December 30, 2011

Revision and The Body

Good poems are written in the body.  Some might say that poems are written with the body.  The five senses are full engaged. The poem is connected to the body of the person and to the earth's body.  

"If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry," says Emily Dickinson.  She reminds me that part of the body is energy. The first half of this sentence, "if I feel physically..."  is countered by the next part, "as if the top of my head were taken off." I think of this as energy. These days we are aware of an energy body in alternative healing, Hindu or yoga philosophy, people talk about the chakras and the concept of kundalini, the upward journey through the body toward union with the divine. This experience is a spiritual one. I define the word spirituality in this way--a mutuality of spirits, a feeling of congruence with another. Poetry is the union or communion of the spirit. 

How does one create a poem that gives another person this experience? I do think there are ways to revise increase the poems physicality and spirituality. First question then is, is the poem written in the body? Does it employ all the senses? Is it fully physical?  

The next question is about spirit or energy. This part of revision, in my experience is about taking out the extra junk: extra words, explanation, interpretation.  It involves becoming more simple, more focused, more evocative.  In my college writing class with teacher Wayne Moen, I learned that the more evocative a poem, the stronger it was.  He insisted that we allow the reader to participate in making meaning.  Lawrence Sterne also said this; he was the author of Tristam Shandy. Do not insult the reader, Sterne warned, by telling him what to think or feel. The revision technique needed is one of ellision. Take out clutter, words, lines, sections of the poem in a fearless surgery.  

The next way to increase the energy of the poem is through the rhythm and sound of the words. One strives to create a certain music, even if it is not a formal poem, the poet pays attention to the vowels, consonants and where the stresses fall. Other things increase the energy as well -- resistances, frictions, contrasts, textures.  

Muriel Rukeyser wrote about energy:  "In poetry, the exchange is one of energy. Human energy is transferred, and from the poem it reaches the reader. Human energy, which is consciousness, the capacity to produce change in existing conditions." 

"The only danger is in not going far enough. The usable truth here deals with change. But we are speaking of the human spirit. If we go deep enough, we reach the common life, the shared experience of man, the world of possibility. 

"If we do not go deep, if we live and write half-way, there are the obscurity, vulgarity, the slang of fashion, and several kinds of death." --Muriel Rukeyser in The Life of Poetry

Muriel Rukeyser was a poet and social activist. The Life of Poetry was published in 1949.  She was actively against the war and censorship (remember McCarthyism). The first chapters of her book examine the resistances that our culture has had to poetry. People say they "don't have time for it."  I love the way she analyzes this as a fear.  "A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than that: a poem invites a total response."  Are we willing to open ourselves to an emotional experience? Are we willing to take a poem inside, to listen with our own senses to the world another has given us? Are we willing to have time for the spirit?

December 12, 2011

New Work & Poetry Hybrids

Right now, I am at work on a new piece of writing. It is a hybrid between poetry and prose, and I search inside for its form. The goal is to find that interesting friction or energy that will engage me and the reader, and that will help the work go forward. Often, writer's block will occur when I've taken a wrong turn. I work in fits and starts, forward and back, revising and developing.  

Anne Carson writes (from the section Short Talks in her book of essays and poems, Plainwater (Vintage Books, New York, 1995): 

Anne Carson is a poet, translator, scholar of ancient Greek literature, and essayist, and she is a good example of a writer who is combining forms.  She is entertaining and incisive. The Autobiography of Red carries the Greek myth of Herakles into contemporary culture. This story in poems details the Red Monster as a gay man who wears a heavy black coat to disguise his wings. We read about Herakles' mother and a lover in Argentina.  The book also contains an interesting essay about the adjective and meat.  The book Men in the Off Hours has poems that are essays. The Beauty of the Husband is billed as a fictional essay in 29 tangos. Decreation contains a set of poems, a play, and essays about ecstasy and eclipses.  Nox is an art box of fragments and photographs, memories of a brother, and a translation of an ancient Greek elegy.

