Saturday, March 17, 2012

Toward That Golden Place End of the Rainbow

by Zinta Aistars

Reality is sinking in. Only six days left until I move to the wonderful little red farmhouse on ten acres I've come to call Z Acres. It's time to do some serious packing. I've been collecting boxes in the garage for a couple of months now, most of them kindly set aside for my use by colleagues in my office from office supply deliveries.

I haul the empty boxes inside and set them in rows, open and ready. In it all goes. Books, books and more books ... I realize I really should sort through some of these and set aside a few boxes to take to the used book store. There are definite advantages to now having nearly 2,000 books stored on my two e-readers; they are much easier to pack and move!

Dishes, glasses, kitchen utensils, clothes, coats, shoes. At the end of the afternoon, I'm out of boxes, and my living room  is stacked with a respectable mountain of now filled and closed boxes, ready to be moved. Oh, those wonderful friends and family members who will help me with this chore!

Six days.

Today is St. Patrick's Day, and I sip a Guinness as I work. My old chow pup Guinnez follows me around the house in befuddlement, watching me pack. He sniffs at a t-shirt I use to wrap around a vase to keep it from breaking. He pokes at an open box with his graying muzzle. What's going on?

I've taken him to walk the farm several times now. He was with me the very first time I saw it, on a sunny December Sunday, as we walked up and down the dirt road where the farm is located, peering at it through the trees. It was hardly visible from the road, but that was the first good sign. I had longed for such a secluded place ... could this be that place? Could this be Home? The last time I would ever have to move again?

It was. It is. And now I count the days, the hours. Soon.

I think about how different our walks will be there than they are here, in my suburban neighborhood south of Kalamazoo. No dirt roads here. Houses in neat rows with manicured lawns, bright street lights, paved sidewalks. Soon, we will be walking cornfield rows and long dirt roads past horse ranches and tilled fields, watching crops come up over summer months ahead. There will be no street lights. Our evening walks will be by star and moonlight alone.

Boxes packed, I sip the last of the Guinness, letting the creamy foam dribble into my mouth from the bottom of the glass. I sit outside on my back deck, watching the night settle in. Last summer this deck got refinished. New lounge chairs under a sun umbrella, a coffee table and fire pit make it a comfortable spot I have enjoyed many times. And it's not just the deck ... over the past few years, I've invested a lot into making this house special.

Will I miss this house? Not really. And since I will still be its owner, now as a landlord, I won't be letting it go. I take a certain comfort in that. But years of memories swirl past my mind's eye as I consider the part of my life spent here. Too many of them were not good ones. The past few years, however, changed that trend. Renovations erased the past, added my own signature, and I can honestly say now I feel a great fondness for the place. I've done a lot of growing here. And the place has grown on me.

But I'm ready. I'm ready and eager to cross a threshold into a new life. Packing my things here, I am thinking about unpacking them again there. Each thing in its place. With each thing, book, knick knack, dish, vase, shirt, chair, shelf, pillow, I will lay my claim and make it mine, suited just for me. I will make it Home.

And the farm will make something new of me. As we add something of ourselves to places where we spend time, such places inevitably change us, too. I feel it already when I visit. My very heart seems to expand inside my chest when I turn into the long driveway that winds through the pines. I breathe easier. Nature heals me, and here there is so much of it ... woods, pond, streams, acres that stretch to the horizon. I hear birdsong and rustle of nearby animals. I feel connected and somehow whole again.

I'm not Irish, but on this St. Patrick's Day, I am feeling particularly lucky ... downright blessed. Work of many years, a lifetime, is coming to the pot of gold at the end of this rainbow. No, not gold as in money. Gold as in a long-held dream come true. I can't wait to unpack my future.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Announcing the SPRING 2012 Issue of THE SMOKING POET!

Mushroom print by Margo McCafferty and Tom Rudd
"Words that turn the page to flame."

