January 18, 2023

Jorie Graham: The Question

In the interview in the New Yorker magazine January 8, 2023, 

Jorie Graham Takes the Long View, Katie Waldman the interviewer asks this question: 

You write so sharply about the way the mind, and your mind, moves. I’m

curious about that poetic mind. Is it the same mind you bring to the breakfast

table or the garden?


JG: The mind is a current—let’s take a river as an example. It not only carries

whatever it picks up by what it traverses (breakfast table, garden), but it is also

changed in its course by what it traverses.Its weight changes, its speed, the

direction in which it was going. Being taken by surprise is one of the fundamental

experiences for any poet writing any poem. You know you are in the grip of a

poem when it—the subject, the terrain you are entering, traversing—reorients you

and puts you before a question that you did not know existed. You are irrevocably

changed. One writes to be so changed. The silence you break to enter the poem is

never the same silence closing over again when the voice reënters the silence.The

poem is an action you have taken and an experience you’ve undergone. You’re not

the same person you were when you undertook that poem.That sensation of

transformation is addictive—spiritually and emotionally.Why else would anyone

attempt this insanely difficult—practically impossible—practice day after day for a

lifetime? One is in it for the conversion experiences.What are the ideals of form

for except to get us into legitimate danger that we may be legitimately rescued,

Frost asks. The key term in this brilliant formulation is “legitimate.”

Graham's poetry with its philosophical questions examines life, human life in an increasingly alarming

world beset by violent storms, floods, wildfire, and rising seas. We know what is happening, and she 

describes this as a runaway system, yet we cannot stop. Her consciousness is sharp and clear, and her

 voice is powerful.


November 10, 2022

Ekphrasis: Poems in the Art Community

 The Kalevala, a series of poems originally performed in the oral tradition, inspired Akseli Gallen-Kallela.  

The story of Lemminkainen is part of the Finnish epic poem, the Kalevala. Originally oral storytelling, 12,000+ verses were recorded in writing and published by Elias Lönnröt in 1845.  These creation stories, adventures, and magic charms have been famously illustrated by the Finnish visual artist, Akseli Gallen-Kallela.  

This painting focuses on the Kalevala's character Lemminkäinen,  a great warrior and womanizer, who dies following his attempt to kill the Swan of Tuonela in the realm of the dead. His mother drags the black river for the dismembered pieces of her son and puts him back together.  For Lemminkainen's mother, it works. He lives again, and unfortunately, he has not learned his lesson.  

As often as visual artists illustrate and enhance stories, poets will describe and amplify visual art work. This type of poetry is called ekphrasis. It's a Greek word that means description. A famous example of an ekphrastic poem is "Archaic Torso of Apollo" by Ranier Maria Rilke. You can read it here: https://poets.org/poem/archaic-torso-apollo

In my book, Surface Displacements, the poem, "Kalevala Viidetoista Runo/ Poem 15," is an ekphrastic poem in response to the Gallen-Kallela image.  Any mother who has lost a child can relate to the impulse to bring the child back to life.  In my poem, I speak from the perspective of the mother.  Here's an excerpt:

I take him back not into my body
that conceived, received, and raised this one
but back to his own. To the sun

with a needle, I pierce the broken ends
and pull my thread.
I turn the edges, commend to God.
Say, remember him.

Take this cold back to the reaching ice
seize this body with new breath.
I shake the heart to make it start ticking
and drop it into place

put back the ribs and pull up the skin.
On the stones, he gasps.
Where I have wept and pounded
on the shore where I have assembled him.  

Within the arts community, writers, composers, musicians and visual artists inspire each other. Composer Olli Kortekangas borrowed four poems from my books Cloud Birds and Echo & Lightning to create "Migrations," a cantata premiered by the Minnesota Orchestra in 2016.  This year, composer Wendy Durrwachter is creating a musical composition for the title poem of Surface Displacements. I am honored by their artistic work and enriched by the additional interpretation and beautiful music that they create.  

October 18, 2022

Finnish Poet Risto Rasa and an American Documentary Film by Matt Carlson


Finnish poet Risto Rasa

I discovered a poem by Risto Rasa during the writing of Surface Displacements. This poem, written in Finnish and published in his book Tuhat Purjetta (trans.: A Thousand Sails) inspired me.  

Niin kuin aalto uittaa aallon 

yli valtameren, 

niin selviydymme mekin toinen toisiamme tukien.

