Saturday, May 29, 2010

Not by Bread or Cigar Alone

by Zinta Aistars
Dean Hauck, owner of Michigan News Agency, enjoying a poetry reading by Diane Seuss

So it takes half a century plus to discover my own hometown. So I’m a slow learner. But I do learn when bonked on the head with a beautiful realization: I live in Kalamazoo, a remarkable community that is immersed in the arts in that way that one might expect from a much, much larger city. Kalamazoo is not a big city. We are a city of a smidgen less than a quarter million people. I’m not even going to start listing all the arts venues—visual, literary, theatre, dance, galleries and museums, schools and workshops, festivals and Art Hops and international competitions—that enrich us here. There are too many, and I could not begin to do them all justice.

Yet maybe I could. Maybe I could try. As the founder and editor-in-chief of the literary ezine, The Smoking Poet, I am always looking for ways to enrich our own arts pages, reaching ever more people with ever improved art forms. For man and woman do not live by bread alone. Now and then, we need to kick back and light a fine cigar in celebration. More often than now and then, we need art to go with our bread. It is the sustenance of our spiritual, emotional and intellectual wellbeing.

When I started The Smoking Poet in 2006, I wanted reach—international reach. Reach for the stars. And I still do. Among our staff of six exceptional editors today, in fact, is our newest editor, Andris Silis, from Ventspils, Latvia. Andris, a cherished and lifelong friend, is our music editor, his page, appearing for the first time in our summer issue in mid June, is called “Andris’ Blue Note.” That’s it, that’s what I had in mind when I launched this smoky idea. A perspective from the other side of the ocean, another continent, another way of life.

Art can do that for us. Art can help us see through the eyes and heart and mind of another, and so to see the world in an entirely new and different way.

There was that reach, then. Yet now, as I have just attended yet another poetry reading at yet another local venue—Diane Seuss reading from her new poetry collection, Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open, at one of Kalamazoo’s oldest businesses, Michigan News Agency—my reach is curling back in on itself. My reach is coming home again. Near and far, from the distant back to the heart where one begins and ends one’s day.

I sat on the gritty floor of Michigan News Agency on Thursday night, leaning back against the glass counter behind which were cigar boxes of Arturo Fuentes and other fine cigars, and listened to Di being Di. She is one of the shining stars of Kalamazoo. Along with a list of other stars: Bonnie Jo Campbell, for instance, who was a recent finalist in the National Book Awards with her story collection, American Salvage, and David Small, another recent finalist in the National Book Awards with his graphic memoir, Stitches. (Both authors, incidentally, grace the pages of The Smoking Poet, past and upcoming issues.) Chatting with Di at her reading, I wasn’t the least bit surprised to learn that there is talk of submitting her new book for the next National Book Awards.

How many quarter-million-populated towns can brag about such a lineup of literary stars? Something in the water here in Kalamazoo? I don’t know about that, but I do think we may have some good souls in town who lavishly sponsor the arts—because, let’s face it, the arts need funding because even artists occasionally eat and enjoy having a roof, not too leaky, over their heads. We make a good business in the arts.

Again, I’m just barely skimming the surface. I could list long, unwieldy lists of the poets and writers in this town. Indeed, I plan to, one or two at a time, in a new page to appear in The Smoking Poet beginning with our summer issue: Kalamazoo and Beyond. This secret is just too good to keep. Watch for it.

Di Seuss, reading from Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open

There I am, right? Sitting on the floor of the Michigan News Agency, back up against the glass counter, listening to a poetry reading that fills up one end of the newsstand-bookstore with eager and intent listeners. The owner, Dean Hauck, is a true believer in this community. She’s known to sell the books of local writers and keep no profit. Ever hear of such a thing? It happens here, in Kalamazoo. And there, behind a wall of listeners, is a special rack Dean has set in the center of the floor, right smack in the path of anyone coming in, with a handmade sign on it: “Michigan Reads.” I found a book to purchase on that rack, too. I plunked down my bills on the glass counter fully as much in support of Dean’s efforts here at Michigan News Agency as for any other reason.

