Monday, June 28, 2010


by Zinta Aistars

Handsome young man with downcast eyes, my son's age. None of which I saw when he shot out of the alley and out into the street, his bike and body slamming into the side of my passing car. I stood with him in the alley after he got up and limped back into the shadows, his bike one-wheeled. Waiting for the ambulance. Homeless. Had been in a hurry. Couldn't, wouldn't say to where.

I touched his arm. Thick with muscle. "Are you all right? Are you sure?"

He moved from one sneakered foot to the other, watching his own feet. It was evident he was trying not to limp.

"Yes, fine."

Big man, towering over me, broad shoulders meant for a football field, but he seemed afraid to look me in the eye. Still, I sensed something good, even as I wondered if he was racing out into the street like that, not looking, for a wrong reason.

The bicycle's front wheel had come loose. The tire had gone flat. He gazed at it with a look of lost hope.

"Perhaps someplace I can take that bike ... "

He shrugged a little, glanced back down the alley. "Brother, that way ... "

His brown cheek glistened with sweat. His hair was trimmed, not so long ago ... what was this important thing waiting that he had to reach in such a hurry? I offered my phone but he shook his head no, still not meeting my eyes, or quick glance and look away.

The patrol car with siren blaring and swirling lights sped by. I stepped out of the alley to wave him back, but he turned onto Ionia Avenue. He'll be back.

He let a bit more weight rest on his left foot, held, then released again. He'd already told me, no health insurance, but the ambulance was on its way.

Patrol car returned, and an officer lept out and came toward us, leaned to check the bicyclist's leg while I went for my papers, registration, insurance, license. A new dent gleamed on my car's passenger side panel.

Could have been worse, I told myself. So much so. Driving home, work day behind me, evening ahead, thinking about the row of white petunias still to be planted alongside the front steps to the walk, heading out of town toward the interstate, one more turn ...

Another officer handed me a yellow card with incident report number. "You can go," she said.

"Is he ... "

"They'll fix him up in the ambulance, he won't need to go into emergency. He's all right."

"Even so ... "

"Yes," she nodded, getting it.

"I'd like to contact him. I have a bike at home. Bought it a little while ago, used."

"He has no address, but I'll ask... wait." And she went back to the ambulance, a moment later returned with a slip of paper: his name, a cell phone number.

I drive home in silence, windows open, near 60 miles to go, thinking ... one moment this way, next moment, that.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Late Bloomer

by Zinta Aistars

All fall, all winter, all spring even—I walked the neighborhood near my office in Grand Rapids, Michigan, snapping photos and undisturbed. No one seemed to mind. No one seemed to notice. With each passing lunch hour of my photogenic strolls, I got a little braver. Creeping over lawns, walking up sidewalks or driveways, leaning over fences and in toward houses to get my shot. The day I decided to take photos of interesting doorways, from the shabbiest to the most grandiose, I was approaching one doorway after another, snap, snap, yet no one threw a boot at me or yelled at me from a window or opened the door to shout, hey you … !

It’s summer. I’ve skipped a few lunch hour walks when temperatures move up toward 80s and, God forbid, the 90s. I have no heat tolerance. I am comfortable with my house at 58 degrees Fahrenheit in the glorious winter and when spring even hints at heat, my AC is cooling my rooms to a cool 65. And still, I toss at night, that deep, restful sleep of chilly nights evading me. When autumn finally cools the air again, my energy level instantly leaps upward. Summer is my season of hibernation.

Today, however, the thermometer shows a reasonable 73 by the time my lunch hour rolls around. The weekend just ahead is to be a hellish 90-something. My window of opportunity is here, and I head out at noon, camera in hand.

There: roses. I once had such a beauty in my front yard, a seeming thousand homes ago, a gift from a friend. The rose bloomed with its great, blood red buds, opening into lush blossoms, fragrant, sensual, inviting. Passing cars would slow to gape when she was in full seduction. Then, I grew to hate the gaudy flower. It appeared on every tacky greeting card and Valentine. It was the base for every sickly sweet cheap perfume. It was the cliché of all flowers. It was the eye-roller of bad poetry. Gertrude Stein missed the point, or perhaps got it: a rose is a rose is a rose, and that's all.

