The Hermit Poet

June 21, 2009

The Figure of the Father

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If you’ve read my book, you’ll know that my father shows up in a number of poems and the book moves from an exploration of exile and home into something of an elegy for my father and others who have passed on.  I think the figure of the father is an important one to many of us.  Many of my favorite poems revolve around the father.  The father as foil.  As counterpart.  As template.  As warning.  As authority.  As loss.  Fathers are often fixed points, what we measure ourselves against, the poles to which we find ourselves tethered to and which we strain to break free.  Sometimes the father is an anchor.  Sometimes the father is a mirage.  A ghost.  A myth we tell ourselves.  The father is many things at once.  For me, often my father was home.

Here’s the last poem from my book, The Lost Country of Sight:

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.

My favorite father poems include:

  • “My Father With Cigarette Twelve Years Before the Nazis Could Break His Heart” – Philip Levine
  • “His Father, Singing” – Leslie Norris
  • more to come as I think of them

What are your favorite poems about fathers?

June 1, 2009

Boxcar Poetry Review Celebrates Its 20th Issue

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It’s more than a little amazing to me that we put up the 20th issue of Boxcar Poetry Review last night.

Amazing because:

  1. Despite so many other things going on this month (semester end papers, projects, grading, meetings, moving into a new apartment, unpacking, etc), the issue actually did go up last night — and thus remained a May issue (though 3 weeks later than our usual posting time)
  2. We’ve had tremendous support from the writing community online and offline.  Wonderful submissions, some of which we were able to publish, some of which we were a little slow and missed on, and others that were great, but not a fit here.  Great people.  Engaging conversations with those we’ve been able to meet at AWP and various other readings and events.
  3. I still love this endeavor, despite being occasionally worn out from all the reading and assessing of poetry.  I believe strongly in Boxcar and in the poets and poems we’ve published.  I have the world’s best staff (and we’re adding someone new next issue too!).

Anyway, the new issue is up.  You can check it out here:

In this issue we feature:


  • “Cubilete Mountain Pilgrimage” ~ Jeffrey Alfier
  • “Living Without Water” ~ Arlene Ang
  • “Vietnamese New Year” ~ Carrie Chappell
  • “Flight Out of Guest Room” ~ Brendan Constantine
  • “Elegy for a Skinwalker” ~ Lisa Fay Coutley
  • “Little Black Holes” ~ Jenny Yang Cropp
  • “The Difference Between Oh and O” ~ Kimberly Grey
  • “The Spirit of Washington” ~ Alan King
  • “Tornado Alley” ~ Michael Meyerhofer
  • “Whispering Pines, Texas” ~ Angelo Nikolopoulos
  • “In the afterlife” ~ Jeannine M. Pitas


  • Taylor Gillis: two photos from Stems, Leaves series


  • Linda Susan Jackson’s What Yellow Sounds Like ~ Diane Schenk


May 18, 2009

Moving / Recently Reviewed

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 11:21 pm

I’m 60% done with my move (I think) and hope to be around 80% done sometime tomorrow. At this point the bookcases have all been moved, as have the vast majority of my books. I’ve started moving over computer equipment and things for storage. Tomorrow will be clothes, small furniture, and some miscellaneous boxes.

I did discover (thanks to Google Alerts) that Robert Peake has a very nice review of my book up on his blog. Among other things, he writes:

Memory—its beauty and fragility—recur as a theme throughout this collection, especially in relation to the figure of the father. In this way these poems, at times, resemble the meditative grace of Li-Young Lee. But with its eye for ruined beauty, Aitken’s poems pierce through us roughly, like the starlight in a Larry Levis poem.

You can read the rest here:

May 8, 2009

Interview Excerpt #2: On Audience and Intent

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PR:  In terms of audience, we’ve heard of writers who write in order to:  heal the conflict in Northern Ireland; hang out with Henry Miller and Herman Melville in heaven (or hell); not embarrass their family; embarrass their family; get revenge; be therapeutic; meet deadlines; amuse themselves; pay mortgage.  In writing the poems in The Lost Country of Sight and in putting the collection together, what various audiences or goals did you have in mind?

