April 22, 2010

Duluth Poet Laureate

As a poet, I look for the resonating image and pattern. In language, I explore memoir, myth, music, and patterns of the natural world in my quest. My ultimate goal is to break through to a larger vision or break open a deeper emotional landscape. This is what good poems do for the reader and writer; they are like gifts. They open us and provide sustenance for the spirit.

As a person in the role of poet laureate over the next two years, I invite people to join me along this path of sustaining the spirit.

As a teacher and social worker, I know that many people have unique and compelling visions or stories to tell. Not all of these people decide to become writers but nevertheless, they breathe their sparks into writing. Like most creative work, writing can transform the writer. This is why writing is valuable for those in transition or those that are healing. I want to provide encouragement for the community to use poetry for their ceremonies and transitions.

As a person who likes to walk along the trails of our city, following the rivers and creeks, and as a poet who has written many river poems--I am interested in exploring how larger patterns in our ecosystem and world, such as watersheds, erosion or migration can inform an artistic work. Similarly, I am also interested in and want to connect my work with the larger patterns of human experience reflected in our important cultural stories. Jungian psychology, mythology, Biblical story, fairytale, history and other ways that can help connect the individual artistic work to a larger context. In my own family history, immigration of my Finnish grandparents to Minnesota has deeply influenced my poems. My work is also deeply connected to the northern landscape.

As a poet, I like to develop and celebrate art. At their best, literary arts represent both good craft and deep quest. In poetry, the language, history, landscape, and experience emerge for that individual and collectively, for the culture. The poet Linda Hogan once told me, “Whatever you write about makes it stronger.”

A community that honors and celebrates the arts becomes a community of openness and exchange. Unique voices rise that bring images and stories that stir us. The arts foster diversity not uniformity. The community that invests in the activity of art making (and poetry is art) is preserving its culture and promoting creativity. This is why it's a great investment to use taxes to support the arts in our communities. We are all strengthened.

Toward the goal of expanding the audience for poetry and celebrating the unique characteristics of Duluth, I'd like to integrate poetry deeply into our community. The following are some activities that I've proposed. I look forward to collaborating further with the poet laureate committee to adapt them as needed and to have these activities reflect the diversity of our community.

Community Projects:

"Blessings" -- this is community wide project--adults and children—designed to help people in our community to write blessing poems. I'd like to see these blessings given with the bowls at Empty Bowl and at the free Thanksgiving Dinner at the DECC....the best of these should be made into broadsides (collaborating with visual artists) for our area hospice programs, the Women's Shelter, CHUM, the Food Shelf, Detox, and other organizations that assist the homeless or hungry to provide warmth and encouragement.  Learning to write a blessing also enhances one's own relationships.  We can all provide blessings for weddings, births, deaths, traveling, school or training, military service, medical treatments and healing, and other endeavors. The world will be a much better place if we can find a way to bless rather than blame. 

Arbor Day or Earth Day: "Poet Trees": plant a tree and place a poem --either an excerpt of or an entire poem written by a poet in this region on a wooden panel or sign: the harbor - pier or bridge area, Park Point, the Rose Garden (wedding poem here), Munger Trail, Seven Bridges Road, the creeks in Duluth: Miller Creek, Chester Creek, Tischer Creek, Lester River, the Lakewalk.  I look forward to developing this idea with area trail enthusiasts, environmentalists and citizens interested in the city parks and trails and the Lake Superior Hiking Trail. 

Poetry Readings / Events

Hawk's Ridge fall bird migration: "Migrations" Invite poets to share their work that relates to birds, flight or migration (migration of any kind)...the place that we left, the place that we are going....with a special invitation for poems about or from women in transition....

Grandma's Marathon & or Lake Superior Hiking Trail/ ultra-marathon: "Long Journey" -- poems that relate to the theme of journey (of any kind) or quest, with a special invitation for poems about the body and healing.

Gales of November: "The Body, The Vessel" I would propose a multimedia performance that would feature a handful of poets, musicians, and modern dance that pays homage to the lake, the boats, and our history of staying afloat....


"Blessings: Poems for Commemoration" - I'd like to offer a guideline with a few writing exercises for all interested persons, writers or not, about how to write a blessing poem. This could be posted online for individuals, teachers, group leaders, and others to use. Poems like these are useful for commemorating a dinner or special event such as a wedding, birth, graduation, a long journey, moving into a new house, entering military service or any field of work, relationship transitions, and death. They are valuable for those in crisis. It is a gift of love that family, friends and others will appreciate.

