The Hermit Poet

July 29, 2005

Sad News

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 8:34 am

I received word last night that my dear friend and editor Nancy Lambert passed away peacefully yesterday morning due to complications from cancer. She was a brave and bright soul — one who epitomized love in its purest sense. She and her husband cared for all the stray cats in their neighborhood — maybe 20 or 30 of them sometimes. She knew them all by name, knew their individual personalities, and knew how best to work with each. She did all this while she also worked as a copy-editor, a poet, and a novelist. She served in many capacities — always working for more love and compassion in the world.

As an editor, she was honest and caring — she understood both the craft and the heart of a manuscript. Unafraid of being brutal in her editing suggestions, she was also generous in her praise. I will miss her deeply in this capacity — but more than this, I will miss the long conversations we had over all sorts of topics. She loved this world, despite those who sometimes make it ugly. She loved people, despite their many flaws. She loved language and the power of poetry.

We talked a few months ago on the phone and I was struck — moved by her attitude and strength, despite what seemed to be a return of the cancer. She said she had had a wonderful spiritual experience and through it she knew she was loved, that the doctors were doing their very best, and that somehow things would work out in the way it was supposed to. She said she had no fear of death any more — she only worried about finishing her book. There was so much positive energy radiating out of her, it humbled me.

A group of her close friends and her own editor now are continuing the work on the book. It weaves in poetry and personal narrative with fiction, explores the boundary space of dying, and addresses what cancer does to people and what people do with cancer. It’s a spiritual book without being religious. It is very much Nancy — so grand and vast in its vision. So deep in its explorations. So much heart that we ache with our loss of her.

Still, I know that Nancy is not far from us. Somewhere she continues on with her great love of people and animals. Somewhere she is editing and writing. She sends her love back to us, as she always did: without reservation, without concern for race, gender, religion, or nationality. I am certain in the afterlife that all those she has cared for now surround her with arms of gratitude and reunion. I have no qualms about admitting that I am a religious man. I am also a spiritual man. I believe in a God whose love and compassion and tolerance are greater than our comprehension — and that Nancy was a constant reminder of that love in my life.

Nancy, wherever you are, tell the cats hello. We miss you.

July 27, 2005

Fall Teaching Schedule

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 7:31 am

Just got my schedule for my teaching assistantship this fall. Looks like I’ve got graveyard shift — I’ll be teaching an evening class MWF that runs 8:10 pm to 9:00 pm. Once we meet though, I’ll suggest to the class that we change that to MW 8:10 pm to 9:45 pm to avoid having to meet Fridays.

Realistically, no one wants to admit that they’re free on a Friday night ;)

What’s nice about this class is that so far there’s only 6 students enrolled. It will be practically the size of a graduate class and hopefully will have the same feel. I imagine only the most dedicated (or desperate) of undergrads would sign up for a course so late in the evening.

If the class stays at 6 students, I could invite them over for dinner! Anyone for Potstickers and Poetry 056?

July 25, 2005

The Kundiman poem gets around

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 11:03 am

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is also featuring my poem on her blog — see the More more more section on July 21.

She calls it “lovely” — which I can now add to the list of descriptions I’ve heard lately. Terrance Hayes called my work “lush” which instantly conjured up images of dense jungles of dark ominous greens. Or maybe he meant that there’s water everywhere in my work …

Edit: R.A. Villanueva has also featured my Kundiman poem on his site. Thanks for the coverage!

Final Thoughts on Idyllwild

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 10:27 am

View of the Idyllwild sky

A few final impressions from Idyllwild:

1. I think Natasha Trethewey’s work is breathtaking — there’s something amazing about how she works with history and elegy in her poetry. I loved the way each poem delivers a moment and person of history, reveals and explores the yearning and emotion of each recovered identity, place, and time. Hearing her read is really a treat — her voice has a very nice resonance and hush.

2. Jen from Imagine That! Bookstore in Riverside was selling books at Idyllwild. I swear she’s the equivalent of my own personal drug-dealer. Everytime I promise myself that I’m done buying books, she lays more enticing books on the table. What money I might have saved by staying on campus with free housing, was easily spent on the books. I think I’ve purchased enough from her over this past year that I should expect a Christmas card!

3. I was able to plant copies of CRATE with various poets and gave out lots of flyers for the upcoming submission period. I’m looking forward this fall — between Kundiman and Idyllwild, I hope to be seeing a lot of excellent poetry.