Every spring we feel it—the softening and warming of the earth, the dried and dead moved aside to allow green new life to nudge up first growth. Tender leaves unfold, blossoms open like palms toward the sun-filled sky. It is spring, yes, spring! A time of renewal, and hope, and rebirth.
This spring has special meaning to me, for I have started a new life, a rebirth of sorts, of my own. I’ve left suburbia behind to move to a century-old red farmhouse on ten acres. I call it Z Acres. Half of the sloping land is woods and pond; the other half is tillable field that stretches toward the distant horizon. I am discovering the farmer in myself.
Not just farmer. I am discovering how the spirit unfolds when given such lush environs, a place of solitude that invites dreaming. The writer in me is stretching long cramped muscles. Nature is a wonderful muse. As the flowers come up, as the vegetable garden sprouts, so does my inspiration for fresh new words—and not to forget the careful weeding!
Enjoy the spring garden here, in our spring issue pages. Color and visual pleasure is brought to you by Margo McCafferty and Tom Rudd, artists from the Keweenaw in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We have poetry, fiction and nonfiction as always, yet always new. A Good Cause is about the witnessing of life sacrificed for the meat-eaters that most of us are; the organic movement should involve this final and thoughtful connection.
Not to be missed: Kalamazoo & Beyond, this issue in three remarkable pages. These have been carefully and lovingly tended to by Kim Grabowski, our Kalamazoo College intern editor. Kim has also contributed insightful author interviews with Traci Brimhall and Laura Kasischke, adding in book reviews by these authors and others. And she has organized a tribute to her mentor, poet Diane Seuss.
And then there is our Joannie. Our very own poetry editor, and The Smoking Poet wouldn’t be so filled with words that turn the page to flame if it weren’t for Joannie Kevren Stangeland’s devotion. Joannie’s newest poetry collection, Into the Rumored Spring, is entirely dedicated to a friend who fought and won over cancer. Read about this tribute.
Read, be inspired, be moved, be turned to flame and perhaps plant a few words of your own. Celebrate spring.

With a good word,
TSP Editor-in-Chief

The Smoking Poet Spring 2012

Issue #21

Monday, March 12, 2012

And on the 11th day …

by Zinta Aistars

At last, I am down to counting days, no longer months or even weeks. Eleven days remain. Even now, these are not lax and lazy days of anticipation. All the things that must be done prior to moving a household!

It’s been an early spring—so early, in fact, that I find it worrisome. Hardly into the second week of March, and we have already experienced 70s Fahrenheit. Next week, even higher. When I drive by the new property—and I do so frequently, for a soothing stroll across the wooded acres and the cornfield out back, or dipping into the cool grove of evergreens and pines—I am already witnessing the change of seasons.

I had first seen the property at the beginning of December 2011. It was love at first sight, no question. On the night I finally resolved to make the offer, meeting my real estate agent Ingrid there and sitting down at the kitchen table, it was January 2012, and outside the snow fell soft and silent on a lavender evening. Now, in March, ticking down the days to closing, I see spring flowers coming up everywhere, everywhere, in mad profusion. Along the house, along the stairway down from the drive, throughout the woods, alongside the pond, in random bunches in random places, a promise of flowering beauty very soon.

I am thrilled not to miss it, even as I worry about such a change in seasons. Our winter was anemic, a couple of lacy snows, quickly melted away. Now this premature spring, and I see the gray buckets hanging in rows along the maples that line the dirt road that leads to my Z Acres. Sap drips ever so slowly into the buckets.

I meet the farmer, one of my future neighbors, on my most recent visit to Z Acres. He is standing in the road, watching the buckets. I stop as I drive by, he waves at me, and I roll down my window to introduce myself. He brightens when I tell him I will very soon be living in the old red farmhouse, there on the bend in the road, just a glimpse if that through the trees.

“Name’s Steve,” he grins and extends a large hand.

I let his hand, rough and warm, enfold mine in a firm grip. “Zinta.” I can feel the years of hard work in such a hand.

“You let me know if you ever need a hand over there, hear?”

Those are his buckets, and every spring he taps the trees for maple syrup, he says. Sure, yes, he sells it, just stop on by in later weeks. He expresses his concern at these unseasonable temperatures; we should be seeing 40s, not 70s. Lack of frost weakens the sap, less sugar, and we can expect the maple syrup to be much more expensive and hard to find this year.

I wonder about all the many other negative effects this early spring will have on the land, on animals, on plants, on farming. On us. Now that I will be something of a farmer myself, hoping to achieve an organic and sustainable lifestyle on my ten acres, such concerns touch me on a deeper level of awareness.

That’s why I am moving here. To feel the earth, to renew my connection to it. Living in suburbia as I have for the past decades, with only the occasional gleeful vacation out to the wilderness to camp and hike, I have been as out of touch as most—and I don’t like that. It feels wrong if not downright dangerous.