My taste had changed, evolved, grown finer, wilder, and I was drawn now to English gardens, to fields of unkempt flowers, there as their creator had made them, unadulterated by chemical pesticides and fertilizers, with curving borders and spilling over rocks. I adore humble violets, growing close to the ground, with leaves like open palms or green and ready open hearts. I pluck daisies, weave them into wreaths and hang them on my bedpost. My heart hums with warm memories when I come across tiny blue forget-me-nots. I won’t forget …

I approach the roses at the end of the block and snap a few photos. Still not my favorite, although I am considering one for my own newly dug garden at home. No more blood reds, however. I’ve seen enough bloodied and false romance in my life for any more red roses. As new romance unfolds, my eye is drawn to the white rose, the symbol of new beginnings, of renewed purity, honor and reverence.


I look up over my camera. A smiling young woman is watching me snap photos of her daisies, tall and gangly and pretty, leaning up against her white picket fence.

I return her smile. “You have the perfect white picket dream going on here.”

Her smile widens to show teeth, and she comes closer. “You’re from the hospital?” She points back past her shoulder.

“I work there, yes. Your garden gladdens my lunch hour walks.”

“Oh, thank you! Let me show you … “

And she is off, chattering cheerily about her flower choices, the rocks she uses for borders, the woven window baskets, and which perennials she planted first, which just this season. I nod at her pink wild roses, a short shrub but heavy with frilly little roses, tiny as trim fingernails, and she blushes with delight to match, telling me how she waters them with tea.


“My used up tea bags, yes! I boil them again and water the roses with the tea water once cooled. They love it!”

A gardener after my own heart. She uses egg shells for calcium, coffee grounds for soil acidity, and she composts in the back to feed her plants. I tell her about my new garden, planting perennials for the first time in 15 years because I never believed I would stay. Now, I am planting for the ages. Mine or someone else’s. I am learning plant names I never knew, or had forgotten, and I am thinking about composition as if visualizing a painting come alive. I thrust my bare hands into the dirt, let the soil form a thin black moon beneath my nails, and crumble the earth between my fingers. I pat down the dirt around the root, water it carefully, slowly, letting the water trickle between the crevices of soil and seep in, quench thirst.

She waves at me as I at last walk away, once more thanking her for the gift she has given random passersby such as myself. A few houses down, another woman peeks out as I lean over to look more closely at the tiny blossoms of her …

“Would you like to know about my garden? I can tell you…”

I smile and nod and ready myself to listen. Women and their gardens. Our fields of wild color and creativity amidst quiet lives. Or our noisy lives, where our hearts can grow quiet and know ease among the pools of color, where beauty makes sense, and responds to the care and love our hands offer.

I am a late bloomer. The great gardens of my youth are long gone, grown over, or perhaps they blossom still, somewhere far away where I once lived another life, and where another hand now tends them or mows them over. At long last, I am at that place again, at that time, when I, too, sip a warm cup of tea while sitting on my front step, my eyes taking in that gentle, silent beauty of my new garden. Flowers line the front of my house. Flowers lean and creep over rocks, bunch together and string apart. Perennials, with room to grow and multiply. Roots that will reach into the rich earth and take hold and strengthen with time.

There, in that spot where the new stone border sweeps outward, still empty, I will plant a white rose.

To my Facebook friends: My "Lunch Hour Stroll" photo series, now in Part IV and covering its third season, is the evolving photo essay of what I see when I open my eyes and truly look ... and stop to smell the daisies.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Road in Time

by Zinta Aistars

Every journey now, even the one around the block, makes me think of the journey ahead of me—my return to Latvia after a many year absence at the end of this summer. I am the child of travelers; my parents were, in fact, refugees from World War II, forced to travel from their homes as Soviet armies marched in, beginning a journey that would change their lives entirely… and make mine possible. They met here, in the United States, and married soon after.

That wartime travel was forced, hardly pleasant. Homes were lost, belongings destroyed, many lives ending in tragedy, and at the end of that line everything about them was strange and new, even the language incomprehensible ... and still, they both have always maintained their love for travel. At least, once my sister and I were born, trips were regular fare in our lives, more necessity than luxury, and greatly anticipated.

When the two of us girls were little, my grandmother would come to watch over us while my parents took off in their then new Rambler, crossing the country to see what they could see. When my sister Daina and I were older, we were taken along on these family vacations. Ah, road trips! I don’t recall calling out “Are we there yet?” because everything along the way was utterly fascinating to me. “There” didn’t matter. The journey did. Everything was new. Everything was strange and wonderful. The world opened in invitation before us, brimming with adventure.

