Ten Questions (2): Neil Aitken

Many thanks to Neil Aitken for being our respondent this week. There’s some great stuff in his responses (why is a poetry manuscript like a Zen rock garden?) and some cool advice I began implementing as soon as I read it. Thanks, Neil!

1. Describe your publishing trajectory. (Where did it start? Where is it now? How long have you been at it?)

My first publication came in 1998 in Anagram, a small Asian American literary journal at Johns Hopkins University. Shortly thereafter, two other poems were accepted by Inscape, the journal at my own university. And then there was a long silence. I graduated with my undergraduate degree, looked for employment, and in general did little writing or sending out of my work. I returned to writing in 2000 and between 2001 and 2003, I started to publish again in small online journals. I was also making friends in the Los Angeles poetry community and attending informal workshops a few times a month.

In 2004, I left my career as a computer games programmer to pursue an MFA at the University of California, Riverside. I wrote a great deal during this time and by the end of my first year had assembled a first draft of my manuscript. I renewed my efforts to send out work, this time adopting a shotgun strategy – focusing on journals which accepted simultaneous submissions and ensuring that my poems were being considered by at least 5 to 10 places at a time. This required considerable bookkeeping, but eventually paid off. I kept my journal selections informed, researching each one trying to make certain that the work I was sending would be of some interest to them. I also tried to have each poem under consideration by a range of journals: some smaller, some more prestigious, some highly competitive. I kept notes as to which journals had responded personally and what types of poems seemed to work for them. I tried to follow up quickly on positive responses. In short, I adapted the same strategies I had learned as a job hunter to the task of getting published, and this (combined with regular editing and revising) seems to have worked.

Between 2006 and the present, I’ve had 39 poems accepted in 19 journals, including Barn Owl Review, Crab Orchard Review, Diagram, The Drunken Boat, Poetry Southeast, Portland Review, Redactions, and Washington Square. In addition, my full-length manuscript, The Lost Country of Sight, recently won the 2007 Philip Levine Prize and is due out this fall from Anhinga Press. It’s been an incredible couple of years, but at the end of the day, it’s not really about the number of poems published – it’s about finding the right home for each poem. I’ve been very lucky to have had the poems wind up at the right places at the right time.

Right now I’m focused again on writing and am currently at work on my second book. I’ve slowed down my submissions for the time being while I polish these poems, but continue to send things out as they feel ready to go out.

2. What would you do differently if you had to start all over again?

For the most part I’ve been quite happy with my publishing “trajectory.” I think if I had to start over, I’d spend less time worrying about writing the perfect cover letter. I’d also make certain that I always had the opportunity to check the galleys before the journal went to press. I’ve had a couple of bad experiences with poorly set poems and in one instance, a journal that misspelled my name five times in the same issue. So yes, always ask for the galleys.

3. Why did you start seeking publication? Why do you continue?

I think I started seeking publication as a way to engage with a larger community, to step outside of myself. I saw the poem as something like a message in a bottle. Each submission was a casting, a testing of how far my words might go, and perhaps the offering up of a question: who will read this? is there someone on the other shore? To some degree this is still true for me. Publication hasn’t been so much about validation or credential seeking, as it has been about completing a conversation, hearing a response, or at least knowing that the poem has been picked up and carried out into a larger current. I continue to send work out because there is joy in that conversation.

4. Does your relationship with your work change after it is published and if so, how? How does the concept of publication affect your writing in general?

I don’t think there is any great change in the way I think of a poem after it is published in a journal. If I should come to see it as unfinished or for some reason unsatisfying, I will continue to work on it long after it has appeared in print. I think that tinkering with the individual poems is a natural part of assembling a manuscript. Sometimes you realize that you’ve been repeating the same words through several poems and that this repetition isn’t strengthening the manuscript. Other times seeing the poem in the context of the rest of a sequence can inspire a new revision to tighten its relationship with the others or to create interesting variations on the theme.

Revision for me is in part a consideration of how a body of work is speaking as a symphonic arrangement or as an organic whole. So while I’m not directly thinking about publication while I revise, my revision process does hopefully make individual poems more publishable.

I write simply because I love the language and image. I’m interested in challenges. I want to be surprised at the end of my own poems. Publication really doesn’t enter the picture during the early stages of writing a poem — at least, I don’t believe it should.

5. Talk about putting a chapbook together. How have you done it in the past, how would you do it differently now? Why are chapbooks a good thing or not a good thing?

First, a disclaimer: I’ve assembled several chapbooks over the years for private distribution to friends and family members as Christmas presents and farewell gifts, but have never formally published a chapbook through a press.

In assembling a chapbook (whether for private distribution or for a contest), I usually pay close attention to how one poem transitions into the next. I try to determine what note ends one poem and find an interesting way to turn or transform that mood with the next. Sometimes a chapbook will arrange itself with a narrative arc. Sometimes it follows a more thematic structure. Regardless the final structure, I believe the individual poems should stitch together well and provide the reader with a sense of a journey, an arrival at some place new.