I want to feel the pulse of the planet, join my lifeblood to the lifeblood of these pines and evergreens, these gentle slopes of the land covered with still bare-limbed trees. I am at least a little horrified but how little I know about Nature, even while I mouth the words that I love it. How can one love what one does not know? And know intimately?

For I am standing on the threshold of perhaps one of the greatest love affairs of my life. This is the Home of which I have dreamed since girlhood. Not polished, not pretty, not rich and fancy, but an old house in the woods, the spirit of ages worn and seeped into its walls, and surrounded by an expanse of land, the eye drawn out and out toward the distant horizon, uninterrupted by any sign of civilization.

When I stood out in the cornfield this past Saturday, the stalks now dry and yellowed, bent and broken, and gazed up at the blue sky—two immense hawks circled overhead. I held my breath to see their wingspan, watched their easy dip on the high wind. The night I came here to make another decision, negotiations spinning between me and the seller, I looked at this same patch of sky and looked for answers. The hawks brought them to me. Seeing them wheel in easy circles against the cloudless sky made my heart sing. They felt like a welcome wave home.

Eleven days and the eleventh one near over. Soon, I will come home to this place every day. I will see stars pop out in this great sky that I haven’t seen since I've been far north, now faded away behind the orange glow of a suburban sky. I will see a moon hung up in the tree tops, blazing white or honey golden. I will see the night grow dark, deep and dark, the roads unlit by street lights anywhere. Here, the nights are true, and the animals hidden in the woods, those mysterious rustlings and tweetings and scurryings and leafy scramblings I have already noted on evening visits, will become my expected night music.

I will come to know them. I will learn every day and every night what this place is, how it breathes, how it moves, how it quiets and heaves again. I will come to recognize each tree, learn its name, and whisper my own to each one in coming years. I will work the earth, sink my hands into rich dirt, and learn how to coax both beauty and sustenance from it.

I will make mistakes and silly blunders, I will get tired and worn, I will scrape my knees and scratch bug bites. I will toss stones into the pond and watch for the rise of fish. I will sweat and gasp with the many tasks, because love costs, it always does, but I will pay that price gladly.

I have so much to learn here. A woman with white hair, I will be a babe in these woods, baffled and eager to know and understand its ways. Bit by bit, I will form that connection, tie myself to this earth, those invisible threads through which flow the electric currents of life.

Monday, March 05, 2012

The SOuL Event

by Zinta Aistars
Gabriel Giron, Kirk Latimer, Nick Lobel
The SOuL Event, a performance by the slam poetry duo, Gabriel Giron and Kirk Latimer, otherwise known as Kinetic Affect, with the additional lineup of youth from Kellogg Community College, Calhoun County Juvenile Home, Urban League, and Summit Pointe,  on Saturday, March 3, at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Michigan, took more than soul. It took guts.
My friend Amy and I had been planning on and looking forward to attending the event all week. Amy came by for dinner first, and we sat down to a meal of elk steaks with mushroom sauce, red-skinned potatoes with dill, beets and salad, toasting the evening with a glass of red wine. It was good to catch up, although we both seemed to be as busy as ever. There was a lot to catch up on … and we chattered in anticipation as we drove to Battle Creek.
I had recently written an article about Gabriel and Kirk for an online news magazine, Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave. Hearing about the background of this event during my interview with the two poet performers confirmed it was something not to be missed.
The lobby of Binda Theater at the community college was full when Amy and I arrived after dinner. People were anxiously waiting to be let inside, and when the doors opened, nearly every seat filled. The rare seat left empty, as Kirk later put it on stage, was for those who could not attend or were no longer with us. So many stories these youth told on that stage, after all, were about the people missing from their lives.
One by one, they came up to stand in the white spotlight. There on the edge of the stage they stood, blinking at the light, shifting weight from one foot to the other, clearly nervous. No doubt many of them had faced weapons and fists without flinching, but most of them had never stood on a stage before. It was a different kind of test.
Many of them admitted to nerves as they cleared their throats, getting ready to read the work they had written and rewritten and polished and practiced over the past four months. Kirk and Gabriel had guided them each step of the way and were guiding them still, standing off to one side like a couple of proud parents, ready with applause and congratulatory hugs.
Who were these gutsy kids? Boys and girls, they ranged in age from early to late teens. The reasons for their lock up were not discussed, because that was irrelevant. What was relevant was the soul they were willing to bring to that spotlight.
Amy and I glanced at each other more than once. The poetry, the stories these kids read to us, a few reciting by heart, were sharp and poignant and real and brimming with emotion. A 16-year-old boy read a poem to his mother who had died just weeks before, her body giving in to years of drug addiction. I wondered at his cool and controlled face. His words exposed what simmered beneath.
A girl read a poem about her father who kept sneaking into her room at night, slipping into bed with her, shushing her to keep their incestuous secret. Another girl read a poem written to her mother who never seemed to notice her, asking for nothing more from her mom than an occasional hug and to be told that she was loved. She didn’t need her mother to be perfect. She needed to have a relationship with her and not just shared space.
Gabriel tears up, telling his own story
A boy read a piece about his life as a gang member since the age of 12, and watching a friend die in his arms. Another boy read about how his mother, a heroin addict, had abandoned him when he was six years old, left him and his brother with his dad. She told him she would be back soon, real soon … and the boy stood at the window waiting for weeks, months, then years for a mother who would never return.
Each one read a story, surely one of many each held inside, and shared it with all of us—friends, family and many strangers, like me and Amy.
It was sometimes difficult to listen. It was impossible to keep a dry eye. But what moved me perhaps most of all was the support I saw in that group, one for the other. Each time someone stood on stage and blinked, forgetting a line, losing a place, losing nerve—the rest of the group immediately shouted up to the one standing in the spotlight words of encouragement, cheering the reader on and applauding. Each and every time, the reader would grin and go on, the spell broken, able to resume again.
It was surely a lesson Gabriel and Kirk had taught them. The two had told me how they had met as dueling slam poets and how they had seen each other blink on stage. Gabriel had gone blank once just like that, and he remembered that feeling, and how the audience had encouraged him to go on. When he saw Kirk blink, he walked over to offer encouragement. A friendship was born.
The bond among these kids on this night was clear. Every one of them had been to hell and back. Some still lived there. All of them had been through more pain and heartbreak as children than most adults would ever know in a lifetime. Yet why is it that society doesn’t seem to want to know about these kids? Juvenile delinquents, after all. Lock them up and throw away the key, I’ve heard some say. Vicious little animals, say others.
Performing "The Wall"
Only that’s not what we saw, not what we heard, not what we witnessed on that stage. No child is born wanting trouble. A child craves love and approval from his or her parents. That was the one message coming through all of their stories, all of their poems, every single one. They wanted to be seen. They wanted to be heard. They wanted to be loved. No different than anyone else. Yet what they had received was a slap in the face, a punch in the gut, the stab of a knife, or the empty silence of a missing parent.
If a child lashes out, someone has lashed out at him or her first. That pain, that anger, that outcry has a reason. We forget that. As a society, the village that surrounds them, we need to be witness to their stories of pain. We need to acknowledge their incredible courage to give their stories public voice as these kids did.
From their broken places on Saturday night, an astounding beauty filled the room. For an hour, my friend and I were witness.
I am currently working on obtaining some of the written work performed to publish in the upcoming Summer 2012 issue of The Smoking Poet, online in June.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Zinta Gets Kinected

Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media:

Kirk Latimer, above, and Gabriel Giron, below. Photo by Erik Holladay.

The beautiful scars of Kinetic Affect bring healing to others

Slam poetry competitors turned business partners, the two men behind Kinetic Affect have found a way to connect with audiences of all kinds through their vulnerability. Zinta Aistars talks to them about their art and business.

Sold out crowds  gather to hear them at school fundraisers, art hops, comedy and improvisational shows, talent shows and theaters. And connecting community service to the spoken word art form, the team of two poets also performs to audiences of those that some might say have been forgotten by society: at-risk youth, single mothers raising children, prison inmates, struggling addicts.

Yet the healing isn’t just happening among those in the audience. On stage, the healing touches poets and performers Kirk Latimer and Gabriel Giron as well.

"Scars are beautiful," says Giron. "We’re not here to change the broken."

"The broken are here to change the world," finishes Latimer.

They talk like a perfectly aligned and synchronized couple from a long-standing marriage that has taught one how to finish the sentences of the other, fill in the blanks, lead into the next sentence.

"Although we started out competing against each other," says Giron.

Latimer: "I was the wild card .... "

Read the full article on Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. Because this is one my favorite stories ever.