My reach went far, and now it is coming back to encircle the place I’ve come to call home. Those who know me more intimately know what a long and odd journey it has been for me to call anyplace that. At long last, yet not forever, yes, I am flying the flag, drinking the Kool-Aid, and calling Kalamazoo home. Having finally accepted it as that, I am increasingly feeling the urge to brag. I am finding much to brag about here.

My bragging only begins with a warm spot on the gritty floor of an old newsstand that still knows how to serve residents with extraordinary customer service, listening to a poetic voice that mesmerizes with its courage to be vulnerable, raw with honesty. There’s more where that came from. Much more.


More new, bright and shiny faces on our editorial masthead at The Smoking Poet, Summer 2010 Issue—Mick Parsons, or Papa Mick, as our new cigar editor, and Paula Lemar, our new nonfiction editor. Still with us, bless their hearts: Jeanette Lee, coeditor, and Joannie Kervran Stangeland, poetry editor.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Gone to the Dogs

by Zinta Aistars

on Southwest Michigan's Second Wave (story and video)

Dog mushing: It's not just a winter pastime

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"Hike!" With a sharp command, Mary Vowell streaks by with dogs panting. At a bend in the trail she and the dogs are gone deep into woods. Depending upon the season, a spray of snow or pebbles, kicks up behind them.

By day, Vowell tweaks web pages, designs newsletters, takes orders by phone, and consults with gardeners as she maintains a network of mail-order customer service at Oikos Tree Crops, just outside of Kalamazoo.

Oikos is the Greek word for "home." Ken Asmus founded the arboretum bearing that name in 1985 to preserve wild selections of plants from all over the world. Vowell's boss develops and grows strains of plants, edible food crops and trees that enhance wildlife habitat and are resilient to environmental changes.

"It is rather like home to me," Vowell says of her day job. "I enjoy the type of people drawn to natural and organic ways of life. I enjoy anything that gives me the chance to bond with nature."

Vowell is nowhere more at home, however, than when she is behind her dogs on a sled or a wheeled rig. By night and by weekend, at every spare moment, she leaves the office to transform into a dog musher.

Mary caught mush fever in .... READ THE FULL ARTICLE and view the video and photos by Erik Holladay.

Gone to the Dogs

BY: Jordan Hochstetler of Joho Productions

Photo: Mary Vowell mushing with her girls: Willow, Nabu, Hannah, Moose Tracks.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Rusty Gates and Open Roads

by Zinta Aistars

There is much power in symbols and symbolic acts. It has been more than 16 years since I last crossed the ocean to return to Latvia. By the time I return again, it will be 17. I had watched the expiration date on my passport come and go. I had thought, and thought again, about renewing it.

It expired in 2002. Another eight years have gone by.

How many times have I thought about a return trip home? How many times begun the plans, allowed the dream to unfold, only to shut it down again? Too many to count. It was almost an annual tradition by now. Think about it, consider it, turn the thought around and around in my fingers like an old coin, feeling its edges, biting down on it to test its metal ... then socked it away in the drawer again.

It wasn't time yet.

Much has transpired in these past 16, near 17 years. Too much. Half of that qualified as the stuff of silent nightmare, when one calls out in the dark and no sound comes from a thickened throat, when one aches to run free and finds one's body heavy and immobile, a frozen hunk rooted to the ground. In the last couple years or so, I had slowly been in the process of regaining movement, finding my voice, becoming visible again. A threshold had been crossed.

This new life, or this new phase of a very old life, is filled with many doors to close, others to open, more thresholds to cross. With every closure, new doors beckon to be opened. And a great deal of forward movement requires taking a few steps back, if only to find solid ground from which to leap.

It's time.