The boundaries are not fixed. Patterns shift. Formal poems give way to informal. Meaning gives way to language. Poetry gives way to prose. Sources vary. Discourses mix. There is a potluck of essay, fiction, autobiography, poetry. Conventions travel. Cultures blend. Translations err and err again. Words are the stock in trade. Poets conduct raids of other landscapes and lexicons. We make forays into art and science and metadata to yield the right friction or energy or fusion.

Recently, WW Norton came out with an anthology, American Hybrid. The editors have included many good poets who are experimenting with language, but I thought the collection falls a little short. The editors acknowledged how challenging it was to put the collection together. Their initial choices they decided against, in favor of collecting the work of the earlier generation, the precursors. The publishing world has turned upside down Cole Swenson writes, and academics are no longer on top. Changes are happening fast. Technology, the internet, and rapid changes in our culture make it difficult for an editor of such an anthology to keep pace.  In order to learn the new works, it's best to scan the New York Times Book Review.  Besides the interesting fusions in genre, other influences exist. Graphic novels, music videos, video games, and hypertext provide interesting story telling techniques. 

I read Anne Carson because she opens doors. I also read Clarice Lispector, the Brazilian prose writer.  This is an excerpt from the novel, The Hour of the Star (New Directions, 1992) that so clearly conveys that each book tells the writer how it must be written. It was written in Portuguese and is translated by Giovanni Pointiero. The narrator is a writer, Rodrigo S.M., who tells the story of a poor girl from Northeast Brazil who comes to the city and works as a typist. She is a very bad typist, and she lives a very sad existence. The drama of the novel is the struggle the writer Rodrigo has with his story.  He says:
"I know perfectly well that every day is one more day stolen from death. In no sense an intellectual, I write with my body. And what I write is like a dank haze, the words are sounds transfused with shadows that intersect unevenly, stalactites, woven lace, transposed organ music. I can scarcely invoke words to describe this pattern, vibrant and rich, morbid and obscure, its counterpoint the deep bass of sorrow. Allegro con brio. I shall attempt to extract gold from charcoal."
"I write because I have nothing better to do in this world: I am superfluous and last in the world of men. I write because I am desperate and weary. I can no longer bear the routine of my existence and, were it not for the constant novelty of writing, I should die symbolically each day. Yet I am prepared to leave quietly by the back door. I have experienced almost everything, even passion and despair. Now I only wish to possess what might have been but never was." 
Lispector is not a writer who is much concerned with plot. She has the concerns of a poet yet writes in prose. She is a wonderful and deep writer who is able to bring the reader with her into a threshold space of each moment, a threshold of becoming. This book is a very good book to read when one is struggling with a piece of writing, becoming.  I return to her work again and again for her vision.

November 22, 2011

How Do You Know When You're Done?

Endings are difficult -- think of love affairs, departures, and deaths.  So where do you begin?  I ask this question not only to open a line of thinking about the ways to conclude a poem, but as a reminder that, at least in a work of art, an end is likely intimate with its beginning.  And this might be true of other things too.

A few years ago, yearning for a dog, my partner and I went to the animal shelter. There was a photograph on line.  Some rescue websites post beautiful photographs of silky furred puppies playing on orange pumpkins, but the photograph we viewed was of a skinny, medium-sized black dog, smiling, behind a chain link fence. She had her head tilted just so, a certain wistfulness that caused us to get in the car and have a look. She was about a year old, and she'd been found on the Townline Road, starving.  Her body revealed she had been recently lactating as well, but had no puppies. She did have a wonderful grin caused in part by a underbite, a permanent smile, a shining row of white teeth. We took her home despite the fact she could not for a minute focus on us, or be persuaded away from the rabbit cage, or coaxed into accompanying our lead on the leash. I thought of her a teen mother; bred too young, unable to be responsible. It's something we have made into a joke; we say we posted bail, got her out of jail, for turning tricks on the Townline Road. As soon as we got her home; she ran away.  It's probably the Border Collie in her; she is a mix of many things. A special blend. We named her Sky.

Sky ran away several times, and in fact is incapable of staying home or in the yard. Yesterday, as I was going out of the house with an armful of old newspapers and the end of her leash, I dropped everything. There wasn't even a heartbeat of hesitation; she flung herself down the road with wild abandon. I've tried to change that behavior, carried treats in my pocket, conducted training exercises, been consistent. But running is her nature; I can't change it. Someday, I'm sure, that will be her end.

