Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Flow of This Literary River

by Zinta Aistars

Z (left) and Bonnie Jo Campbell (right)
There's not much that could get me out of my wonderfully chilled, air-conditioned house on a 90+ degree July day. I was out early in the morning to water my parched petunias, and I watched a young robin fly in desperation through the spray of my garden house, parched too. I arced the cool water high so that the robin could ruffle her feathers in the spray, her little brown head going back in thirst to catch a few drops.

That hot.

But at 2 p.m., hottest and steamiest part of the day, I pulled my hair up and clamped it so it wouldn't touch my neck, put real clothes on, and went out. Into the July day. Woosh, was it hot. Yet how many times does a terrific new novel get published by someone you know? I mean really terrific. I was out to show my support, rub elbows with Bonnie Jo Campbell, and get my copy of Once Upon a River, hot off the W. W. Norton presses, signed by the author.

How many times ... I considered the last time I'd gone out to Bell's, Kalamazoo's nationally known microbrewery, for a book launch, and apparently Bonnie's favorite place to launch her new books. I went there on yet another blistering summer day when she launched her remarkable story collection, American Salvage. The same one that got her national notice, a finalist for the National Book Award. Bonnie, can we convince you to publish your next great book in a cooler season??

Oh, but anything for you! And for this incredible group of literary stars in Kalamazoo. We've been saying it for years now, asking: what's in the water? How is it that Kalamazoo has so much artistic talent, busting at the seams with it, writers and artists earning acclaim. A recent article in the Detroit Free Press took note, too, publishing an article called Michigan's West Side A Hot Spot for Writers.

Able to make it into the newly renovated door and lobby, complete with tinkling water fountain, of Bell's Eccentric Cafe (we are good at art here, but also good at brewing excellent beer), I started to  have my suspicions of one of the reasons. The place was brimming and bustling with Bonnie fans. Gloria Tiller of Kazoo Books had a long table set up along one side, and it creaked under the weight of books written by local authors.

Neon Tetra
Just so you wouldn't miss any of the literary talent sipping cold beers, buying books, and milling about to the musical talent of Neon Tetra, Bonnie had provided a list at the door. Among the names on her list of who was here with two elbows each to rub for literary luck, yeah, there I was, too: "Zinta Aistars, editor of The Smoking Poet, which just had its fifth anniversary." And, Heidi Bell, Darrin Doyle, Gail Griffin, Michael Griffin, Michael Loyd Gray, Conrad Hilberry, Elizabeth Kerlikowske, Lisa Lenzo, Colleen Little, Andy Mozina, Melinda Moustakis, Loreen Niewenhuis, Thisbe Nissen, Cheryl Peck, Susan Ramsey, Kristina Riggle, Elaine Seaman, Phillip Sterling, Steve Amick, and others. Most excellent company.

So maybe that was it. That was why and how this unique Kalamazoo literary and artistic lushness happens: we mill and we elbow rub and we show up at each others' events to show our support. We care. We share. We do what we can to promote each other. We drink our cold brews together, we sweat in unison, and we are there to offer a toast when any among us sees success. We bolster each other on the down dips, too.

I'm thinking that much good karma has to have an effect.

For all the years that I've been doing what I can to promote local literary talent, I am still amazed at how many area writers I have yet to meet. So it is this time. I chat it up with the effervescent Gloria Tiller of Kazoo Books as my attention is drawn to one of the books she is selling: A 1000-Mile Walk on the Beach by Loreen Niewenhuis.

"There she is, there's the author," Gloria points me in the direction of Loreen, standing by the water fountain. I buy the book ... I can't resist this type of story, woman bonding with nature, a voyage in solitude, and make it a local story, and I'm there. I head for Loreen with my copy of her book to introduce myself.

Another connection is made. I am very much looking forward to this read. My favorite Great Lake is Lake Superior, but she, native of Battle Creek, has bonded to the closer Lake Michigan, walking all the way around it to settle the upheaval of a "mid-life crisis." I make mental note to return to this for a future issue of The Smoking Poet. This would make an excellent author interview ...

Andy Mozina (left), Michael Loyd Gray (right)
I spend some time talking to Michael Loyd Gray, a previous TSP author interview. We have been tossing around an idea for some time now to bring together a local writers' roundtable sometime this fall. Not a reading, but a gathering of literary minds, because neither of us is a believer in writers' groups, but we do believe in brainstorming and group support. It's a fun idea to mull over. Stay tuned ...

And there's Susan Ramsey, whose book has recently been accepted for publication, and I have already had a taste of her remarkable talent. I can hardly wait. Oh fun, there's poet Colleen Little. And I talk to Cheryl Peck, too, who is facing up to challenges, hearing that teeth-gritting response from her agent and potential publishers: "Great writing, but how to market it?" That, I think, may be just the kind of challenge we might discuss at that writers' roundtable ...

I go in for a hug with poet Elaine Seaman, but we both pull back ... it's too hot, too hot for hugs, so we make the motions only and laugh. Time for a cold one instead.

Elaine Seaman (left), Susan Ramsey (right)
The line only gets longer for Bonnie's signature in new books. Everyone wants an inscription. I hear the chatter as I walk along the line: " ... can't wait to read it!" "Oh, I bet this is going to be good!" "Bonnie's the best!"

I've read and reviewed the advance review copy, but Bonnie tells me there were some 2,000 changes made to that copy before the final one went to print. "Typos, surely?" I widen my eyes. But she says no, not all, some cuts made, some additions. Ah, well then, I will have to read it again!

And that's just fine. I head back to my car, baking in the sun, several books under my arm, all inscribed. These are the joys of old fashioned books, I think, as I place them carefully on the passenger seat. They can be inscribed by the authors. E-books, alas, cannot. These will now be added to my shelves of literary treasure. Awaiting many, many long and lovely hours of reading, falling into the wonderful stories of my Kalamazoo area neighbors.

I imagine long and lazy summer days ahead, too hot to move, too hot to do anything ... but read, holding the garden hose in a high arc to spray cool water on the petunias, let the robins dance, and read, read ...



  1. Zinta, sorry we never got to meet in person before I left Kalamazoo, but I rejoice with you in all that talent that is gathering there. Can't wait to read Bonnie Jo's new book. Thanks for this lovely essay. Cooled me off on another hot day!

  2. Thank you, Shirley! And new talent keeps cropping up here; it's just amazing. Perhaps our paths will cross another day ...