6. What’s your advice to someone putting together a full-length poetry manuscript for the first time? Share your thoughts on the importance (or not) of narrative arc in poetry manuscripts.

Assembling a full-length manuscript can be daunting, but I think putting together chapbooks can be extremely helpful in training your editing and organizing eye. I like to think of the task as somewhat akin to composing a symphony. I look at the movements within the manuscript, trying to arrange arcs and variations on themes. I like to choose my opening and closing poems first. I find beginning with something strong is a good way to set a high bar for yourself and for the reader. This will also force you to question the relative strength of each new poem you add in relation to the tone set at the start.

The gap between poems can function in a similar fashion to the way a line break works within a poem. The end of one poem creates a mood and an expectation for the next. The following poem can take advantage of that expectation, twisting and turning it into something else. I like to keep the poems moving and changing — too much of the same tone or form can kill the reader’s momentum through the book. I don’t advocate range for its own sake though — each poem needs to earn its place within the book.

Sometimes movements can be called out through the use of distinct sections, other times a continuous sequence of poems is better. My first book uses sections, mainly because the poems tended to group themselves around particular vantage points. My second book most likely will not, given a different subject matter which suggests more of an interwoven technique.

A book manuscript is also something like a Zen rock garden. It is actually impossible to view the garden’s contents from one place, instead one must constantly move to appreciate its entirety. This reliance on the use of multiple views and the need to create a sense of movement throughout are both helpful considerations in planning out the flow of a book-length project. The creation of views and arcs need not be wholly narrative driven, but any arrangement will nonetheless produce a sense of a narrative — a story of some sort of passage and eventual destination (or at least the expectation of arriving).

A final piece of advice — I highly recommend reading your entire manuscript aloud in one sitting. Listen to your voice and the poems and pay attention to how tone and emotion are dealt with throughout. Listen for repetitions. Listen for where silence is doing its work. What happens when certain poems are rearranged? What happens to a poem when it moves to the start or end of a section? How does it affect the reading of those around it? For me at least, there’s a lot that gets revealed in this process.

7. Do you personally market your publications? If so, why and how, and do you enjoy it? If not, why not?

I market my work in a number of ways. First, I regularly read and attend poetry events in my local area. Giving readings is the best way to build a readership and to sell the book. It’s a simple way to make a human connection. Second, I carry business cards with me which I give out to poets and writers that I meet. My cards list my email address and my website — two ways that people can reach me and become introduced to my work. Third, I maintain a personal website which features sample of my work, a list of upcoming events, an up-to-date cv, and a brief personal introduction. Fourth, I keep a blog. I try to post somewhat regularly on poetry topics as well as my own personal projects and experiences. I find that blogging provides a reader an even more personal access to the way you think and create, which sometime will build more interest in the work.

8. Complete the following sentences: Big-name poetry publishers are…..

bound by obligations to the bottom line.

9. Small- and micro-presses are…

full of innovation and surprises.

10. Describe the ideal relationship with a publisher and the relationship with a publisher from hell.

I’d say my relationship with my publisher, Anhinga Press, is pretty close to the ideal one. There is a lot of mutual respect and trust. I met with them during the NYC AWP and found them very willing to work with me on the cover art and creative design. They also assured me that I’d have final say on the look of the book — no surprises when I get my box in the mail. All in all, they really seem to know what they’re doing and are very talented.

I don’t think I’ve had a relationship with a publisher from hell, but I’d assume it would involve extensive delays, a lack of timely communication, wide-spread typographic errors, and an unwillingness to support the book through nominations or providing review copies. The absolute worst thing would be to have a publisher go out of business right after (or right before) going to press.


Neil Aitken was born in Vancouver, BC and grew up in Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and the western parts of the United States and Canada. His first book of poetry, The Lost Country of Sight, was the winner of the 2007 Philip Levine Prize and is forthcoming from Anhinga Press. A proud Kundiman Poetry Fellow, his work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Diagram, The Drunken Boat, Poetry Southeast, Portland Review, RHINO, Sou’wester, and elsewhere. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Literature & Creative Writing at USC and is the founding editor of Boxcar Poetry Review. Neil’s website is here.


Previously on Ten Questions:

1. Kristy Bowen
2. Reginald Shepherd
3. Carolyn Guinzio
4. Nate Pritts
5. Sam Byfield

Coming up:

7. Edward Byrne, March 27
8. Rachel Bunting, April 3
9. Brent Fisk, April 10
10. Ivy Alvarez, April 17
11. Michaela Gabriel, April 24
12. Reb Livingston, May 1
13. Ron Silliman, May 8

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Published by

Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

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