January 24, 2015

Sara Pajunen - Teija Niku - Aallotar

Explore the experience of immigrants in haunting and beautiful music - 14 minutes -
(archives from the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota0

Sarah Pajunen and Teija Niku - Aallovar (translation: Daughter of the Waves)


touring the Midwest January and February 2015
see dates/ places: http://www.aallotarmusic.com/shows.html#!shows/cihc

January 17, 2015

Poetic Space

Can the unexplainable be explained?  Sometimes poetry is defined as the saying of the unsayable.  How? Poetry is powerful because of a union of image and sound and a strange combination of the seen and unseen. When we love a poem, it is because of its resonance or reverberation, a concept examined in The Poetics of Space.

 "A poem possesses us entirely," Gaston Bachelard says.  He says that the poetic image takes root in the reader.  His book is ostensibly about architecture but uses poetry as its metaphor, and in doing so, creates a wonderfully resonant approach to both.

Meena Alexander evokes this resonance. "Poetry and place—if poetry is the music of survival, place is the instrument on which that music is played, the gourd, the strings, the fret." I especially appreciate her thoughts about the importance of place or landscape.

Gaston Bachelard writes that poems awaken our being with their mysterious blend of knowing and not knowing.  A good poem is perpetually new. It has a quality that evokes new meaning every time it is read. "Forces are manifest in poems that do not pass through the circuits of knowledge."  (xxiii) He talks of the passions that perturb poetry, or disturb.

Similarly, Muriel Rukeyser identified poetry as an energy that passes from the writer to the reader. She also viewed a poem as a "theater."  A theatrical space is one that is open to and resonant with image, voice, and action.  The image and reverberation of a poem has the ability to "touch the depths before stirring the surface," according to Bachelard. This is the most poetic explanation of poetry that I've read, and it confirms my theory that poetry dissolves some sort of boundary, and in doing so, it is spirit speaking to spirit.

Literally, poetry has empty space. Lines break before the end of the page, and stanza breaks leave gaps between lines. Patterns are more apparent.  This empty space gestures toward another kind of empty space inside or beyond.  "As essential portion of any artist's labor is not creation so much as invocation. Part of the work cannot be made, it must be received; and we cannot have this gift except, perhaps, by supplication, by courting, by creating within ourselves that 'begging bowl' to which the gift is drawn," says Lewis Hyde in The Gift. Creating gaps or empty spaces in poetry can develop a dialectic or field of meaning.

Bachelard says, "poetry puts language into a state of emergence."  What are these forces? I'm not sure, but I do recognize them when they happen. "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” asks Emily Dickinson.  I think she must be referring to the physicality, the five senses, and friction. It must be music, myth, memory, and deep patterns in the landscape. We resonate, reverberate, and emerge anew.

January 13, 2015

Road to Williston Project

I'm happy to be one of the artists in the Road to Williston Project, an art installation scheduled for the Plains Art Museum in 2015. The Bakken Boom shares some characteristics with the boom and bust economy of Minnesota's Iron Range.  A hundred years ago, Biwabik was the location of what was essentially a man camp.  This project meditates on the links between trafficking of women and environmental damage.


January 11, 2015

Creative Work: The Gift Economy

Jonathan Lethem in the Ecstasy of Influence writes about influence, plagiarism, and open source culture. Art belongs to both the market economy and the gift economy.

Yet one of the more difficult things to comprehend is that the gift economies — like those that sustain open-source software — coexist so naturally with the market. It is precisely this doubleness in art practices that we must identify, ratify, and enshrine in our lives as participants in culture, either as “producers” or “consumers.” Art that matters to us — which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience — is received as a gift is received. Even if we’ve paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us that has nothing to do with the price. The daily commerce of our lives proceeds at its own constant level, but a gift conveys an uncommodifiable surplus of inspiration.

January 5, 2015

Metamorphosis: How to Make Individual Poems into a Book

How do you develop a poetry manuscript? A book of poems is at least 50 pages, and chapbooks are about 25-30 pages.  Every project has its own unique rules. Each poet finds a path unique to his or her writing voice; this path is key is the decisions in assembling a book.  This will be the topic of  a workshop I'll be leading in February. In order to meet the challenge, the poet must use larger metaphors.

It's helpful to consider advice from other poets. Susan Grimm has a book Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems, a collection of essays by several poets that illuminates the individual method.  It's useful as a way to starting thinking about your own set of poems. When I read the essays, I was struck by how idiosyncratic was the process.

