August 20, 2015

The Argonauts: A Poet's Essay

The Argonauts by poet Maggie Nelson investigates sexuality, gender, motherhood, and love in her memoir -essay published by Graywolf Press, 2015.  The central metaphor comes from a quote by Roland Barthes in his book, Roland Barthes:
Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase "I love you" is like "the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name." Just as the Argo's parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase "I love you," its meaning must be renewed by each use, as "the very take of love and of language is to give one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new."   (Nelson, 5)
Maggie Nelson has applied the concept of the Argo, a boat that changes completely along the journey, to her relationship (her lover's kinks match her own) and to her lover's transition female to male. She finds the beauty of ambiguity. The metaphor also illuminates Nelson's pregnancy and birth of a son, the creation of her family, and her own artistic work as a writer.

The form of the book is capacious and uses poetic devices (metaphor, recurring images, repetition of words, enjambment, white space).  It captures 'the state of becoming,' or perpetual emergence. There are some people who resist poetry and say they don't like it and won't read it.  This book looks like an essay and it presents an argument. However, the book is grounded in the body and Nelson's experience. The Argonauts conveys queerness and the contradictions of desire. It resists hetero-norms.  It illuminates the subtle difference between lesbian and queer. It examines gender, motherhood and family in an unsentimental way. She brings together several ideas from gender theorists (Judith Butler), artists (Catherine Opie), and philosophers (Barthes, Wittgenstein, Lacan, and several others) as a way to investigate contemporary culture and her own life. The cover flap describes it as a "genre-bending memoir, a work of autotheory offering fresh, fierce, and timely thinking about desire."

The title and metaphor are from the Greek myth Jason and the Argonauts. Jason, the hero, goes on a quest in order to gain the throne that was lost by his father. The goddess Hera noticed his task matched her own mission to claim recognition from mortals (Jason's father the King had failed to pay homage to her). She assists, or perhaps one could say, uses Jason. Several elements of this mythic story add depth to the book. Nelson is smart, and I enjoyed the book.

July 12, 2015

Where the Heart Beats

I'm reading an interesting book by Kay Larson, a biography of John Cage, Where the Heart Beats: Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists. (Penguin 2012)  She includes an interesting quote from John Cage:  "What can be analyzed in my work, or criticized, are the questions I ask."

If one were to apply this to one's own work, it brings up interesting things.  One of the observations that others have had in my writing are shifts in verb tense: past and present.  I do have a question about time. Although some people declare, the past is the past - it is behind us - isn't the present made up of both here/now and memory?

June 18, 2015

The Terrain of Heaven and Hell: Marilynne Robinson

Since the publication of Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, I have had deep admiration for this fiction writer who I felt explored realms common to poetry.  What does she think of poetry?  Housekeeping engages readers with women characters in a mountain town in Idaho. Robinson skillfully, fully, beautifully uses the metaphor of water: fluidity, flood, lack of boundaries, and erosion and loss. Robinson connects her stories to myth or deep cultural (and Biblical) stories.

In 2014, Wyatt Mason interviewed Marilynne Robinson for the New York Times. This is an excerpt of his article:
All four of the novels are in conversation with — at times tacitly, at times explicitly — the stories of the Bible. Housekeeping is the story of two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, who, after their mother commits suicide, are abandoned to the care of their grandmother and, after she dies, are abandoned to the care of their grandmother’s two maiden sisters-in-law. They, in turn, overwhelmed by the burden of caring for children, abandon the girls to the care of the girls’ aunt. And she, the girls come to understand, is not a stable person herself. Without question, the novel is preoccupied with the generational, genealogical succession of suffering. But it also makes sustained allusions to the book of Genesis, particularly the flood narrative: God’s failed attempt to wipe the world clean of the very errors he could not eradicate from creation — his creations.
Robinson's female characters are adrift, most often by accident or by dangers posed by others. She places her characters in domestic situations, but they are not and never seem like they could be domesticated, for the characters reveal dimensions of the truly wild and uncivilized. I like that she places her stories on the margins of society and she uses these margins to explore being.  Her characters are wary but not fearful.  Yet Robinson is concerned about the pervasive fear in our culture today, and she feels it becomes a rationale for avoiding action.  Mason wrote:
And it was here that Robinson brought up fear: How it has come to keep us at bay from our best selves, the selves that could and should “do something.” In her case, that “something” has been writing. For Robinson, writing is not a craft; it is “testimony,” a bearing witness: an act that demands much of its maker, not least of which is the courage to reveal what one loves. 
“A lot of people who actually believe in the sacredness of life, they write things that are horrible, desolating things, ” Robinson said. “Because, for some reason, this deeper belief doesn’t turn the world. . . . It comes down to fear; the fear of making self-revelation of the seriousness of ‘I sense a sacredness in things.’ ”
In Housekeeping, Robinson opens the story with a tale of the grandfather and a train derailment:
The disaster took place midway through a moonless night. The train, which was black and sleek and elegant, and was called the Fireball, had pulled more than halfway across the bridge when the engine nosed over toward the lake and then the rest of the train slid after it into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock.   
 The sound of the language evokes poetry: the image is drawn with vivid strokes.  The alliteration: "midway through a moonless night." The m sound shift to l sounds: "black and sleek and elegant...called the Fireball, pulled..."  "into the water like a weasel sliding..."  Some vowel sounds also are particularly powerful:  through/moonless; nosed over; off a rock.  The midway-ness of the night and the train on the bridge underline the midway-ness of the lives interrupted by the event. It marks the town. It presages the suicide of the girls' mother who also takes her car and drives off a cliff.  It begins a cascade of loss: The train disappears, the mother disappears, followed by the grandmother, and the great aunts.

In Lila, Robinson opens the story with Doll mercifully removing the child Lila from the cold porch where she's been put. Her decision was an impulsive act, a kidnapping, but had she not taken her, the child probably would have died:
She hitched up her apron to cover the child's legs and carried her out past the clearing. The door might have opened, and woman might have called after them, Where you going with that child? and then, after a minute, closed the door again, as if she done all decency required. "Well," Doll whispered, "we'll just have to see."  
The road wasn't really much more than a path, but Doll had walked it so often in the dark that she stepped over the roots and around the potholes and never paused or stumbled. She could walk quickly when there was no light at all. And was strong enough that even an awkward burden like a leggy child could rest in her arms almost asleep.   
Again the spare and vivid images and the alliterative phrases create a powerful beginning.  This is an act of courage that saves Lila's life, and marks a fugitive existence. Doll must fight with her ready and finely honed knife--the members of Lila's family have followed in pursuit or in revenge--and Doll takes the life of a man. After Lila meets the Reverend, marries him, and waits her child's birth, the novel traces her haunting memories, secrets, and speculations about her origins. Her early life, in the company of Doll and the loose group of homeless, itinerant workers was a tenuous existence.

The knife is a significant metaphor of survival used to prepare food, defend, and even cut the girl's fine hair. It severs Lila from her past; it protects her, and finally it becomes a talisman of the woman who loved her.  This last remaining link to Doll Lila treasures.  In this marriage, Lila constantly thinks of departure; the thoughts are a metaphorical knife that threatens to cut her marital and community ties. She is welcomed in Gilead, but she finds it difficult to acclimate to a routine, safe life.  Trust is slow in coming. Her world doesn't feel quite real. She has been so damaged by neglect, mistrust, and abuse she can hardly relate to her new role as the wife of a pastor.

Lila's questions about her past are never answered, and her questions of why life is like it is are also left to linger, and slowly she and her husband, the elderly Reverend, find their way to a conversation, in their growing intimacy, that explores that question.

Poetry takes many forms; and I find it in the writing of Marilynne Robinson. In a review of Harold Bloom's American Religious Poems, Marilynne Robinson writes:
The threshold between the life we know and whatever follows is a mystery religion has always addressed, and for which it has tended to provide the imagination with language and imagery. Dante and Milton created grand visions of a cosmos ordered to serve the ends of divine justice. But there is strikingly little interest among American poets in mapping the terrain of heaven and hell. In place of mythopoesis, their attention is turned on the actual, the phenomenal. And it is turned on the universal, solitary, subjective experience of the transformation, or the end, of consciousness. If death is the mother of beauty, it is the mother also of the deepest self-awareness, the consciousness of the nerves and senses that translate experience as beauty, and as meaning.
The marriage of Lila and the Reverend is a good marriage, and yet it measures the distance between the two people with vastly different life experiences. They almost don't speak the same language.  Lila grew up illiterate and unschooled, except for one year.  She doesn't have words for things, but like many illiterate people, she makes like she understands. The one thing that she does read is the Bible, rich in poetry. Robinson's new book maps the terrain of heaven and hell with aching beauty.

June 5, 2015

Dusk 'til Dawn

This is a sneak peak of the large scale projection planned for June 13, 2015 Northern Spark Festival in Minneapolis. Mill City Requiem for Solo Instrument and Distance.  Interactive web film by Kathy McTavish with text by Sheila Packa.  These lines are from my poem "Dusk" in Echo and Lightning (Wildwood River Press, c2010).

on her body / dusk
the circle of light
from the lamp falls on a pot
upon a round bowl
in front of the window
on her hips
roses bloom
as if the light has found
a way to enter the body
it's raining outside
water flows into the vessels
and blossoms and out
on the umbrella
over the empty table
on the lilacs
as if music as if light
plunged into the clouds
and the clouds wrapped
around its fists
green leaves all hearts
and stems like vines
and the light in the body
went into the roots
and the roots were sending it back
as if we were wrapped
by clouds and rain
and in the center
darkness lifted

June 4, 2015

Northern Spark: Mill City Requiem - #nspk

Mill City Requiem for Solo Instrument and Distance is presented as part of Northern Spark 2015, produced by Northern
June 13, 2015, dusk till dawn, at the Mill City Ruins, Minneapolis, MN 

Sheila Packa, Kathy McTavish and cello
This is a live performance, a large video installation,  and an interactive, navigational mobile experience ::: The mobile device is a glass boat in a submerged storyworld. The user rubs Aladdin's lamp - touches the glass - an act of "reading" that will bring you into an underground storyworld.  At intervals, Kathy McTavish will perform live improv cello with the underwater soundscape and the projection. 

Projection, web design and code by Kathy McTavish.  "The River / Requiem" by Sheila Packa.  See the mobile first web design at  This is an image of the interactive web application.

Navigation: If you choose to share your location, will assign an avatar and a client # to you and track your distance from the center @ Mill City Museum on the Mississippi River.  The website lists all clients currently on line.

Telegraph: This is an internal telegraph service that enables users to type in phrases and see the words scroll on the mobile screen.

Live, freestyle poetry: On the night of Northern Spark, Sheila Packa and Kathleen Roberts will be doing freestyle, improv poetry on their mobile devices.  You can watch on your own mobile device, and add your words to theirs.  Sheila Packa, Kathleen Roberts, and friends will be at the Northern Spark projection site to meet with you and show you how to participate in the freestyle writing. Beware! It's totally addicting! Your text will scroll down the screen and become part of the scene.

E-book: "The River" adapted from Undertow and Echo and Lightning poems by Sheila Packa in html5, javascript, css3 with symbol fonts and vector graphics drawn to the screen.  For more information about the books, see

Music: Live and recorded music by Kathy McTavish / cello, found sound, and recorded voice by Sheila Packa

The aviary links you with twitter, an ongoing twitter-dialogue. Tweets in the story are by Kathleen Roberts, Kathy McTavish, Sheila Packa, and readers like you who tweet to #millcityio

Kathleen Roberts of Prøve Gallery, Duluth
and here's a photo of mad Kathleen:

History of the Mill City Museum: Originally, this building was a Gold Medal flour mill.  Later the building was abandoned and fell into disrepair, and homeless people navigated through the treacherous floors (with openings that could drop you down several levels).  Graffiti over the doorway read "Hotel Victory."  A photo exhibit "Homeless in the Mill" by JobyLynn Sassily-James, 1997, documents the Hotel Victory. It is on display in the Mill City Museum.  

Northern Spark is an all-night arts festival that lights up the night on June 13, 2015. On the second Saturday of June, tens of thousands of people gather throughout Minneapolis to explore the city's great cultural institutions, play in temporary installations in the streets, and enjoy experimental performances in green spaces and under bridges. Northern Spark is presented by Northern, a nonprofit arts organization with the mission to transform our sense of what’s possible in public space.  On June 13, tune into social media for up-to-date happenings. 

June 3, 2015

To Come Into Bloom Again

To Come Into Bloom Again

To feel the sun draw sap through the stem
to let the spring air shake the leaves
and to bend....

To feel the bud turn to blossom and when wind
scatters the petals, turn to fruit.

--Sheila Packa

June 2, 2015

Night Train Red Dust - NEMBA Award

The 27th Annual North East Minnesota Book Awards was on May 21, 2015.   Night Train Red Dust received recognition!

The judges wrote: "Sheila Packa’s newest collection of poetry is filled with three-dimensional images of the variety and complexity of life on Minnesota’s Iron Range during the middle years of the twentieth century. Like the iron itself, these poems 'bleed with rust/ and come with their own rules.'"

June 1, 2015


The Galen Palimpsest
I come to every text with the knowledge that it has risen from a culture, and that it overlays many stories. It is a map that lays over other maps, and words overlay other words from the language that influences the author and his or her place in the world.      


In an ancient book of hymns, The Galen Palimpsest, an undertext was discovered to be a 9th century medicinal book, "On the Mixtures and Powers of Simple Drugs."  According to a recent NYTimes article, scientists are at work using new technologies on the Galen Palimpsest to reveal was written beneath.  The palimpsest is so exciting because it reveals deep histories.  

The ancient manuscripts were difficult to make and the vellum or parchment were often reused for new texts. The old text was scraped off (scriptio inferior, the "underwriting" or undertext) and the new was inscribed (usually perpendicular to the old text.)   

According to Wikipedia, the word palimpsest: 
derives from the Latin palimpsestus, from the Ancient Greek παλίμψηστος (palímpsestos, "scratched again", "scraped again") originally compounded from ψάω(psao, "to scrape") and πάλιν (palin, "again"), thus meaning "scraped clean and used again". The Ancient Romans wrote (literally scratched on letters) on wax-coated tablets, which were easily re-smoothed and reused; Cicero's use of the term "palimpsest" confirms such a practice.  


I like writing that serves as a palimpsest, even if the paper is new paper or perhaps not paper at all but computer code or audio files online, what I like to find is evidence of the past histories, places, and language from which the new work arises. Some might think of this as spectral traces or shadows that lend depth and dimension.  Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki (July 24, 1886–July 30, 1965) wrote In Praise of Shadows 
We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates… Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.
One thing against another -- the shadows, the layers -- makes a texture, a weave, with which it is possible to find read far more than is written.  

May 14, 2015

Women's Stories in northern Minnesota

KUWS: Wisconsin - Women's History Month - People of Color - Radio Interviewer Gerri Williams April 26, 2015

Sheila Packa, Dani Pieratos, Dr. Linda LeGarde Grover, Mary Dedeke, writer and poet, Xuan Chen, UWS International student majoring in writing and philosophy and guest co-host Gerri Williams - just before the start of POC with Henry Banks Show last night @ WPR Northwest studios.

April 25, 2015

Experimental Histories

Recently, I've been interested in using experimental forms of story within my creative work. Of course, this is not new in the field of literature (poetry, fiction, drama, or memoir), and it also isn't new in the field of history. Historians grapple with narrative, and they search for ways to convey several, even conflicting, perspectives. In historiography, the writing of history, some use experimental methods to provide a more complete story. In an article about designing a college course in experimental history, Martha Hodes wrote "complexity is a crucial component of sound historical analysis." It's also a crucial component of story-telling.

History archives offer rich resources for details, characters, settings, and plots; the story I've been working on recently mines historic archives to create a world that explores the effect of the past on contemporary life.

Stephen Muecke. "Experimental history implies a gap between what has made sense in the past, and what no longer makes sense, whether it is past events or new ones demanding to be gathered into the fold of meaning."  It used to be that people believed "objectivity" could be achieved. But now, no longer can readers accept "one story" that may reflect the dominant group in power. There is more than one gaze: male, female, and in between. There are many cultures on any point on a map, and many political perspectives. There are many species. There are class differences. Multiple subjectivities bring all of us closer to "the truth." The experimental form allows for more points of view and more connections.  

Of course, the historical record should reflect the materials in the archives and empiric evidence. Initially the juxtaposition of the word experimental with the word history may seem problematic, but certainly it is a more sensible approach.  Experimental does not need to mean fictitious. It refers to the process and structure of the narrative. Perhaps it might bring together old sound recordings with artifacts, images of now extinct species (for it is not only humans who have cultures), and old documents. Perhaps it might overlay maps and narratives and crop reports to reflect changes over time. The writer of fiction and poetry often embraces juxtapositions, a variety of voices, and other surprises. In the final form, the story must be believable.

What does experimental history look like?  Merle Patchett kept a blog, Experimental Geography in Practice: exploring correspondences between geographic research and experimental and artistic practices.  She wrote:
Through my PhD research I developed an experimental historiography that drew creative resource from the purposeful assemblage and rehabilitation of diffuse historical fragments to form unorthodox archives. My adoption of a form of historical ‘assemblage method’ (Law 2004) is to be read as a challenge the historian’s fidelity to conventional empirical and archival evidence, in that I attempted to make the materials I assembled count precisely by not forcing them to fit within a pre-determined narrative, recognising instead that materials themselves can create knowledge, or at least encourage open and imaginative thought. 
In this way I sought to craft a form of historiography that is alive to the ultimate alterity of past lives (human or otherwise), events, and places, recognising that what remains of them is always going to partial, provisional, incomplete and therefore what is being presented is always already, to invoke Derrida, “sous rature” – under erasure. 
I am now attempting to develop my form of experimental historiography into a form of curatorial presentation.
The phrase "the ultimate alterity of past lives" suggests that each historic personage holds a degree of complexity.  One version or one interpretation can be discarded over another version or interpretation. This scholar of geography and creative artist brought together sound recordings, old photographs, and excerpts of documents into beautiful and haunting presentations that allowed her to interrogate the cultural bias and assumptions of past explorers. These disparate elements, when placed in close proximity, express much more than a single-threaded narrative. They serve as collaborating evidence, and even more, the reader/viewer grasps possibility, tension, and meaning in the gaps.

Narrative has also a potential for healing. For awhile, the term "cultural competency" was used in human service organizations as they attempted to understand and provide services to diverse populations. A better term is now arisen: cultural humility. We should not presume that we can know enough about a person, a culture, or a landscape to make blanket statements. Deep listening helps a writer build believable characters and good poems. In poetry, a spare style will evoke multiple meanings.  It's best to avoid assumptions, and to listen to the gaps and silences.

Creativity can be a transformative force that gives breath and sustenance to people who are suffering. Artistic and activist memory work recognizes the effects of past atrocity on landscapes and their new inhabitants.  Mapping Spectral Traces is a group of scholars, writers, artists, and activists who attempt to address trauma in communities. The Creativity and Madness conference in Sante Fe, intended for mental health professionals, investigates the psychology of art and artists. Madness is analyzed in relationship to creativity.

Lewis Mahl Medrona, MD, PhD, spoke about the power of story-telling and history in the practice of narrative medicine. This practice can be surprising. He related a case study, the mental health treatment of a Native American man who suffered from alcoholism, diabetes, and post-traumatic stress from childhood.  Medrona's brilliant intervention involved a ceremony giving the man a new childhood. The line doesn't necessarily have to be drawn between fiction and nonfiction. What he offered this man was a new interpretation of his life, and new possibility. Interpretations of a real event demonstrates vastly different perspectives among eye-witnesses; different possibilities evoke different outcomes.

In "A Long Note on New Narrative" by Robert Glück, the author 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.
This writing acknowledges multi-faceted life. If we lack imagination, we lack life's necessary tools. New narrative is conscious of meta-data, similar to other experimental forms. Many writers and poets employ these methods to present a more complex and bigger story. Experimental history, or literature, or music offers us new perspectives and new patterns. This dynamic and creative field brings new gifts.