The Hermit Poet

August 27, 2006

Imminent Publishing Storm

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 10:08 am

Given recent response to some of my more advice-oriented posts, I’ve been encouraged to put together a few guides on different aspects of writing and publishing. I’ll be publishing these through as PDFs with an option to buy the books in print form. Expect these in the next few months.

Proposed Guides Include:

  1. Good Writing and Better Poetry – Discussions of image, detail, sound, and metaphor.  Also notes on rhetoric, lyric and narrative tension, and resonance.  Exercises given as well.
  2. Publishing Your Work – Practical advice from an editor and writer to other writers.  Some of these points appeared in this blog, many wil be new.
  3. Marketing Yourself as a Writer – From Press Kits and Networking, a solid approach to making yourself and your work known.
  4. Succeeding in the Post-MFA World (Pre-emptive and After-the-fact Strategies) – A practical guide to preparing for and making the transition from MFA student to Post-MFA life.  Will cover many scenarios.  I hope to include interviews from various post-MFAs as well.

I may also release my notes for the Seven Deadly Sins of Poetry in book form as well.

If you’re interested in these ideas and/or have suggestions of types of questions or issues you’d liked addressed, feel free to contact me or post a comment here.

Catching Up

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 10:02 am

Sorry for the absence — it’s been a busy few weeks here. A brief recap of events, projects, and news follows:

1. Family Shuffle House Swap. Went back last week end to Penticton spend a few days with my father helping out around the house. My mother is away in Calgary watching my nephew while my sister and her husband are getting ready for their move to Victoria. I returned on Monday (this past week).

2. Continuing Car Canadianification Blues. Spent this past week driving down to Bellingham to have the outstanding recall work done at the Nissan dealership there (evidentally some recall work can only be done in the US?!). That taken care of, I returned to Canada without difficulty. I then was told that the windshield needed to be replaced (small crack in the vision area) and that the daytime driving lights needed to be installed. About $780 later and an additional trip to the local Nissan dealer to install an infant seat restraint bolt, the car successfully passed both federal and provincial inspections. Done? Not quite. The insurance company wants a copy of my claims history from my previous insurance company in California — for some reason I forgot to obtain that (call that my own studipity if you will). So Monday morning I have to call to my old insurance company and have them fax that info to the new one. And then I’ll be done — but have a chunk of change to pay for the insurance itself.

3. Joining a Gang. Well, not quite. I’m applying to join the Vancouver Artists Collective — a local multidiscipliinary arts organization which mainly exists to network and find ways for artists to assist each other. On paper it sounds pretty cool. I meet with the head person on Tuesday for an interview. I will not dress like a Triad or a pimpl

4. Office in Gas Town. Well, it turns out that I’ve been offered a free month membership with WorkSpace ( It’s an open concept work environment geared toward entrepreneurial and creative types. Which seems like a good fit as a temporary base of operations for Boxcar Poetry Review and some current writing projects (Babbage’s Dream and a series of writing & publishing guides I’m working on). I took the tour on Friday and like the space. I’ll be there in the evenings and perhaps will make some new friends in the process.

5. The Hermit at Table 13. I went to a wedding reception on Friday night in Abbotsford for the younger brother of a friend of mine from Regina, Saskatchewan. This was definitely a reception for friends of the bride’s parents and a few of the groom’s parents. Some of the younger folk were there for the bride and groom. Still, the food was excellent, as were the desserts and the wedding cake itself. What was truly phenomenal though was the entertainment. Someone described it as Canadian Idol — and he wasn’t too far off the mark. The father of the bride sang a song he had written for his daughter. Then one of the sisters sang a song for the bride that she had written and composed. Then the groom sang “Honestly” to his new wife. And later, the groom’s father (a rather well-known Filipino singer/entertainer in Regina and area) also sang a Filiipino love song. So all-in-all quite the spectacular event.

August 17, 2006

Good News for the New Year!

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 4:57 pm

Looks like I’ll be teaching several creative writing courses through one of the local community colleges starting in January. While not a full-time teaching gig, these short-run Continuing Studies classes will be a lot of fun (and put some food on the table) for a few months. I’m excited and so is the school. They really loved my course proposals — which made me quite happy.

Of course, who wouldn’t want to take a class called “The Seven Deadly Sins of Poetry (and How to Avoid the Them)” ? All told, 5 different course ideas have been tentatively accepted for the new year with the remaining 6 slated for possible inclusion pending the response these first ones. Most of them are one week or one day classes, but the Seven Deadly Sins one is my 8 week bread-and-butter course.

No, I won’t be getting rich teaching these, but I will be teaching again — and that makes me very happy.

