Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Writer to Reader Connection

by Zinta Aistars

I had in my hands an excerpt from a novel-in-progress to read to a group of strangers. I'd never met any of these women, and only once the woman at whose home the book club met. Shirley Wyllys (second from left in photo above) and I connected last November, when I drove to her five-acre farm near Battle Creek, Michigan, to pick up my Thanksgiving turkey. Shirley raised chickens and turkeys, free range and organic, very happy and healthy birds ... right up until it was time to give up the clucky ghost and be served on my dinner table. She also sold organic eggs, and I could testify that the eggs were fresher, had brighter yolks, and tasted much better than those available at your traditional supermarket. Shirley was an early part of my enthused transition to an organic foods fan.

While giving me a tour of her chicken coop, we chatted each about our own lives and occupations. My interest in eating organic foods and meat harvested from traditional farms rather than factory farms had started from an article I had been writing at the time, and so Shirley quickly learned I was a writer. And so, the invitation. Soon after, Shirley asked if I might be interested in reading something of my work to her book club.

Something of my work? The work most on my mind, of course, was my novel. I had been writing it for a few months, rewriting it for years. Begin and toss. Begin again and toss again. Over and over again, until finally I settled on a version that felt right and wouldn't quit on me.

It felt right to me. But would it read right to the general reading public? How is a writer to know?

"Sure, I'd love to," I told Shirley, cheerily accepting her invitation and setting a date. This was my chance. I could give an excerpt from my half-baked manuscript a test run on this book club of women that I didn't know any better, that is, not at all, than the average person wandering into a bookstore. Wandering in, browsing the book shelves, pondering what good read to plunk on the counter by the cashier. On some happy day in the future, perhaps that book might be mine. I wanted to know if what I was writing would capture the imagination and whet the reading appetite of that future bookstore shopper.

Mind you, I am dead to the reader when I am writing. The reader does not exist to me anymore than I exist to that reader. Our connection is somewhere out there, out in space and time, in some foggy and misty swirl of the unknown future. While writing, I think only about the words, the art of the thing. I am lost in something I can only call a trance. My eyes go blind to what it is around me, my ears clamp shut and deaf, my heart beats the rhythm of another life than mine. I become my characters. My reality is elsewhere. I am lost.

With this opportunity to get found, I drive into Shirley's drive, her husband meets me at the garage door, and along with boisterously friendly dog Sadie, they walk me in. Shirley is cooking eggs. To grease me properly into the reading mood, the book club is meeting over breakfast, and as all five women gather, we sit around a table decorated with patterns of sunflowers--and we eat. We eat those bright yellow organic eggs from the happy red-brown hens outside. We eat pumpkin pancakes with real maple syrup. We eat fruit in a pink yogurt sauce, and life always tastes better with a crisp piece of bacon between your teeth. I was greased.

I sat in a central corner and the five women sat to either side. I cleared my throat and whipped out page one. I read: "Closed Doors Open. Chapter One." And they listened. I think they were listening. It was quiet. Not just quiet, but dead quiet. I think even the hens had stopped clucking outside. I let my eyes roam their faces to check occasionally for life, but, yup, all five pairs were on me. And I read. And it was quiet. And I read through the entire first chapter. And it was quiet.

I finished reading. It was very quiet.

I looked up. Five pairs of eyes were still on me. Quietly waiting, breathing, being.

Then one of the women sprang up from her place on the couch and said, "Oh, I think you should just bury that Jake in the basement. Just bury him. That's what I think."

They were all talking then. About the characters in the first chapter, about the narrator, about the house that was the setting, so much of a setting that it was, really, another character, too.

"Do you think she'll ever love again?"

"I know! With the house being renovated like that, maybe she'll fall for the contractor."

"Oh. Yeah. Hm."

"No. When the house is finished, she will live there alone, strong and independent, content in her own life."

I smiled, listening to the banter. Multiple endings were suggested. Did I have any in mind? I did not. I do not write from an outline, I explained. I write where the words lead me. I name the characters and I breathe life into their clay, and they take me where they decide. I have no idea how the book will end.

I do know, however, as I listen to the five women discuss the chapter, that I am on track. They identify. Each in her own way, one of them notes, with different aspects of the unfolding plot. The characters have come alive for them, too, and begun to matter.

With two fresh roasters and three dozen fresh eggs on the car seat beside me, I drive back home. I will keep writing. The next chapter, and the next, and all the ones after, if only to see how this story ends. If only to someday sit in a silent room, where people sit so still, so very still, listening with everything in them, that I know I have touched on a little tiny piece of magic: the connection made between writer and reader.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Blessing: Counted

by Zinta Aistars

My son, the Timex watch man, hit head on by another car today, airbags deployed, walked away, keeps on ticking. Blessing: counted.

