2 Poets, 4 Questions: Q&A with Neil Aitken and Rumit Pancholi
Today, we’re sharing the final installment in our mini series “2 Poets, 4 Questions.” Each week in this series, we’ve been pairing up two different emerging APIA poets and asking them to answer a set of four identical questions. Today’s post features a pair of poet-editors, Neil Aitken (author of The Lost Country of Sight) and Rumit Pancholi (author of the chapbook Anatomy of a Ghost), who reflect on the things that haunt their poetry, putting together their first manuscripts, and the joys and challenges of editorial work.
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LR: What ghosts haunt your poetry? What are the voices and stories that dog you, the specters that find their way into your writing again and again?
NA: Landscapes, mostly. I hold fast to memories of Saskatchewan and the childhood I spent there working in the sun, or wandering through vast fields of grain in the summer, staring up at a sky that refused number or name. I carry all sorts of things with me in my work and in my life. Behind every new city lies an array of the ones I have left behind, large and small—but it’s always the prairies that end up dominating that view: the abandoned farmhouses, the forgotten roads, the fences that run the length of the horizon, everything speaks to something out of time, yet grounded to earth and sensation.
There are people that linger at the edges of my writing as well. My father, for one, now seven years gone into silence, and his voice, which I’ve kept preserved on a little tape recorder, stored in a drawer, waiting for the day I can bring myself to listen to it again. He was my first mentor—the first to encourage me to write, to draw, to imagine things beyond the world around me—and to value the power of language as a means of transformation and possibility. When I teach I find myself falling back on not just on what he taught me, but how—the ways in which he refused easy answers, but equipped me to search out my own.
As a programmer turned poet, I’m haunted the memory of my first encounter with contemporary American poetry, of standing in the aisle of a used bookstore and thumbing through a copy of Philip Levine’s New Selected Poems, and the way “Letters for the Dead” rose from the page and took over my entire imagination. How is it possible, I remember thinking at that time, that one can create so much longing, beauty, and music out of such plain speech? I wanted to write like that—and that yearning has carried me on a remarkable journey, page after page, through the minds and worlds of other great poets.
Lastly, I’m haunted by something the artist Kandinsky once wrote:
“Everything that is dead quivers. Not only the things of poetry, stars, moon, wood, flowers, but even a white trouser button glittering out of a puddle in the street… Everything has a secret soul, which is silent more often than it speaks.”
I love the notion of a secret soul that lurks in even the most mundane and forgettable of things and the way it opens up the space for wonder and surprise, even gratitude.
RP: I’m haunted by the inexorable draws of expectation, especially of Speaker = Poet. Often I feel that creative writers are expected to write, and do write, as I have in my work, about the issues that concern their race/ethnicity, gender, and sexuality—an innocuous trifecta that intersects with love, pain, grief, and other sentiments in modern poetry. Past scholars, instructors, and mentors have given valuable guidance in steering me toward more about my lived experiences as a young, gay non-White writer and to tap into those avenues for creative writing fodder, to dig deep and wide. I have, and the result has been forced, uncooked, and unsatisfying poems that are eventually stashed in a folder on my computer labeled “Pending” only to be sheepishly dropped into the Recycle Bin months later. What was inhibiting me from reaching poems that I could read and reread without sounding standard and cliché? Over the years, I’ve begun to learn and identify that simply writing about those themes doesn’t create the spark I seek. After having written and destroyed hundreds of poems about an unrequited love or a jilted lover or the nuances of growing up constantly responding to gayness, otherness, non-Whiteness, I’m haunted by the “I” Rumit voice versus the “I” speaker voice that has to grapple with being within the poem and apart from the poem while simultaneously being inviting, charming, sexy, relevant to a reader. When I return to those common themes as a springboard, and when I do gain admirable momentum, I ask myself how this poem is different from other same-theme poems written by another “young, gay non-White writer.” That harangues me the most whenever I think I see the Finish Line.
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LR: Tell us about the journey you took with your book/chapbook: how did you conceive of the project, what was your process like, and where has the book taken you since its publication?
NA: Although some of the poems in The Lost Country of Sight were written during my undergraduate, the bulk of the book was conceived and composed over the course of my MFA at UC Riverside. I entered the program knowing I wanted to write about 20th century exile and displacement, both from the vantage point of literature and literary figures in exile, but also from my own personal experiences with rootlessness. As a person of multiple heritages and languages, I had grown up without a strong geographic sense of home—home was instead a particular configuration of people and experiences. I reflected on the ideas of home, exile, and return throughout this process, drawing inspiration from Andre Aciman’s essays on exile, the biblical, historical and modern forms of exodus and diaspora, and my own complex relationship with language, culture, and identity as a mixed race individual. The manuscript gained some much needed perspective thanks to time spent at the Kundiman retreat, as well as obtaining its eventual title (which came in a dream while there, after a discussion with my roommate Jee Leong Koh about the blandness of the original).
After graduating from UC Riverside, I found myself starting over again in Canada, on the outskirts of Vancouver, and about a five hour drive from my father who had just fallen ill from what we soon would discover to be ALS, a terminal neurological disease. So, for a period of eight months I drove home on weekends to care for my father, navigating a constantly changing physical and emotional landscape, all the while revising and expanding my manuscript. After his death, the whole manuscript shifted shape as I started to understand that perhaps it really was much more of an elegy than I had imagined—that certain pieces, in light of his passing, had taken on a new complexity and resonance.
Where has the book taken me? Winning the Philip Levine Prize and having the book published opened a number of doors during that first year and beyond. I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to give readings at universities and venues all over the country, and at times to also speak one on one with graduate students in other programs. I’ve been to parts of the country I might never have traveled to otherwise—and have had chances to speak before large audiences in auditoriums and libraries, as well as [at] small gatherings in bookstores and living rooms. While the book has not made me rich or world famous, it has allowed me to have some very meaningful discussions about the nature of home, family, and departure, and our efforts to reconstruct the places and people we’ve lost, if only through language and memory. Perhaps most importantly, the book has brought me a measure of peace, even in the wake of tragedy and loss—it’s taught me that while poetry cannot restore these things to us entirely, it awakens in our heart and mind what we otherwise would lose, it calls forth the dead and the missing from out of the dimming world one treasured detail at a time. In all this, the book reminds me that there is still more to say, still more to be written, and so I keep writing and working, keep looking into the vast existence that surrounds me, trying to discover what lurks beneath that surface that has yet be offered a voice.
RP: My chapbook, Anatomy of a Ghost, is a collection of poems written during my MFA program at the University of Notre Dame. It comprises poems of coming out, almost-coming out, wanting to come out, and the rigidity of a conservative and stanch family. It’s the stuff you’d expect from an emerging MFA student with limited life experiences but intense exploratory ambition. I knew what I wanted to say, although [I was] not quite certain how to say it or with what tone. I was very reader-aware. Should it be impressively metered? Should it be heartrending? If so, should the reader laugh; cry; feel relief, inspiration, curiosity? Above all, I wanted the reader to learn more about me as a writer and to turn the page with gusto.
In sequencing the chapbook, I printed about 40 poems on individual sheets of paper, sprawled across my living room, and sorted the poems into piles on the basis of theme, setting, chronology, structure, mood, and other elements, organizing and reorganizing them into a meaningful order and eventually weeding out any outliers that did not richly speak to the other poems. I read the last lines of the poem on one page and the first lines of the poem on the next page in order to get a sense of transition. I tweaked and reworked poems to improve their endings and beginnings but did not disturb the intent or disposition of any poems.