I remember my sister and me sitting among pillows in the back seat of the car, our feet dangling over the edge of the seat. The pillows were for occasional naps, soothed by the humming of tires on the highway, stretching out endlessly before and behind us. Mostly, we were noses pressed to the glass of the car window, peering out at the world. The flat land of North Dakota, uninterrupted by even a single tree. The moonscapes of the South Dakota Badlands, rising rock and pale horizons. The soaring angles of the Rocky Mountains, jutting into the sky, stealing our breath away. Mama and my sister pressing their faces into the pillows and squealing as my father drove the rising and narrowing roads through the great mountain ranges, the land dropping away to either side. I still had my nose pressed to the glass, wide-eyed, open-mouthed, unable to look away. There were nights in little pup tents in Wyoming, and my father calming Mama, assuring her that the black bear would soon walk away …

Coastline to coastline, we traveled, we saw, we breathed in, we smelled and heard and felt and tasted and touched and observed and immersed and wondered and gaped and forever took away the memories. Memories I still cherish so many decades later, and now with my father leaning against his cane as he takes slow and cautious steps, resting often, I still remember his chuckle at squealing Mama on that high ridge through the mountains. And that quick wink to me in the rear view mirror.

I became addicted to travel for life. I have visited all but one of our 50 states and lived in several. I have crossed the ocean many, many times. And still, so, so many places await. So many yet unlived adventures invite. So much to see and make some small sliver of a new place, new culture, new sense of life, in some slight way my own.

For every journey I have ever taken, I have never come back home the same person. For all the physical geography I have traversed, my inner geography has always seen its own simultaneous and coinciding exploration. No place that I have experienced in person has ever had even a remote resemblance to what I had previously seen on some televised screen or even in the most beautiful book of photography, well crafted travel essay, or through another’s account. No place is the same to any two people. We all travel with all that we are, all our previous experience coming along with us, coloring our perspective. Call it baggage if you must, but to me, it is added nuance, a lens created for my eye alone, and for only my heart.

Traveling to a place where one’s roots go deep comes with its own particular sensibilities. Everyone should. I cannot describe it for you. There is something that happens, beyond words, when one stands on ground where one’s ancestors stood. Stood, lived, loved, birthed, danced, fell, rose again, died. My family history on both sides goes back many, many generations, and the long roots twine deep into Baltic soil. As far back as we can see, there stand the men on the Baltic shore, some of them sailing over that sea, and the women waited for them, keeping their homes, raising the children from whom I would someday be born.

I cannot describe that moment when I stood in a cemetery outside of Ventspils, kneeling to touch my fingertips to the mossy stone where my great-grandfather’s name was carved: Ernests Ansevics. I was 15 years old.

My grandfather was named Ernests after his father, their two faces nearly identical over the passing years except for my great-grandfather’s thick white moustache—my grandfather’s face was always clean shaven, though his hair was a glowing snow white from age 40. The younger Ernests would reject the surname of Ansevics, forced onto the family during a German occupation, when land barons “owned” those who lived on their stolen property, as if a human being was but another tree or rock on that land. Serfs had to carry the name of the baron and deny their own. A literary man, director of the Jelgava Teachers’ Institute, my grandfather chose instead the name of Aistars. “Stars” in Latvian means a ray of light. He would reclaim for his family our Latvian heritage.

So I stood at that grave, tracing that old name, forced upon my ancestors for generations of serfdom. Felt something pulse from the granite into my fingers, up my arm, flow into my blood, as if the long ago past had touched the future.

All my life, I have traveled. All my life, I have looked for Home, that place where I can put down roots and truly know myself exactly where I belong. At some point, not so long ago, I realized, for all my journeys, I would never find it. I could only claim it. Call some place Home while my roots would remain shallow. Call some temporary abode home, my eye always on the next one, my roots easily pulled up again.

When I once read at an author’s reading an essay dedicated to my grandfather and my own lifelong search for Home, I was approached after the reading by grown men in tears. They thought they were the only ones, and I had thought so, too. Lifelong travelers. My words had touched some raw and lonely place inside them. Perhaps those born of refugees will always feel this way—a wanderlust that is never sated. A longing for the road, for the climb up and beyond that mountain, the bend in the road, nurtured by the journey even as the journey never ends, driven by a hope for the impossible become possible.

Another journey will soon begin. They say there is no going home again, and I’m sure that is true. We change, constantly, and the world around us does, too. I will not find the same place I last left so many years ago. I do not know if I will have the chance to visit that stone again, where the letters carved into granite are surely eroding away. Yet I will, I know, stand on the Baltic shores, and in the sea breezes, listen, listen with my ears and with my heart, to the many voices whispering to me from across that sea and across countless generations. For a moment in time, finding myself to be Home, embraced by those who came before and those yet to come.

