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.


  1. Anonymous2:26 PM

    nice to know you, and glad to find such a good artical!.........................