"Crossing Borders: Neil Aitken" by Tania Sislian

I first had the honor of reading some of Neil Aitken’s work in 2017 when he submitted several poems to MORIA for consideration. Aitken sent us a poem called “Letter XXXV,” which we ultimately accepted for publication in Issue One. It is a stunning, dream-like sequence of images that connects his speaker in “the walled city” with a more cosmic “you,” the imaginary beloved who arrives from a place beyond:

I am tired of being vigilant. When darkness comes,
let me open the gates of the walled city, and let you in
to wander the streets laid in river stone and pearl
beneath an artificial sky woven from the weathered lines
of your poems, the hush song of dark hens in their nests,
the thread-worn wings of fire and lightning.

The beauty of these lines stem from Aitken’s ability to connect the ordinary—such as the barnyard animals, “the hush song of dark hens in their nests”—with the extrarordinary, the “wings of fire and lightning.” His writing in this work was so graceful that the MORIA staff felt they could imagine every word that he wrote. MORIA was also lucky enough to have Aitken feature at our inaugural First Press Reading Series event on November 27, 2017, when he traveled down to Los Angeles from his home outside of Portland, Oregon.

Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Aitken is of Chinese and Scottish descent and grew up in Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, the United States and Canada. Moving around a lot when he was younger, he was able to experience a diversity of cultures firsthand. He has lived in a wide variety of communities, from small farming towns in northern Saskatchewan to the industrial districts of Taipei City. Just as his poetry implies, his has been a peripatetic life with more than one language centered at any given time:

like a snail I have carried my armored world
with me, a labyrinth of names turned upon a lathe of song

(“Letter XXXV,” MORIA, Issue One, 2017).

The jobs he’s held have been similarly varied; he has been a farm laborer, an artist, a missionary, a university student, a math tutor, a computer games programmer, a graduate student and teacher, and now a working poet (poeticdiversity, November 2004). Aitken holds a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from UC Riverside, and a B.S. in Computer Science and Mathematics from Brigham Young University. He is the founding editor of Boxcar Poetry Review, creator of Have Book Will Travel (a web resource for authors and reading series), and host of The Lit Fantastic, a podcast about authors and their obsessions. He also co-directs De-Canon: A Visibility Project, a pop-up library, web resource, and event space in Portland, Oregon, which showcases work by writers of color.

In terms of his writing and editing, Aitken is the author of Babbage’s Dream (Sundress, 2017) and The Lost Country of Sight (Anhinga, 2008)—which won the Philip Levine Prize—as well as the poetry chapbook, Leviathan (Hyacinth Girl Press 2016), which was awarded an Elgin Prize for Sci Fi Poetry. He also works as a creative writing coach and consultant and identifies as a “proud Kundiman poetry fellow,” which references the Kundiman organization, a national workshop and retreat program offering support to Asian-American writers.

In an interview with Inscape Journal, Aitken was asked why his poems are always about a sense of place, and he replied by saying, “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” (March 1, 2012). We see a sense of place haunting many of Aitken’s poems, whether real or imagined or some mythical combination of the two, and that’s what I think makes his work beautiful. We, as readers, can almost put ourselves there, but then he twists his vision just a little bit, into some extra-worldly space that we can’t follow him to. Aitken’s poetry allows him not just to document but to invent, not just to record certainty but to acknowledge and live with doubt:

Northbound at dusk, I imagine you
in a neighboring city, someplace not far
from here, with not much between us.
Road. Window. Farmland. A settlement
or two. Perhaps even cows. Or a ghost town
made of cardboard and steel, narrow spaces
which I pass through like indecisive light,
uncertain of what I intend to be until it's too late.
It's always too late . . .

 (“Letter XXI,” MORIA, Issue One, 2017).

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tania sislian

Tania Sislian has twice worked on the staff of MORIA—in the fall of 2017, she was the magazine’s Managing Editor, and in the spring of 2019, the Production Editor. Her dream is to travel the world. And in that world, she wishes for peace. She also enjoys nature and loves walking around in it. Sislian is a 2019 graduate of Woodbury University, with a degree in Professional Writing.