Me: When I started writing the poems which make up The Lost Country of Sight, I was initially obsessed with the idea that somehow I was constructing in them a place to call “home” after so many years of moving around from country to country and house to house.  However “home” is an elusive thing.  As Liu Hongbin, a Chinese poet I reference in one of my epigraphs, notes in one of his interviews, “Writing poetry is the beginning of exile” and to some degree, I think he’s quite right.  The act of writing indeed exiles the poem from the realm of internal thought and emotion into a new world of text.  Exile and home naturally remain important parts of the project, but now seemed inseparately linked to the problem of memory and its fallibility.

After I graduated from UC Riverside with my MFA, I found myself back in Canada, suddenly immersed in a wide range of difficulties and personal challenges which come when you return to a country and community that you have not lived in for many years.  Feeling somewhat displaced and in fact, much more of an exile in my own land than I had ever expected, I found my book returning to the exile themes again, but this time merging with the growing realization that my father was dying and that our time together would be very short.  I wanted desperately to finish the book for him while he was still alive, and yet even as I was writing and revising, I was gradually sensing the book would not be done in time, and further that there would be poems that could not be written until I had dealt with his impending death.  Even with this realization, I continued to write and used writing and blogging as my means of articulating those things which weighed heaviest on me.  During those last few weeks, long after my father had lost the ability to speak and could only use his eyelids to communicate, I continued to bring parts of the manuscript to the hospital and later to the hospice, and to read to him.  I wanted him to be a part of the making of the book, as he had for many years been my first reader.  I felt it imperative to keep writing, to keep working, and to keep sharing what had been one of the strongest ties between us.  After my father’s death, I realized the book had evolved into something of an elegy for the physical world that is always slipping away from  us, an elegy in part for him, and in part, for the many other friends and family who’d passed away during the course of the last few years.

From My Recent Interview in Prism Review, Issue 11 (University of La Verne) – Excerpt #1- On Being Canadian

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PR:  How does being Canadian give you a poetic advantage compared to being a wine-swilling urban American?

Me:  Although I’ve lived in many places around the world, Canada remains a strong influence on my work.  I spent much of my childhood in Saskatchewan where the land stretches out flat in all directions, the sky, clear and unpolluted, seems to go on forever.  As does the horizon.  Outside the few cities, the population remains small, even today.  It’s easy to get lost in such vastness, easy to discover just how small, how almost invisible your are in comparison with the rest of the universe.  And yet, with your hands in the earth pulling weeds, or your face half-frozen in the winter blast, you are also made aware how intimate and close you are to the physical world, how impossible it is to separate yourself from.

If there’s an advantage, it’s that it’s helped remind me that broader patterns are at work, deeper resonances to consider than simply the elevation of the personal to the mythic or the celebration of the physically knowable world.  On still nights, under an uncountable array of stars, there are things that can be learned which elude the senses, which strike and stir the silence deep within, making the unseen and invisible for a moment real and near.

April 22, 2009

Ways You Can Help a First Book Poet

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 12:15 pm

I’ve been thinking it might be helpful to set down some of the ways that we can help out friends with first books.

Obviously the ideal thing would be to purchase a copy of the book for yourself (if possible from the poet directly or through their publisher or your local indie bookstore–as a last resort, get it online). But what then? What else can we do to help out?