Order and Arrangements

Jeffrey Levine of Tupelo Press has published an essay, "On Making the Poetry Manuscript," encouraging poets to approach the poetry manuscript as a work of art.  In these questions, he formulate the artistic concept:
Where do you see common images developing? In what directions do your various threads lead? What seem to be your concerns as a poet during this period of creativity, and how do they seem to want to group. What sorts of discoveries are your poems making? The process of inclusion and ordering is organic, calculated, thoughtful, instinctual, unconscious, and a somewhat Zen. You need time to permit all of those matters and anti-matters to work upon you, and upon your poems.
Levine's suggestions are useful.  Because these are questions, the answers still emerge from the individual poet, which will ensure the writer's voice prevails.

On her blog, Lynn Pedersen writes:
For me, one of the most subtle aspects in this process is the arranging of poems so that they speak to one another. Like poems can be placed together or spread throughout the manuscript. Finding a way to maximize the energy and impact is key. I’ll finish with a summary from one of my writing professors, Nancy Eimers. “First or second or third person point of view, lyric or narrative, linear or nonlinear, autobiographical or historical, or a mingling of these within poems—these are things you can arrange so that they become not a cacophony but a conversation.”
Her focus on creating a conversation might be useful for writers. Dialogue is an open form, and it invites the reader.

April Ossman proposes a method of consideration she likens to the "helicopter" or three-dimensional perspective. One must see the poems individually and as a whole.  Seeing from a distance, or the three-dimensional, allows one to make decisions about the book as a whole.  In "Thinking Like an Editor: How to Order Your Manuscript" writes:
Ordering strategies I’ve used include creating a narrative line or arc (regardless of whether the poetry is narrative) and grouping or interweaving themes to create a sense of evolution or growth, proceeding toward a conclusion—not resolution. Another strategy is a lyric ordering, in which each poem is linked to the previous one, repeating a word, image, subject, or theme. This sometimes provides a continuation, sometimes a contrast or argument. Other times I follow one or several emotionally charged poems with one that provides comic or other relief; sometimes I work to vary (or interweave) the poetic styles, individual poem length, pace, tone, or emotion. Some orders build toward a narrative, emotional, or evolutionary climax or conclusion (a “Western ending”) and some end deliberately unresolved or ambiguous (an “Eastern ending”). Different poetic styles can benefit from different ordering considerations. A manuscript composed of poems that function in a deliberately nonnarrative fashion might best be ordered according to a strategy of collage, surprise, or juxtaposition—or by creating a faux narrative arc.
Other ordering considerations include whether to heighten or downplay the poet’s repetition of particular imagery, words, or subjects. If there are too many repetitions of a word or image, I generally recommend making some substitutions, and placing those poems at strategic intervals in the manuscript. This can create a subtle sense of obsession rather than a numbing one. I also alternate strong and less strong poems, and try to avoid having too many poems in a row on the same subject or theme, except where they indicate growth, contrast, or argument. I may order to heighten the importance and relevance of the manuscript’s title or leitmotif, or to create a greater sense of thematic unity. Generally my suggested order juggles most of these concerns at once, which is where that clear three-dimensional or helicopter view is most critical.
Overall, the suggestions here are similar and even overwhelming. Too much information? The main task at hand is to find a way to get some distance.

Change Roles

One must shift from being a maker of individual poems to being a composer for an orchestra of poetry.  Think orchestrate: sections, movements, instrumentation, timing.  To use another analogy, one must stop making widgets (parts) and start assembling the machine (the car).    

In order to get distance, I've used visual art, performance, teaching, and writing in other genres. I make drawings. In performances, I audition various poems and create a narrative. I research other works to gain insight into various poets' methods. I like to assemble favorite works into a constellation that influences my project.  I write about these influences in the effort to explore connections and make discoveries. I do "process writing" about the manuscript in process. I look for the question behind the work.  I dream. I walk. Once the shift in roles is made, then the artistic process continues at another level.

Apply More Metaphor

Muriel Rukeyser once referred to "the theater of a poem." I'm inclined to apply this concept to a book. Therefore, one can consider the backdrop, the drama, and the overarching motif or effect.  This will likely lead to revision and more development of certain parts.  Instead of the script writer, one shifts to become the director.