4. I wrote my first ghazal — why didn’t I realize before that this is the perfect form for a manuscript about loss and longing?

Sentimentality and a Room of Angry Poets

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 10:07 am

I like gravel

On Friday, Terrance Hayes offered a lecture that led to the most confrontation — a discussion of sentimentality in poetry with examples of poems that may or may not be succeeding in walking the line but not falling into it. When he moved between a piece by Tony Hoagland and another piece by Li-Young Lee — the room quickly divided into two camps, one side arguing that Hoagland’s work was bloodless and overly clever, the other arguing that Li-Young Lee was being manipulative and overly dramatic. What occurred to me (and which I shared as I saw the accusations flying back and forth), was that there is clearly a Western (American) aesthetic which moves toward closure, an arrival at a destination, some sort of clarity. And, there is also an Eastern (Asian) aesthetic which moves toward ambiguity, openness, and multiplicity. When we apply the expectations of one aesthetic on work produced by the other, we will naturally find ourselves dissatisfied with the poem. It is not that the poem isn’t good, it is that we want something different than what that poem is capable of delivering.

Now, this doesn’t change the fact that the Li-Young Lee particular poem we looked at (“Visions and Interpretations” from Rose) was not as strong or memorable as others within the collection. It does suffer from a certain easiness in places — but it’s an easiness I’m inclined to forgive in the context of the book. I also find that Hoagland at times can become too clever for his own good and a poem will suffer for it, strike the reader as being a bit postured and self-conscious, and not really sensitive to the person or issue at hand.

Terrance was extremely diplomatic and was able to steer the conversation back around to more constructive aspects of the question of how much is too much. And, he made an interesting observation as someone who knows and is friends with both Li-Young Lee and Tony Hoagland — he pointed out that they each are much more alike than they are inclined to admit. In person, Li-Young Lee can be very funny but seems to be afraid to show that humor in his work. Likewise Tony Hoagland has a spiritual side and has seriously studied Buddhism in the past, but seems afraid to deal with those more spiritual elements in his work. Terrance suggested it would profitable to bring the two together sometime and force into dialogue — they would find they have much more in common than they think.

In his workshops, Terrance introduced us to the idea that all poems are in dialogue with other poems (consciously or unconsciously). He would give us handouts at the beginning of class which had two poems side by side which seemed to work similiarly in structure or technique. Very different poems and very different poets, but often a suprising conversation would arise out of the act of laying them side by side.

Even in the final reading on Saturday at the Poetry and Jazz Festival that wraps up the retreat, I found myself newly aware of how Cecilia Woloch’s poem “Brothers” relates back to Yusef Koumanyaka’s poem “The Deck” — or how Robert Wrigley’s poem “The Lives of the Animals” connects to Brendan Constantine’s poem written at Idyllwild about giving money to animals.

Coming Back from Idyllwild

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 8:58 am

Pacman Poet

I rolled in late Saturday night after a week of poetry out at Idyllwild. While it wasn’t the same earthshattering groundbreaking headsplitting heartrending experience as Kundiman, it was still a great retreat.

Arriving on Wednesday, the first things I missed were the air-conditioned dorms we had at University of Virginia. Idyllwild is a boarding school for gifted kids in the arts during the regular school year, so it has a definite summer camp feel to the place. Bunkbeds in the rooms. No a/c. Limited range of foods offered for meals at the dining hall. Lunch everyday was cold-cut sandwiches (build them yourself).

The Idyllwild campus is beautiful in a natural sense. Great views down the mountains. Lots of forest and animal life. Squirrels and lizards everywhere. Snakes occasionally. Someone saw a blue-ribbon snake (I believe that’s what it was called). Bugs. Plenty of bugs. For the thick-furred forearmed such as myself, the bugs were a mere annoyance — buzzing by ears, flying into the face, or once directly into my eye which was luckily shielded by my contact lens. For others though it was a serious ordeal — one girl was almost eaten alive by bugs every night, huge lumps and scars on her legs from nasty bites. Evidently she reacts very strongly to any insect contact.

When I arrived on Wednesday afternoon, it was minutes before the office was to be closed. The office staff were very nice and stayed around to get me signed in and ready. An English girl named Katie even fixed my name button to have my name spelled correctly — and assigned an additional title to my badge, “Pacman Poet” in honor of the pacman path she had drawn on the map from the office to my dorm.

