July 8, 2016

One River Many Stories




One River Many Stories was a community wide story-telling event for the Duluth and St Louis River region.  It was initiated by Paul Lundgren, John Hatcher and many others in the Journalism program at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and it included students, area poets and writers, journalists, photographers, artists, scientists and activists.  The One River Many Stories presented a series of events: an art show at the Duluth Art Institute featuring the photography of Ivy Vainio and area citizens and an interactive map, workshops for adults and kids, readings and a celebration.      

On April 27, 2016 creative writers came together to present their stories and poems at UWS. This was recorded by KUMD radio for future broadcast.   It's available to stream or to download the mp3 at http://www.wpr.org/shows/wpr-presents-one-river-many-stories

For more information about One River Many Stories, see http://onerivermn.com/

Thank you to Karen Sunderman and the camera crew at WDSE, John Hatcher, Jennifer Moore, and Judy Budreau and the many others involved in the project.   









The Poetic Process of Molly Peacock


Creative work develops in such interesting ways, in a combination of both freedom and constraint. In a Brief Guide to Oulipu on poets.org, the reader can consider ways to create literature using structural constraints:
Although poetry and mathematics often seem to be incompatible areas of study, the philosophy of OULIPO seeks to connect them. Founded in 1960 by French mathematician Francois de Lionnais and writer Raymond Queneau, Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (OULIPO), or Workshop of Potential Literature, investigates the possibilities of verse written under a system of structural constraints. Lionnais and Quenuau believed in the profound potential of a poem produced within a framework or formula and that, if done in a playful posture, the outcomes could be endless.
Molly Peacock has spoken about the evolution of her book: Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions.  I find it fascinating to consider her project from its inception to the finished form.  In an interview by Laura Bast (https://maisonneuve.org/post/2015/01/22/mollypeacock/), Ms Peacock says:
A dear friend of mine, Phillis Levin, had given an assignment to her students to write a poem with an ambiguous pronoun, where you may not know who or what is behind this pronoun, and your reader certainly doesn’t. So I thought, I’m going to try this. When I started it, I was thinking about the idea that things only mean if they come into language. As a child I thought, “I have thoughts in my head. But I can’t put them into words.” I think that is the essence of poetry. A poem is about the things you don’t have words for.
In a blog post, Molly Peacock wrote
As a writer in my seventh decade, I’ve been shocked at the twists and turns my own creative life has taken. Alphabetique began as a book of poems, then transmogrified into twenty-six brief imaginary biographical tales of those shapes we call letters.
In another interview in Duende Literary Magazine, she says:
My poems reveal themselves both in an inchoate idea and in a design, or a form.  I seem to create a kind of mental playing ground before the poem can develop.  I didn’t know how “The Poet” would evolve, except that I had set myself the assignment of writing a prose poem for each letter of the alphabet, and for using as much alliteration as I could without destroying the sense of the story. “P” was for poet, but I didn’t want to convey that autobiographically. Instead, I wanted to make a statement about all of poetry, but to take the grandness of that enterprise and make it fun, too.  I thought of the first poems that influenced me as a girl:  poems by Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki.  Their haiku on the page had always looked to me like lily pads on a pond. The point of view of a young man in a far-off time seized me.  He wore a kimono.  (I always write poems early in the morning, often in my kimono-like bathrobe.) Could I actually write both the story and the poems of this young man?  By the pond, and with a desire to include that delicious word “petrichor,” the poem was launched.
Book reviewer Steven W. Beattie writes:
Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, and the other Oulipo writers, united by what Daniel Levin Becker calls “strict technical constraints or elaborate architectural designs,” have had a largely unacknowledged effect on Canadian writing in the 21st century. Their influence is most apparent in the realm of poetry: the key Canadian Oulipo text is Christian Bök’s Eunoia, which won the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize. Bök’s volume – a series of sections each employing only a single vowel – recalls Perec’s novel La Disparition, written entirely without the use of the letter “e.” 
The success of Bök’s experiment – Eunoia is one of the bestselling works of poetry this country has seen in the new millennium – has led to a proliferation of conceptual poetic works that employ Oulipo-like constraints, but this phenomenon has not really made inroads into prose. It is fitting, then, that Molly Peacock, a memoirist and author of the well-received 2010 non-fiction hybrid The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, is also a poet. Peacock’s latest work, the intriguing and beautifully produced Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions, while not as rigorously constrained as Bök, recalls the Oulipians in its premise and execution. 
As the title suggests, the book comprises 26 vignettes, each centred on a character named for a single letter in the alphabet.
While the Oulipo techniques might sound too artificial or esoteric, the work of Molly Peacock provides an example of its possibilities and pleasures.

To buy her books, visit her website: http://mollypeacock.org/

May 29, 2016

Experiments in Text


Lance Olsen writes experimental fiction.  He teaches this form at the University of Utah.  He's interested in theory and has explored in his writing hypermedia text.

Using structured collage, he creates books from assembled small text units that he calls narraticules. These small, finely written paragraphs of about five sentences are building blocks and can create interesting juxtapositions and provide polyphonic effects.

In Olsen's book,  Head in Flames, he uses these units to reflect shifts in voices, time periods, and consciousness.   Changes in font are used as well.  Readers can read the work in a linear fashion, or in a horizontal fashion (following the same font).

 He's interested in remixing other writers' texts in the form of quotation, saying he likes "how it cuts up and cuts off what it’s quoting, and by doing so releases new meanings and contexts that can and do surprise author as well as reader.

His work reminded me of the Piglia's: "Theses on the Short Story."  Piglia focused on story within a story in short forms.  Olsen works in long forms, and he brings together disparate elements in interesting ways.  In "A Long Note on New Narrative" by Robert Glück identifies and defines a method of literary practice termed New Narrative:
We were thinking about autobiography; by autobiography we meant daydreams, night dreams, the act of writing, the relationship to the reader, the meeting of flesh and culture, the self as collaboration, the self as disintegration, the gaps, inconsistencies and distortions, the enjambments of power, family, history and language.
The new hybrid writing, reflected recently in Claudia Rankine's Citizen and Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts, offers an engaging, elastic form that appeals to the way we think these days.  Some say we have a new brain, influenced by the internet and its devices.  All of us in the culture have attention that is further and further divided, and all of us must face complex and developing tensions and rifts in our growing population. This new narrative form provides ways to bring forward multiple threads: history, memoir, philosophy, art, and what-have-you.

In an interview published in Rain Taxi, Lance talks about his influences and forms.
Push yourself. Take chances. Remain curious. Remain crazy. Don’t do the same thing twice. Try to fail in interesting ways. Ask yourself: what forms and fictions comprise the realism our culture understands? Don’t rescript yesterday. Always write what you want to read, not what you think others do. Don’t compromise. Realize if you’ve got an answer, chances are you’re not a writer. Realize, along with John Cage, that you shouldn’t be frightened of new ideas; it’s the old ones that should scare you. Realize, along with T. S. Eliot, that only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go. Reach out and support other writers. Realize you write because you don’t know what you think until you do, and then you know it even less. Understand this writing thing isn’t a competition; all of us can win all the time. Think of yourself as part of an oceanic conversation about life and narrative that extends across time and space, and ask yourself where your voice fits in, how you can help other voices be heard. And if you plan to write for fame or fortune, do something else immediately. Seriously.
As I explore my own presentation of new work, to be published in a transmedia form, I find his thoughts useful.  Instead of narraticule, I consider the building blocks to be stanzaic. I too want to avoid linear readings, preferring a multi-verse in which the reader chooses his or her own path.  I want to express the process of this new work.


For the interview with Lance Olsen: http://www.raintaxi.com/o-for-a-muse-of-fire-an-interview-with-lance-olsen/

For notes about multiverse stanzas in transmedia: http://sheilapacka.blogspot.com/2014/05/the-multiverse-stanzas-in-transmedia.html

May 24, 2016

Casting More Than One Shadow

Mary Oliver has described poetry as writing that casts more than one shadow.  By this phrase, she refers to the way that poems can yield more than one meaning. Recently, I found a corollary regarding short stories by Ricardo Piglia.