And think of all those other beginnings and ends. My last love began with a lavendar note; it ended also with writing.  My job happened to me. I fell into it almost accidentally, on my way somewhere else. It was a case of being in the right time and right place, and I stayed for many years. The departure did not feature much deliberation; I was seized with a sudden urge to go, in order to pursue other opportunity.  Endings can happen in so many ways. My mother died after a long illness. A cousin I had died suddenly, in a car accident.

I've been considering endings quite a lot lately, after leaving my job, and bringing another large writing project to a close.  I've been doing a writing workshop every month for a year, and I wonder really, how do you know when you're done?  Once one is in a flow, there is a certain force that carries you along. Endings should be considered. How do you find the right way, the right time and place?  

Formal poetry have built-in conclusions. The sonnet has its question and response; the form itself lends the writer the place for a turn in the poem that becomes a conclusion. The conclusion might be an amplification or epiphany. The sestina form with its obsessive repeats of the end words, 6 line stanzas, 6 stanzas, ends in a 3 line final stanza that incorporates all the six end words used throughout the poem. The villanelle also leads the writer into the conclusion if one follows the form. Studying forms of poetry might help you understand how meter, rhyme, and line might come together. The formal poem is a like a ritual or ceremony.  One follows it; the experience has a certain shape and form.

Rituals and ceremonies are wise practice; the funeral will help us accept a death. A divorce proceeding will undo a wedding.  A break-up has its familiar characteristics.  Good-byes entail certain rituals, even in poems.  Change can happen suddenly; it can be too abrupt. A good ending is a good resolution; it satisfies.

Free verse or blank verse does not offer formulaic resolutions.  I've been considering the conclusion of free verse poems and decided to review some ways they end.  Some are actually good-bye poems, and some are not.  This one for example is published at

I May After Leaving You Walk Quickly or Even Run
  by Matthea Harvey

Rain fell in a post-romantic way.
Heads in the planets, toes tucked

under carpets, that’s how we got our bodies
through. The translator made the sign

for twenty horses backing away from
a lump of sugar. Yes, you.

When I said did you want me
I meant me in the general sense.

The drink we drank was cordial.
In a spoon, the ceiling fan whirled.

The Old World smoked in the fireplace.
Glum was the woman in the ostrich feather hat.
Harvey's poem is very focused; she begins with rain falling, and the word "post-romantic" immediately indicates the situation is a break up; and it could be the final drink she describes in that restaurant/bar.  There is a tearing sensation created by "heads in the carpets, toes tucked under carpets" and even more distance indicated by the detail about a translator and twenty horses backing away.

As the poem develops, the details exact to the room, very specific. "The drink we drank was cordial" has a very pleasing sound play.  The alliteration of d sounds, hard consonants, echo a relationship that is done. The meter is very pronounced: two iambs, one anapest. It rings of ending.  Image-wise, it is as if her consciousness was withdrawing from the expansive pre-romantic world and she was no longer having eye contact.  "In a spoon, the ceiling fan whirled."

Her last two lines are a great conclusion to the poem. The figurative image, "The Old World smoked in the fireplace," picks up a likely detail of the room she's in and uses it to mean the former world of the relationship has just turned to ashes and smoke.  And "Glum was the woman in the ostrich feather hat" would suggest the old children's song, "Out went the doctor, out went the nurse, out went the lady in the alligator purse."  But perhaps the detail might also reflect a painting found on the wall; the narrator now is no longer at the table, staring into the spoon, but even farther away. She has disappeared completely.

The conclusion is so completely congruent with the withdrawal of love; the narrator disappears before the end of the poem.  It's a clear good-bye poem.  The ending image is consistent with a conclusion that is a farewell. The image resonates like a bell that sounds after it's been struck.

Good poems begin in image and action, stay focused on that thing that came in when they begin, and find the sound to accompany you along the way.  This is a superb poem.