August 16, 2006

Art and Poetry – An Experiment With Ink, Paint, and Words

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 10:59 pm

Feeling a bit adventurous today — or ambitious, I decided to spend a little time reconnecting to my old roots in watercolor.  I’d been obsessed the last few days with this particular idea of blending ink, watercolor, and collage.

This afternoon I sat down with artist pad and took one of my poems (the first half of a piece called “In the Long Dream of Exile”) and cut it into pieces — lines and parts of lines.  As I worked with the ink and watercolor (actually watercolor pencils), I would incorporate the word segments as I went.  In the end, I gravitated toward running roughly left to right with ordering, but it wasn’t initially a conscious decision to do so.

Click on the thumbnail to get a full-size version of the image.


Advice to a MFA Student Beginning His/Her Final Year

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 8:05 pm

A friend of mine back at UC Riverside emailed me earlier today asking for advice how to make the best use of his final year. What were the things I learned? What did I do right? What would I have changed?

Well, considering hindsight tends to be 20/20, I offered him a rather exhaustive list of things I did (and sometimes wished I had  done differently). After sending it to him, I realized that this may help other students in the same situation. Depending on your program and how well they prepare for the post-MFA life, individual points may or may not be as valuable, but overall there should be something for everyone.

1. Submit your work out everywhere. Target places that take simultaneous submissions and make certain that a given poem is being read at any given time by at least 4-5 places. 10’s better though. Keep meticulous records so that you can send your withdrawal notes immediately. I keep all my cover letters saved in a separate folder on my computer, that way I know exactly what I sent and where. I also use a private blog (ie. only accessible by me) to record the progress of each poem – where it’s been sent and when, who’s rejected it, and if it’s currently in any contests. This makes it easy to search for things and easy to update. I can also check it from anywhere. You could do the same thing with a private LiveJournal or Blogger account.

2. Get your manuscript done as quickly as possible. Try to get feedback from your thesis committee as early as you can. My goal was to finish a draft of the manuscript by the end of summer (which I did) and start sending it out to the contests. I also turned over a copy to Professor A (one of my thesis committee advisors) and got his feedback in Fall quarter. I started with him since I knew he would give the best feedback about the overall structure and feel of the manuscript. Professor B is great for finetuning the details (I worked with him last). Professor C was great for lyrical tweaks and emotional consistency. She also writes fantastic blurbs.

Send your manuscript out to as many presses and first book competitions as is financially feasible. Weed out the ones where you’re certain your work won’t fit. Pick big presses and small presses. Choose places where you’re already somewhat familiar with their books and their tastes. Look over who they’ve published in the past to get a feel for whether or not they’re a good fit. Keep revising as you go, but make a note of which version of the manuscript went where. Also track the places you’ve sent to, so if you do get accepted, it’s easy to notify everyone else. You’ll also know when you’ve heard back from everyone.

3. Start gathering blurbs for your book and your writing (not necessarily the same thing) while you’re still at school. This way you’ll ensure that the people writing blurbs will get it done and be able to answer any of their questions. When soliciting blurbs, if they don’t have your manuscript already, give them 10 pages to look over. These blurbs can also be used to promote yourself as a poet running workshops or as someone seeking a speaking/lecturing gig at a conference. They are also nice to have available to send out with your job applications. I gathered mine after I left — in hindsight, this would have been a brilliant way to ensure my application was read at more places and that people called my recommendors. I did include a mix of my professors and other writers/poets I know from other areas (conferences, retreats, open mic venues). This gives me a large arsenal to work with when preparing press kits and applications.

4. Make certain you take care of all your English and/or Comp Lit courses in Fall and Winter. In Spring quarter you’ll be too busy with everything else you need to do — you won’t want to be worried about papers just before graduation. Trust me on this one — I did a Comp Lit in Spring and just about had a breakdown trying to finish the paper that was due during finals. This same advice applies to schools on the semester system, make certain your final semester is not spent writing papers.

5. Attend AWP and MLA conferences if you can. Talk to your department — usually there’s some money available to help grad students go to conferences. Consider preparing a paper to present. MLA is the one to go to if you’re looking for teaching work. Plan on taking a ton of cvs and other material with you. From what I hear, it’s a moshpit of desperate grads — but it’s the place where all the universities are interviewing. If possible, line up your interviews in advance. Scour the P&W and the AWP Job Link. Check out the Higher Education job list as well. Even consider joining AWP at the student rate (it’s not too bad, if I recall) — you’ll get a year long membership and have access to all the job listings online. It also looks good on the cv to list your professional membership. Your department may already have access to the job listings so talk to them to get the password, but it is something that would be a good professional move if you can spare the $40 (or whatever the current rate is).