A short story [cuento] always tell two stories [historias].  In the classic short story, there is a visible story that has another secret story embedded inside of it. At the end, the secret story comes to the surface, producing an effect of surprise.  The two stories often operate with two different "systems of casuality."  The key elements function for both the presenting and the secret story.  The modern short story, according to Piglia, "abandons the surprise ending and the closed structure; it works the tension between the two stories without ever resolving it, telling "two stories as if they were one."  

Piglia, Ricardo.  "Theses on the Short Story."  New Left Review 70. 2011.  https://newleftreview.org/II/70/ricardo-piglia-theses-on-the-short-story

May 9, 2016

About Writing

“Something is always born of excess,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in June of 1945.  “Great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.”

“A word after a word after a word is power.”
—Margaret Atwood

"Writing is really a way of thinking — not just feeling but thinking about things that are disparate, unresolved, mysterious, problematic or just sweet."
—Toni Morrisson

“I am an excitable person who only understands life lyrically, musically, in whom feelings are much stronger as reason. I am so thirsty for the marvelous that only the marvelous has power over me. Anything I can not transform into something marvelous, I let go. Reality doesn't impress me. I only believe in intoxication, in ecstasy, and when ordinary life shackles me, I escape, one way or another. No more walls.”
—Anaïs Nin

"Poetry isn’t a profession; it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something out of that."
—Mary Oliver


April 14, 2016

Azimuth: Writing into the Wilderness


The wilderness is as difficult to navigate with language as it is with other conveyances. One goes from the known to the unknown. Romantic poetry often idealized the wilderness and emphasized individualism. But individualism may have gone too far.

In the wilderness, ordinary mechanical methods of transportation give way to travel by foot and boat, usually off the grid. In order to navigate over unknown terrain, people use a method called orienteering. Azimuth is an old word, and its origins come from the French, Arabic and Latin. It refers to the way or path. It is a word used in nautical settings, in surveying, in astronomy and in orienteering. Its measure is in degrees. A traveler must use a compass in addition to the map. Further, the gap or a declination between geographical and magnetic north must be calibrated. The proposed path needs ongoing attentiveness.

When it comes to wilderness, we do not have the mind of a fox, and we make more tracks than necessary, many in the wrong direction. People who do orienteering expect to go off-course. But the goal is not a private destination, but the life-enhancing survival of the ecosystem.

Similarly, poets create adjustments in the language. Rock should not be "tonnage." Trees should not be "board-feet." The pronoun "I" must be broadened from "my personal, financial interests."  In order to preserve human culture, we must start valuing entire ecosystems.

The wilderness is the "not I." In the wilderness, the I is one bird of a flock of birds, one squirrel among millions, and one tree in a living forest. In the wilderness, we can easily become lost. Uncertainty prevails. I can describe my access point and wanderings. I can describe encounters. And I can describe an experience of being lost, of survival perhaps. These are individual meridians that reveal as much or more about the writer as they do about the wilderness.

The wilderness is speechless. Sometimes, nature writers are assumed to be doing pastoral writing, and they can anthropomorphize and emphasize beauty and serenity. The Romantic poets' work does this. They can provide a sense of reverence and offer a greater perspective. But writers might explore the strangeness. Sounds haunt, and silence fills us. Animals lurk; they appear and disappear. The landscape has unexpected or unknown features. It is the place of balancing, for finding that we are not as important as we thought, that we are part of a system of many dimensions, and technologies can easily amplify missteps.

The wilderness holds 'the prior to birth' and the 'after the death,' both creation and destruction, and the cycles of generation. The stories of animals and cycles and the images come with the hope that these will transcend the limitations of language. For me, the best wilderness writing can be the azimuth that enables us to value the not-I, necessary to our equilibrium.