Photo: Ernests Aistars, my grandfather, in Augsburg, Germany, 1946.


Thursday, June 10, 2010


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

So much cause for celebration! The Summer 2010 issue of The Smoking Poet, marking the beginning of our fifth year of publication, is brimming with newness. Brimming with creativity. Brimming with talent, passion for new ideas, and encouragement for forward movement. Wherever you dip in first, you will find something you’ve never found in TSP before—and we are pretty sure you will be as moved, as surprised, as impressed, as inspired as we have been.

Winner’s Circle: our third annual short story contest has concluded, and our winners are First Prize to Christopher Allen with “Red Toy Soldier,” Second Prize to Lydia Suarez with “Blue Book Revisions” and Third Prize to Dave Donelson with “Blind Curve.” We had more entries than ever before, from all points of the globe, and our thanks to Kevin Morgan Watson of Press 53, who did the final judging of our top ten. Some of those top ten will yet be appearing in future issues of TSP.

In A Good Cause, Amy Totsch reminds us of the good in our youth. When taking up a cause in Chicago, they form a Pact and make great things happen.

Our feature author, in another meeting with the Book Mavens, is David Small. David talks to us about Stitches, his groundbreaking graphic memoir in which the super hero is not a caped wonder, but the wonder of a boy with the endurance and creativity to survive a nightmarish childhood.

Another boy wonder is Kip Kreiling, who spent most of his childhood in foster homes, juvenile homes and eventually behind bars. Today, he is a successful businessman and devoted husband and father, working to give inmates and kids gone wrong a new hope for change. His book is The Imposter? How a Juvenile Criminal Succeeded in Business and in Life.

And then there is the voice of Derick Burleson, from the far north of Alaska, with poetry that will melt the ice in any heart. Read our interview with Derick and then move to a page of his poetry. His words bring heat.

Our feature artist is Sniedze Rungis, who talks to coeditor Jeanette Lee about her powerful images of a woman in torment, and about women objectified and dehumanized in contemporary society, drawing parallels with the dehumanization of Nazi Germany.

Don’t miss our new page, Kalamazoo and Beyond. While past issues have often showcased art that is international, with writers and artists from across the world, this is a page devoted to local artists and those who support our community of arts in southwest Michigan. Watch for it as a regular feature. Sometimes the best place you can go—is home.

Yet I have always had more than one home. My heritage is rooted in Latvia, a country on the Baltic Sea. I have traveled to and from Latvia since I was 15 years old, and I will be traveling there again very soon. On that first visit a long time ago, I met another 15-year-old, Andris Silis, and we have been lifelong friends ever since. It is my special pleasure to introduce Andris as our new music editor. Andris’ Blue Note will appear in two languages: Andris’ essay and music reviews in Latvian at top, and my translations into English at bottom.

Not done yet! Two more bright, new faces among our editors! Mick Parsons, or Papa Mick, has lit up a stogie and has now entered the Cigar Lounge. He is making it his own and invites you to come by and relax there with him—you don’t even have to inhale. And, Paula Lemar is our new nonfiction editor, inviting you to keep her busy with your creative essays and memoirs.

Joannie Kervran Stangeland is our poetry editor, her fine choices appearing in our poetry pages. Jeanette Lee, our intern from Kalamazoo College, and coeditor for the summer, well, she has made my life at TSP great fun—sharing the literary load/lode. Thank you to both of you.

As always, we offer you fiction, nonfiction, poetry, links and resources that are ever expanding. Book and music reviews will be added throughout the summer—so put on your straw hat, sit in the cool shade of a favorite tree, and read. And keep coming back to read more. There are few such pleasures.

With a good word,

Zinta Aistars

The Smoking Poet
Summer 2010
Issue #15


Zinta Aistars

Ali Abdolrezaei

Christopher Allen

Carol Berg

Olga Bonfiglio

Derick Burleson

Mary Christine Delea

R J Dent

Dave Donelson

Roger Real Drouin

Deborah Henry

Jennifer Howard

Elizabeth Kerlikowske

Marian Kilcoyne

Kip Kreiling

Greg Kosmicki

David W. Landrum

Jeanette Lee

Susan Milchman

Sergio Ortiz

Mick Parsons

Lynn Pattison

M.P. Powers

JP Reese

Ron Reikki

Selva Rolin

Sniedze Rungis

Rebecca Schumejda

Elaine M. Seaman

Andris Silis

David Small

Lydia Suarez

Amy Totsch

James Valvis

Cigar Lounge

Mick Parsons

Cynthia Wilson

Follow The Smoking Poet on Twitter for updates