To use other analogies, one might consider one poem, a bird; the manuscript, a flock. One poem is a tree, and the manuscript is a forest.  One poem a house; the manuscript, a city.  One poem a church, the manuscript, a religion. Use the concept that works.

The word "meta" is very important. One must be considering "the form" more than at any other time during the writing process, the form as it relates to the content.  It's about the container.  One size does not fit all.  The container or shape must grow out of the needs of the contents and must fit the individual poet's voice.  Once one finds this concept, the individual poems undergo a metamorphosis.

If you are interested in the workshop, here's the workshop description:
Metamorphosis!  Feb 5, 12, 19, 27 at Lake Superior Writers conference room @ Marshall School in Duluth. 6:30 - 8:30 pm.  Workshop fee $65.  In this workshop, poet Sheila Packa will help participants explore ways to build chapbooks or manuscripts in a structured and encouraging environment.  If you have some poems or short stories, then this is the place to do something with them! Over four weeks, participants will do guided writing exercises to create sequences, strengthen the individual writing voice, find ways to arrange poems or stories, and discover the "meta-" force of your own writing.    
Experienced workshop leader Sheila Packa has four books of poems, edited an anthology of Lake Superior writers, and created narrative performances.  She has received Loft McKnight Fellowships (in poetry and prose), a Loft Mentor Award, and ARAC Fellowships. In 2013, she participated in the Creative Community Leadership Institute through Intermedia Arts.   For more detail, see www.sheilapacka.com and http://lakesuperiorwriters.org/

January 1, 2015

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

The new writing has so many strands twisted together into one, fraying, and it is both brittle and strong. The story is a meditation on long forms: structure, repetition, standards, metaphor, and choreography. I attend to sections and lists and drift into the subliminal space of myth or silence. In poetry and prose, I seek to go behind the voice, or beyond, to place and movement or change. Here is it is a crossroads, here it is a cloud, here it is a tent.  

by Robert Frost

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when a sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all the ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe nought to any single cord,
But strictly held by none is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

Robert Frost (1874 – 1963)

December 1, 2014

Issues of Class, Gender, and Politics

The photograph on the left is an image of the Richeleau Mine Pit near Virginia, Minnesota. Like many places, it reflects the unique beauty of the Iron Range. But this landscape has a subtext. This point on the landscape may change radically. To comply with a contract that gave the corporation mineral rights, the state will move Highway 53.  So this site might become the new access road into Virginia, Minnesota. Land isn't just land, it's "tonnage." Trees aren't just trees, they are "board feet."   These terms, economic measures, reflect the need for people to find economic support.  

To write about the Iron Range and the landscape of northeastern Minnesota is to write about issues of class, gender, corporate power, and economics. To write about people who live in this region is to confront limited choices caused by conflicting interests and the effects of privilege (or lack of it).  Competition for limited resources can bring out the ugly side of human nature. As a writer, I feel it is important to trace these tensions. They are the context and background of the poems and stories. They are the soil from which the narratives rise.

Here are some highlights from "Race, Class and the Creative Spark," an interview in the Nov 30, 2014 NYTimes
According to Justen Simien (Dear White People): The best stories hold a clean mirror up. They take the chaos in our experiences, strain them through the point of view of a storyteller, and give context and insight to our lives. Race and class issues especially need this mirror, as more and more of culture seems reticent to even admit these issues still exist, let alone address them. 
Ken Burns writes: For me, struggling to comprehend and interpret a complex and often contradictory American past (and therefore also an American present and future), race and class — and other social issues — are unavoidable. The central obligation of my work is to somehow honorably integrate these issues into a larger American narrative. To isolate them, out of context, is to perpetuate — in the case of race particularly — a kind of artistic and intellectual segregation.
The history of the Iron Range is diverse, and it is full of tensions. Corporations leave permanent marks, but so do many other things. In the early 1900s, over forty languages were spoken. Immigrants shaped the culture, the language and the heritage.  In my research, I've learned that the same era was influenced by the rising membership in the Ku Klux Klan. Along with its dreaded racism, the Klan was strongly anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic and anti-teaching of evolution in the schools. The Iron Range had cross-burnings.  Yet, the Iron Range culture also displayed progressive trends regarding education, women's rights, labor unions, and social welfare programs.  I agree with Ken Burns. Writers should work to integrate social issues into the larger American narrative.  Tensions are part of the landscape and the characters of the people. Voices need to be heard, and they need to be connected to the heart. This complexity contributes to the art.  