Gathering courage, I picked up old threads to see where they might lead. Perhaps I would find them broken forever, cut and with ends dangling into thin air. Indeed, some threads, tugged upon, came loose in my hand. Others, however, I found firmly tied to old treasure, and once I gave that first pull, the old and familiar and much loved came tumbling happily into my lap. Conversations that were begun many, many decades ago, when I was 15 years old and on my first journey to then Soviet Latvia, resumed with ease. These have now become a near daily pleasure. Ka klajas tava puse? Vai atminies, ka mes toreiz gajam lidz juras malai, ka tu sedeji baltas smiltis, veji purinaja tavus matus ...

My heart warms, swells, beats stronger as I receive news from overseas, updates, joyous greetings and encouragement to take wing and come be, sit, walk, laugh with us, here, and you there, and now here, all of us here, in one place, in an ancient city that has seen the passage of many centuries, among great buildings that withstood many wars, in the green fields where ancestors rooted their lives and from those roots sprang ... me... my life. Here. There. My homeless self, or self with two homes and dual citizenships.

I finger the old passport, open it, stare for a moment at the young woman with long hair and burning eyes. On the very last page is a stamp in red of numbers, indicating "Personas Kods" ... a number that designates that I belong there, too. I have the right to vote in elections in both countries. I may serve in the military in both countries. I would joke sometimes: it's a little schizo, and here, I am seen as the Latvian, and there, I have an American scent about me. Yet when I had been there, weeks, months, people would forget, even I would forget, and for a moment in time, I was actually a person who was at home.

It can be a difficult thing to explain to those who have an allegiance to only one country. I have always had two loves. Two places that call to me, each siren with its own song.

I hand the old passport to the city clerk in downtown Grand Rapids during my work lunch break. Heck, more divided homes. I don't live here, I only work here. I have an address elsewhere. Somedays, it all becomes a swirl, hard to keep track. Where am I?

She smiles. That bright, friendly American smile, open and trusting. When I traveled to the Soviet Union years ago, there were no smiles. Faces were gray, eyes downcast, hearts empty. I would return and want to kiss these smiles, these bright faces in their nearly unbearable innocence.

She chatters with me as I fill out the application. Her laughter is free and easy. It all goes very quickly. I hand her my application, my old passport, which she clips to the paperwork, and I pay her with a check. There. It is done. In four to six weeks, she says cheerfully, you will have your new passport and you will be free to travel.

Yes. I will.

My step is light as I leave the city building. Suddenly, all things are possible. An old rusty gate has fallen open, creaking on its rusted hinge, and all roads are open to me. An apartment in Vecriga, the Old Town section of Riga, Latvia, has already been rented. I can almost feel the key to the door in the palm of my hand.

I am almost there, already.

Photos: Vecriga, or Old Town Riga, Latvia

Saturday, May 15, 2010

To See

by Zinta Aistars
(Photos taken by cell phone camera or digital camera in Grand Rapids, Michigan)

We move through our days as if with eyes open, yet do we see? About two or so months ago, I began snapping photos with the cell phone camera in my pocket as I walked on my lunch hours. An image here, a snapshot there. With each day, each lunch hour stroll, I collected more and more photos. It was spring, and the earth was stirring, and I opened my eyes to see life. Everywhere. The crocuses, the tulips, the daffodils and narcissus, blankets of violets ... and as the days went by, the flowers opened, bloomed, wilted, to be replaced by the next wave of blossoms.

Every day, as I accumulated more and more photos, by now several hundred, I was sure there would be nothing new to see. Every day, I found new sights, new shapes, new colors, new patterns, new designs in the world around me.

By now, I have something of an obsession going. I watch the clock for my lunch hour. I hunger not for my sandwich, that I wolf down ... I hunger to go out again and see ... see what I can see that I have never quite seen before.

I often walk the same streets, to challenge myself to see something new. I always do. Other days, I set out to explore places I have never yet been. Instead of turning right, I turn left. Instead of going downhill, I head uphill. Instead of walking the residential neighborhood, I stroll down to Grand River, through the city, or I head to a completely different neighborhood.