Strong endings are very important to a good poem, in my opinion.  There is another poem to consider. This one by Naomi Shihab Nye was published on Writer's Almanac at

The Art of Disappearing
   by Naomi Shihab Nye

When they say Don't I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

It's not that you don't love them anymore.
You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven't seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don't start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

This is a wonderful poem in a pattern of "When," "If/then," and imperatives. In the last stanza, a slight shift in sentence structure away from when and if to three commands creates a satisfying conclusion. However, there is a "then."  This unifies it to the earlier stanzas.  There is that resonant quality here too, in fact an actual bell resounds.  The reader is left with a strong image of leaf and tumbling and the proviso to decide what to do with one's time.

The poem seems to result in a moment of silence, as if the reader must pause and take it in,  as if one is filling in one's own details, weighing the desire to say no to all the expectations and demands.  The sound of the language here also has a ring, the long i sound, as in chime. It resounds.  The sound of the line is very important, and decisions about when one is finished with a poem can be made when one is satisfied with the sound when one reads it aloud.     

There are many other ways to end poems, of course. In the poem by Allen Ginsberg, "The Lion for Real," the poem offers long ranging lines and a sequence of images in a story about a lion; the narrator of the poem explains his encounters, where and what it was like and what it did. In the end stanza, there is a shift. The narrator turns from explaining to the reader or others and addresses the lion directly. It is suddenly a prayer or entreaty to a god; and it's very powerful:
Lion that eats my mind now for a decade knowing only your hunger
Not the bliss of your satisfaction O roar of the Universe how am I chosen
In this life I have heard your promise I am ready to die I have served
Your starved and ancient Presence O Lord I wait in my room at your Mercy.

The entire poem can be read online at the Poetry Foundation website:

The story turns, like a sonnet might turn.  It ends in a capitulation or adoration; he has offered his complete being to the fear. The last line has even a sexual inference, "I wait in my room" which acknowledges that fear is paradoxical, we are drawn to it; the power of the lion is seductive and potentially transformative.  He surrenders completely.

Ginsberg's poems have an incantatory power. Howl ends with a last section of anaphoristic lines.  "I am with you..." begins each line and the narrator focuses on the images of the psychiatric ward but also larger America.  This poem is also at the Poetry Foundation website at is the end:
I’m with you in Rockland
   where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself    imaginary walls collapse    O skinny legions run outside    O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here    O victory forget your underwear we’re free
I’m with you in Rockland
   in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night

The sequence of "O" phrases develop into an emotional crescendo.  It moves beyond the ward, across America, in the Western night.   It's no surprise that Ginsberg returns with another poem, "Footnote to Howl" that returns to Howl to add a final incantatory, celebratory footnote that is a blessing.  He is grounded in the body, and singing it as holy.  It's a stronger final conclusion.  You can read the entire poem here:

The story I offered about our dog Sky is a story still unfolding. She came back today and was rewarded with treats. I'm not sure if she hasn't trained me more than I've trained her. We have -- each for the other-- expectations.

Free verse poems develop their own patterns.  The pattern is an expectation, and it must be considered and lead into a satisfying ending. The structure of the poem will offer a clue to the appropriate choice. The epiphany is perhaps a classic ending to a poem; the concept of "turn," referring to a shift that's made inside a sonnet, offers a useful guide. The direction of the poem shifts; the language shifts, it is perhaps how best one can read a situation to know if it is the end.

The examples that I've offered here suggest that good endings have resonant images, pleasing sounds in the language, movement, crescendos or blessings.  Finding the right ending will release the poem in the best way; it is perhaps a spiritual exchange, a transfer of image and sound that rises, travels, arrives from the writer's inhaled breath to the reader's last exhalation.

November 3, 2011

Submitting Your Work to Competitions

Whether fiction or poetry, it must be work that is original yet not merely sensational for the sake of sensation. It must contain clear, well-developed themes and be written in a style that exhibits love of language and mastery of craft.

If fiction, whether literary/mainstream or genre fiction, the characters must be fully drawn, not stereotypes, and must be engaged in conflicts (either internal or external) that are compelling and show forward momentum.