April 6, 2016

Adrienne Rich: Feminist Poet & Essayist


Adrienne Rich and her thinking had great influence on American poetry and feminism.  I feel lucky that she was in the world when I was coming of age. She had a powerful voice.

You want to ask, am I lonely?
Well, of course, lonely
as a woman driving across country
day after day, leaving behind
mile after mile
little towns she might have stopped
and lived and died in, lonely

from Diving Into the Wreck “Song,” by Adrienne Rich

Here is an excellent article about her life and work: https://newrepublic.com/article/132117/adrienne-richs-feminist-awakening

Here is a link to her famous poem, "Diving Into the Wreck,"  https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/diving-wreck

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone. 
There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
Otherwise
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment. 
I go down.
Besides Diving Into the Wreck, another book that was important was The Dream of a Common Language.  The book had a section, 21 lesbian love poems.
to move openly together
in the pull of gravity, which is not simple,
which carries the feathered grass a long way down
    the upbreathing air.
This small excerpt captures opposing forces: the downward pull of gravity and the up-breathing air. It was difficult to live as a lesbian, openly. No it was not simple, but because of her writing, so many more of life's possibilities were illuminated. She was skillful at her craft.

To read her influential essay, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," http://www.weldd.org/sites/default/files/Compulsory%20Heterosexuality.pdf


Interview with Adrienne Rich by Michael Klein: http://www.bostonphoenix.com/archive/1in10/99/06/RICH.html

April 4, 2016

Upcoming Readings Spring 2016

Here are my poetry events this spring on my calendar:

Hibbing, Minnesota : Tuesday, April 5, at 2 p.m. Finnish Americans and Friends at the Hibbing Tourist/ Senior Center on The Hibbing Tourist/Senior Center is located at 1202 E. Howard St. (across from the courthouse) in Hibbing.

Chicago, Illinois:  Sunday, April 10, 2016 || 1:00 – 3:00 pm. Woman Made Gallery literary event: "Identity and Definition: featuring Hannah Kucharzak, Carrie McGath, Erikka Mikkalo, Sheila Packa, Keli Stewart.

Superior, Wisconsin: Wednesday, April 27, 2016 7 pm Yellowjacket Union, UWS, Superior. This reading is an event by One River Many Stories, a community wide story-telling experience centered on the St. Louis River.

Duluth Township (near Two Harbors, Minnesota):  Wednesday May 4 at 12:30 pm at the Homesteader's Meeting at the Community Center on Hwy 42.

Duluth, MN:  Thursday May 12 at 7 pm at Beaner's Central:  River Stories.  Sheila Packa, Julie Gard, Michelle Matthees and others will read poems at 7 pm.



Born to Write

Thank you to the Finnish American Reporter for this article!

If language is a river, then I swam in two rivers. My grandparents were born in the Ostrobothnian region in western Finland. My parents were bilingual, and spoke English and Finnish. The language was not a barrier. For me, it was part of the music. There was a lot that was never translated that I learned at a level subliminal or physical. It's no surprise that I'm obsessed with languages.  

Finnish was the adult language, the language of secrets. In my family, it was also the language of the inebriated. English was the broken language, the official language of which my parents insisted the children should all master. It was necessary for groceries, schools, doctors, and offices. It was NBC, CBS, and ABC.

I was strongly influenced by the women in my family and their stories. My grandparents disembarked from Hänko, Finland. Ahead of my paternal grandmother was a house to be built and a few months after, a fire that burned it down.  Ahead of my maternal grandmother waited eleven children to bear and a few she had to bury. The last child she delivered herself.  

My parents had many siblings, and they loved music and dancing. My aunt Martha, who lived next door, was a naturalist and visual artist. My younger sister designs clothing, and my older sister built her own house and raised horses. Many of my aunts and uncles played accordions. The bellows of an accordion sound like breathing. Family visits were like big reunions, held often. But now my parents have passed on, and so have many of my aunts and uncles. Life is much more quiet!