Quite a few blessings, actually. I'm not so very terrible at staying aware of my blessings, but admittedly, now and then, I get distracted from seeing them--head on. Which is about when airbags are deployed, a soft but simultaneously hard slap of a pillow in the face, so that I am that much more aware again. Wake up! Your babes are alive, and they are well, and with that fact snuggly in place, there is nothing you can't beat. Any good mother out there knows exactly what I mean. There is nothing else. Nothing else. Nothing. Not one thing.

No more dreaded call than when my phone rings at work, and I am many miles away from home, at least an hour's drive, to hear my son's cracking voice: "Mom. I've been in an accident."

Pause. I hold my breath, taking in those words, in split second examining his voice with instant replay in my brain to assess the damage, if any.

"You okay?"

"Yeah, yeah. The car..."

"Yes, but you..."

"I'm okay, Mom."

"Okay." I breathe. "Okay. So. What happened? Where are you?"

"Some ditz rushed a light. Trying to get her turn in. While I was still heading straight through the intersection."

"Is the ditz okay?"

"Yeah, I think so."

"Where are you?"

"Back of a cop car."

Pause. My son is not a blue uniform fan. He's never come up against a uniform he likes. Rebel runs in his blood, testing every rule, just in case it wasn't meant for him. The last few years have tamed him a bit, though. He's begun to accept that a few of those rules--a few, mind you--might be meant for him, too, and not all for the bad.

"What's going on? Paint me a picture. I'm leaving now, but it will take me an hour to get there." I am already turning off my work computer with my free hand, fishing for car keys in my top drawer.

"He's a nice guy."

"Excuse me? Who?"

"The cop."

"A nice guy," I test that.

"Yeah. He's writing it up now. Couple of witnesses. He's writing a ticket."

"For ditz or for you?"

"Ditz. Deemed it her fault. He's writing her a ticket. And called a tow truck for me. Said I could sit here and rest for a bit."

"I see." I breathe deeper. "And you're okay."

"I'm okay."

"Okay. And the car."

"Is totaled."

"Technically or truly?"

"Truly one ugly heap."

I flashback to early morning. My son had just walked in the door, come up the stairs where I was preparing for the work day, and cheerily started to tell me how one of his friends had spent the last ten hours of the night welding the rotor, or rather, melting it off his wheel. It had been so long in that 1989 Honda, driven hard, that sustained heat and pressure had welded it into place. When my son wanted to replace his brakes, he couldn't remove the old rotor. His friend worked and worked and managed to get it off, installing new brakes. The old car was looking better all the time. My son babied it like, well, his baby. Even though it was nearing 200,000 miles, it was still running smooth and easy. He loved his old wheels.

Ten hours work for naught. His brakes worked beautifully; hers did not. She was racing to get to whatever it was that was so very important to her that she tried to beat the light, and it was the gas pedal she was pressing, heck with the brakes.

But he was okay. He was okay, even if the old car, the one I drove for so many years and on so many fine road adventures, finally handing it over to him when I replaced it with a new Honda, was not.

One hour. I had to resist racing too fast. It was tempting. But finally I was back in town, and he was home, surrounded by a circle of friends, and the tow truck depositing the steaming ruin on the side drive. Perhaps some parts could be salvaged. One of my son's friends joked that all he had to do was find someone willing to trade front of car for back of car. My boy was already prying loose pieces of crunched metal, brake fluid was spilling into the soil, and the spiderwebbed windshield crunched and buckled. He turned the key and a billowing cloud of blue smoke swirled from the exhaust, but the engine worked fine.

"The engine," he grinned, "she's working fine."

All his friends huddled in to watch it turn, to listen to it hum. And I watched all of them. They had come to him within moments. When I was some 50 miles away, they were here, all of them, a colorful bunch, Ron, Chris, Molly, and they fussed over their pal and he depended on them. They were all there for each other. They were patting him on the back, bumping into him, rubbing his head, cracking jokes. He was laughing. Prying loose pieces of metal and cracking jokes back.

If there's one thing I have always admired and respected about my son, it's his ability to be a true friend, and in so doing, earn true friends. I knew he'd do anything for his best pals, because I'd seen him do it, again and again, taking the fall, getting up again, taking the fall as many times as needed to defend and stand in for a friend in need. I was pretty sure his friends would stand for him, too. He was a wealthy man.

I went inside my house to sit down for a while. Just sit. I sat. I just sat. For a long time.

