Lithuanian-American Poet and Zen Practitioner AL ZOLYNAS

By David A. Bainbridge

I would like to introduce you to my favorite poet, Algirdas Zolynas. His most recent book was his just released, Near and Far, Garden Oak Press, December, 2019,141 pages. $11.69 at B&N.

Al’s poems are personal, rich in emotion, and often leavened with humor. Many capture the beauty and mystery of every day life. Some of my favorites include: Bread, In Gratitude; Near Sunskai, Lithuania; Watching a Day; the Western Felt Works, Leaving Kaunas, 1944, and Sideways Down Rapids.  

Also worth a look in earlier books: Love in the Classroom, The Zen of Housework, Nothing to do—Nowhere to go, The Way He’d Like it, Running down Summit Avenue in Saint Paul in a Heavy Snowfall, and Living with Others.

Al was born in Austria of Lithuanian parents in 1945. They had fled the Soviet advance and survived bombing raids in Berlin. His parents became part of the wave of 11 million displaced people (DP) after the war. His father had been an attorney and one of his grandfathers signed the Lithuanian Declaration of Independence in 1918. As refugees they were refused entry to the US, where you had to have a sponsor, a place to live, and a guarantee that you would not displace American workers or, better yet, a related American citizen. 

In 1949 the Zolynas family was accepted under Australia’s Displaced Persons Program and was able to leave Germany. Australia ultimately accepted 10,000 Lithuanian DPs from 1947-1952. Most of the DPs were “indentured” manual laborers for two years on government projects—regardless of past experience or education. His father worked for the central railway station in Sydney cleaning and preparing train cars. In the boy scouts Al learned the plants and animals of Lithuania while camping in the outback. Eventually his family was allowed into the US and moved to Chicago where many of the Lithuanian immigrants to America had settled. The refugee experience helped shape his approach to poetry and his interest in Zen teachings.

He earned his PhD at the University of Utah and lived and taught in Utah and Minnesota before settling in California. He taught writing and literature at Alliant International University, San Diego for more than 30 years. Al has been a poetry editor, resident poet in the schools, Minnesota Out Loud Traveling Poet, volunteer for the Hunger Project, and Fulbright-Hays Fellow to India.  He lives, writes, and leads a Zen workshop in Escondido, California.  

His poems have been widely published in journals, anthologies, and many are accessible on the web. Many have been translated into Lithuanian, Spanish, and Polish. His books include 4 Petunia Avenue, Quatch Press, 1987; The New Physics, Wesleyan University Press, 1979; Under Ideal Conditions, Laterthanever Press, 1994 (San Diego Book Award, Best Poetry, 1994); The Same Air, Intercultural Studies Forum, 1997; and Near and Far 2019. With Fred Moramarco, he was co-editor of Men of Our Time:  An Anthology of Male Poetry in Contemporary America, University of Georgia Press, May 1992 and The Poetry of Men’s Lives: An International Anthology, University of Georgia Press, 2004 (San Diego Book Award for Best Poetry Anthology in 2005). He also translated Silvija Lomsargytė-Pukienė’s memoir, The Parallels of Dita: Surviving Nazism and Communism in Lithuania. 

As a long-time practitioner of Zen, I’ve been trained to pay attention to “what is,” what’s “just so” in this moment–our perceptions, our emotional states, our thoughts, our resistance, the ceaseless change occurring around us. In so doing, over a very long period of time, we come closer to simply appreciating the mystery that we dwell in and that we are. As a poet, I want to “record” some of that appreciation in language that is alive, interesting, and accessible. Doesn’t the best poetry point us in the direction of that mystery? And doesn’t great poetry help us to actually experience it?