February 6, 2016

Setting Poems to Music

"Migrations"-- Minnesota Orchestra Interview with Olli Kortekangas.  The musical composition, providing a setting to four of my poems about migration, was created to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Finnish - North American immigration and to serve as a prelude to Sibelius' Kullervo, a concert that also celebrates Sibelius' 150 years.  Watch the video to hear the introduction from Kortekangas:

February 4, 2016

From the Page to the Stage

From the page to the stage, poems change.  Here are links to audio recordings of my work (in my own voice with cello by Kathy McTavish):

http://www.cellodreams.com/echoandlightning.html (2009)
Cover Art: photograph (in the Helsinki Cathedral) by Sheila Packa

http://www.cellodreams.com/undertow.html (2010)
Cover Art: Dudley Edmondson

http://www.cellodreams.com/fearfuljourney.html  (2008)
Cover Art: Photograph by Kathy McTavish

http://www.cellodreams.com/dearbird.html (2006)
Cover Art: Marce Wood

Migrations @ the Minnesota Orchestra

The Minnesota Orchestra tunes up before the Thursday a.m. performance.   The Playbill included the poems from Cloud Birds and Echo and Lightning that the composer used in his music! The symphony performance evoked the sound of water and wind. The sound was strong and layered. The YL Male Choir and Lilli Paasikivi (Mezzo) sang the lyrics.  Great voices!

Scroll down to see the story of the text.

Here's a review: "lush, haunting cantata with painterly images from the poet..." https://www.minnpost.com/artscape/2016/02/six-reasons-hear-minnesota-orchestra-play-kullervo

Here's a review: http://www.twincities.com/2016/02/04/minnesota-orchestra-review-vanska-delights-with-animated-passion-during-masterpiece-by-finlands-sibelius/

Duluth News Tribune article: http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/ae/music/3939461-immigration-celebration-duluth-poets-work-accompany-finnish-composers-premiere

The Story of the Text: 

The poems existed first, and Olli Kortekangas created the music for them. We communicated regularly via email and since then we have met in person. He was very sensitive to the content and rhythms of the poems but it was necessary for some lines to be altered slightly and some lines to be omitted in the music. We consulted about these necessary changes and he sent me early sketches of his composition.

The poems are from my two books, Cloud Birds and Echo and Lightning.

The titles were changed on a few of the poems to enable the audience to understand the arc of this musical story: Two Worlds, Resurrection, The Man Who Lived in a Tree, and Music We Breathe.

"Two Worlds" (Cloud Birds) explores the two worlds of past and present, this world and the next world. An interesting connection was made. A line in the poem refers to a hymn I had sung in Kokkola, while visiting a second cousin, Mikko Himanka, a retired minister. Kortekangas asked me specifically which hymn, and I was able to identify it for him, and it happened to be a hymn he had sung in childhood. The sound of this hymn is echoed in the musical composition. Also the mirror image created in the poem also occurs in the music.

The next poem, "Resurrection," is the poem "Migrations" in Cloud Birds. In the book, the poem has an inscription, a quote by the poet HD, "In resurrection is confusion...." from her long poem, "The Flowering of the Rod," and the word resurrection better reflected the meaning of the poem.

The third poem is from Cloud Birds as well. "The Man Who Lived in a Tree," is a narrative poem about a Finnish immigrant to America who worked in an underground iron mine but contracted a lung disease and returned home to Kalajoki, Finland to die. While ill, he hoisted himself into the limbs of a tree and did not want to descend. This is a story I learned when I visited the graveyard in Kalajoki where some of my ancestors are buried. My relative Mikko Himanka told me the story.

The fourth poem, "The Music We Breathe," is titled "What Is Found" and it is from the third section of Echo and Lightning.

Migrations has long been a metaphor for me as a poet. All of my grandparents are from the western side of Finland, and I grew up immersed in the Finnish language and culture. I believe that immigration affects families deeply, particularly in relation to borders, language and landscape. Immigrants make massive transitions as they enter a new culture and language, and many believe that speaking a new language brings out different parts of the self. Some feel they are a different self in the new language. This is perhaps why my grandmother was reluctant to speak English; she wanted to preserve an important part of her self identity. She lived in Minnesota, but she rarely left Finnish language and culture. This was a border that she kept. Also I think that landscape exists also internally, in the psyche, and this influences us. Although I did not learn to speak Finnish very well, my English has picked up the Finnish rhythms. Because poems are physiological, their breath --the words, meters, rhythms and sounds --are re-created in the reader. To read my work is to experience the north landscape.

I myself am most comfortable on borders, and less so in the midst of things. As a poet/artist, I also perceive the permeability of borders. I can cross back and forth into Finnish and American culture. My work is always narrative, but it does cross the border of genres and perhaps exists in a state of "between."

January 24, 2016


According to Fennica Gehrman, the music company in Helsinki that produces Kortekangas' work: 
Olli Kortekangas’s Migrations for male choir, soloist and orchestra is to be given its first performance on 4 February 2016, in Minneapolis. Furher performances are scheduled for 5 and 6 February. A commission from the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä, it will be recorded by BIS Records, coupled with Sibelius’s Finlandia and Kullervo. The soloist with the YL Male Voice Choir will be Lilli Paasikivi. Migrations celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Finnish migration to North America. The text is by Sheila Packa, and it tells tales of migration through themes of identity, transformation and hope.
Migrations is the second sizeable commission Kortekangas has received from the United States; the first, Seven Songs for Planet Earth, was premiered by the Washington Choral Society in 2011. This can next be heard in Minesota on 23 April, in a performance by the Masterworks Chorale of Augsburg College conducted by Peter Hendrickson.

Feb 4-6, 2016 The Minnesota Orchestra will perform "Migrations" composed by Olli Kortekangas (and text by Sheila Packa)

Here is a link to the program notes:

For more information about this new music, see


January 19, 2016

Louise Glück

The book Wild Iris by Louise Glück is a brilliant collection of poems.  Inside are persona poems, told from the perspective of poppies, violets, etc.  Some of the poems are matins, or prayers.  It is as if Glück is throwing her voice.  There are prayers, and sometimes there is a creator who replies. The effect is stereophonic, the voices from low to high, from earth to gardener to sky.

More information:  https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/louise-gl%C3%BCck

Article about her work: http://www.thenation.com/article/writing-without-mattress-louise-glueck/

Invisible Forces

Henry Ace Knight describes Diaz's fiction writing in this way: "His work concerns diaspora, belonging and exclusion, race, masculinity, and privilege..." In their interview, Junot Diáz said:

I, for one, don’t think it’s possible for anyone as an individual to be liberated from the larger forces that overwhelmingly control our lives. Like how does one simply excuse themselves from class, from race, from gender? You can say that you’re excused from them but of course these forces will work on you in spite of the fact that you’re bowing out. I think that what interests me as an artist is the way that these invisible forces press down on our lives. I’m interested in how history has this spooky quantum effect on people. How history, even when we run from it, even when we disavow it, even when we forget it, is like some very strange dark-eyed dog. It always finds its way back to us. Not to say that this is the way the world works, but it’s what brings me to the page.

To read the entire interview, see http://www.asymptotejournal.com/interview/an-interview-junot-diaz/

January 18, 2016

Poetry & Spirit

No matter what your spiritual practice, poetry can deepen it.   


Hirshfield, Jane. "Spiritual Poetry."  Poetry Foundation.  June 28, 2006.  Web. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/article/178390

Maitreyabandu.  "Thirteen Ways of Making Poetry a Spiritual Practice." Magma Journal.  c2013.  England.  http://magmapoetry.com/archive/magma-51/articles/13-ways-of-making-poetry-a-spiritual-practice/

These articles by Sheila Packa explore sacred texts and poetry. Each has links to source materials. The Poetry and Spirit Group @ UUCD 2014 read some sacred text(s) at each session and these were followed by writing exercises.

The Forms of Grief - Kaddish, Eulogy, Elegy, Requiem, and Poetry of Witness

Walt Whitman and Dharma - Bhagavad Gita

The Language of the Mystics - The Cloud of Unknowing, Mechthild von Magdeburg

Emily Dickinson: Poetry and Spirit - Emily's poems are based on a hymn structure

Carl Jung and Spirit of the Depth: Gnosticism and Art

Poetry and the Spirit - Diving for the Pearl

Thunder of New Wings - New Beginnings and Margarite Porete - The Mirror of Simple Souls

January 10, 2016

Writers on Writing

Doris Lessing: “Whatever you are meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”

Jayne Anne Phillips: "Writers focus perpetually on the half seen, and we live in the dim or glorious shadows of partially apprehended shapes. We could bill ourselves as perceptually challenged — given that we live two lives at once, segueing from one to the other with some distress — but we accept, long before we publish, the outlaw's mantle. We occupy a kind of border country, focused on the details that speak to us."

William H. Gass: “For me, the short story is not a character sketch, a mouse trap, an epiphany, a slice of suburban life. It is the flowering of a symbol center. It is a poem grafted onto sturdier stock.”

Natalie Diaz: “My friend and I call grief the beautiful terrible because it is a wound that opens you but also shows you the miracles of what is inside you. Rather than try to escape my griefs, I’m trying to recognize them as a wildness I can submerge myself in, to be washed clean by the very thing that aches me so deeply. To give my grief to a beloved’s body, to take her grief into my body, to rearrange ourselves with it and become both more and less of one another and of our own selves—this is a lucky thing.”  See poem: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/grief-work

January 4, 2016

February 2016 Borealis Writing Workshop

In Hibbing, Borealis has invited me to do a workshop February 13, 2016 from 1:00 - 4:00 pm.

Opposing Forces: In Stories & Forms

Hibbing is the location of a three way continental divide. Waters flow toward the Mississippi River, Hudson Bay, and the St Lawrence Seaway (Lake Superior and the Great Lakes).   At this workshop, we will take our cue from the landscape and consider opposing directions.  Participants will do guided writing exercises to develop short narratives (poems or prose).  We will also talk about forms or narrative strategies that enhance a story.

To register, contact Borealis.  Georgia Andria 952-426-8533 or email glandria@yahoo.com

December 17, 2015

The Sparkling Trail

"When creating a manuscript, I often assemble a constellation of books.  My own is born under these auspices. The other writers chosen for their sensibility, language, topic, and skills are like aunts in the fairytale who come to bless the newborn."

According to Wikipedia, de Kerangal's celebrated novel, Birth of a Bridge [Naissance d'un pont, 2010]', presents a literary saga of a handful of men and women who are charged with building a bridge somewhere in a mythical California. Birth of a Bridge was short-listed for the Prix Goncourt, and awarded the Prix Médicis and has been translated into several languages worldwide.

Mend the Living [Réparer les vivants, 2014] has also won several prizes including the Prix Orange du Livre and the Grand prix RTL du livre. Mend the Living was recently adapted for the stage at the theatre festival in Avignon, receiving rave reviews for its intimate look at the realities and philosophical questioning around organ donation.

Maylis de Kerangal was interviewed by Jessica Moore, her translator, for Bombsite (Arts) Magazine.
http://bombmagazine.org/article/95631124/maylis-de-kerangal  They discussed the way that a writer explores a story under the influence of a chosen few texts.  Jessica Moore says, "Books are shapers of our inner landscape. We are composed of the texts that have passed through us, leaving that sparkling trail..." and de Kerangal responds:
I write from all these books, and also through them. This is not at all something that overshadows a voice of my own. On the contrary, it’s through all these books that I love that I’ve been able to find something that is my own. I try to formalize this approach a little by gathering a collection around me as I begin a novel.
I don’t know if many authors do this, but one of the great movements of the beginning of a book for me is to summon these influences, to go in search of them. I put myself under their influence. And putting together the disparate collection of texts that will accompany me is already an act of writing. All kinds of books and printed matter: Mrs. Dalloway for instance, or poetry, scientific texts, articles from newspapers, novels. They aren’t on the same subject—the heart, for example, in Réparer—but they are texts with which I establish echoes, resonances. I compare this to getting together with a group of friends for a big bank robbery, a language hold-up. I already have my collection for the next book.
The interview explores de Kerangal's writing process and is a conversation about translation. Translation, de Kerangal says, is like listening to her music that is played upon a different instrument than the original. This is a wonderful analogy, as it evokes the process of composition and performance, and it reassures that although the translated is not exact, the interpretation can be beautiful.