The Hermit Poet

February 21, 2007

And Still More Good News

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 4:04 pm

Just received word that the folks over at Sou’wester have accepted one of my poems for publication!

Look forward to seeing “I Dream My Father on the Shore” in the near future.

Wow — this has been one amazing week so far!

Perhaps I should be buying lottery tickets or something…

February 19, 2007

It’s Raining Outside and In My Mailbox – More Good News

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 2:15 pm

Well, more good news on the heels of the last announcement. Just checked my mailbox and found a letter from Elixir Press. No, not an acceptance, but promising news nonetheless:

My manuscript placed as a Semi-Finalist in the Seventh Annual Elixir Press Poetry Awards.

Go team!

New Options – Good News for Fall

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 11:00 am

Well, I’m very pleased to announce that the University of _______ has just contacted me to let me know that I’ve been accepted to their PhD program. They’re working on the funding issues right now, but are hoping to put together a rather generous package shortly. I’m excited — I’ve got someplace to go in the fall!

I’m still waiting to hear back from a few other programs, but this is fantastic news and definitely gives me something to look forward to other than scraping out a meager existence as a web designer & tutor.

Best wishes to everyone else currently playing the waiting game!

Belated Valentine’s Wishes & Gong Hay Fat Choy

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 10:53 am

Well, despite best intentions, I did not carry out my plan to post on Valentine’s Day. I also failed to post yesterday for Chinese New Year’s. But nevertheless, I am grateful if a bit lonely for these waypoints in the year.

Valentine’s Day
On Valentine’s Day, I headed downtown to a small poetry reading hosted by the Canadian Authors’ Association at the Alliance for the Arts building. Most of the gathered writers and audience were about twice my age or more, but there were a couple younger folks in their midst. The work was varied, some more compelling to me than others. Because the numbers were small, each of us had about 10 minutes of time. I chose to read 5 poems: “burn”, “First Poem”, “After Neruda”, “Letter to the Unknown Wife #10”, and “Letter to the Unknown Wife #11”. After the reading I chatted with the regulars and learned a bit about one writer’s efforts to write and distribute his naval history books, dealing with niche markets, and working with the Canadian publishing industry’s limited interpretations of what constitutes “Canadian” literature. Not exactly how I imagined spending Valentine’s Day, but it was still a worthwhile endeavor. At the very least, I did a little PR work for Boxcar Poetry Review and also handed out business cards to advertise myself as a writer / workshop instructor.

This year, like many years, I spent Valentine’s alone. After the reading, I drove home in the light rain which grew stronger with each mile, till when I turned the last turn of the hill, it was pouring. When I arrived, I hurried in and shed my coat and shoes. I settled down on my chair by the computer to check email. Outside, looking over the nature reserve now buried beneath the darkness of a cool Vancouver night, the lights of homes were shining and the cars moving slick and silent in the distance. People were going home as well. Together or alone. I wanted to write something down. A letter to someone. A poem. Perhaps a note to myself. Something about love and waiting and the night which grows longer with the years. But I didn’t. I should have.

Chinese New Year
Due to a busy weekend of tutoring, I was not able to return home for Chinese New Year’s and spent it by myself. Dinner consisted of left-over curry from the night before. At least at church someone was kind enough to bring Chinese New Year’s treats (mostly sweets). And in keeping with tradition, I’d already received my lucky money a few weeks ago when I last visited my parents. So while rather uneventful, it was still Chinese New Year’s.

At church, I was struck by the number of people who wore red — I’d forgotten about that part of the tradition and was a little ashamed that I hadn’t dug out a red tie or something else. I can’t say why I found it so striking — beautiful actually. Rich red vermillion. Jackets and coats on adults. Silk overcoats on children. Even the red sweaters. How is it that color can make one homesick? In some way it reminds me now of “Hero” and the use of color there. But this is not art, it’s life. And color can be a visceral force. A gate to memory and longing. Red. Even now, I’m thinking of the door posts and gates painted red. The pillars painted red. The carpets. The ink on the seal pressed to the paper. This red.