Some days I look for flowers. What profusion, what bounty, what beauty. Other days, my eye is drawn to architecture. To the play of light and shadow. To the crumpled paper against the curb, or the petals fallen and strewn across cracked, old steps.

Often, what my eye sees is trained by the day. A good day focuses me on beauty. A tense day focuses me on the ugliness. But more often, getting out to take that walk, whatever the weather, in the middle of my work day ... snaps me out of my routine and pumps fresh blood through my limbs, new joy into my heart, and opens my eyes to the incredible world all around, every single day, every day, every single one.

I see.

Complete photo albums from all my lunch walks in 2010 can be viewed on my Facebook site.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Long Journey Home

by Zinta Aistars

We talked about the ability to change weather, move clouds, reverse winds. We talked about art and kitschy fun things to make the eye dance. We entered the Open Door, invited in, and spoke in song. We sat over a good meal and talked about time travel, tracing our own lives back to our roots, and finally, decided yes to crossing the seas this fall. It is time. And there is so much more to talk about.

Alda and I had spent the day at Saugatuck, Michigan, an artsy resort town on Lake Michigan, filled with colorful art galleries and cafes and boutiques. It was a plan we had had nearly a year ago, shortly after we first met. A year ago, the weather and busy schedules had gotten in our way and Saugatuck didn't happen. A year later, the weather forecast was foreboding: low temperatures with chill winds and high chance of rain. This time, we refused to cancel, come what may. Alda had stated simply, "We will create our own sunshine."

So we had. She drove south from Holland and I drove north from Kalamazoo, and we met just outside of town. The skies were gray and drizzly, but our spirits were bright. This is why I had quickly grown to feel close to this wise woman--she created her own sunshine. I had had enough dark in my life. If I couldn't find the sun, by golly, I would have to learn to create a ray or two on my own. She has already helped me to learn this fine trick.

Over dinner in a sweet bistro in Douglas, sister artsy town snuggled up against Saugatuck, we raised a glass to the one year anniversary of our meeting. It seemed destiny. I had a colleague who told me soon after meeting me, hearing my obviously-not-American name, that gee, he knew a Latvian, too! We should meet! We did, and soon learned we had a surprising number of commonalities in our lives, even while in other places our paths had veered wide apart. Quite often, Alda would stop in her tracks and remark on how similar were our eyes on the world, "Do you think we are so alike because of our shared heritage? Or are we just so alike?"

Who knew. Perhaps. Generational memory, ethnic bonds reaching across time, space, distance. Perhaps it was something else, something more mysterious and unnameable, something about bigger plans and bigger pictures and reason to the madness, but we were friends and we understood each other and we were kindred spirits and in the ways we were different, our differences brought a welcome balance.

A difference: I had been traveling to Latvia since I was 15 years old. At one point in my life, my trips to the country on the Baltic Sea were yearly pilgrimages. A large and important part of my heart beat on those shores. Alda, however, had never been. Her ancestry, her roots, her long ago generational past were still wrapped in mist, a shadow in the unknown. She longed to go, see, experience. I ... I wasn't sure anymore. The story is long and convoluted, complex and tangled. But here it was ... I hadn't been back in ... how long?

14 years, I wrote ponderously in my note that zipped across the ethernet to a port city in Latvia, one that I had thought of as home once, a city that had been home to my family for many generations... it's been 14 years ....

His note zipped back by end of day: You've been gone for 16 years.

16 years. And if we target a return journey for fall, it will be 17.

I looked at Alda across the table, listened to her tell me about her excitement to go, see, experience at long last, and finally to have a friend alongside, someone who had been, seen, experienced, and could serve as a guide.

"I'm no guide," I said. "Not anymore. So much has changed. So much ... " my voice withered away and curled in on itself. "It would be almost like going again for the first time," I finished.

And knew instantly that wasn't true.

