminder that we can never count on tomorrow. That every day is a holiday. That the best work I’ve done this day was to tell my sister and my daughter in Chicago that I am most eager to see them tomorrow, to spend a moment in time in that nurturing shared space: a meal, a clatter of dishes, a rousing of toasts, a shimmer of laughter.

There is nothing else.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

An Interview with the Editor of THE SMOKING POET

Kelly Bacon Interviews Zinta Aistars about THE SMOKING POET for Western Herald, the student newspaper at Western Michigan University.

What is the literary e-zine's connection to Kalamazoo and/or Western Michigan University (if any)?

There is none. Other than Kalamazoo being the resident city for the editor-in-chief, we are not affiliated with any "place," but are an international, multicultural, literary presence online.

What makes The Smoking Poet different from other literary journals/e-zines/magazines?

Any publication is made unique by the editorial board that contributes to it and, subsequently, by all the contributors who submit their work and are published on its pages. I make no qualms about bringing my own literary tastes to the pages of TSP. How can I not? The work we accept, the work we let go (I hesitate to use the word "reject" because these are not rejections, but rather a statement that someone's work is not a good fit for the general literary taste and ambiance of a publication); all of that is a very subjective process. Art can't be measured the way hard science can measure a substance—it is this thing or it is that thing. The work we publish resonates with the editors, and that is something very personal.

That said, what I see as differentiating us from most online publications is that we go out of our way to publish work from all corners of the globe. Not only American writers and artists, but we have also published work coming to us from Latvia, Ireland, France, India, China, Australia, England, South Africa, Japan, and many other intriguing and wonderful places. We consciously resist tunnel vision in our literary tastes. Every culture expresses itself in its own way, and we want that to be reflected on our pages.

What else? Earlier I used the word "ambiance." Because of how The Smoking Poet was born (see upcoming question on how it was founded), it has a sense of place to it. We wanted it to feel like that comfortable, relaxing, soothing lounge where you might go at the end of a stressful day, sit back in a plush leather chair, be served a glass of wine or old scotch (whatever your pleasure), listen to the jazz quartet in the corner of the room … and maybe even light up a cigar. Can you see the cigar lounge in your mind's eye? (In fact, we have a page called Cigar Lounge that posts cigar reviews and poetry and prose on that theme. You do not have to be a cigar aficionado, however, to submit to TSP!) Now and then, a poet might go sit by the jazz quartet and read her work to the room. Or a musician might solo on his saxophone. A novelist read an excerpt of his novel. By evening's end, you are relaxed and your spirit refreshed and inspired.

This is the sense, the feel, of what we hope to bring to the readers of The Smoking Poet as they enter our pages. But just to keep things hopping, we are not averse to publishing an essay on political or social issues and stirring up a bit of controversy.

In your opinion, what makes a poem a piece of art (or a quality poem)?

I touched on this a bit in my previous answer. Art is one of those things impossible to define. Which is why perhaps some hold it akin to religion. It is a spiritual experience, certainly. Along with our exposure to quality art throughout our lifetimes, we develop a general sense of what is good, what is less good, what is not any good at all. I trust that gut reaction, that instinct … that inner voice of wisdom. It knows.

I've heard beginning writers argue that anything coming "from the heart" is art. I don't agree with that. Everything creative comes from the heart. That doesn't automatically make it good, or make it art. Saying that is an insult, I think, to all those who have devoted years upon years to honing not only their craft, their skill, but also their sensibility that differentiates between art and not art. There are very many wordsmiths, crafts people, who write. You might even call them technical writers. To become an artist, however, is to transcend craft and enter … well, here is where I start to sound spiritual … some higher level of creation and being. You go beyond the skills of constructing grammatically correct sentences and enter another realm. And when you do … something spiritual happens inside. As if your heart expands, the walls fall away from your mind, the blinders come off your eyes, and you see deeper, higher, with sharper detail. You begin to produce art. And your reader recognizes that, because in reading your work, that experience is duplicated. You have made a connection of the most intimate kind.

Do you ever publish in hard copies? Or is TSP strictly a literary ezine?

At this point, we are online only. Originally, our thought was to someday go to hard print as well. But you know, watching the evolution of literature, the evolution of society and how we take in our information, how we spend our leisure time, our general daily habits … I have to say, we probably will not go into print. Never say never, but at this time, I no longer see that as a goal.

