Neil Aitken is teaching several 3-hour generative workshops at Literary Arts on Saturdays from January through May. The first session is sold out, so we’d recommend registering for future classes soon! Click each class name for details and to register: February is “The Fire In The Mind: Creating Vivid Images.” March is “Little Machines of Words: Writing Under the Influence of Technology.” April is “The Journey Into The Interior: Writing As Exterior and Excavation” and May is “Elsewhere & Otherwise: Getting Beyond Ourselves.”
Keep reading to get to know Aitken:
How did you get started as a writer? What keeps you writing?
I grew up in a house of readers and writers, so it’s hard to say when I started writing things down, but it was early. I know that I began writing poetry when I was about ten years old. I had a secret crush on a girl in my class, and when she died later that year of leukemia, I did not know how else to deal with my emotions and sense of loss, so I wrote a poem for her. And in large measure, the work of poetry has remained inextricably tied to elegy and loss. I continue to write as a means of recovering what I fear to lose, preserving what remains, or honoring what has already slipped out of reach. There can be humor and whimsy, sometimes even hope, but there’s also a lot of awareness of our own fragility. I guess I keep writing too, because like Charles Babbage, the 19th-century mathematician and computer pioneer, I am intensely curious about this world and the secrets it holds. And like my father, I find other human beings endlessly fascinating, full of unexpected stories, unusual choices, and difficult dreams. So I think I’m also writing because I want to learn from them, and see where those stories and insights take me, what patterns and broader narratives are revealed as I push forward into the next poem, story, or essay.
What inspired you to teach this class? (January’s “Out of Sorrow, Out of Joy”)
This class explores the ways we can draw on the moments of great sorrow or joy in our lives and write about them more effectively. It’s a subject I think about a great deal. My own start as a writer can be traced to a number of these moments where love, loss, and memory meet and I felt compelled to write. Writing was more than therapy — writing my through the deep valleys and high summits of experienced emotion, whether the instigating event was a death or loss, or found itself rooted in anticipation and joy, helped me give a form and voice to something I couldn’t otherwise articulate. Sometimes that written form came easily, other times it took much longer to arrive in a final shape — but when it did, there was a sense that the universe slowly made a little more sense, the storm paused, and my vision was a little clearer. I have found that this particular workshop has helped others as well find a way at last to figure out how to write the particularly big and challenging moments of deep emotional significance in their lives. I’m excited to be leading this workshop at Literary Arts and hope those who take this class will also come away with similar experiences for themselves.
What was a class (or classes) you took that helped you as a writer/artist?
I’ve been really fortunate and have taken several great classes over the years which helped me develop as a writer and continue to shape and influence my thinking about poetry and the possibilities of language. Two stand out in particular. First, a poetry class taught by Juan Felipe Herrera who had us rethink how we wrote by introducing us to alternative ways of thinking about narrative, structure, language, and musicality — he did this through a variety of means, ranging from deep listening and meditation exercises, to adapting methodologies from other disciplines into our poetry writing process, to creating physical models and operatic frameworks for our poetry. At the time, I was frequently perplexed by his approach and the challenges he gave us, but as I went forward in good faith, I came to see the value of disrupting and inverting my own practice and breaking away from conventions I was overly reliant on. It became liberating — to either write in direct response to his challenge, or to find my own way of subverting it to make something new. The second class was a contemporary poetry class taught by Chris Abani who had us not only reading a wide variety of different and challenging poetry collections, but also encouraged us to delve into the critical theories and approaches that these writers were responding to and/or being read in relation to. From Abani, not only did I gain a deeper appreciation of the cultural, literary, and political contexts within which all writers consciously or unconsciously are in dialog with, I also learned to ask tougher questions of the poems I read — and which I write. And to interrogate whatever assumptions I bring with me as a reader — and as a writer.