"Getting Out There" a day long workshop presented by me and a few other poets on publication and alternative modes of poetry presentation: UTube, blogs, MP3 files, chapbooks and collaborations.

"Poetry and Quest" -- Poetry is both craft and quest. Many workshops and classes focus on improving craft--word choice, lines, stanza, meter, rhythm and sound. These are important. This workshop focuses on another part of the poet's job: quest. Participants will write about their own individual motives and goals in their writing. We will examine aspects of "voice" and pattern. This is not meant to be a comprehensive examination of archetypes, but as a way for poets to consider their larger themes. I will present some thoughts about archetypal patterns in relationship to writing, revision, and manuscript development.

The Quest --King Arthur
The Fall and Ascent--The Bible
Trading with the Gods--Greek Mythology
Spells and Tasks--fairy tales
Guidance on the Journey--Tarot, Runes, I-Ching
Carl Jung--Dreams, Archetypes and Jungian Psychology
Nature--migration, flow, wilderness, the elements

Please share your thoughts with me. I’d love to hear your feedback. And if you are a member of the Duluth area and want to participate, please send me an email at sheila@sheilapacka.com

April 18, 2010


Creative work is a flow experience.   In flow, a writer has deep focus and attentiveness.   It feels outside of time.    Hours can go by without notice.   Of course, it is sometimes difficult to get across the threshold.   Distractions abound.    It's important to allow yourself enough unscheduled time to daydream, muse, and then fall in.

Lewis Hyde, author of THE GIFT, takes the idea of flow a bit farther.   He urges artists and writers to understand the psychic rules of flow. In order to continue to receive, one must continue to give. It is like a river. It is like pot-latch. The giving of gifts to others not only nurtures and supports them; the giving allows one to empty oneself in order to receive.     We should not be attached to things, and we should not be so attached to our work that we can not let it go into the world.  
I wrote this poem (from THE MOTHER TONGUE):  


to reach down this far
releases me
the place inside
has been broken open
by necessity
I don't know what I've lost
I don't know that I have lost
I'm broken open
the floor that made me contain
allowed me to fill, be filled
is gone
I am without bottom
without a way to hold
all the things coming into me
they fall from me
I am the opening
the sluice gate
am swept with the force
yet hold open
what I pray for is endless
is the constant source
the river never running dry

Some people have asked me if the poem is about death.  Perhaps it is.  My father died the year that I wrote it.   Like most people, I appreciate the effect of change.   You gain people, places, things but also along the way, you lose people, places, things.  At times, it is excruciating.   I named the poem, Joy;  my mother gave me the name Joy as my middle name.  Anguished awe.  Painful ecstasy.  

Creative work is good work.  We write things, we put them out there.  The work might change in this process; it might change us; it might change someone else. We don't know.  It perhaps is not of concern; what matters is that we give of ourselves.

The simultaneous experience of receiving while losing, the feeling of love and grief at the same, is echoed in cosmology.  The universe began with simultaneous creation and destruction.   We have both light and dark matter.   So it is not a question of either/or; we have both love and grief.   Perhaps the real question is how does one direct one's own abilities--which force will you feed?   What is your quest?    What forces rise up from your ancestral roots, what growth can you accomplish, what have you come to say?

I found this Pueblo Blessing: 

Hold on to what is good even if it is a handful of earth.
Hold on to what you believe even if it is a tree which stands by itself.
Hold on to what you must do even if it is a long way from here.
Hold on to life even when it is easier letting go.
Hold on to my hand even when I have gone away from you.
- Pueblo Blessing

April 13, 2010

Synesthesia & Art Fusion: Cloud Birds

Read a Book Review, "Not Forgotten: A Poem by Lois After Mark" Midlife at the Oasis. Web.  July 8, 2011.  http://midlifeattheoasis.com/soul/not-forgotten-a-poem-by-sheila-packa/

Godard the French film maker said of his work that it was "as if I wanted to write a sociological essay in the form of a novel, and all I had to do it with was notes of music."  Poetry and film are related genres: both employ image, word, music.   They operate the same way.  I like poetry that cross pollinates with painting, sculpture, photography, music, composition, film, theater, dance.  Even better to combine it with other ways of knowing: science, navigation, philosophy, history, religion, alchemy.    Poetry is a form of waking.   