You can never go home again. Anymore than you can step into the same river twice. More than one lifetime had passed since I last stood on those white Baltic sands, and I was not the same woman. The world I had left behind near 17 years ago no longer existed.

Yet another world did. My notes zipped across the ethernet and across the ocean daily, and daily the replies came. Years were crumbling, edges fallling away, the occasional chunk loosened and separated, layers peeled away, more layers, until the soft edges of an immovable core showed its tender self. That place where time can do nothing.

Alda's eyes shone bright with anticipation. Her voice rose a pitch. She wanted to discover a home she had never known. Home is where the story begins. We would go. We would gather information, renew or obtain passports, arrange airfares and rentals and lodgings. I already had invitations from overseas friends that their homes were open to us, the welcome mat had the dust shaken out of it and was on the front step, and the light at the door was on in the long, dark night. A glowing beacon of welcome.

I had wanted to go back too many times to count, but the time had not been right. I had not, life had not, the winds had not been in my sails.

We talked about the ability to change weather, move clouds, reverse winds. The weather forecast for Saugatuck had been for cold rain. Instead, we walked the day in cool and ever brightening sunshine. I had at long last found the right travel partner to make the long journey home.

Photo: Ventspils Old Town Hall, Venstpils, Latvia

Photo: Saugatuck Village Hall, Saugatuck, Michigan

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Gilmore biennial keeps Kalamazoo in tune with global vibes

by Zinta Aistars for Southwest Michigan's Second Wave

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Kalamazoo is proud of the high level of its cultural offerings. One of those is the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. Writer Zinta Aistars talks to members of the Kalamazoo community to hear their thoughts about how The Gilmore influences Kalamazoo.

There's a certain steady beat to the thunk of the baseball when it hits the leather baseball glove on Thomas Evans' hand. Almost like a metronome.

Inside that baseball glove is the hand of a musician, a conductor of orchestras. But on this day, it is the hand of a father playing catch with his son in the backyard. Thunk, pause, toss, thunk, pause, toss, thunk.

While Evans was tossing the ball to his son, in nearby Chenery Auditorium, members of the world renowned Beaux Arts Trio were tuning their instruments. Evans says he'll never forget the impact of playing ball with Matt, only minutes and just a few miles from a world-class concert.

"I tossed the ball one more time to Matt," Evans says, "got into my car, drove a few blocks to Chenery, parked my car for free, and sat down to listen to one of the most incredible ...

Visit SECOND WAVE for full article and photos.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Duotrope Digest Interviews the Founder and Editor of The Smoking Poet

Editor Interview: The Smoking Poet

Q: Describe what you publish in 25 characters or less.

A: Smokin' words

—Zinta Aistars, editor-in-chief on 05 May 2010

Q: What other current publications (or publishers) do you admire most?

A: Our keenest competitors, although there really aren't any ... what we do is unique. That said, Drunken Boat, AGNI, Poets & Writers, Copper Canyon Press, Press 53, Her Circle Ezine, Poets Against War, Literary Traveler. More.

—Zinta Aistars, editor-in-chief on 05 May 2010

Q: If you publish fiction, who are your favorite fiction writers? If you publish poetry, who are your favorite poets?

A: Usually the ones we feature in that particular issue, because that means we've just spent a couple months immersed in their work. For the current issue (Spring 2010), that means Marge Piercy - her fiction, nonfiction, poetry. Just previous, we interviewed Bonnie Jo Campbell, whose "American Salvage," story collection published by Wayne State University Press, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Upcoming issue (Summer 2010) will be David Small and his graphic memoir, "Stitches." Ever read a comic book that brought tears to your eyes and haunted you? Yeah. Our upcoming feature poet will be Derick Burleson, Alaskan poet, who makes language a new discovery.

—Zinta Aistars, editor-in-chief on 05 May 2010

Q: What sets your publication apart from others that publish similar material?

Read the full interview on Duotrope Digest.
Visit The Smoking Poet.