In both poetry and fiction, if it's a universal story (love, death, loss, coming of age, moral responsiveness or failure to respond), it must be told in a fresh way.

And poetry, whether formal or free-verse, must exhibit rhythm and "music" in its use of language, syntax, line breaks, and structure. A group of words carelessly slung lengthwise down a page is not a free-verse poem; it's a group of words that needs to be made into a poem.

Furthermore, a group of words that ‘plays’ with language without attempting meaning or message is not a poem, it’s an exercise.

This is an excerpt from and I've copied it here because I think it's the most succinct statement of what competitions and editors like to see.  

In addition, the work should be free of errors (spelling, commonly confused words, or the like) and the writer needs to read the directions carefully in order to follow the submission guidelines. In some, the author's name can not appear on the manuscript. Many of the competitions have reading fees around $25 or more; the writer should know that the prestigious awards have a lot of submissions, upward of a 1000 or more. The work needs to be a very high caliber.    
I used to send a lot of manuscripts out and pay many fees--I didn't mind supporting the many small presses that used these funds to help maintain their operation. But it began to feel like a form of gambling; I realized I had better ways to use my funds. I've become more selective.

There are arts boards that take applications; these are very worthwhile and they do not ask for a reading fee.  In Minnesota, the state arts board offers many opportunities.  Visit their website at There are regional arts councils as well, and I recommend that you go to any workshops that are offered for assistance in the application process. In northeastern Minnesota, see

October 16, 2011

Life and Work

Whatever gets in the way of your work becomes your work. Or maybe my creative work is an answer to my mother; often she told me as a child that life was hard. My grandparents were Finnish immigrants in far northern Minnesota with no grasp of the English language when they came. They lived in poverty. My grandfather's alcoholism and domestic violence only made things worse for my grandmother and their ten children. It was strength and resilience of the women that carried them through.

Migration from the old country was only the beginning, and it taught me things about moving from one culture to another. After that were other kinds of migrations: from a difficult marriage to coming out as a lesbian, from working in a taconite mine to a career in social work, from a love of hearing stories to establishing myself as a writer. One of the central obsessions in my life is the question why women (and men, for that matter) often deny their own needs, enter into or stay in dangerous situations, risk their children's safety, and deny or defy reality because of their dreams. From individual stories to myth to deep patterns in nature, I am engaged in the question about what propels us.

Echo and Lightning uses the metaphor of bird migration and myth to examine ways that women change and even relinquish the self. It is a spiritual exploration of fear, ecstasy and love through poems about Mary, Mary Magdalene, Lot's Wife, Eurydyce, Leda and The Swan, and the Gnostic book Thunder, Perfect Mind. 

Cloud Birds is about immigrants, bears, wilderness, bird migration, and the journey of women through hardship and violence, including the story of Persephone going back home to mother.  This book explores a Minnesota family history and has a sequence of love poems to bears. 

The third book, Migrations: Poetry and Prose for Life's Transitions, traces movement and change in the community. This book is an anthology of writers from the Lake Superior and Northern Minnesota region that came out of an Arts and Cultural Heritage Community Arts Learning grant and my work as Duluth's Poet Laureate, teaching writing as a tool for life's transitions in the community and at Safe Haven Women's Shelter, the Family Justice Center and the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project. 

In addition to the books, this creative work has moved into collaborations with my partner, composer and cellist Kathy McTavish.  As the name Wildwood River implies, our arts collaborative is a confluence of the arts. We live and work closely together in a wilderness area and in a creative process that draws from our own life histories and experience. The project continues in the form of musical compositions, abstract film, poetry videos, gallery installations, and live performances. 

Catherine Holm (author of My Heart Is a Mountain, Holy Cow! Press, 2010) wrote:  I read Echo and Lightning on my porch, after a night of queasiness, an upcoming demand later in the day, and the noise of traffic competing with the birds. I was instantly transported; material world forgotten. Packa's poems are passionate and they make me want to BE the narrator. Who hasn't "given themselves up" or left a part of life behind? What if we were the wind? What if we ARE the wind, in some or all aspects? These poems bring artistry, subtlety, and power to the world -- the world will benefit. I found myself want to, wishing to, write with this depth. This is the power of Sheila Packa's poetry.  Read this and be transported. Namaste, Sheila."

