Monday, May 02, 2011

An Anniversary Up in Smoke

by Zinta Aistars

Zinta preparing to read at TSP's anniversary event
 Dare I admit that I don't actually smoke? After all, I am founder and editor-in-chief of the literary online magazine, The Smoking Poet. Having just celebrated our fifth anniversary of publication, 18 issues ago and in 2006, I am often amused at how often readers think I live in a puff of smoke. I don't.

In fact, when the Kalamazoo Gazette wrote an article about The Smoking Poet's celebration, Putting on the Dog: TSP Celebrates 5, and ran it in Easter Sunday's issue on April 24, my parents were a tad dismayed when they opened their Sunday paper. I do believe they were on the verge of grounding me, or at very least standing me in the corner with a dunce cap on, for lighting up.

Okay, so I do own a humidor. And it is pretty well stocked. And there is a small sculpture atop it of a bulldog with a stogie gripped in his boxy muzzle. And I do know my way around a good cigar. And I do have a favorite: Hoyo de Monterray Excalibur. And I have on occasion been seen in a cigar lounge. And they do know my name at the local cigar shop in Kalamazoo.

And, all right, all right, eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeevery once in a while, now and then, on the rare occasion, when the eve is just so and the stars twinkle on a warm summer night and the mood strikes me in a contemplative way and the fire pit crackles with a cheery flame and a  pal stops by with a couple fragrant ones with a conversation to unweave over the next couple hours ....

I might unwrap one and light it. I just might.

Amy Newday, emcee for the evening
 Sit back and enjoy the smoky mood for a couple of hours. It would be a good time to reflect on that celebration we just enjoyed at The Wine Loft.

Oh, but it was fine. Everything came together. Perfectly. After nearly a year of planning, with much much help from Amy Newday and Friends of Poetry, the sponsors of the evening, the event was finally here. Posters of our mascot cigar pup were in most every Kalamazoo business window downtown. The good people at The Wine Loft had been promoting us at every opportunity. Announcements ran on WMUK radio, Kalamazoo's NPR affiliate, and I did a live radio talk show with Lori Moore at WKZO to talk about poetry.

Now we watched them come for what we had built. And they came. Kalamazoo came. Even with Yo-Yo Mah playing cello on the other side of town, we packed the room and then some. Thirteen authors read: Rick Chambers, Michael Loyd Gray, Gail Griffin, Hedy Habra, Kathy Jennings, Elizabeth Kerlikowske, Colleen Little, Kate Lutes, Amy Newday, Cheryl Peck, Elaine Seaman, Diane Seuss, and yes, me.  Dean Hauck from Michigan News Agency stacked books against the wall and sold them.

When it was my turn to read, I looked out at the audience and felt warm with pride. All this talent, and all of these people had been published in our pages in our first five years. This was only a small sample of hundreds of fine writers. This was our local talent, but our reach has been international. We have published work from writers from many countries and from across this country.

Dean Hauck from MNA
 If there were times that I wondered why I keep working on The Smoking Poet, issue after issue, with no pay, sacrificing many a fine weekend and a frequent evening, building the website, maintaining our social network, reading through submissions, communicating with writers, then on this night I no longer wondered. Here was my reward. I had helped to give a moment's spotlight to people whose work I believed in. I had given them a stage from which to reach an audience. Although quite a few had a large following of their own, I liked to think our pages might have introduced them to readers who may not have otherwise discovered them.

I'm a writer, too, not just an editor, so I know what a hard fight it can be to find one's audience. One can even publish a shelf full of books and still not have found it. We chip away and hope to make that golden thread of connection, one human life with another, an understanding that mirrors one perspective on life to another perspective for a momentary glimmer of shared experience. It is a moment of knowing ourselves not alone in the world. Someone gets it. Someone sees what we see and feels what we feel and nods in acknowledgement.

Writers are by nature a solitary sort; we need and crave solitude in order to create. I do not believe in writing to an audience or even being aware of one while we are writing. Such practices, I think, are for hack writers. Art must serve its own purpose, exist in its own right and for its own self, but once that purpose has been accomplished, social animals that we are, we enjoy the act of sharing. While the true writer will write regardless of ever having a reader, we surely enjoy the moment when we know we have found one.

There I step in. Connecting writer to reader, and reader to writer. I am drawn to that magical moment.

I find literary treasure and I spread my blanket out in the sand so that I may arrange all that treasure out in the sunshine and let it catch a ray of that light. Gems, every one. A passerby can hardly resist but to stop for a moment, pause,  pick one up and turn it in the light to enjoy its beauty.

Out in the audience, among our many eager listeners, I saw faces of friends and family. I saw my sister from Chicago. I saw my parents. I saw many familiar and friendly faces I'd come to know and care about because of our common ties to The Smoking Poet, based on our common love for fine literature . I saw my community. This was why I had put in those five years of countless hours ... and why I would no doubt put in many, many more. On this night, we could all share the treasure and be in awe. Its glow would reflect in all of us.

It was precisely the sort of moment I would no doubt reflect upon , and more than once, on some future starry summer evening, a curl of smoke rising from a stogie in my fingers. Mom, Dad, I don't inhale. Not cigar smoke. But I do inhale poetry, and fine prose, and I get giddy on it, every time.

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