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Interview with Neil Aitken

Inscape: It seems obvious to me that your poetry is strongly anchored with a sense of place. Could you talk about place and what part it serves or should serve in a poem?

Neil Aitken: Margaret Atwood famously said that all Canadian literature revolves around weather and place. And I think that it is kind of inescapable that when you come from a country and spend enough time in a country where the land does dominate the field of vision, a sense of place does occupy much of what you write about. But I also take some inspiration from a book by Frances A. Yates on the art of memory, where she talks about the history of mnemonics and systems of memory, and links these very closely to place. She talks about the fact that, classically, one moved through a place and identified elements of speech or whatever you were memorizing with certain landmarks or icons as you traveled through a space. And so I think when you’re writing poetry, place is a part of that—we move through a space in a poem and there are landmarks within that and sometimes they’re anchored in our own physical geographies, and sometimes they’re anchored in more of an emotional topography that we’ve arrived at. One of my former professors talked about our own interior mythological landscape, and that in some way there are certain things or landmarks that we return to, and I think that any poem is an exploration of some aspect or some part of that larger place that is within us, but at the same time, exists in our memory as a place we’re trying to get back to.

Inscape: The reading of poetry is something that fascinates me, and I’m curious if you could talk about your reading style, and how you went about obtaining that style.

NA: I don’t know if I’ve consciously sat down and said, “here’s my reading style.” I think if I take cues for how I read, it’s that I don’t want it to be overly dramatic and I don’t want it to be over-performed, but I do think that there is an obligation as a writer to present your work in the best light possible, to enunciate as clearly as possible, and so I try to take that as part of the cue. I grew up listening to my father read us every Christmas Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Whales, and I loved the sound of poetry, and I loved the sound of well-constructed language. Whenever I read, or even when I write, I’m listening to the poem as it unfolds, so I think I try to capture that when I’m reading—that sense that the poem is unfolding before the audience and even the poet as it’s going along. I’ve learned not to rush and I’ve learned that it’s important to have a bigger voice, but not a gigantic voice.

Inscape: So you would say that the verbal aspect, the performance part of the poem, is a part of your writing process?

NA: Definitely, definitely. When I was doing my MFA, one of my teachers asked us each to write a kind of manifesto or statement of one’s aesthetic and I realized that I didn’t really know how to describe it as one thing, so I ended up writing three, in an attempt to synthesize the different aspects. But one of the things that came out of it is that I really do believe that for me, writing is an act of invocation—that you write, and the act of writing then invokes the next thing that’s going to happen . . . you know, you invoke and you also evoke it, and so those things are simultaneously happening. Sometimes, when I’m writing, if I’m stuck I just start with the line I’m on and I read it again, or I start at the beginning of the poem and I read the whole thing out loud and the question is always “what comes next?” Then I’ll read it with the new part, and if it makes sense, if it stays together, I’ll keep it. If it surprises me, I’ll definitely keep it. If it seems too predictable, I’ll usually dispose of it and move on. But I’m always demanding something surprising from each line, and hopefully this keeps the poem as interesting and engaging and transformative as possible, so that it doesn’t seem like a static thing, so that there’s always a sense of surprise or turn. A professor of mine said something that I really liked. He said that “every line begins in a place of certainty, and ends in one of uncertainty,” and when you do that line break and return to the beginning of the next line, you want that sense of stepping out into the unknown, and then the sense of surprise when you arrive at some place you didn’t quite expect. I think that’s a key part—to always do that stitching back and forth.

INSCAPE: As an artist, I am curious as to what came first:  your painting or your writing?

NA: Well . . . that’s a really tough question. I think the writing probably came first. I painted through high school and then had to make the very difficult economic decision that it was too expensive to continue with artwork with the budget I was on. I have not returned to painting and drawing as much. Photography is kind of a newer interest. And I find myself interested in that, but not to the extent that I’ve invested in a very fancy camera—more in the terms of trying to pay attention to composition and taking shots. I’ll play with that a little bit, but that’s mainly what I’m doing.

Inscape:  Do you feel like the writing led you to painting or vice versa; do you feel that they’re related?

NA: I definitely feel like they are related. I definitely think in a very visual fashion; images really do crowd in as I’m writing. I just want to work with the image and have it unfold. So I think they’re intermixed; I don’t know that there’s a way to separate them. Even if you don’t paint, you can still be struck by an image, and it can lead to the writing of a poem. So the ekphrastic impulse is constant, and you become obsessed with certain ideas—not even ideas—certain moments, you know, fragments of an image will kind of haunt you. I think if you read the book [The Lost Country of Sight], you’ll find that certain things are doing that; like I can’t escape them so they show up again and again in a different way.

Inscape:  Another [question] I love to ask writers is whether or not you have any quirks, or bad habits, or superstitions that manifest themselves in your writing process?

NA: Well, I can say off the top of my head that I am a terrible procrastinator. There are times when I’ll go long stretches without writing. And I’ve learned that’s okay, that sometimes you do need to take a break. And I’ll also write fragments but I won’t write the whole thing right away, or I’ll sketch it out and come back to it later. I think the other thing I do frequently is, as I was saying earlier, read the poem out loud as I’m composing—in the middle of it; and then I’ll listen to it, and then I’ll wait and hear what the next thing is. So it drives the next poem, it drives the next thing. Occasionally there will be lines that I’ll end up cutting that I’ll use to start the next poem, and then I’ll cut lines from that poem. So there are a few lines that never actually end up staying in, which have led to poems. They’re kind of like sourdough; you plant them there in these poems and spawn wonderful poems, but they’re never the poem itself.