It has been translated like this:  Just as one wave carries another / across the ocean / so we too survive, one supporting another.  In the translation, the use of the English verb 'carry' is an excellent choice that conveys the intention of the poet.  

Rasa used the verb uittaa which means 'to float.' It comes from the verb uida, to swim. It could be said this way:  "just as a wave floats another wave over the ocean....  so we too will survive by supporting each other."  

It is interesting to me, as a learner of the Finnish language, that 'to carry' in the Finnish language is "kaantaa" and 'to translate' is "kääntää." It is spelled nearly the same, but the vowel changes from a to ä. 

Risto Rasa has said that in translation, no poem is exactly the same. Something will be lost. This might be true. It is impossible to carry the definition of a Finnish word into the English language without dropping some of historic or cultural associations. 

A filmmaker Matt Carlson created a touching documentary of Risto Rasa: Sielumaisema: The Risto Rasa Project.  He has not lost very much about this poet and his work, even though he relied on a translator to interview Rasa.  The film has deepened my appreciation of this poet. One realizes how important it is to reveal the poet's landscape and his voice. I recommend that you watch this wonderful film:   https://vimeo.com/372123395

October 13, 2022

Poet Laureate Reading featuring Sheila Packa & Ellie Schoenfeld and new poets

Come join this celebration of Duluth Poets Laureate on October 19, 2022, 6 pm at the University of Minnesota Duluth library, 4th floor!  

Poets Laureate Sheila Packa & Ellie Schoefeld will read along with notable poets Dani Pieratos & Tina Wiggins Wussow. 

Organized by David Beard, professor of rhetoric at UMD, Department of English, Linguistic and Writing Studies, this is the third of reading that featured poet laureates of Duluth.  In addition, each poet laureate has invited a young poet to join the reading.  The mission of the poet laureate program is to promote poetry and expand the reading audience.   

October 4, 2022

Confluences: Writing, Composing, and Making Art from (or based on) Art: Artists' Talk

November 6, 2022 at 3 pm at the Nordic Center, 23 North Lake Avenue, Duluth, MN Book Celebration & Reception

A Poetry Reading and Artists' Talk:
"Confluences: Writing, Composing, and Making Art from Art"
by poet Sheila Packa and Sara Pajunen (musician, composer, artist), Wendy Durrwachter (musician & composer) Kathy McTavish (digital artist and composer), & Leslie Hughes (textile artist).
Sometimes an encounter with certain artworks, music, or images of others can open a door and trigger a procession of images, associations, and reveries. This installation is a collection of work that reflects such encounters. Digital poetry videos, music, and textiles that are made in response to poems. will be installed. 
The audience will be invited to participate by way of postcards (bring your own or pick one up at the event) to write or draw an image, association, or reverie triggered by another's piece of art.
Link to Facebook event: https://fb.me/e/5rEJuipRC

Sheila Packa is a fiscal year 2022 recipient of a Creative Support for Individuals grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota thanks to a legislative appropriation from the MSAB arts and cultural heritage fund. This event also has been made possible by past grants from the Finlandia Foundation National and the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council.

For the preservation of wilderness and among many searching for home, this poet travels through mining excavations and waterways vulnerable to environmental contamination and climate change in Minnesota, where the Northern Continental Divide crosses the Laurentian Divide and creates three watersheds that flow into the Mississippi River, the Great Lakes, and Hudson Bay. These images capture the beauty of the north, and these stories, historical and contemporary, honor the resilience of people who arrive or are displaced, whose language is replaced by another language, and who find a fluid space full of risk and possibility.

September 16, 2022

What Use is Poetry?

In Meena Alexander's poem “Question Time,” she writes, “What use is poetry?” and “We have poetry so we do not die of history.” Poetry can provide a documentary, an artistic investigation at the same time that poetry can become an ode sung to the beauty and resilience of the landscape and its people. The landscape of northern Minnesota is unique because the Northern Continental Divide crosses the Laurentian Divide, creating three watersheds. Water flows north to Hudson Bay, south to the Mississippi, and east to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River/Seaway. In this water-rich place, mining of iron ore and taconite has removed billions of tons of earth. This region is now at risk of copper sulfide mining.  

The poems in my book explore displacements of many kinds: of land, people, language, and wildlife. Poems document events such as floods and erosions, flights of birds and snail trails, mine pits and lakes, laborers and excavations for the removal of minerals. Poems go in, under and through waterways, in boats, into memory and history. 

