Most people debug mattresses or computer programs, but Neil Aitken (BS ’99) debugs poetry. “When I’m editing and revising [poems], I read it until something ‘breaks’, or sounds wrong” Aitken says. “Then I stop [and revise]. . . . It’s a type of debugging.” Formerly a computer software engineer, Aitken merged his love for technology with his passion for poetry in 2004 when he left his job in the computer gaming industry to earn a MFA in creative writing from University of California-Riverside. Although the drastic change in career may seem abrupt, Aitken had balanced his multiple interests for years, and this career shift finally aligned Aitken’s competing interests.
As a child, Aitken learned to program on an IBM PC Junior, while avidly reading and writing on the side. His dual interests continued through high school, and he ultimately decided to pursue a career in computer software. While studying computer science at BYU, however, Aitken excelled in his English classes. One English professor suggested to Aitken, “’You’re really good at this, and you should take some writing classes while you’re here at BYU.’” Aitken took some graduate creative writing workshops and loved them. He determined, “I wanted to be involved, not just as a writer, but I eventually wanted to pursue graduate work and possibly teach [creative writing].”
After completing his undergrad at BYU, Aitken found work in Los Angeles in the computer games industry. He worked as a programmer for an educational gaming company for several years, during which the company was bought and sold, management changed, and Aitken grew increasingly unhappy. Aitken also discovered that after a long day of coding, he came home mentally exhausted and unable to write. “I thought I could spend my [work] time writing code, and then in my spare time write poetry and be happy,” Aitken says. “[But coding uses] the same mental muscle that you use in poetry, so after a long day of coding, I’d come home and I couldn’t make any progress on my poetry projects.” Fortunately, Aitken found a new source of happiness. “I would go to open mic poetry readings, and I became friends with a lot of the writers in Los Angeles. . . I also got involved with a small writing group.” The group opened a new world of composing possibilities to Aitken, and they ultimately inspired him to apply to the MFA Creative Writing program at UC Riverside. Following his MFA, Aitken also earned a PhD from University of Southern California in Creative Writing and English Literature.
Aitken now devotes much of his time to poetry, and has published two books of poetry. His most recent book, Babbage's Dream, explores the history of computers and the life of mathematician Charles Babbage. In addition to his poetry publication, Aitken runs a radio show and is head editor of a literary journal. But even with his shift to writing, Aitken still uses his background as a programmer to build websites and create random writing prompt generators to aid in his teaching. In his teaching, Aitken coaches students, and encourages poetry appreciation and creation. Although poetry may seem like an irrelevant art form for many Americans, Aitken points out that poetry expresses itself on TV shows, in computer games, and even in internet memes. In a sense, Aitken argues that poetry is a prevalent force that surrounds us every day. "There has been a resurgence in poetry as it addresses grief, and as it addresses loss," Aitken says. "[Poetry] tries to create a feeling, an awareness of the world through writing and narrative."