February 13, 2007

The Love Poem: Some Warm-up Exercises

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

A few exercises and writing prompts to get you started:

  1. Against Forgetting: What is something that you once knew or knew how to do, but have forgotten? Write a poem which connects this to the one you love (or the one you once loved). (Here you are drawing on reluctance to intensify longing and active memory)
  2. A Place in Our Memory:What was the most prominent place (a building, park, statue, lake, etc) in the community you were born in (or grew up in). Choose the place that stands out most in memory. Write a poem which links that place with your loved one. Use the details of the place to trigger memory. (The place becomes a mnenomic – a means of recovering or remembering something.) Motivated learners should read The Art of Memory by Frances A. Yates
  3. Love/Hate: Write a list of all the words you associate with someone or something you hate intensely. Now write a poem which uses these words, but in a way that is about someone you love (this pushes you to transform the expected into the unexpected, and redirect one strong emotion into another)

Let me know how these work out. More exercises coming for Valentine’s Day.

The Love Poem: Some Initial Notes

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 11:40 am

(from a handout I developed for an undergraduate class)

Not Another Love Poem
Why are there so many bad love poems out there? What makes writing about love such a challenge? Well, that truth is that far too many love poems are born out of superficial infatuation and not enough arise out of obsession. Strange as it may seem, obsession is actually at the heart of writing good poetry (although it usually leads to really bad and/or dysfunctional relationships). We have to obsess over details – being general or abstract will not do.

Ted Kooser notes in his excellent book, The Poetry Home Repair Manual:

“To write a poem that is not just a gush of sentiment but something that will engender in its readers deep, resonant feelings, you need to exercise restraint to avoid what is commonly termed sentimentality”

What is sentimentality and why is it bad?
Sentimentality might be defined as anything that strikes you as obvious, gushy, or overly touchy-feely. Poems become sentimental when they deal primarily in generalizations and broad statements, when they make cliché or obvious moves, when they seem to expend an excess of emotion on an object.

A sentimental poem is generally a lazy poem. That is to say, rather than construct a new image or metaphor, the poem slides into the expected and conventional. It says what we already know about the subject. Or it seems preoccupied with “telling” us what and how we should feel rather than trusting us as intelligent readers to arrive at the emotion ourselves.

Emotion is vital – but to suddenly reveal an emotion in its entirety turns us away rather than pulls us in. Why should we care if the object or the idea of the poem can be so easily expressed?

The Poem as Strip Tease
When writing about love (or writing about anything else in fact), the poet should approach the subject as if the central emotion of the poem were something buried beneath multiple layers of images or words. Why? Because we are more intrigued by mystery and anticipation than by the actual object itself.

The trick to making a compelling poem is to reveal it slowly, carefully, and methodically. To have the poem arrive on the page completely naked makes for an uninteresting experience. If from the very beginning everything is known or easily deduced, where is the adventure or journey in the poem? On the other hand, if the poem appears clothed in attractive attire that is set aside line after line until the bare truth of the moment is finally revealed, then we as readers are more completely enthralled. We know that there will be a moment of final revelation – and so we anticipate it. We know that each line is functional and will bring us closer to that moment. And when that moment of revelation comes – that epiphany or turn is fully earned – we have become emotionally invested because of the restraint shown.

Avoid Clichés
When we use cliché or overused images and phrases in our poem, we cheapen the object of our attention. It is like our poem has shown up were the same gray sweatshirt that everyone else is wearing. Within minutes of meeting our poem, our reader will forget it. By this point in the history of poetry, we should expect that roses, hearts, souls, and angels have been used to death when talking about love. Make your poem as unique and individual as the object of your affection. Don’t write poems that are so generic you could give them to anyone. Or worse, that anyone could give to anyone else. Remember this is you and your language – say it in the way that only you can say it. See the world with your own eyes.

February 10, 2007

Upcoming Posts on Love Poetry

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 9:34 pm

As promised, I’m working on a series of posts which are based on the material I put together for the How to Write a Love Poem course which was recently cancelled. Not wanting to let the work go to waste, I’m posting excerpts from my notes as well as some exercises I’ve been developing.

Originally I had hoped to have something finished tonight, but due to another project due tomorrow, I’ll have to hold off till Monday.

Here’s a list of some of the exercises and topics that I’ll be posting about:

The Object of My Affection
Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
Love / Hate
Cartography of Love
The Love Poem as Mnenomic

February 9, 2007

Poetry Reading Attended & A Recent Scrabble Match

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 11:38 pm

Just back from attending and participating in a poetry reading in downtown Vancouver sponsored by SFU’s Writing program. A nice bunch of writers whose work seems competent, although at times somewhat “workshop-ish” – ie. a little clunky in places, as if a draft or two away from completion. Some needed more focus. Others were over fixated on the apparatus of the narrative and did not deliver as compellingly on style.