Just this morning, I read a New York Times article about the Kindle, an electronic reader that Amazon has produced. You can now purchase books online, magazines and newspapers, and read them on your Kindle. Instantly downloaded. Is this the wave of the future? E-books? I can't say, but I do know that publishing in general is taking a hard hit these days. Younger generations are not reading books the way they used to. There are so many competing venues and mediums of entertainment. I am thinking this is the future. Online.

I know this, too: in print, we would never have had the kind of reach we have now.

When was TSP founded?

It's a very fond memory for me. I was on a business trip at the time, doing some interviews and also attending a conference in Austin, Texas. It was January 2006, the perfect time to travel south. My travel companion was author J. Conrad Guest, also from Michigan. J. Conrad is a cigar aficionado, and now and then, he gets me to light one up, too. We often sit back on an evening and light up a couple of satisfyingly expensive cigars and dive into all manner of philosophical discussion.

This particular Austin evening, we had just visited an Austin cigar lounge where the owner, a very kind and warm-hearted man named Charlie, had invited us in and poured us a couple glasses of wine, and sat talking away the hours with us about cigars and about what it took to open up a cigar lounge. By the time the two of us left that lounge, we were nearly convinced we should return to Michigan and open a lounge. Well, okay, we thought that for about five minutes. Here were two writers, after all, working hard for a living, knowing all too well how difficult it is to get rich in the creative arts. We sat down on a bench in the middle of Austin, enjoyed the warmth of the evening, watching the white smoke of our cigars (gifts from Charlie) swirl overhead, and talked silly dreams about an imaginary cigar lounge up north. J. Conrad knew just what cigars we would sell. I knew I wanted a jazz quartet playing in the place. And wouldn't it be the coolest, to have a poet get up there now and then and read …

… we indulged our daydream, but knew neither one of us had the capital to actually attempt such a thing. But, hey. What if we created a kind of facsimile of this place online? And what if we called it …

… and you know the rest of the story.

What would you say was the climax or turning point of TSP thus far?

Every new issue is a moment of euphoria. Putting together an ezine and promoting it is a tremendous amount of work. We read through and discuss hundreds of submissions, choosing only a few. We put together the template and post each piece in its place, aligning and tweaking and revising and tweaking again until we can get as close to perfection as we possibly can. Then there are hours of promotional work. Then we post calls for submissions for the next issue, and it begins again. I have spent as many as 14 hours on a Sunday working on it.

But you know? It truly is a labor of love. For both of us. We do this for nothing more than the love of fine literature.

In what ways has the literary magazine been most successful?

See above described moment of euphoria. To me, that's success. TSP has garnered a lot of attention in, to us, an amazingly short time. We have featured such exceptional literary talents as Dorianne Laux, Ingrid Hill, Paul Levinson, Tish Cohen, Lynn Stegner, Sue Miller, and many others. We often feature visual artists who catch our eye, too. And we have given a platform to some of the best new literary and artistic talent … that is a wonderful, wonderful feeling.

What are your ideas for the future of TSP?

We are thinking about a redesign of the site's template. Hiring a Web designer is an expensive proposition, but I think it would bring the ezine to a higher level.

Hmm. Any WMU students interested in Web design?

Do submissions that aren't placed at first, second, or third place wins still have a shot at being published in your ezine?

Absolutely. That's exactly what happened with our first short story contest. We were so impressed by the quality of work we received! Our issue featured the winners of that contest, but each editor had championed some other favorites, several of whom we then brought back for the following issue to feature their work, too.

When will TSP's next contest be (and what exactly will that contest be)?

We have had a short story contest, and currently underway is our poetry contest. Deadline for that is the end of November 2008. I expect to run our next short story contest in the spring, poetry again in fall, but we are playing with ideas of non-fiction contests, memoirs and essays. Who knows, maybe even best cigar reviews. Watch for our announcements!

What incentives to most poets have for choosing to be published in TSP when contemplating submissions to other e-zines?

I can't speak for our contributors, but I would hope it would be the fine company they keep at TSP.

What rights does the ezine ask for of its poets (i.e., first serial rights, etc. )?

Our submission guidelines address this in detail, but basically we look for new, unpublished work, which is archived for two issues. The author retains all rights after the issue featuring their work goes offline.

Do you sometimes publish rhyming poems?

As a rule, no. It is extremely difficult to write a good poem in rhyme, to not sound outdated and cliché, and one must be trained and talented in this classic art to produce something of quality. I am always willing to break a rule for quality.

Who are some of the more famous poets that you have featured in your ezine?

Dorianne Laux is a poet whose work I have adored for a very long time. Anyone who knows American poetry knows her work. She is, in fact, one of the judges for our poetry contest. We have also published many poets who have won Pushcart Prizes, are poets-in-residence at esteemed universities and colleges, even the occasional poet laureate. I will resist dropping names only because I can't drop all of them here and don't want to leave anyone out. They have brought the very best to our humble pages.

What percentage of the poets regularly featured is never-before-published?

We have kept no record of this, so I can't say. I can only say that it makes no difference whatsoever to me when I read a poem whether the poet is long established and much published, or this particular poem is the first thing the poet has ever set to paper. All TSP cares about is that it is a poem that moves us. If it brings that quiet little hum of pleasure in reading it… it will make it onto our pages. I have also been known to turn down the work of poets with a long list of awards attached to their bios. It is the poem that matters, nothing else.

When does your next issue come out?

The winter issue, featuring the winners of the poetry contest along with selections in fiction and non-fiction, book reviews and cigar reviews, links and resources, and an interview with a visual artist whose work will take your breath away, is due online in mid December.

Where can we find The Smoking Poet?

We also have a page on MySpace and on Facebook, on, as well as various other sites. You can find us on for updates on our submissions, too.

or you can always Google us!

Sunday, November 02, 2008


by Zinta Aistars

I remember his hands. I loved those hands. Behind closed eyes, I see them now. Gnarled and thick-knuckled, grooved and lined, the veins roping over sturdy bones, the large, square nails, pared with a knife.

This many years later, at an age that I remember him while only beginning to know myself at this half-century mark. My half century measured against his. Then, I was a little scampering bit of trouble at his knees. Now, he lives behind my closed eyes, his blood a potent blend with mine.

I can still feel their strong yet gentle grip. Today, November 2nd, is my grandfather’s birthday. I refuse to count the years. I know only, with a sense in my physical body, more than a calculation of the mind, that he has been gone from me a long, long time. It is an amputation.

Odd, how we had the same pet name for each other. The rest of the family called him Vecais Papitis, or Old Pappy, while I called him – Samtins. Samts is the Latvian word for velvet. With the addition of a diminutive ending, he was my soft place of comfort, my warm and gentle heart. In return, he called me the same: his “mazais Samtins.” The little velvety one.

He was my first great love. At family gatherings, where the very young were a nuisance and the very old, the same, the two of us always seemed to find our way to each other, in some tucked away corner of the busy room. The rest, they thought my childish chattering too silly and simple. His stories, repeated a thousand times and yet again, had faded to a drone in their ears. Yet to Samtins, my chattering seemed always great wisdom, a call to pondering the mysterious and grand world I was so eager to explore and he equally eager to guide me. To me, his tales were an open book of adventure, a history of the world behind me, and I never tired of hearing them. There was the land he worked in Cesis, Latvia. The days of being a postmaster in Riga. The war that tore him from his land, so that he and my grandmother, my mother and her brother, ran through the dark forests and followed the rails, all the way to Germany. How brave he had to be …

He was small in stature, thin and wiry, so thin that even in sweltering summer he wore two, even three shirts, suspenders holding up his pants. Yet his strength seemed something of myth and legend to me. Indeed, when I heard later that he had participated in the Olympics in his youth, won a medal in jiu-jitsu, wrestled in the light-weight division, I was pleased but not surprised. I’d always known he was a warrior. My first and ever knight in shining armor. The only knight who would never, not once, disappoint me. Even when I’d reached my adult height, as soon as I saw him, I’d race into his arms and he’d grip me in those steely, great hands and lift me up, twirl me around him, until we were both laughing. He was my Atlas who never shrugged.

When he died, I knew myself alone for the first time. No knight to guard me. No great and gnarled hands to gently touch my cheek. No ear to hear my nonsense stories. I found my way to his closet, buried my face in his old tweed jacket, smelled his scent, my history, and understood fully, at last, I had lost my soft spot of velvet in an ever-shifting world.

I think of you today. I miss your hands. I am empty, still, where you were.