My roommate was another student there on scholarship, Santee Frazier. Santee and I had a lot in common with regards to taste in poetry, so we hit it off early and had several great conversations about poetry and craft. It was also a nice coincidence to find that we had were in the same workshop sessions with Terrance Hayes.

Which brings me to the high points of the retreat — I think ultimately when you come to a writing retreat, laying aside from the business and politics of meeting and mingling, the real test of how good a retreat is – is simply this: how much you learn and how much you write.

On both counts Idyllwild was fantastic. I learned a great deal not just from Terrance Hayes (who is an extremely gifted teacher and poet), but also from the lectures given by the other faculty. Robert Wrigley gave two lectures which were both very insightful — the first was on “the Art of the Withheld” and the second on “Making Music of Sense.” Of course, Wrigley also has a great reading voice which doesn’t hurt — a way of presenting that strikes a deep resonating chord within. A little like Levine’s reading style which I also love.

Maxine Kumin was witty and adroit in her discussion of the sestina, presenting a fascinating history of the form from its Provencal origins to various modern adaptations.

More to come…

July 19, 2005

Sharing Kundiman

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 6:45 am

Kundiman Crew
Originally uploaded by odelapaz.

Here’s the whole Kundiman fam courtesy of Oliver de la Paz’s camera.

Some great recaps of the Kundiman experience:

Aimee Nezhukutamatathil: Recap with photos and more photos

Oliver de la Paz: Comments and Photos and more photos

Patrick Rosal: Recap

R.A. Villanueva: Photos

Still decompressing myself, but hope to have something together by the end of the day. Can’t believe I’m running straight from Kundiman into Idyllwild — all cyclinders firing, look out people, this poet’s ready to write.

July 18, 2005

Looking Back at the Dorms a Final Time

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 7:40 am

Benches outside the dorms for Kundiman at UVA

We stayed in one of the few air-conditioned dorms on University of Virginia. For me, the Canadian, it was a welcome relief to step foot into a room with the a/c at full blast — a little taste of home every time. Outside, the air was humid but the grounds incredibly green. Here, I turn back on my last day and catch sight of the empty benches and pause. The doors are in the distance. I miss this place already.

Safely Home

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 1:30 am

After a rather long arduous journey with numerous delays along the way, I have made it home to my humble apartment. The trip from Charlottesville, VA to Riverside, CA took 23 hours including all layovers and flight complications. My bed looks very comfortable right now, but I’m still waiting for the rest of the apartment to oool off before I hit the sack.

July 17, 2005

After Kundiman Asian American Poetry Retreat

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 3:21 am

It is strange to say that I am almost wordless and yet overflowing with things to say. This retreat has been more than I can possibly explain except in sheer language of poetry. How we came together, not just as a community of writers, but as friends — as a family.

I am struck by our diversity but even more moved by our intersections. I am filled with a sense of love and loss now, even this morning typing this as the hour hand moves closer to our last meal. It is 7:11 AM in Charlottesville, Virginia. Lawson Inada is now at the airport, preparing to fly home. We are stirring from beds, dressing and packing, gathering our last thoughts and words together before breakfast in the cafeteria then a meeting on the lawns to return keys and passcards.

How is it that in one brief week I have fallen in love with this band of fellow poets? How is it that despite so many places where we might have divided, we instead came together and found communion? We sorrowed. We laughed. We wept. I think in these last few days we have found a home — a home we were all looking for. I know this to be true for me.

And the writing — every workshop and every evening I was overwhelmed by beauty — overtaken by the tremendous talent that has been hidden from my view. I never knew Asian American poetry was so vibrant, so powerful, so incredibly and indelibly written on my soul and across this nation. I never knew how I fit in.

What to say about faculty who sings and laughs with us at tables? What to say about staff and university support that bends over backward to ensure our welcome and comfort? What to say about close warmth I have felt everywhere and everyday? And far into the evenings, when we gathered in Sarah and Joseph’s room to sing and listen to songs both America’s and our own.

Is there any doubt in my mind that Asian American poetry is alive and well? None left — only certainty that these voices will be heard. That the bookshelves will sink into the ground for the weight of all these passions and stories. I am forever changed by this place and my friends, my family, my comrades in this journey that is also a home.

Thank you. Thank you everyone.

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