A couple of readers stood out for me — unfortunately I failed to note their names. The first was an slightly-older-than-middle-aged woman who I suspect was a visiting faculty person or perhaps a successful alum of the program — she read a rather entertaining episode from her memoir concerning her “catastrophic wedding.” Engaging, well-written, and very funny though somewhat poignant. I liked it quite a bit. The other writer was the last reader on the program before the open mic — again, didn’t catch the name, but he read a rather solid excerpt from a novel about a French-Canadian boy growing up on the prairie. He also had a fantastic reading voice — comfortable and confident — the kind that makes it easy for an audience to be pulled right into to story without distraction.

I read as part of the open mic — actually, I was the only person on the open mic list. I chose four poems: “Credo,” “First Poem,” and two from the “Letters to the Unknown Wife” series. All were well-received. I ended up chatting with two writers afterward about the surviving post-MFA, applying for programs in the U.S., publishing work in the U.S. market, and how to make a living as a writer. I enjoyed the good conversation and the reminder that I’m not alone out there — other Canadian writers who have studied abroad and returned to Canada are facing the same struggles of isolation and displacement. It is hard to fit back in to a culture and country you have been away from for so long.

There’s a great irony, as some of my old MFA cronies pointed out, in the fact that my manuscript was based around the idea of exile — and the odd thing is that I feel more of an exile now than when I lived in the US.

In any case, look forward to the next few days of posts. I’ll be back on the clock writing useful posts about poetry and writing — even though my class on How to Write a Love Poem was cancelled, I feel like the information and notes are worth sharing — especially just before V-Day.

Oh, and in other news, I travelled out to Kitsalano last night for a Scrabble match and won handily at 386 vs 294. I had gambled at one point and passed a turn in order to play “beliefs” — a spot conveniently opened up the following turn. 90 points for the word. Not bad for a game that started with a handful of obscure consonants and one vowel. I opened with “wiz” and did not draw a single “r” or “t” the entire game. I did feel quite proud about expandin “wize” into “wizen” and later into “wizened” — talk about getting the most out of a “z” — well, almost the most — I never had the opportunity to add the “un” to the front 🙂 My opponent had a great play with “boytoy” on a triple word score. The game appropriately ended with “hoser” — hmmm.. it’s a “Welcome Home Neil” sort of play.

February 7, 2007

Good Press, Goofy Picture, No Class

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 11:13 am

Lately life has been one upset after another. Sometimes the waves take me higher, sometimes lower.

Case in point
I was recently interviewed by the Vancouver Courier for an article about the How to Write a Love Poem class that was scheduled to run tomorrow (Wed) night at Vancouver Community College. Had a wonderful time chatting with the reporter and the resulting article was a pretty decent one. I do find that too often people want to fixate on my background as a computer programmer — but I’m willing to give him a pass on this one since the reporter normally writes about people with interesting professions.

The photographer, well-intentioned but perhaps a bit misguided, insisted I pose with a rose in my mouth. Against my better judgment I obliged — and neglected to ask to see the photo before they ran it. Big mistake. Under the lighting I look pretty pale — and goofy. And in many respects the photo undermines the tone of the article making me appear like an overly sentimental hack. What’s worse, the photo appears in full colour on their website! Egad. It’s ok to laugh. Someone has to.

I slipped out of town on Friday after picking up my copies of the newspaper and fled to Penticton to see family. My father had a good laugh – so perhaps I’m over-reacting. But in general – yeah, goofy photos should be avoided.

End Result
The downside of all this was that the press arrived too late to make a substantial difference in enrollment. At the final count, there just weren’t enough students enrolled to run the class. VCC requires a minimum of 13 enrolled — a number I’m finding difficult to meet with the specific nature of the classes I’m running. 8 would be more realistic — but evidently not profitable for VCC. I’m grateful that they are willing to take a chance and let me try this courses, but ultimately it doesn’t amount to much if I can’t teach them.

What’s Next?
Upcoming courses still available: “Brilliant Imagery for Writers” and “How to Publish Poetry in the US” — both of which I’m very excited about, but remain concerned about enrollment numbers.

The article has generated some additional interest. I was contacted by a couple people, one of whom was from CBC Radio’s “On the Coast” program. She initially expressed interest in doing an interview, but after discussing things with her programmer, decided that since the program would air the same day as the class, it wouldn’t make sense to do it after all. But it’s interest and a future contact.