The title poem of Surface Displacements is a long poem that gathers images of displacement, waterways, and brief narratives of immigrants crossing by water and land. One can’t help being aware of people who are displaced: immigrants fleeing war, violence, climate conditions, or otherwise untenable situations. Or not just immigrants, homeless people who wander the streets of every community. There are many reasons that they are there: poverty, trauma, mental disorders, and/or addictions, Battered women often must flee their homes in order to find safety. Teenagers sometimes find themselves on the streets as runaways from family violence or dysfunction. The migration of people is as steady as the migration of birds. 

Poetry is a language inside the language. In a poem in next to no time, years can collapse. Whole eras can elide into a few lines, or one moment can be forever held still. Poetry has underwater currents or forces. Muriel Rukeyser says “poetry can extend the document” in a footnote to her poems in “The Book of the Dead,” a section of her 1938 book titled U.S. 1. It is about the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, which killed at least 476 coal miners, mostly African American migrant workers, between 1930 and 1935. Her poems incorporate archival material about the mining disaster with lyric intensity. The title alludes to the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Mayan Book of the Dead, evoking the power and weight of those ancient funerary texts. In this way, the form of a poem along with its sound patterns, images, associations, and metaphors can bring together the said and unsaid. On a page, a poem has empty spaces that can be understood like the negative space in a drawing. Stanza breaks might be viewed as bends or turns in a river. Line endings in a poem form a shoreline to launch from and land upon, an empty and wave-washed beach, an edge where we can hold the losses and make new paths, where we search and find things new.

See more about the book at www.wildwoodriver.com

QUILT: Read Between the Lines

In some ways, writing a book of poems is similar to making quilts. Often I write poems in response to visual art or music. These are called ekphrastic poems. Lately, I've been honored to learn others are using my poems to create music and visual art.  The composer Wendy Durrwachter recently received a grant to create a piece of music based on the title poem of my book, Surface Displacements.  

The quilt artist Leslie Hughes created this piece of art after reading my book, Surface Displacements.  Hughes' quilt is hand stitched and titled "Read Between the Lines."  To thank her, I sent her a poem Quilt, published in The Mother Tongue. 

QUILT by Sheila Packa 

old garments cut into pieces
stitched into the fabric
so many women

cutting scraps into corners
into houses into entire lives
held with thread

pulled by the sharp needle
one eye
closing on the world

the way it was
the way it is
with an underside

a pattern not completed
fraying yet being mended
by hands

always being useful
washing, pressing out
the wrinkles

finding what shapes
will fit together
gathering into circles

to fasten the layers
over the hard frame
talking secrets

over the design
the thimbles click
the knots are tied

July 29, 2022

Upcoming Readings - Fall 2022

October 19, 2022, Wednesday, 6:00 pm.  Poet Laureate Reading at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Kathryn A. Martin Library, featuring Sheila Packa and Dani Pieratos.  Ellie Schoenfeld and Tina Higgins Wussow.  

October 27, 2022, Thursday, 7:00 pm, Quaker Meeting House, Duluth, Minnesota. Bart Sutter and Sheila Packa poetry reading. Piano by David From. Reception to follow.  

November 6, 2022, Sunday, 3:00 pm. Nordic Center, Lake Avenue, Duluth, MN.  Book launch! Sheila Packa reading from her new book, Surface Displacements, along with an art installation. Art talk: Confluences: Writing, Composing, Making Art from Art by poet Sheila Packa, composers Sara Pajunen, Wendy Durrwachter & Kathy McTavish, & quilt artist Leslie Hughes. 

November 9, 2022, Wednesday, 5:00 pm, Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, Cloquet, Minnesota.  Sheila Packa, reading from new book, Surface Displacements.  Reception at 4:30 pm.  This event at 5 pm can also be viewed live on Zoom. Here is the link: https://minnstate.zoom.us/j/4618587742

The Craft of Writing

The Craft of Writing, a conference sponsored by Wisconsin Writers Association, is happening on September 30 and Oct. 1, 2022 at Barkers Island Inn & Conference Center in Superior, Wisconsin. I'm on a panel "Tips and Tricks for Writing Across Genres" with four other great writers: Jan Jensen (fiction), Christy Wopat (nonfiction/memoir), Dale Botten (screenwriting), and Chris Monroe (children's book author/illustrator.   There are also wonderful presentations and opportunities to meet people and talk about the craft of writing. 

Follow this link to see the detailed schedule.  Register today! https://wiwrite.org/Fall-Conference-2022