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
The River Falls

Section 1:
Section 2:

October 30, 2014

Night Train Red Dust, in a cross-media installation, will be at the Northrup King Bldg in Minneapolis on Nov 7, 8, and 9, 2014.  Experience the traffic and hear the train pulling earth. Walk in the same footsteps as the women miners, journalists, organizers, doctors, ministers, farmers and artists that made Minnesota strong.

October 4, 2014

Wilderness: The Adjustment

Composition by Mike Olson, "Noopiming." The music of this piece is unusual. The composer used a choir of eight voices who sung the single word, Noopiming. This is an Ojibwe word for in the north, inland, in the forest. Olson then took the recorded sounds and electronically separated and blended the syllables and notes to create this  haunting and beautiful piece. For me, it conveys the feeling of the wilderness perhaps because of its small fragments arranged into a whole.  The sound creates an ecosystem, or echo system. Photographs are by Dale Robert Klous

The Body / The Body of Earth

Write with the body, commands each writing teacher. Use the five senses. This makes writing come alive. Along with writing from our own body, I recommend something more. Consider the other body that we are inside. Write with the details of a river, sea, city, mountain, desert or forest. Be awake to the layers beneath your feet and the ghosts. Other people and animals have tread in this place, old roots have reached in and never been pulled out and stones speak.

Wilderness as Metaphor / Wilderness as Wilderness

The wilderness is our most valuable asset because it contains what we don't know, don't understand, and can't grasp. It is mystery. This is expressed by Wendell Berry, in his "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front":
Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
When we awaken to the wider sphere, we are aware that wilderness is alive with its own hidden movement and life. Animals go with intention, and they act upon the environment. They travel or wander or track. Populations rise and fall in accordance with the law of balance. Its boundaries are natural. Watersheds and flows and forces and cycles come to bear upon our experience and become part of our story. Sigurd Olson said:
Wilderness to the people of America is a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium.
We need the wilderness more than the wilderness needs us; we are in fact part of its multiple systems. I do not want to sentimentalize. 


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 is problematic, and our culture must find ways of adjusting it.

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, some 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.

September 28, 2014

Writing and Healing: Arts Express

On October 11, I'll be in Grand Rapids to lead a writing workshop for people with cancer, family members, friends, and caregivers.  October 4, visual artist Elizabeth Kuth will conduct a drawing and art workshop.  A creative community is already forming. If you are interested, please sign up at Project Lulu. Grand Rapids Arts Express  We would love to have you join us!

The Writing Workshop

Creativity, at heart, is serious play. If you come to this writing workshop, expect that you will do guided writing exercises in an encouraging environment.  Participants might ask: "Must I write about the illness?"  The answer is you can write about whatever you want to!  The focus is positive. Whether beginning or experienced writers, participants will have the opportunity to explore their own images, memories, and landscape. Writing exercises are structured but provide artistic freedom and can help writers find their own material. In session, we experiment with forms, like this definition form, used in the poem "Anxieties" by Donna Masin:

It’s like ants
and more ants.

West, east
their little axes

hack and tease.
Your sins. Your back taxes.

Each person has a unique writing voice, and this workshop is aimed at helping identify and strengthen it. Nobody will be required to share his or her personal writing, but we will have time at the end to read work if he or she desires. We will also talk about ways to revise and answer questions that the participants might have about sharing their writing with family or friends, privacy, and other concerns.

As a writer, I rely on my own daily writing practice. I edited a collection of poetry and prose, Migrations: Poetry and Prose for Life's Transitions. This book brought together the writing of seventy-five Lake Superior region writers and it encompasses changes of many kinds: relationships, health, home, work, aging, relocation, dislocation, environmental changes, and migrations. In order to collect work for the anthology, I brought my writing skills together with my social work skills in this project. As Poet Laureate of Duluth, over a period of a year, I conducted 45 writing workshops and support groups. I visited the Women's Shelter, Family Justice Center, Domestic Abuse Intervention Program, high schools, YWCA's Girl Power, and community groups. I have a lot of experience with teaching, helping people find their strengths, and fostering a supportive community of writers. And personally, my mother suffered acute myeloid leukemia. Serious illness and other significant life events mark us.

Writing about place yields good material. The body is also a landscape. In writing practice, we turn on all of the five senses to both stir and soothe. Here's a poem of mine, "Shore," (from Echo and Lightning) that transcribes or inscribes a feeling into the landscape:

it wasn’t pain but waves
pounding on shore
rolling of small stones
up the slope and back again
breaking waves
with their spatter of white foam
all night long re-living 
that peak or pitch
recognizing, reorganizing
building up and dissipating
all night long
it was the world
creating, recreating, retreating
and waves capitulating

Lately, I've been very interested in exploring layers - history, spirituality, geography, landscape, music, and dreams. Each person has marvelous sources that can become wellsprings for creative work.

I ask participants to give permission to the self to be a beginner. More prompts: Write about a remedy or healing food that was used by somebody in your family. Write about an important object or tool that you received from another person. Sometimes, I ask participants to reach back another generation: Write about what political or social events or life situations affected a grandparent. How did these affect their relationships in the family?  These provide opportunities for exploration and reflection, and the first draft may want to turn into a poem or story.

Journaling Improves Health

Several research studies have demonstrated that writing practice improves health outcomes, helps regulate emotion, increases problem-solving skills, and reduces stress. Journaling is considered a complementary therapy in cancer treatment.  Here is an excerpt of a Rita Dove's "Beethoven's Return to Vienna."

I had been ordered to recover.
The hills were gold with late summer;

This type of poem is called a "persona poem."  The poet wears a mask, becomes another person, and examines another's story.  In these two lines from the poem, Dove uses interesting vowel and consonant sounds, to explore the experience of an accomplished composer and musician who becomes deaf.

Project Lulu is a nonprofit organization founded by the artist Lisa McKhann after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  She helps others go through being "a patient" to becoming actively creative. Some of the former participants went on to develop scripts for staged readings and performances. Art is transformation!

So bring a notebook and pen. Prepare to have fun and relaxation. Lisa McKhann of Project Lulu writes, "art can both elevate and communicate life's simple hardships in a way that deepens our common humanity. Our motto is Reflect - Create - Expand."

Go to Project Lulu to learn more, and to find out more about Elizabeth Kuth and her art workshop. Come and be a part of the healing community.


September 20, 2014

Old Iron Range in Minnesota

Last Tuesday I went to Hibbing with the WDSE Channel 8 Playlist people and we did an interview and video about Night Train Red Dust. We went to the Mitchell Yard which is a 1906 Roundhouse (behind the Sunny Hill distributors near Hibbing). After me, they interviewed a music group from Hibbing. The building is crumbling, and I felt the ghosts of the Iron Range past. I wonder if our nation can continue to sustain economic development that causes environmental degradation. Can we have economic development AND environmental protection?
 Inline image 1 
The Mitchell yard ran 24/7 during WWI and WWII. Now it's owned by an artist, Dave, who has a vision of rehabbing the building to be a pre-vocational school (great place for a machine shop) and artist workshop (he is a sculptor). He has a vision of developing more unity, similar to the efforts of everybody on the Iron Range to help win WWI and WWII. Can we focus our energies on reducing poverty, homelessness, and violence? on creativity instead of destruction?
For Mitchell Yard, fundraising will be necessary! This is a worthy project, and he needs 1-2 million!
I'm standing in front of the old coal fired boiler. Karen Sunderman of WDSE took this photo. They plan to make a program about all of us. Here's a link to the Mitchell Yard website:

September 7, 2014

Drawing Longer Lines: Poets on Fiction

In poetry, the past juxtaposes with the present. They can easily occur simultaneously. The narrator is not a character; character is not important. Often a poet works on the level of language, the sound, rhythm and things in between. Words have denotations, connotations, and associations. A poet who writes fiction faces conventions about character, plot, setting, and dialogue. 

Traditional points of view are first person (I), second person (you), and third person (he or she). In my work, sometimes I need zero person – to omit the “I” or blur it. Rilke did this in his novel, the Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and effectively illuminated need to depart from the self, or to place the self somewhere else—outside the work, and then completely inside of it. Other artists and writers have said the same thing. In order to fully create an artistic work, Dorothea Lange, the photographer, said one must annihilate the self.

Plot generally traces a chain of cause and effect, but sometimes this is too linear. Traditionally, it has been defined by conflict: man against man, against nature, against himself. One aspect deeply related to plot is verb tense. Without present and past tense, causality comes under question. This definition of plot has been problematic--my stories are not like that--and continually I reach for something else.

Other poets have faced this dilemma and have found solutions. W.H. Auden (a poet and librettist) wrote: "Drama is based on the mistake. All good drama has two movements, first the making of a mistake, then the discovery that it was a mistake."  Anne Carson defined metaphor simply as the mind making a mistake. In her definition, the mistake can be a marvelous one. Is the answer then to go deeply into mistakes?

After annihilating the self, can one construct another? Can one step from metaphor to metafiction? Can the forces of language carry into prose? In this essay, Fanny Howe finds a creative solution using form:
Increasingly my stories joined my poems in their methods of sequencing and counting. I would have to say that something like the wave and the particle theories troubled the poetics of my pages: how can two people be in two places simultaneously and is there any relationship between imagination and character?  
There is a Muslim prayer that says, "Lord, increase my bewilderment," and this prayer is also mine and the strange Whoever who goes under the name of "I" in my poems--and under multiple names in my fiction--where error, errancy and bewilderment are the main forces that signal a story. …  
The circumnambulation takes form as alliteration, repetition, rhyme.  
 Q--the Quidam, the unknown one--or I, is turning in a circle and keeps passing herself on her way around, her former self, her later self, and the trace of this passage is marked by a rhyme, a coded message for "I have been here before, I will return". The same sound splays the sound-waves into a polyvalence, a daisy. A bloom is not a parade.    (To read more, go to  Bewilderment by Fanny Howe)
Sina Queyras uses line and stanza breaks in what is actually an essay, "Tightrope: Weighing Pound and Drawing the Line."  The title conveys her skill with language. She references the imagist Ezra Pound.
Writing that is discovering is reaching is tightrope walking.

Nature is not natural and if it is it is not nature.

Take the library to the street; bring the street to the archive.

Not the prayer, the moment before prayer.
She creates multiple meanings with the phrase "drawing the line." It conveys the need to set limits, and to make a mark. This level ambiguity takes effort. Once developed, ambiguity makes poets in prose more difficult. Queyras' economical and evocative statements are written so that poets can understand. In my experience, what one begins to write triggers another topic. The real topic emerges as you go. One must walk across ground shifting beneath the feet while a mountain is building. It takes strength, balance and momentum. Prayer is the conventional response to fear or danger. She brings attention to the moment before, where the actual story or drama resides, the fear or danger that one must write.

Poets who write fiction create interesting works. Queyras says, "Write who and how you know who you are and will" and "Create your own aesthetic."

September 2, 2014