The Midwest Book Review says: "The changing of seasons, the changing of life seems to move so much faster in the north. Cloud Birds is a collection of poetry from Sheila Packa, a Finnish American woman who calls Minnesota home, viewing the changing of nature and life as she sees it and always moving. Cloud Birds is an excellent compilation of poetry driven by both humanity and the beauty and uncertainty of nature. "Cloud Birds": 'we live on both sides of the border/ in two countries/ in and outside each other/ bone and blood/ in disguise without intention or force/ without blandishments/ blown by wind/ silent like shadow crossing and crossing/ over the boundaries without end/ borne by moon or sun/burnished by wing.' "

The books are available at your local bookstore or at
Phantom Gallery: "Migrations" a multi-media exhibit at 1215 Tower Avenue, Superior, WI:  Poetry/video exhibit:  On view from October 20, 2011 to November 30, 2011

October 15, 2011

Starting to Write

I begin with procrastination. Seriously, I think all writing begins this way.  Instead of being discouraged, I consider this a useful tension, a gestation period. It's a time of silence and darkness, very fertile.  On a subconscious level, what is going on is auditioning of images, sounds or phrases. The resistance of procrastination builds pressure, and pressure helps create the compression needed in a poem.

I walk. I avoid talking about what I'll be writing because it would dissipate the energy. I do laundry or yard work. The sound of running water is particularly conducive to writing.  I shower, wash dishes, throw a load of clothes in the washing machine. Get my hands busy but keep my mind free.  Writing is like becoming a river; I do things to start flowing. Read poetry. Do yoga.

I write in my journal everyday. At some point, I decide to give myself a half hour to do a rough draft of a poem. I try a writing exercise, finding one on-line or in a book.

Or, I invent ways to use the random. For example, yesterday I decided to make a word list. I chose four favorite authors and from pages of their books, using only page numbers divisible by 3, I count down 7 lines and choose a noun or verb from that line. I make a list of words. This looks like a word cloud in my journal. Then, I make a poem using most of those words. Next I make a second poem with the words used differently.

These exercises are all arbitrary, something for my conscious mind to become occupied with so my subconscious mind can emerge. I invent new rules all the time. When I find a poem of somebody else's that I love, I create a parallel poem with the same structure or with a something that is similar. I let my poem develop on its own so even I don't recognize the initial resemblance.

I give myself permission to be a beginner.  Each new work will have its own set of rules that you learn as you go. Assume nothing. Listen intently. Be willing to take risks. No matter how many works you have completed, you will be surprised at what doesn't work and what does.

In my journal I write down images that resonate. It's a painterly thing to do.  I focus on images and find them memorable.  Sometimes I sketch. I write down stories that I tell more than once. I record my dreams. I describe places. I search my memories. I write about what I'm reading. I write listening to instrumental music, and give words to the experience.

I avoid expectations and work at being attentive, in the moment. 

I create constellations of influences for each manuscript. I assemble certain books, quotes, photographs, paintings, visual images, phrases, music.  These are the stars in that particular universe. 

Once I have words on a page I begin playing making patterns.  I add, delete, rearrange, juxtapose, use opposites. I look for contrast and tension. I listen to the sounds of vowels and consonants. I make sets and sequences. A few sequences become a manuscript. I begin looking at the larger shape of it, and it becomes part of my dream life and I dream solutions. I read sacred books.  I read philosophy and study art and listen to music.  These all inform my work in some way. 

I have learned that letting go is necessary. I have left places and people when I could no longer feel comfortable, have given away many belongings, abandoned things, left my job. This has caused me grief. I escape gatherings, ceremonies, meetings, parties without notice. I flee. I avoid committees. It is necessary, solitude and loneliness and longing.

I believe in the hidden, emerging, invisible, and mystical. I believe in the musicality of language, believe that at some point a door will open and I will cross a threshold.

I believe in a muse and offer gratitude and praise for the poems I've received. I have an altar that is a small table that I keep empty, because the muse likes to have an emptiness to fill.