Inquiring Minds and Other Clichés – Neil Aitken

— a poetry interview series by Christine Klocek-Lim

Neil Aitken

1. What is your favorite poem that you’ve written? Read?

Usually I’m most attached to the poem I’ve most recently written, which at the moment would be “Babbage Descending into Mt. Vesuvius, 1828.” Part of a series revolving around the life and experiences of Charles Babbage, 19th century mathematician, philosopher, and inventor of the Difference and Analytical Engines (designed, but never completed mechanical precursors to the modern computer), this particular poem focuses on the year following his wife’s early death, when he traveled to continental Europe and became obsessed with volcanoes, even going so far as to have himself lowered into Mt. Vesuvius and conducting a survey of the inside of the main crater.  Although I’d done the research for the poem several months ago, it wasn’t until recently that the elements came together and the poem really took shape.  I find the juxtaposition of Babbage’s personal grief and his reckless obsession with volcanic activity strangely compelling, at once speaking to his personal dedication to learning how things worked, and simultaneously exposing some darker impulse to take these life-threatening risks in the aftermath of a year that saw the loss of his beloved wife, his estranged father, and two of his children.

My favorite poem by someone else is Philip Levine’s “My Father With Cigarette, Twelve Years Before the Nazis Could Break His Heart.”  I love this poem — the way it assembles a reality out of an accumulation of seemingly meaningless details, how it twists and turns, opening itself up to the reader, constructing the scene in memory as if it were a stage play, and how in the end the most powerful elements of the poem are those that have been the most silent.

2. Do you think there is a disconnect between academic poets/poetry and online poets/poetry?

Not really.  In many ways I feel like this question assumes a false dichotomy — while the field of contemporary poetry is fairly diverse and complex (and sometimes fractured), I find that the divisions aren’t usually along the lines of  “academic” vs “online” — at least, it hasn’t been so in my experience.  As the editor of an online literary journal, Boxcar Poetry Review, which has been around for over six years and regularly publishes poets from all sorts of backgrounds and at varying levels of publishing history, I find that my emphasis is always on the quality of the work, not on the previous publications of the poet or whether or not they’ve been “trained” in an MFA environment.  I’ve also found that more and more “academic” poets feel comfortable submitting work to online journals if they feel the journal maintains a high standard for publication.

On the other hand, I think there is a disconnect between certain camps of “academic” poetry and a general reading public.  It’s true that certain poets are strongly informed and shaped by critical theory and have developed approaches to poetry that generate texts which are very difficult for an untrained reader to appreciate, or seem to require specialized knowledge of obscure history or little-known primary texts to appreciate their nuanced meanings.  Sometimes the project of the poetic endeavor overtakes the poem’s ability to connect to the reader in a visceral and compelling fashion, and does not really leave room for the poem to speak to something universal about the human experience.  For me at least, these are the poems that represent that divide.

3. Has the rise of the poetry MFA been positive or detrimental to the art?

It’s true that MFA programs have created safe havens for writers to work and practice, developing their skills and their craft in the company of other writers and mentors.  It’s also true that while they do much good in terms of creating useful spaces of creative exchange and opportunities to encounter new texts and writers, they can also inhibit a writer’s growth if that writer isn’t being proactive in their efforts to define themselves through thoughtful negotiation and analysis of what they encounter.  Provided that students recognize that MFA programs are best used as a means toward an end, that end being the creation of a manuscript through the development of their writing craft, I believe they do much good and have a place.  On the other hand, they should not be viewed as gateways to the teaching profession or as some sort of certification that they have become bona-fide writers.  Much of the disappointment and frustration with the poetry MFA stems from belief in the latter two myths — and the subsequent realization that when you graduate, there are no guarantees of employment or manuscript publication).

I can only speak from my own experience — namely that the MFA was hugely beneficial in my growth as a writer.  My undergraduate work was in computer science and mathematics, and although I did take some graduate workshop classes as an undergraduate, I spent most of my time after graduation working in a field unconnected with literature.  During my  years as a programmer, I was dependent on the local open mic poetry community and the small writing group I participated in for my continued training and growth.  It was in those two spaces that I could listen and learn about poetry, while also generating new work and receiving feedback.  Eventually I realized I needed more structure and could benefit from more experienced mentors if I was going to move forward– at that point I started researching MFA programs and found one that provided a space and mentors I felt would be conducive to my growth.

4. Do you write for yourself or for an audience/reader?

I write primarily for myself — that is to say, I write about the things I find interesting and compelling, I choose my own subjects and my approaches.  I’m always somewhat aware of an audience, but I’m not writing to please others or elicit some sort of response or adulation from them.  I’m just interested in creating something I can be happy with — a poem that surprises me with its turns, that strikes a chord buried within.  I feel that writing honestly for yourself enables a space where the poem can be open to others.

5. How much of what you write is inspiration vs. perspiration?

There’s a lot of pre-writing work that happens for me, especially with my current project which has much more of a historical connection than my first book.  Most of the perspiration is expended in research and contemplation.  I read a lot about my subject or the elements I sense will end up in the poem.  For example, in working on my poem “Babbage Descending into Mt. Vesuvius, 1828 ,” I spent a lot of time reading through Anthony Hyman’s biography of Charles Babbage as well as Babbage’s own account of his exploration within the crater.  I also read up on other 18th and 19th century literary figures who visited Mt. Vesuvius.  I read about other active volcanoes and recent volcanic eruptions which would have been known to Babbage.  I studied the impact that a massive 1815 eruption had on climate in Europe as well as the ways in which it was related to Lord Byron’s famous literary gathering at Lake Geneva, Switzerland and the peculiar yellowish light in J.M.W. Turner’s paintings.  A lot of what I research never makes it into the poem, but doing the research allows me to imagine more completely and with greater confidence the world in which the poem exists and is taking shape.  I find inspiration in the things I research — and sometimes the research for one poem becomes the starting point of another poem.  When I finally sit down to write though, I usually finish that poem within an hour or two.

6. How has the way you write changed (or not changed) over time?

Some things have changed, others have stay about the same.  For example, I’m quite attached to a narrative lyric approach, although at times my poems can be a bit more narrative than lyric, and other times more lyric than narrative.  My earliest poems tended to feature short lines (some as short as a single word) and often felt more fragmented.  Over time my lines have become longer and often more complex in their use of clauses.  The Babbage poems, which are more historical, have much longer lines than my other poems, partly to consciously reflect the character of Babbage as a more contemplative one, and partly due to the demands of a more historical context (more details and positioning needed).

In terms of process, I find that I don’t write as many poems in a year as I used to.  When I was a programmer, I would spend time every day at the end of work writing for forty minutes to an hour while I waited for traffic to die down.  While most of the poems weren’t that good, the practice of writing daily did help me hone my skills and enabled me to get through a lot of bad writing to get to the good writing.  These days I read and research more and write less, but in general the poems I write I’m very happy with.  There’s a happy balance to be reached between those two approaches — one I’m still looking for.


The Lost Country of Sight won the 2007 Philip Levine Prize winner (Anhinga Press)

Neil Aitken’s website


Neil 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 poetry 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. He recently received the DJS Translation Prize in recognition for his translations of contemporary Chinese poetry.  A former computer games programmer, he is currently completing a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California.


This interview is brought to you by  Couplets: a multi-author poetry blog tour in coordination with Upper Rubber Boots Books.

Upper Rubber Boot Books is coordinating a book blog tour for April, to help promote poetry and poets for National Poetry Month. Check back here for updates throughout the month of April (we’ll also post updates to our blog, and so will many of the participating poets).
Follow this event on Facebook or Goodreads


  • Coming in April 2012.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.