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”

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.