I grew up in a working class family on the Iron Range in Minnesota. We lived on the Vermilion Trail, a century old route near the St Louis River, Lake Esquagama, Silver Lake and Bass Lake. I had no idea of the history of this place until recently. Our home was also in the midst of iron and taconite mines. My father was a heavy equipment operator, and my older sister was a train engineer for a mining company. I spent one summer in college working as a laborer at Minntac.  Of the Iron Range, I say: Whiskey was a life waiting for somebody to marry it.

I value my immersion in Finnish culture.  When I met relatives in Finland, I noticed two characteristics that I've come to consider particularly Finnish: quiet attentiveness and acceptance. As a writer, it's been helpful to be a good observer, to be receptive, and to be able work skillfully with the things at hand.  My mother's cousin MIkko Himanka in Kokkola, Finland is a writer of local history.  His father died before he was born, and he has dedicated his time to recording the stories of war orphans.  

I was reared beneath Norway Pines. I think of them as my clan: tall with strong trunks and long and buoyant limbs. What I mean by this is that people are not separate from the landscape. The patterns and events in nature occur also in human experience: river flow, migrations, floods, or lightning strikes. As a child who loved to swim, I wasn't just moving in the water, but water was moving in me. I'm interested in the correspondences here. Our body is also the body of earth. History is the accumulation of stories, generation after generation, similar to layers of sediment and compost. We walk on our history. We take our harvest from it, and we bury our dead in it.  One more thing: bears. I see bears a lot, and I dream about bears. Maybe they are magic.

Good Finnish design uses natural materials in an inventive and economic way.  I seek to achieve this in my own work. This not always about adding things. It's also about knowing what to omit. Art and writing is the ability to make something from nothing, using any materials. As a writer, it's quite satisfying to invent a form and find correspondences.  There's a pattern, and it's the job of artists and writers to reveal it.


April 3, 2016

Poet Margaret Randall

Margaret Randall was a visiting lecturer at the University of Minnesota Duluth on March 31, 2016.  She held a small poetry reading in the wine bar at Chester Creek Cafe, and I was one of the lucky ones in the audience.

Margaret Randall is an internationally known writer, poet, photographer, radical feminist, and political activist. She lived much of her early adult life in Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua and has written over a hundred books including collections of poetry, oral histories, memoirs, essays, translations, and photography books. She is 80 years old, and Randall has long been an inspiration to many.

Margaret is one of the most prolific poets that I've met. Poetry is natural to her as breathing, and she creates resonant poems that engage with every part of life. She draws from a full life time of experience, from the McCarthy era, to the radical 1960s, to the political activism she was involved in Nicaragua, and to this very day, she is a vibrant human being engaged with all of life. She read us poems of her experience in Cuba and she read us love poems. She had poems about the Syrian refugees and Copernicus. Her poem, "To the Corporate Citizen" was very powerful.  

An audience member asked her about the political in poetry. It seems that in the US, the more political a poem is, the more it is dismissed. Randall responded by saying that no topic should be off limits to poets. There is no difference between political poems or spiritual poems or poems of any topic.  There should only be one measure: is the poem good or bad?

In the discussion following the reading, she also responded to a question about her political and social activism.  An audience member asked: How did she keep going?  She paused for a moment and reflected on times in her life when she felt all hope was gone and that the battle for justice had been lost. Yet, in time, events happened, people came together, and proved otherwise.  Her age and experience seemed to give her a longer perspective, a wider angle of view. She said: Do the work, do what you can, keep trying. It makes a difference.

On Wednesday in the Wine Bar, all I heard were good poems and great poems. I left the reading full of wonder and appreciation for a woman who has written her way through life, with a strong passion for justice and a strong voice that rises above many.  

Here is an excellent 2014 review of Randall's writing, plus some fascinating history:
http://www.bookslut.com/the_bombshell/2014_01_020481.php

Some poems by Margaret Randall
http://bombmagazine.org/article/494/three-poems

Margaret Randall's website: http://www.margaretrandall.org/