Here’s a list of concrete things you can do:

  1. Read the book. While it’s great when people do buy the book, it’s even better when they read it. Poets love knowing that their book is being read.
  2. Request that your local bookstores stock the book. If you can’t find it on the shelf, let the store know that they should be carrying this book and tell them why.
  3. Ask your local library to order a copy of the book. Or, if you’re feeling generous, donate a copy to the library. They rarely turn down donations. You can even claim it as a tax deduction.
  4. Blog about the book. Tell people what you liked about it. What parts struck you. What things you were puzzled by. Sharing the reading experience helps others connect with you (makes for more interesting blog entries) and introduces the book to others.
  5. Write mini-reviews or comments on Amazon, Goodreads, Shelfari, and other online book community sites. Take a few minutes and tell others if you liked or didn’t like the book. Say something specific. Don’t forget to rate it. Small things add up and this can put the book on the radar for someone else.
  6. Write a book review for a literary journal or newspaper. While this certainly takes more time, a good review goes a long way. It also helps the author feel that the book is getting a thorough reading, that people are trying to understand what it was about or how it was working. It’s also a good way for you to get some publication credits and perhaps a foot in the door at a literary journal.
  7. Post a favorite quote from the book to your Facebook or MySpace page. A small thing again, but it helps make others aware of what you’re reading and why it might be important.
  8. Share poems from the book on occasions that seem fitting. I was pleasantly surprised to learn recently that one of my poems had been used in a sermon.
  9. Loan out or give copies of the book to family, friends, and acquaintances. Widen the circle of readers. It’ll give you something to talk about with your friends, perhaps open a new dialogue with someone you don’t know as well.
  10. Attend local book readings and bring your friends. When the poet/author is in your area, try to attend some of the readings. If possible, come with someone else – maybe even a group. You may be introducing people to poetry for the first time or you may be bringing like-minded literary folk, but in either case, not only will your presence be appreciated by the poet, the spillover affect of exposing more people to that poet’s work can be tremendously helpful in spreading the word. And who knows, they may also buy books!
  11. Send a note to the poet. It doesn’t have to be long or eloquent, it’s just good to know that people are reading the book. Especially people who aren’t blood-related to us.
  12. Recommend the book for classroom use. If you’re an instructor, use the book as one of the classroom texts. If you’re a student, use it for a paper or recommend it to the instructor.

April 21, 2009

Birthday Post

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 11:21 am

I’ve grown a year older, or least that’s what the calendar tells me. Sadly the day will be spent occupied with school work, teaching, and presentations. As I get older I find myself doing less to mark this day. In part, it’s sometimes hard to know what to feel – I share the anniversary of my birth with the anniversary of my father’s death.

So for today, I’ll simply leave you this suite of new music based on four poems from my book which was composed by the extremely talented Juhi Bansal. The pieces are named after the poems and pay homage to my father and gesture toward the larger farewells we all experience.

The Lost Country of Sight

Loss turns to beauty. Longing bends one back toward home. A father to a son. A son to a father. Word to song. The blank page to an open world.

Listen to more of her work here

April 17, 2009

The Art of Negligence

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Negligence (Lat. negligentia, from negligere, to neglect, literally “not to pick up”)

Like so many projects, or perhaps the poetry books I’ve accumulated from countless readings and events.  Almost innumerable the things I’ve not completed, simply by not picking up where I left off, or just not picking it up in the first.

Like this blog too, which I’ve woefully neglected while casting my attention to other shores, newer media.  Instead of here, I’ve spent my time writing notes to friends and strangers via Facebook, which now seems the most ardent and demanding of paramours.

I’m living a life of neglect, even now my students’ papers languish in my laptop bag, skimmed (if at all read), but not graded.  Soon the parade will continue, students arrive single file.  I will say something meant to defuse the tension and confusion of their final essay project, but know that for most, they too have already begun to practice neglect.  Their questions revolve around what might have been gleaned in contemplation or culled from in-class discussion, but instead we will put ourselves together for 20 minutes to return to what remains unsteady ground, that formation we call a thesis, and the terra incognita of the unwritten page.

