2 Poets, 4 Questions: Q&A with Neil Aitken and Rumit Pancholi

Neil Aitken and Rumit Pancholi
Neil Aitken (L) and Rumit Pancholi (R)

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.

Continue reading “2 Poets, 4 Questions: Q&A with Neil Aitken and Rumit Pancholi”

On Poetry Potlucks, Part III – Guest’s Perspective (Elaine Wang)

Poetry Potlucks - Elaine Wang's Perspective
“I think part of the acceptance . . . comes from the potluck part, from the cakes and the dumplings. If you’re a decent human being, it’s almost impossible to not be kind with people with whom you’ve just broken bread.”—Elaine Wang

Guest Curated By Neil Aitken

For this installment of “On Poetry Potlucks,” our guest curator Neil has invited Elaine Wang, one of the guests at his very first poetry potluck (and an LR Issue 1 contributor), to reflect upon her experience. In today’s post, Elaine regales us with a tale of cake; rocks and mysterious masseuses; and the solace that she found through the group of sympathetic strangers gathered there.

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There is so much cake.

I am at Neil’s first ever poetry potluck, and I’m mostly wondering how three people are going to eat two full-sized cakes.  And these are optimal condition cakes—one is a green tea roll with icing inside and the other gently sandwiches layers of jellied fruit.

I think I ate four pieces of cake that night, and that was just dessert.  Neil had made his famous sweet potato dumplings for dinner.

But more on the poetry part and less on the potluck part—after spending some time catching up and getting to know one another, Neil led Ngoc and I through a generative writing exercise designed to find the “heart of the poem” through bringing together seemingly disparate pieces of our lives and finding their points of contact.

I learned that I am obsessed with doors and a rock.  Not rocks, a single small, smooth rock.  Namely, the scented, wet rock a massage therapist had laid in the hole where my clavicles meet after an almost two and a half hour massage.  The massage was only supposed to be an hour and a half, but the massage therapist later commented that he had lost track of time because he had been so immersed in working on my body because it was in one of the best conditions of his clients (at this point of my life, I had been dancing more regularly in jazz and ballet).  I had felt it, too.  The whole session felt like a weird, non-sexual but completely physical communion.  For the next two weeks I was wracked with the following questions: Did he just leave rocks in everyone’s necks?  Was this a secret come-on, since it’s so taboo in professional massage therapist/client relations?  If I went back to try and find him (I didn’t know his name, and I got the massage through a Groupon), would they throw me out and would I be tagged on some sort of creeper list?

Continue reading “On Poetry Potlucks, Part III – Guest’s Perspective (Elaine Wang)”

On Poetry Potlucks: Part II – Guest’s Perspective (Jeremy Ra)

Poetry Potlucks - Jeremy Ra's Perspective
“We picture poets in the fragile grasp of a nocturne at dawn . . . not munching on pasta and fish fillet. Yet here it was, unintimidating . . . basic.”—Jeremy Ra

Guest Curated By Neil Aitken

In this installment of “On Poetry Potlucks,” our guest curator Neil cedes the floor to one of his past potluck guests, Jeremy Ra, who reflects upon the significance that his first experience at a poetry potluck held for him as a writer.

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To Eat Enough Was
made three seasons, summer
and winter and autumn third
and fourth spring when
there is blooming but to eat enough
is not.
—Alkman fragment 20, quoted in Men in the Off Hours by Anne Carson

“Dying” seems to precede almost any mention of poetry in the media nowadays, as if poets do not deal with death enough that we need to prepare for the imminent bereavement of the medium as a whole. We perceive this almost as an assault—cast as vanguards of the old, the out-of-touch that failed to catch up to the modern times. That it is begrudgingly, yet unquestioningly, recognized as “art” only makes matters worse. (“It’s an acquired taste,” I’ve heard. “I just don’t get it,” I’ve been told.) Its implications are great as it refines the most basic of tools we use to form a community, yet its efforts mostly fail to captivate a large audience. (“Doesn’t it need to rhyme?” I’ve been asked.) At times, it feels we shoulder this burden alone; chained Prometheus whose heart is poked out daily for his gift that furthered the human civilization.

I think that’s why I find most poetry workshops to have a feel of a support group veiling over them at all times. We are there to pay tribute to what most people in the outside world had forgotten. We hold the corpses of our poetic veterans in our hands as we read their works. We bid them well by trying to create something of our own that says some of us remember—let’s be honest here, you’re not at the happiest place on earth. Despite the invaluable kinship I felt with fellow poets (not to mention the impeccable feedbacks that transformed my poems from malformed placentas into near-swans), I fell into a workshop limbo and retreated my poems into the solitary confines.

Continue reading “On Poetry Potlucks: Part II – Guest’s Perspective (Jeremy Ra)”

On Poetry Potlucks: Part I – How to Start a Poetry Potluck

The table at a past poetry potluck (Photo by An Xiao)
The table at a past poetry potluck (Photo by An Xiao)

A Guest Post by Neil Aitken

Neil Aitken
Neil Aitken

Editors’ Note: We welcome Boxcar Poetry Review editor and Issue 4 contributor Neil Aitken to the blog this summer as he guest-curates a short series for us about his poetry potlucks, a unique tradition combining food and literary community that he began several months ago in his L.A. apartment. Over the course of the next few weeks, Neil will be sharing about his experiences hosting and developing the concept of the poetry potluck, and may even invite a few of his past guests to share theirexperiences, as well.

In this week’s post, Neil discusses some of the background behind his poetry potlucks and provides some practical pointers about what it takes to host such a gathering. We hope that this post, as well as the rest of the series, will inspire you to carve out time to break bread with other members of the literary community where you live–and to maybe even begin a poetry potluck tradition of your own.

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Whether you live in the big city or in a small town, writing tends to be a lonely labor and we often find ourselves craving opportunities to discuss our work and our interests with others who share a passion for literature and the arts.  Writing retreats like Kundiman and VONA are certainly helpful in providing us with safe spaces for sharing our work and inspiring us to innovate—they also provide us with the chance to meet fellow writers and artists who are exploring and challenging the contemporary literary landscape.  Once the retreat is over though, often, unless we live someplace with a significant population of our fellow participants, we’ll return home to our original communities and find ourselves back where we started (at least in terms of face-to-face contact).  While we may stay in touch with our new friends and peers through email and Facebook, these forms of contact still pale in comparison to time spent together.

One possible solution is to create our own spaces of sharing and interaction.   For the past several months, I’ve been doing this by hosting poetry potlucks in my little apartment in Los Angeles.

Potlucks are a powerful way of building community—they encourage sharing and interaction.  For my poetry potlucks, I ask each participant to bring a dish and a poem to share.  People often bring food that they’ve prepared at home, but it’s also perfectly fine to bring something store-bought.  My neighborhood is full of great restaurants, bakeries, and grocery stores, so even a late arrival can pick something up on the way in.

Likewise, there are no fixed rules about what type of poetry needs to be shared.  I let my guests know that the potluck isn’t a formal workshop—they are welcome to bring something finished that they want to share as a way of introducing others to their current projects, or they can bring copies of something they want feedback on.  The emphasis should always be on dialogue and exchange—a poetry potluck promotes active and engaging discussion, book and movie recommendations, brainstorming, and hopefully a fair bit of cross-pollination and creative inspiration.

These poetry potlucks have been a big hit here in Los Angeles—largely because they fill a vital role, providing a space where community is born and fostered.   Here are some suggestions and tips I’ve learned over the past year’s worth of poetry potlucks.  Hopefully these ideas will be helpful to you if you’re interested in creating a poetry potluck or something similar in your own community.

Continue reading “On Poetry Potlucks: Part I – How to Start a Poetry Potluck”

Digital Broadsides: Neil Aitken’s “Memory,” Designed by Melissa R. Sipin

Download the "Memory" Broadside
"Memory" (Click to visit the download page)

This week’s digital broadside features Neil Aitken‘s poem “Memory” (from Issue 4), and was designed by Melissa R. Sipin, who’s a poet, a cofounder of TAYO, and a past LR contributor herself.  We asked Melissa if she would share some of her thoughts about her choice of Neil’s poem and how that led her design process, and here is what she had to say:

I was led to design Neil Aitken’s “Memory” because of the poem’s vivid play on the concept of memory and its correlation with “the sum of mere data.” It awoke something nostalgic in me, and I was organically drawn to these lovely lines: “What is memory? / And who is it that slips in at these odd hours … / Who is it that stirs upstairs in my mind … / Here, my father is alive again, once more…”

In the same breath, after learning the intent of Aitken’s poem and its connection with Charles Babbage, I researched the life of Babbage and began to design the poem organically. Designing tends to be a visceral experience for me, and as a result, the visual themes of absence and gradient holes took hold. I hope I designed a broadside that is pleasurable to Aitken and the heart of the poem.

I think it’s safe to say that Melissa has successfully captured at least our hearts with her gorgeously illustrated design!

Melissa’s lovely interpretation of “Memory” is available in two forms—as a printable .pdf, and as a  desktop wallpaper—and can be downloaded at our “Digital Broadsides” page. We hope that you’ll download both—and that, especially if you hang or leave a copy of the printed version in a public space, you’ll share a picture  with us (on Facebook, on Twitter, or by email), and tell us about any stories that might be generated when others encounter it.

Process Profile: Neil Aitken Discusses “I Dream My Father on the Shore”

Neil Aitken
Neil Aitken

Neil Tangaroa Aitken is the author of The Lost Country of Sight which won the 2007 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry and was published by Anhinga Press in 2008. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times and has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, The Drunken Boat, Ninth Letter, Poetry Southeast, Sou’wester, and elsewhere.
Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Neil grew up in Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and the western parts of the United States and Canada. He holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Brigham Young University, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of California – Riverside, and is currently working on a Ph.D. in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Southern California.

In our Process Profiles series, young contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication. Here, Neil discusses “I Dream My Father on the Shore,” the final poem in his collection The Lost Country of Sight.

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It was the summer of 2006 and I was attending my second Kundiman retreat at the University of Virginia. We’d been challenged to write a ghazal and when I sat down to work on the poem, I found myself linking the form’s tradition of exploring the ties between beauty and loss with my own memories of my father’s loss of his father. Although I’d written about that experience many years before, I felt that a different poem might reside in the space created by time and distance, and the way that dreams and memories alter our understanding of the past. I set out to craft something that would carry a certain dreamlike lushness, while reflecting the constant turn and return of the form.

The poem went through several drafts and gradually I realized that perhaps the ghazal was not the actual form it needed to take. I ended up trimming out most of the repetition, but tried to keep a sense of the original form present through sound and rhythm – like a ghost or an afterimage of the ghazal. Switching to free-verse opened up more possibilities, allowing the line-breaks to do more work and permitting me to extend images, phrases, and conceits over larger spaces in the poem.

As I worked on the poem, I found myself reflecting on my own relationship with my father and how he had once told me that he would not live a long life; that he would likely die young from one of the many health conditions he endured. His sense of mortality and the way he had offered the news to me before I first left for college all those years ago seemed in some way to echo a line from Wendell Berry’s “The Country of Marriage” and so I eventually included that line as the poem’s epigraph. By the time the poem was published by Sou’wester in late 2007, my father had passed away from an aggressive form of ALS and the closing lines of the poem suddenly became much more than dream or metaphor. When I assembled the version of the manuscript that became The Lost Country of Sight, I knew that this would be the poem to complete the book, and that those last images would be the ones I wanted to linger on when the final page was turned.

Below is the final version of “I Dream My Father on the Shore,” as it appears in Neil’s collection:

I Dream My Father on the Shore

What I am learning to give you is my death.
~ Wendell Berry

Outside, beneath the light of late October’s candled sky
the weave of ash and maple burns.  We stand silent on the graveled shore.
My father lifts his father’s ashes from its urn, a strangely heavy thing,
he seems to say, his arms swaying, then casting out into the long dark
as if to throw a line, while we wait for some sound, a wave,
whatever marks the distance between a father and a son.

And when night comes, it comes without a tread, without a word.

The stars flickering in their endless retreat, more distant and sure

than before, do nothing while the shadows continue to fill the trees
with their cast-off clothes.  The harvest is long past, the apples
have fallen to the orchard floors.  Even my father turning to go
is almost lost to the reeds already in his path, his figure no more
than a pattern of light – a memory of a road that winds
through the darkness to our waiting ride home.