I’ve witnessed writers who tend to regret their earlier works and modestly dismiss them as inferior, some doing so out of bona fide embarrassment and others out of a self-aggrandizing desire for the listener, out of social norms, to compliment the writer’s humility. If adequate progress and attention is given to a craft, logic would have it that earlier works will reflect the writer’s strengths (and, arguably, weaknesses) at the time of writing, and later works would attest to the writer’s heightened precision and skill. The writer of the poems of my 2007 chapbook has experienced less and had fewer lessons in writing than the writer [I am] today. Thus, in my writing (especially in light of my non–creative writing job), I’ve progressed to writing with more specific attention to language and how it operates and functions for different people, histories, and cognitions. My current writing focuses more on day-to-day experiences that ideally resonate with readers in an ingenious way regardless of the writer’s race/ethnicity, gender, or sexuality—those aspects may enter my writing but are not what make me me. Writing about the extraordinary in the ordinary in the everyday, dealing with homeownership, hosting international travels, volunteering with local and national organizations, exploring a new city with and without a significant other, the experiences that enrich my life now and give meaning orbit the core of my writing these days.
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LR: You’re both involved in editorial work of different sorts [Neil is the founding editor of Boxcar Poetry Review and recently started Caboose, and Rumit is a production editor/project manager at the World Bank]. In what ways (if any) has your editing experience informed your writing career? What has your editorial work taught you that you wish you knew when you first began, and do you have any advice for young writers who are interested in starting a literary magazine or pursuing a career in publishing?
NA: My first taste of journal editing came when I was an MFA student at UC Riverside and helped launch CRATE, a graduate-run multi-genre literary journal. I spent both years involved with CRATE, the first as the print and layout person, the second as co-editor-in-chief. As I neared graduation, I decided to combine my editing experiences with CRATE with my technical skills as a web designer to launch Boxcar Poetry Review, an online literary journal. More recently I’ve had opportunities to be assist the launch of Caboose and to serve as a contributing/consulting translation editor for Poetry East West. Each of these experiences has taught me something about both sides of the editor’s desk.
Working as an editor (or a reader) provides a unique perspective on your own writing and publishing efforts. For example, as an editor, I find that I am much more sympathetic to editors who do most of the reading themselves (editors do get tired or distracted, and can sometimes pass over good work they might accept on another day), and also more realistic about the challenges of getting a poetry submission past a firewall of initial readers for those journals who use them (there’s often a fair bit of internal politics going on, some deal-making, some compromise, and on rare occasions, consensus).
Viewing things from inside the journal editing process, you quickly discover that there are pressures and concerns that lie outside the simple question of a poem’s quality or merit. Sometimes the size constraints of a journal’s format preclude it from accepting certain types of poems. Sometimes it’s the platform (certain online sites which use WordPress or Blogger are ill-equipped to handle poems that require a lot of white space. Some journals have institutional pressures or mandates to showcase a certain percentage of work from their own program. As an editor, I also know that some submissions arrive at the wrong time, and though quite brilliant, may not in fact fit the developing theme or concept that governs a pending issue.
For those who are interested in launching a new journal, I would recommend studying the journals that you admire. Look closely at their format, their branding, their publishing schedule, and the size of their staff. Most of all, examine closely how each journal positions themselves in relation to the others. In a field where there are already so many existing publications, what exactly will set yours apart? In some way carve out a niche, a space that is uniquely yours. What can your journal do or offer that no one else is offering, or at least, how can you do it better?
RP: I work for about five clients, with World Bank being my primary. The work I do as production editor, development editor, and copyeditor involves journals, books, policy briefs, and papers [and] clearly lends perspective on a range of writing. My takeaway from the very non–creative writing career world is that language is an important means of communication, and that meaning can be altered by word placement and structure. A misplaced period in poetry will not translate to life-altering consequences, but in medical writing where dosage is concerned, it can. My career world and creative writing worlds intersect in that they both require careful attention to language. I often feel cognitive dissonance when I’m wearing both hats—in my job, [where I'm] enforcer of proper grammar and syntax of the English language (while admitting that it is ever-pliable and ever-evolving), and in writing creatively, where the English language is often necessarily broken, repurposed, and reenvisioned. I wish I had known that the task would not be easy. Nonetheless, although creative writing operates on a liberated spectrum of how language is constituted in poetry, my non–creative writing editorial work demands more rigid structures, so it is interesting to be in a position to bear witness to how each functions.
I advise those who are interested in pursuing a career in academic publishing specifically, in contrast with literary publishing, to explore the types of non–creative writing content that interest them and apply to positions that match that interest. The experience of editing a highly technical astrophysics journal is much different from editing a plastic surgery journal, which is much different from the experience of editing a book on basic education initiatives in a developing country. Because academic publishing involves reading a vast amount of text from very specific fields and from writers at different stages of writing quality, all publishing companies and production editor positions are not to be treated equally.
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LR: What’s next for you? What are you working on now, and what has been inspiring your creative output as of late?
NA: Right now my top priority is finishing up my PhD in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California. I’m currently completing my dissertation on nineteenth-century artificial intelligences (the Turk, Frankenstein, Babbage’s calculating engines, and Sherlock Holmes all figure prominently in it) and expect to be done and defended by August this year. I’m also working on my second book manuscript, Babbage’s Dream, which draws on both my dissertation research and my own personal training and experiences as a former computer programmer to explore beauty, language, and isolation at the intersection of humanity and technology.
While most of what inspires my writing these days comes from my research on the history of computers and artificial intelligence in literature and the life of Charles Babbage (nineteenth-century mathematician, philosopher, and computer pioneer), I also find a lot of joy and motivation in my interactions with other writers. I recently returned from AWP Seattle and felt overwhelmed with gratitude for all the amazing writers I encountered there and the terrific poetry that is being published. I loved spending time with people I’ve published in Boxcar, as well as some of those who we haven’t said yes to yet. Likewise, there’s something really rejuvenating about being surrounded by the poets you admire and count as friends and family. Kundiman has been that way for me, but it’s also present in my current and past writing programs, and in the local poetry scene. It’s a wonderful feeling to have a community to call home.
Back here in Los Angeles, I continue to be motivated and inspired by the members of the poetry workshop I lead on Wednesday nights for Beyond Baroque, a local literary non-profit community organization. Somehow, despite how busy they all are, each member of that workshop manages to keep writing and producing new work – and they keep challenging themselves and others to do better. In their efforts to carve out time to write and craft poetry, I find inspiration to do the same. After all, we’re all the same – working, writing, struggling, and finding ourselves in front of the page looking for the right thing to say to the silence. I love knowing that we’re not alone in that struggle.
RP: The process of getting one step closer to calling myself a “poet,” not for anyone else’s sake but for my own. In a way, it’d make me feel less awkward when friends tell others that I’m a poet. I describe myself as an editor first, then a poet. Perhaps because I don’t feel that I’ve achieved a sense of mastery yet. But then again there’s that Ernest Hemingway quote, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” Whenever I think of creative writing, and how others experience poetry (from self-proclaimed poets/masters of poetry to those who have little to no experience but at minimum an interest in it), this quote comes to mind. Regardless, my writing has been inspired by a number of life events that are firsts for me, including being a homeowner in DC, participating in the Kundiman writing retreat, and volunteering for a week in New Orleans. These events are starting to appear in interesting ways in my writing, and lately I’ve been focused on getting as much written without a focus on targeting a specific journal or audience or implicit expectation and more about a specific emotion to a stimulus or nonstimulus. The goal is to leave the reader having experienced my poems with a peek into my perspective on life and a greater sense of where I’m coming from as writer.
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Neil Aitken is the author of The Lost Country of Sight, winner of 2007 Philip Levine Prize, and the editor of Boxcar Poetry Review. He was born in Vancouver, British Columbia and raised in Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and western United States and Canada. His poems have appeared in American Literary Review, The Collagist, Crab Orchard Review, Ninth Letter, The Normal School, and elsewhere. A former computer programmer, he is presently pursuing a PhD in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California.
Rumit Pancholi is a production editor/project manager at World Bank Publications in Washington, DC. He is a 2008 graduate of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Notre Dame. He was most recently a 2013 Kundiman Fellow and recipient of a Poets & Writers grant.