This morning I woke at 5am, troubled by a dream in which my house is broken into, my papers and books scattered, furniture smashed, things taken.  In it, I am approaching an escalator and brush by stiff-legged thugs, a knife falls to ground, and suddenly I panic and move, run for fear of something (it is not mine after all, and who should be chasing me anyway?)  Another knife flies out of nowhere, lodges briefly in my shoulder, falls to the ground with a clatter (is this second knife or the first imagined again?), and I do not bleed, but perhaps I’m merely not aware.  Meanwhile the house is still in ruins.  I think I am Babbage.  I think that I am wearing a great coat and a fine white collared shirt.  There are many things in confusion.

I woke and I wrote three fragments that will likely become poems.  Went back to bed.  Woke later, showered, dressed, left early to meet up with a friend visiting from out of town.  We meet mid-way between Hollywood and Koreatown.  This too something of waking dream.  We eat breakfast, not having seen each other in 15 years, reminisce of speaking Mandarin, discuss the ways our lives have turned unexpectedly.  Surprised enough, I’m thinking, that we reconnected last year when he submitted work to Boxcar, not knowing that I was his old missionary companion, the name not registering, or perhaps forgetting it, since our English names were boxed and shelved away in favor of Chinese ones.

Some things, verging on being forgotten, display phenomenal tenacity.  Language being one of them.  He asks me to sign his copy of my book.  I happily do so, pick up the pen, close with my own name, English and in Chinese.

March 29, 2009

Upcoming Readings: Tonight, Tuesday, and April

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I’m reading at the following venues in the next little while.

TONIGHT – 6PM // Tongue & Groove Reading
623 1/2 N. Cahuenga Blvd, Hollywood, CA

TUESDAY, March 31 – 8PM // Visiting Poets Series
Tallahassee, FL

WED April 15 // UC Riverside MFA Alumni with Books Reading
Riverside, CA

Tonight I’ll be reading with John Haskell, Francesca Lia Block and Chiwan Choi — all of whom are relatively new to me (though some have friended me recently on Facebook). There’s also a musician and a band which follows after all of us (not literally “follows” us, but rather, follows after us in sequence!)

Boxcar Poetry Review – Issue 19 is Up!

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 5:34 pm

(Though much delayed (school work, travel, grading, and spring break all factor in), the new issue is finally up and hopefully worth the wait)

Bee sting and sweetness. Cologne and old cars. Phone calls. Prison beatings. The body bruised, tasted, turned, destroyed or reformed. In this, our 19th issue, the senses dominate and overwhelm. The poems swing their doors wide open, ready to be encountered.

In addition to wonderful poetry, this issue also features the holga photography of Gary Haigh and two great dialogues: an interview with Amy Liann Tudor by Cindy Cunningham and a conversation between first book poets Ching-In Chen and Ely Shipley. Fascinating reading — well worth the look. Only one review this issue, but it’s an interesting look by Gregg Mosson at Michael Salcman’s The Clock Made of Confetti. Lots of reviews and interviews in the pipeline. Stay tuned for more in May’s issue.

* Rachel Bunting: “The Apiary”
* Alan King: “Conundrum”
* Rachel Inez Lane: “It’s Valentine’s Day and My Russian Phone Sex Operator Roommate is Crying”
* Juliet Latham: “Directly After the Accident”
* Gary McDowell: “A Miscarriage Scare at Bronson Methodist”
* Jenny Sadre-Orafai: “Full Circle”
* David Salner: “Frank Little in the Big Sky State”
* Kevin Stoy: “Flesh on Stone”
* Rob Talbert: “what practice makes”
* Leon Weinmann: “In Doubt, Recalling Cordelia”


* Gary Haigh: two holga photographs

Interviews & Conversations
* Disrupting Forms, Multiple Selves and Migrating Bodies: A Conversation between Ely Shipley & Ching-In Chen
* An Interview with Amy Liann Tudor ~ Cindy Cunningham


* Michael Salcman’s The Clock Made of Confetti ~ Gregg Mosson

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