The AWP conference is useful for networking if you’ve already got a few friends who you know will be there. If you don’t know anyone and aren’t a publisher or editor, you might feel a bit left out. It’s not the place to go to find work – that’s the MLA. But it is an excellent way to meet people (especially writers and publishers) whom you have an interest in already. One way to prepare is to start a blog (seriously) and stick with it. Writing entries related to larger poetry concerns and posting comments on other poet/publishers blogs is a good way to become better known in the larger publishing and writing community. It will also help you understand your own writing and aesthetic better. It won’t make a difference with regards to publishing, but it will ensure that you know a few people when you do go to these conferences– and more importantly, hopefully that they know you. By keeping a blog and being relatively active in commenting about larger trends (I was better at this toward the earlier part of my blogging experience), I was able to build up a network of blogging friends who I then could chat with when I got to the conferences. AWP also provides some fantastic seminars on a wide variety of publishing and writing concerns. Go to these as well and talk to your neighbors. Who knows who you might meet? And sometimes, who might be interested in your project? Sometimes anthologies are born this way.

6. Read in your poetry community. Become involved in the open mic and other public readings. Find places where your work is appreciated and where you can draw inspiration. This is often harder than it seems. But often after a reading, someone will approach you and say: I really liked your work, where can I read more? (and that’s the beginning of the process of building a market for the book). If you build a bit of a following, make certain you collect email addresses so that when your book does come out, you can contact them and let them know. In the meantime, you can use that contact list to let them know where and when you’ll be reading next (preferrably as the featured poet).

7. Try to get a few featured poet gigs. This begins by doing #6 long enough that the poetry hosts start asking if you’re available to do a 20 minute feature sometime. Again, doing these builds a market and an awareness of who you are. And sometimes, puts you on the radar of a publisher who might be there or another writer who is part of small writing group looking for other talented writers to workshop with.

8. Put together a chapbook of previously published work. Whether you go the route of submitting to chapbook contests or just self-publish it, this is an invaluable exercise. You will gain a better perspective on the building of arcs and the flow of themes through your own work. It also gives you a product that you can sell while you’re waiting for the book manuscript to get picked up. This also builds a market for the book. People reading the chapbook (and you should always provide an email address that they can contact you at) will sometimes contact you for more information or simply to offer praise. Sometimes a chapbook is a seed that lies dormant for a long time. One of my first chapbooks that I produced when I was an undergraduate ended up in someone’s private library for five or six years. They wrote me about a year ago saying they had stumbled upon it, re-read it, and loved it. The guy writes editorials for an online lit journal and gave me a great write-up and review on his blog. Then he found my website and linked to it, which introduced more people to my work. All from a little chapbook of very early work.

9. Get involved with a literary journal. Again, puts you on the radar as someone serious about the craft and interested in communicating with the larger poetry world. It also helps you see who else is out there and who you’re competing with for jobs and publishing.

10. Decide how far you’re willing to move or travel for work when you’re done. Research all the schools in the area. Write to their faculty and see if you can arrange to meet with them for an informational interview — that is, not for a job, but to gather information about their school, the program, and what a typical instructor / lecturer / adjunct is expected to do. Also email their adjuncts and see if you can find out if they’re happy there or not. Sometimes the adjuncts will be much more forthright about the situation. All this will put you on the radar as someone who is serious about teaching and interested in their program. Send a thank you note. When you apply, they’ll have a better chance of recognizing your name from all the others — and perhaps be somewhat influenced by their recollections of you.

11. Keep a file of ideas that might make interesting second or third book projects. This will be helpful when you’re done with this manuscript — you won’t go through the same stress that some people do when they’re done and can’t figure out what’s next. I try to keep at least two other manuscript ideas going. Professor A is somewhat obseesed with this — he has four or five at time, and in different genres.

12. Apply for teaching fellowships (not just adjunct teaching positions). Get started on this early, the deadlines are fast approaching. This is a good way to draw attention to yourself and gain some valuable teaching experience and connections.

13. Apply for art and writing grants. Again, this looks good on the cv and may put food on the table and gas in the tank while you’re searching for regular work. Pay attention to the guidelines of your grant. Keep receipts. Track expenses. Be prepared to submit a report if required or requested.

14. Apply for PhD programs that might be a good fit. Sadly, it really does seem that an MFA is no longer enough. A PhD buys you more time, gives you more teaching experience, and makes you even more attractive to the universities and colleges. One of my poet friends in New York told me that he’s seen PhDs with no books hired over MFAs with a book or two. But — don’t go unless they foot the bill though — it’s not worth going into debt for.