I think of it as paradox, the combination of opposites.   Not dialectic, but ecstatic.   Not static, but in motion.   

Poetry is a live painting for the ear, or music made by taste and touch that reaches you deep inside.   It's time travel by smell.    It tells you about yourself by water or wind or stone or flames.  If it's a pattern, if it's a ritual, if it's a dance.   It will sing to you, unsettle you, bring you back to yourself, change your life.  And all you have to do it with is the alphabet and empty space.

Cloud Birds has three sections:  Bear, Wing, Cloud.

Bear, the first section, contains twenty-one love poems to bears. I'd had a bear phobia since childhood. My father, who obviously was worried about me wandering in the forest by myself, warned me to stay near the house "or the bears would eat me."  Parents don't usually use this method of childrearing, but he grew up on a farm. They had sheep, and often bears preyed on the lambs.  So perhaps his fear was grounded in that experience.  Nevertheless, the effect had been paralyzing. One of the poems in the section was dedicated to Ana Mendieta, the environmental artist who had mysteriously fallen from her balcony window in New York City. Her husband was charged with the crime, but he was acquitted. This was an ekphrastic poem, written because the cover image by Cecilia Ramón was in homage to Ana Mendieta.

When I moved to the house in the country in 2007, I had seven intersections with bears. In the city while I was driving in the city of Duluth, on Superior Street at the Tischer Creek Bridge near 34th Avenue East.  One peered in my studio window at home while I was working at my computer.  I saw two crossing the freeway, and a week later, meandering on the Homestead Road. At the cabin, Kathy and I went for a walk on the Olsen Road near Thunder Bay. In the mud, I saw the distinct prints of a bear claw. Fresh!  Then, the footprints wandered off the road and disappeared into the bush. Uneasily, I looked behind and the bear was following me.  On another day, we encountered one again. This time, it stood up on two legs and stared at us.  We waved our arms and shouted. The bear was curious. It got back on all fours and paced back and forth. We didn't dare walk forward, and it didn't want to leave. Minutes passed. Not a car drove down the road. My legs were shaking.  I noticed that no one was home at the neighbor's house, and maybe the bear was bound for this place, because a chicken coop was in the yard. I found some scrap metal in the yard, luckily. I banged the rings of an old kitchen stove, and finally the bear bolted across the field.

I decided to let my anxiety feed my writing and was inspired by Pablo Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and one poems of Despair.  Kathy had suggested my obsessions with bears, my hyper-vigilance, was perhaps related to my Finnish heritage. Were they not bear people in the Kalevala? Aren't they magical?  So that began this series, and it became a meditation about fear and an exploration of the wilderness and secret life, and then suddenly it was about women and intimacy. The bear poems were a ritual act, a Kalevalian effort to break the spell of my fears.

The next section of the book, Wing, was a series of poems that were about fear, women walking through violence, and my relationship with my father.  The poem about the man who lived in a tree was a story I'd heard in Finland from my second cousin Mikko Himanka. We were touring the family cemetery plot, and I'd seen the tombstone of the Man Who Lived in a Tree.  Mikko explained he had been in America to work in an iron mine, but he had contracted miner's lung, and he came back home to die. After his experience of years working in the underground mine, he preferred to sit in a tree instead of anywhere else, and this is how he had become a legend.

The third section of the book, Cloud, was about moving through love relationships, about break-ups and migrations. Two Worlds is the title of one of the poems. When a love affair is over, it feels like falling out of the world.  Of course, when one falls out of the world, one falls into another one.  It triggered meditations on Persephone.  This mythic story of a daughter who fell into the underworld fascinates me.  Isn't this migration?  Walking through hell, or walking through violence, wasn't just something I'd witnessed in other relationships.  I'd had to do that myself. It was a personal experience.

So much of what I've been through in life gets worked through artistically.  Before I can really articulate it, I must find images.  I'd been reading the collection of Finnish women poets, Enchanting Beasts.  The beast I was determined to enchant was not a bear actually, but fear.

Read a Book Review, "Not Forgotten: A Poem by Lois After Mark" Midlife at the Oasis. Web.  July 8, 2011.  http://midlifeattheoasis.com/soul/not-forgotten-a-poem-by-sheila-packa/