My BlackBerry blinked a red light. A text message coming in. My daughter was sending message on the results of her two job interviews today. Like so many, she is looking for work. She'd been deputy campaign manager for a fine candidate in Evanston, Illinois. The candidate won the primaries, defeating four others, with no opponents to face her at the November elections. My daughter's work was done, and now she needed something new.

Text: "2 interviews, 2 call backs, in 1 day! Hurrah!"

Hurrah, indeed. Blessings counted and still counting. Two out of two of my babes doing just fine in one good day.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Smoking Poet Spring 2010 is Launched!

“A fine cigar and good literature―two of life’s most enduring pleasures.”

Never a dull moment. Certainly not here. As the smoke lifts to reveal yet another issue, we celebrate the beginning of our fifth year of publication. And just when I think this is our best issue yet, one we will be hard put to top—we top it. No, you do. The writers that send work to us are continually surprising and astounding and thrilling us with your literary prowess. And, your fascinating life stories.

Joannie Kervran Stangeland has been our guest poetry editor for the spring issue. What you see in our three pages of poetry have Joannie’s seal of approval. I purposefully did not read any poetry submissions until it was time to post the spring issue online. Oh, glory, but there’s some spice and vim and soul-shimmering verse here! And the best news of all? Joannie so enjoyed her poetic journey here that she has decided to join us permanently! Welcome, Joannie!

A Good Cause revisits the renewed call for women and feminists of either gender to consider what Ariel Levy calls "the culture of raunch." Is it really empowering women? Or is it a step backwards to objectification? The first time I published this essay, it brought so many comments, I thought it worth a double take. After all, the "culture of raunch" seems only to be expanding.

Fiction takes us to the dark corners of poverty and domestic violence, the love between a marine father and daughter, love that crosses lines into betrayal and turns bloody, tells a ghost story on rails, teaches a village in India about literacy and indecipherable hearts, turns into stalking, clears the fog, and serves up pancakes and cocktails and mussel stew.

Nonfiction travels to Riga, Latvia, where my own ethnic roots grow deep into Baltic rock and earth, for a traveler’s perspective on a country in transition—there are Russian spies, “hotbods” and burger buffets to entice you to dig up that passport. Another journey takes us to Canadian shores, another to observe what observes us. Yet another journey makes us sit and spit.

Three fascinating people talk to us and to you: Marge Piercy, one of the strongest and most dynamic feminist voices in contemporary literature, answers the hungry questions of the Book Mavens (and don’t miss the page devoted to Piercy’s poetry); Michael Dunn, a Michigan artist who designs buildings, books, and visions in color—his artwork graces the pages of this issue; and Jothy Rosenberg, two-time cancer survivor, missing one leg and part of one lung but not missing out on anything life has to offer—Jothy talks about his life, his survival instincts, and his memoir, Who Says I Can’t. We certainly don't.

Now, light up that Drew Estate Acid Toast, and enter the Cigar Lounge: meet David Blaine, our dirty smoker cigar editor, and read about cigar smugglers and a mama who chews hard on her stogie.

Done reading? Get to writing! Our Third Annual Short Story Contest is in full swing! Cash prizes, publication, and a reading by our honorary judge, owner and publisher at Press 53, Kevin Morgan Watson. Send us your very best work—you could be our next winner.

Finally, a very warm welcome to Jeanette Lee. Jeanette is our new co-editor for the summer issue. The summer issue will have Jeanette's close oversight and design.

With a good word,

Zinta Aistars

The Smoking Poet
3rd Annual Short Story Contest
Submission Guidelines
Deadline: May 31, 2010
Cash Prizes

The Smoking Poet

Spring 2010

Issue #14


Gary D Aker

Grace Andreacchi

Ronda Broatch

James Cihlar

Cameron Conaway

Jewel Beth Davis

Tanya DeBuff

Elyse Draper

Michael Dunn

John M. Edwards

Terri Kirby Erickson

Ricky Garni

Maryte Gurekas

Micah Dean Hicks

Conrad Hilberry

Nigel Holt

Ray Marsocci

Lori A. May

Denrele Ogunwa

Scott Owens

Janice Pariat

Jerry Peterson

Marge Piercy

Annette Rasmussen

Jothy Rosenberg

Barnali Saha

Birute Putrius Serota

Hal Shows

Judith Skillman

Kim Teeple

A.K. Thompson

Robert W. Walker

Margaret Walther

Changming Yuan

Cigar Lounge

Rich Baiocco

David Blaine

Andrew Haley

Caleb J. Ross

(Cover Image by Michael Dunn)