15. Attend poetry retreats and additional workshops. Partly for the exposure to other ideas and teachers, but also for networking and social purposes. It’s just nice knowing poets who live in other places — they frequently can help you find work or give you feedback that you can’t find elsewhere. They may also tip you off on themes for different journals, upcoming anthologies, and possible conference seminars. They can also write blurbs. The wider your network, the better your odds of finding work and becoming known.

16. If you’re considering the PhD route, don’t forget to take the GRE Lit (if needed) and make certain you take an upper division or graduate class in the literature of another language (not in translation). So, perhaps something like a Contemporary Spanish Poetry taken in Spanish might work. This makes it clear to the PhD programs that you are applying to that you really do have the second language requirement already nailed. They don’t like surprises or having people unable to complete because they’ve forgotten their French.

Furnishing for Free

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 12:41 pm

In an unexpectedly good dose of kharma, yesterday I acquired this very nice leather sofa and loveseat combination for the amazing price of $FREE.  True, the previous owners’ cat had painstakingly “vintaged” a couple of the corners, but these are largely unnoticeable given their location and the style of the brass taps (I think that’s the right word) which hold it all together.  The worse corner is on the loveseat, but this is currently facing away from a person’s point of view when they enter the room.

Here’s the loveseat – one the left side you can see where the cat has done its vintaging.

Here’s the three seater sofa, note the minor scratchwork on the right side of the picture.


I think I can honestly say that I got a deal :)   I’ll put up with the scratch marks, they’re minor compared to the cost of trying to find good furniture when you’re not making any money.

August 14, 2006

You can’t always get what you want…

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 12:35 pm

It’s a little awkward to be told that “you’re overqualified for this position” and that “you won’t be happy with the pay” — at least they’re being upfront about things.  I mean, you should feel somewhat flattered, right?  But it’s also saying, you’re not really in the right place.
But that’s the problem — where is the right place for a poet / creative writing instructor with some experience but no published book?  Where do you get additional teaching college teaching experience?  And what do you do for the year between acceptance and publication of your book?  Right now I’m not in the latter category, but I’d like to think that I will be eventually.

The head guy made an astute observation — “your passion is teaching and writing poetry, but what most of our students want and need is simple English.  The most complicated writing you’ll teach here will be standard form essays.”  He’s right, I probably won’t be satisfied.  But somehow I’ve got to pay the bills.  “You could spend a month and get yourself an ESL teaching certificate and be making $18/hour somewhere else — but you probably wouldn’t be happy there either.”  Sadly again, that rang a little too true.  I do enjoy mentoring and tutoring, but in all honesty, I prefer to do it in English with people who have a reasonably strong command of the language (graduate students, professionals, etc).

For the record, they offered me a part-time tutoring gig at the place.  The pay is pretty low, but it’s something.  And when you’ve got nothing, something is a whole lot better.

August 11, 2006

Time’s They Are a Changin’

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 11:23 pm

So sang the long haired guy in the outdoor patio of the bar next to the Vancouver Downtown Library Square. And changin’ they are indeed. Recent news from my parents let me know that my sister has successfully landed a webmaster job with the Victoria Public Library. This means their family will be moving to the “Island” as they say around here. So they’ll be closer to the rest of us, but still a bit far since we’ll have to take a ferry to see them.

I spent last night and part of the early morning today re-reading poetry submissions for Boxcar Poetry Review and sending out responses. It’s not my favorite part of the job, but I still find some enjoyment in it — well, usually not in sending out rejections. Still looking for more work. If you’ve got poems looking for a good home, give us a try:

And lastly, I have an interview on Monday for a teaching/tutoring position at a language center. It’d be nice to have a steady job and this one seems promising. Couple this with a very positive conversation with a local community college earlier this week, things are looking up. I spent a good chunk of my afternoon writing course proposals and hope to have them all done this weekend.

August 10, 2006

Sharing some good news from a friend

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 12:12 pm

Sara Toruno, my Review Editor for Boxcar Poetry Review, has a new poem up at Temenos (Central Michigan University).  You can read “After a Brief Glimpse into Quantum Physics” here.

August 9, 2006

Building a Press Kit

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 10:16 pm

As part of my transition into the post-MFA life, I’ve been working on building a press kit — a set of materials which will hopefully inspire someone to invite me to speak / read / interview / give a lecture somewhere. Now, putting a press kit together when you don’t have a book is a different sort of task. While there are some things that carry over, the obvious difference is that you’re not trying to sell the book — you’re trying to sell yourself.

Some good (or at least promising) links I’ve uncovered so far:

Some examples of good-looking online press kits (not necessarily an endorsement of their work):

  • Tony Norris (singer, storyteller) (I suspect there’s no better press kit than a great beard. This guy has a great beard – I’d choose him for any barmitzva, shin-dig, gallery opening, or barn-raising.)
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