November 22, 2014

Three Dimensional Poetry

In the last year, I've been revising a collection of short stories and this last month, I wrote a play.  It's been like riding two horses, using the language as a poet and exploring narratives based on Minnesota's history.  Several poets have written plays: William Shakespeare, Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, WB Yeats, Lorcas, Langston Hughes, TS Eliot, Rita Dove, and many others.  So of course I have excellent role models in past and in contemporary literary circles.  

John Lahr of the New Yorker interviewed Sarah Ruhl, poet turned playwright. He writes:
Ruhl began her career as a poet—her first book, Death in Another Country, a collection of verse, was published when she was twenty—and she sees her plays as “three-dimensional poems.” Ruhl’s characters occupy, she has said, “the real world and also a suspended state.” ... She wants to project the delights of pretense, “the interplay between the actual and the magical.” 
Her literary volte-face was due in part to her confusion about the confessional “I” of her poetic voice, which she felt had been exhausted in mourning her father. In “Dream,” for instance, she wrote, “I wake this morning and gather a mouthful of dirt— / words—with a teaspoon, that you may speak to me again.” “I didn’t know what a poem should be anymore,” she said. “Plays provided a way to open up content and have many voices. I felt that onstage one could speak lyrically and with emotion, and that the actor was longing for that kind of speech, whereas in poetic discourse emotion was in some circles becoming embarrassing.”
Poetry is the genre known for its compression, imagery, and patterned language (which also can occur in plays and other genres), but poetry is not known for its characters, plot or dialogue. It's possible to never have to grapple with these elements at all.  When I began writing Night Train Red Dust, the narratives swept me along and I enjoyed the opportunity to explore other voices beside my own.  The book began to feel like a fully developed world to me; it connects to landscape and community.  This year, my writing explores more narratives of this place--northern Minnesota.  When Night Train Red Dust was published, I felt as if I'd only begun.  The poetic "I" in this book encompasses many, and I have found that writing a play provides a natural and logical step of exploring more voices.

Another poet who explores all the genres is Anne Carson. In Decreation, she brings together poetry, essays, a screenplay, an opera libretto, an oratorio ("Lots of Guns: An Oratorio for Five Voices") and a documentary written as a film's shot list. Of her original works, she told Sam Anderson of the New York Times:
We have a kind of inertia, sitting and listening. But it’s really important to get somehow into the mind and make it move somewhere it has never moved before. That happens partly because the material is mysterious or unknown but mostly because of the way you push the material around from word to word in a sentence. And it’s that that I’m more interested in doing, generally, than mystifying by having unexpected content or bizarre forms. It’s more like: Given whatever material we’re going to talk about, and we all know what it is, how can we move within it in a way we’ve never moved before, mentally? That seems like the most exciting thing to do with your head. I think it’s a weakness to fall back into merely mystifying the audience, which anybody can do.
Reading Anne Carson's work is exhilarating. I feel the release of any genre-related stops. Why not use whatever works? Why not find energy in juxtaposing stories and forms of any kind?  Why not think outside the box? We see this sort of playfulness in many writers, for example, Lydia Davis (fiction).  With a draft of my new stories and play in hand, I now plow into this landscape to listen and develop the rhythms, characters, and plot.

I like Carson's objective of making the mind move. But it's not exactly how I would describe my own aims. Exploring change and desire, my work arises from the landscape. Mesabi means the "giant in the earth."  The term has been interpreted to refer the economic power of the ore, but I think the capitalists have ignored the spiritual meaning. The earth--a spiritual power? Mainstream culture seems not to recognize such a thing, and yet people who go to the Boundary Waters or spend time along the shore of Lake Superior and its forests know what I mean.  As a writer, I want to acknowledge and honor this sense of landscape.

As far as the writing, there is definitely a feeling that I've released this stream, and it keeps pouring. Maybe the poems have just gotten much bigger--and they have grown into essays and stories and drama--more three dimensional.

November 21, 2014

Echo & Lightning is a collection of ecstatic poems that trace the intersections between women and God: ascension and descent.  This book is the libretto for the voice and cello composition, here.  

Audio poems and cello:

Single poems:
Loveroot, Silk Thread  http://www.cellodreams.com/music/loverootsilkthread.mp3
The River Falls http://www.cellodreams.com/music/river.mp3

Section 1:
Section 2: