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 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, 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/

March 7, 2016

The Real Work

The Real Work 
by Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work

and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.




"The Real Work" by Wendell Berry, from Standing by Words. © 1983. Counterpoint.  


"The Tracing....and every misstep along the way." 

March 3, 2016

Music in the Fire: A Book Review of Julie Gard's Home Studies

Review by Sheila Packa, published at MNArtists.com March 2016

Home Studies by Julie Gard is about a lesbian family in a small town in North Dakota. The narrator and her partner have adopted a daughter from an orphanage in Russia. The couple’s small town is not an easy place to live, what with the harsh winters, the lack of acceptance, and the arsonist. But these prose poems do not just aim to tell a personal story. From this domestic center, concentric waves travel across our culture.

The title evokes Robert Lowell's Life Studies, a groundbreaking book when it was published in 1960 that explored personal stories of family and mental health. (Sylvia Plath named his book as a strong influence on her own work.) Gard's title also refers to the process of adoption, in which a home study involves an investigation and assessment to determine whether an individual or a couple can provide a safe and stable home. Turning around the notion of home study, Gard’s book widens the angle on that definition to explore the everyday shortcomings, crises, and stresses on every family. Gard weaves intimate narrative threads into spacious stories.

READ the complete review at http://www.mnartists.org/article/music-fire

February 26, 2016

Creating a Just World: Poetry & Social Change


Can poetry instigate change? Yes it can, in many ways. Here are some excerpts of poems from poets whose work has had political influence. Some of these poems are visionary, some are poems of grief, and some are satire. At the workshop, using prompts and guided writing exercises, participants will explore their own concerns and vision for a better world.  Che Guevarra said, “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”

Pablo Neruda

Neruda wrote poems that were political in order to trigger social change.  He also wrote love poems and poems of all kinds.
...
He or she who does not turn things topsy-turvy,
who is unhappy at work,
who does not risk certainty for uncertainty,
to thus follow a dream,
those who do not forego sound advice at least once in their lives,
die slowly. 
He who does not travel, who does not read,
who does not listen to music,
who does not find grace in himself,
she who does not find grace in herself,
dies slowly.

Let's try and avoid death in small doses,
reminding oneself that being alive requires an effort far greater than the simple fact of breathing.
...

Allen Ginsberg

Ginsberg addresses America in this poem (anaphora: the list structure with a repeated beginning word). His perspective was from a radical, gay poet. Often the "you" in his work was a large audience.

(1956)
...
America stop pushing I know what I’m doing.
America the plum blossoms are falling.
I haven’t read the newspapers for months, everyday somebody goes on trial for murder.
America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies.
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I’m not sorry.
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet.

I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.
America I still haven’t told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over from Russia.
I’m addressing you.

America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

Sonja Sanchez

This elegy pays homage to Malcolm X.
do not speak to me of martyrdom,
of men who die to be remembered
on some parish day.
i don’t believe in dying
though, I too shall die.
and violets like castanets
will echo me,
yet this man,
this dreamer,
thick lipped with words
will never speak again
and in each winter
when the cold air cracks
with frost I’ll breathe
his breath and mourn
my gunfilled nights.
he was the sun that tagged
the western sky and
melted tiger-scholars
while they searched for stripes.
...


Patricia Lockwood

In satire, Lockwood takes on the culture and women's issues.
...
Can rape jokes be funny at all, is the question.
Can any part of the rape joke be funny. The part where it ends—haha, just kidding! Though you did dream of killing the rape joke for years, spilling all of its blood out, and telling it that way.
The rape joke cries out for the right to be told.
The rape joke is that this is just how it happened.
The rape joke is that the next day he gave you Pet Sounds. No really. Pet Sounds. He said he was sorry and then he gave you Pet Sounds. Come on, that’s a little bit funny.
Admit it.

To see full text: Rape Joke by Patricia Lockwood

These poets are but a small sample of poets who seek to make a difference in the world, to bring about peace and justice. Poet Stacy Ann Chin created a No H8 project with her young daughter. Speaking about raising her daughter Zuri, Stacey Ann Chin said,
“I want her to know that what she believes, what she says and what she does matters in terms of what the world will look like tomorrow. Protest is everywhere and protest itself is not violent in nature — it is being involved in a conversation," says Chin. "I want my kid involved in those conversations, and I want her to know she is extraordinarily powerful. What better way to feel powerful than to be involved with an ongoing conversation about what’s going to happen with the world?” 

Poets bring an extraordinary attention to language and sound.  Who else can better articulate the vision of a better world?

To read an interesting essay about the function of poetry, see http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/article/178919

Here are the names of a few poets of note who have worked to build a better world:

Claudia Rankine http://claudiarankine.com/
Amiri Baraka see https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/amiri-baraka
Margaret Randall http://www.margaretrandall.org/
Muriel Rukeyser  see: http://the-toast.net/2013/11/01/muriel-rukeyser/



February 15, 2016

After the Performance

 After the performance, I'm back at my desk.  The Duluth Reader had a music review from Sam Black:

"This past Friday featured the dark (and amazing) Kullervo Symphony (1892) by Jean Sibelius, along with a Finlandia finale. A new composition, Migrations, by current composer Olli Kortekangas, was also premiered. This featured the texts of four poems by Duluthian Sheila Packa, who has strong Finnish roots.
This turned out to be two and a half riveting hours of music in Finnish and English, sung by the 58-member YL male chorus from Finland, as well as soprano Lilli Paasikivi and baritone Tommi Hakala. Maestro Vanska has performed this piece for probably twenty years, and his interpretation of this dark and violent excerpt from The Kalevala is authoritative. I was not in Minneapolis, but I sat glued to my radio performance from 8:00 - 10:30 pm for this glorious music from one of the world’s truly great orchestras. It looks like Friday, February 19 will be next, with two of Sibelius’ Symphonies along with the Violin Concerto. I invite you to tune in."


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: