Bring Us More Whisky!

UPDATE: The Water of Life has its very own website!

Attention whisky lovers, history buffs, avid readers and fans of vivid storytelling!

For the last couple of years, I’ve invested a great deal of time, energy and love into translating a fantastic, award-winning French-Canadian novel called L’eau de vie (Uisghe beatha) by Daniel Marchildon from French into English. This is a story all about whisky and whisky-making, a historical epic which dances between times and places in Scotland and Canada, and also a family saga full of mystery. I’m really gripped by this book, I feel it should be shared with a wider audience – and that’s why I’m excited to announce that my English-language translation, The Water of Life, will be published quite soon (July 15th 2015) by Odyssey Books!

I look forward to sharing The Water of Life with the world. Slàinte (cheers)!



Insidious Occupation

Ask yourself: “What exactly is a border, and why do we (‘we’ referring to human beings in general) often fight so hard, go so far in different ways, to defend them?”

This is a question that’s been on my mind a lot lately, given the conflict that has been happening in Ukraine and has appeared often in the news media over the past few months. Family members of mine have paid attention, and as a result, have engaged me, as well as friends of theirs, in conversation on the subject.

Please take note, however, that this post is meant neither as economic nor as political analysis. It is, instead, a collection of personal impressions and opinions. As such, it will probably contain personal bias as well.

So why should I care about Ukraine, then, since I am not Ukranian, and have no connections to or direct personal investment in the country? A fair question.

I’ll start by saying that my family and I are Latvian, which means in my case that, although I didn’t experience the Soviet Russian occupation directly, I’ve heard much about it from family and friends who did. I also volunteered at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia for the summer a few years ago. That experience taught me a lot about how both Germany and Russia behaved as invading and occupying powers, at various times between 1940 and 1991. I’ll let the museum speak for itself (seriously, check it out  – it cares about teaching people), but one of the overwhelming impressions I came away with was that being occupied by Russia is an awful, degrading experience which tramples all over human rights and human dignity.

With this in mind, I care because I feel a certain sense of solidarity. I’m aware of what a very large country can be capable of doing to a smaller one – especially if the larger feels that it can claim territory or people from the smaller, regardless of the smaller one’s established sovereignty or possible wishes to the contrary.

It’s true that ethnically Russian people, who speak the Russian language, live all over Eastern Europe. I don’t support these people being discriminated against as minorities in their countries of residence –  something that can happen all too easily, anywhere there are groups of people large enough (in comparison to other groups present in the same area) to describe themselves as majorities. No one should be treated that way, ever. I will admit, however, that given the Russian state’s track record during the Soviet era – a record characterised by violent invasion, suppression of culture, unexplained imprisonment and deportation of people who didn’t agree with it, and other charming behaviour –  I’m deeply suspicious of that state’s motives. I don’t want Eastern Europe to be absorbed into Russia, piece by piece – again.

I’m scared too – not only for the people in Ukraine, who are currently experiencing violent invasion and have experienced manipulation of their democratic elections, but for all the people in smaller states near Russia, who run the same risk.

Money can but a lot of things, including votes, and through them, political influence as well as power. I wouldn’t be surprised, honestly, if the liberal use of money to influence elections in surrounding countries – including the upcoming Latvian parliamentary election on October 4th – were part of the Russian state strategy for reclaiming former Soviet territories. Yes, the situation has been explained to me by people who understand it much better than I do. Still, now that I am better informed, sorry, Russia – I have no intention of playing along.


“A Troubadour’s Dream”

I stand half-floating                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              in a field of purple heather,

beyond a hill beside me lies the sea.

Smells of seaweed, salt and honey

swirl in the air, pungent, sharp, sweet.

A woman appears, walking slowly,

purple blooms untouched beneath her feet.

In her cupped hands

she carries

a living, licking flame.

Her smile

brushes my mind –

here comes Brighid, goddess bright,

lady of smithcraft, wordcraft, fire.

Her shifting eyes, a thousand colours and none,

meet mine

My spirit cannot help but speak.

I feel words bubbling from my heart,

streaming from everywhere into me,

and I must tell…but purpose

is like a foggy mirror…

Brighid’s hand lies gently on my forehead,

presses fire into my skin,

draws out shining new flames.

Her ringing singing voice

speaks inside me:

This rises from you – by your fire you live

Seek the stories for telling,

sing them loudly over the hills

Burn away your fears with a poet’s flame,

a troubadour’s song.

Your task is to tell, and share, and shape

until pockets of puckering, fearful, poisonous silence

turn bright and hopeful

with the sparks of your eyes.

Her touch warms me

and I know, waking,

that the fire will keep me strong

when my feet stumble.

~ Marta Ziemelis. Written in Dubai, copyright August & September 2013.

This is my attempt to offer a reply to “Why do you write?” It’s a question I’ve heard a number of times, and never found easy to answer, because boiling the answer down into a few simple words can be a tricky thing – usually, what you get from me is either silence, or a tangled, involved explanation. No doubt other writers of many kinds are asked this as well. For me it’s something I need to do to purge intense emotions, deal with a crazy world – or, sometimes, just play with interesting sounds.

To Make a Dragon

“To Make a Dragon”

Misty breath-of-clouds, swimming-swift

Briny drops of amber, heavenly blood

Ox-ear, snake-neck, carp-scale and eagle-claw

A thousand sacred pearls, wisdom-shine,

Lotus blossoms piled at lakeside shrine

Red-bright whiskers growing like great trees

Sighs and roars which lift and calm the seas,

stirred about with paper fans, flick-winds.

Opal-eyes, hearts of shaded jade,

Coral crowns, heavy robes of silk,

shimmers in crystal palaces under-wave,

guided river-course, blessing and ward,

warm, thunderous laughter barely heard…

Spring-azure, green, imperial gold

Tints of shadow in glades of sung bamboo

Ringing, shuddering voice of brassy gongs

Sacred rain new-summoned, grateful throngs

Blend them all, etched on temple-roof or blade –

Thus, o friends, are mighty dragons made.

~ Marta Ziemelis. Written in Dubai, copyright March 2012.

The piece above was inspired by Jane Yolen’s lovely poem “The Making of a Unicorn”, from her anthology Here There Be Unicorns, breathtakingly illustrated by David Wilgus (see the relevant page on her website).

I was (and am) fascinated by the poem’s premise, and wished to write something similar about dragons. Originally, my version was to be about dragons as they are known in the West – such as Smaug from The Hobbit, Fafnir from the Volsungasaga, or the Dragon faced by St. George. Breathers of fire, hoarders of treasure, lovers of riddles. Yet when I started writing, the words were clumsy and ideas didn’t flow well. Understanding that I needed to try a different approach, I decided to try writing about Asian dragons instead, which were less familiar to me. So I began reading about Asian dragons, and pages of scribbled notes and a couple of drafts later, I had “To Make a Dragon”.

How I Love Words (And Languages Too!)

Greetings, my friends.

At first I hoped this post might contain a poem about Sir Gawaine, knight of King Arthur’s court – and surprisingly recalcitrant writer’s subject, as it turns out. I’ve started a number of pieces about Gawaine in the last several months, and have been unable to complete a single one of them to my satisfaction. This may be due to insufficient perseverance on my part – I must admit that I have the bad habit of being a lazy writer, more often than I care to confess. However, though perseverance and discipline are invaluable skills for any manner of creator, I suspect that in the case of Gawaine, I am trying too hard to control the arrival of his poem. It has been my experience that some of the pieces upon which I later look with the deepest joy and sense of fulfillment are those  whose first few words arrive unasked, when I am not thinking of them deliberately. So, Sir Gawaine, forgive me for now. Your poem is waiting, and when it is ready, I shall share it here.

In the meantime, I was sifting through my files (“my files”, how strange it seems to say that!) for something I feel needs to be shared, and I rediscovered the piece below, written this spring.

“What Are We To Say”

What are we to say, we who speak more than one language,

To whom vārdi, paroles and Wörte  are all words,

When we are asked, even by a friend,

How we manage so many? By listening,

By drawing them into the heart,

And filling our ears with different kinds of silence.

We might wish, sometimes, for a little more silence,

as each new face demands a different language;

but when the choice is given to our heart

we revel in the sweet rainstorms of words,

each drop tasting different, requesting listening

in a way our ears cannot explain, though we try to tell a friend

how it is, this speaking with three tongues or more.  The friend

who understands best will be one like us, who senses how silence

can be shaped into a hundred different streams by listening,

by seeking each moment’s perfect language.

Swiftly we shape different worlds of words,

asking wordlessly which of our minds they match, which heart

is clear and waiting now to share our love of sharing. The heart

of multilingualism is – treating every language as a friend,

a new discovery with a treasure chest of words,

each word to be loved, tasted, set in the silence

like a jewel. Each world–tongue, each cànain 

reaches out to us, and we are compelled to be it –  by listening.

Our endless quest of listening

takes us to the very heart,

the core, the spring, unbounded source of language –

to every listener a patient, clear-eyed friend –

which might be limpid silence.

And this spring helps us find words,

when translation seems impossible, when words

defy all our powers of listening,

when we feel a struggle against the very silence

– and yet take of our love the heart,

make the gap between languages into a friend,

and blend the untranslatable into a cocktail, a shared language.

So, in the end, every language

to us is a friend,

an anamchara, shared – our heart.

~ Marta Ziemelis. Written in Dubai, Copyright February 2012.

This particular piece sprang from two roots. First, I read a beautiful poem by Dominican-American writer Julia Alvarez entitled “Bilingual Sestina” – which I encourage anyone bilingual in English and Spanish to read!  – that inspired me to write one of my own similar to it. Namely, a poem written in two languages at once, shared between the two. And I said to myself, “What more fitting subject for such a work than the very experience of being multilingual?” Which leads to the other root: my experience of explaining – or attempting to explain, at times – the essence of what it feels like to carry a handful of languages inside my head, and to be able to switch between them at need, without strain.

Briefly, cànain and anamchara are Scottish Gaelic words, the first meaning “language, tongue, speech, dialect”, the second – a soul-friend, a person with whom one shares a deep connection to be cherished, the kind of connection that is difficult to express in words. (For anyone inclined to consult a Scottish Gaelic-English/ English-Scottish Gaelic dictionary, I can recommend this one, which I have found useful).

With humility and with great love, I would like to dedicate “What Are We To Say” to all the language teachers I have had and hope to have in future, whether inside a classroom or outside it. And, of course, to all the people in the world who carry more than one language in their heads, and  who feel the wonder and the joy in it.

“Come and Be Welcome”

“Come and be welcome, wherever you hail from/ Share all the secrets and joys of your art,/For every new voice that joins in the chorus/ will uplift the spirit and cheer the heart.” ~ Heather Dale, “Come and Be Welcome”

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Marta Antra Ziemelis, and I am currently twenty-four. As a citizen of the world, I’ve spent my life so far living in and traveling between Germany, Latvia, Saudi Arabia, Canada and Dubai. Thanks to this, I am at ease around people from a multitude of cultural backgrounds. My propensity for multilingualism is certainly helpful in this regard – I am fluent in English, Latvian, French, Italian and German, with probably more knowledge of Spanish than I am aware of.

As a person with a scholarly and creative mind, I love immersing myself deeply in a wide range of subjects: medieval European culture; myth and folklore (Norse and Celtic are favourites); the arts, especially music, theatre, and cinema; etymology and interesting words; world history and the myriad ways in which it is shaped by cultural history; literature, with particular regard for historical fiction, travelogues, poetry, and fantasy; travel and every possible form of storytelling. Just ask anyone who knows me – as soon as I am passionate about a particular subject, I become a walking encyclopedia!

When I am not talking or reading (voraciously) about my favourite topics, I write about them. Mostly I focus on poetry, but I write short stories as well, and I have contributed to one or two theatrical scripts. Why do I write? Because I am driven to do so – by powerful impressions, by memories, by ideas and inspirations which appear in my mind and give me no peace until I write them. What are my strengths as a writer? Finding exactly the right word or combination of words to express a particular emotion or set a specific mood.  Creating vivid descriptions and moving situations. My weaknesses? A tendency to be too verbose. Underestimating the impact and relevance of my work. In any case, nothing would make me happier than the chance to earn a living through my creative writing skills – as a scriptwriter, or maybe in a way I can’t even imagine.

In any case, my fellow balladeers, storytellers, geeks and dreamers, anyone who wishes to visit here, welcome!