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 http://amzn.to/oVJRAD

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.

October 14, 2011

Migrations Events

Performances and Readings:

Teatro Zuccone, Duluth, Sunday, Oct 2, at 3:00 pm  (poetry, film, cello) 

Two Harbors Library, Thursday, Oct 20, 6:30 pm

Fond Du Lac Tribal and Community College, Thursday, Nov 3, 7 pm 
         (poetry, film, cello) in Room 195, otherwise known as the little auditorium/theatre
Linda Johnson, Jan Chronister, Laura Krueger-Kochmann, Moriah Erickson, Rocky Kuikanpi, Liz Minette, Lynn Fena, Janet Riegle, Julie Gard, Michelle Matthees, Maggie Kazel, Bev Berntson, Ryan Keller, Felicia Schneiderhan, Gary Boelhower, Rocky Kuikanpi

Lyric Theater in Virginia, Minnesota, Monday, Nov 7, 6:30 pm
Margaret Veeder, Jeanne C. Maki, Kathleen McQuillan, Jane Barrick, Kat Mandeville, Lynn Fena, Leah Rogne, Liz Minette

Superior Phantom Gallery, 1112 Tower Avenue, Superior, Wisconsin on Saturday, 
Nov 12, at 3 pm (poetry, film, cello).  
Featured writers are Jan Chronister, Peggy Trojan, Jasmine Baumgarten, Jill Hinners, Kat Mandeville, Linda LeGarde Grover, Tina Higgins, Lisa Poje Angelos, Karen Keenan, Laura Kruegman-Kochman, Yvonne Rutford, Gary Boelhower, Michelle Matthees, Julie Gard, Maggie Kazel, and Sheila Packa.

Macrostie Art Center, Grand Rapids, Thursday, Nov 17 at 7 pm (poetry, film, cello)

October 4, 2011

Video Poems

Video poems are a great way to present your work.  For the "best of the web" and a wide range of the work that's being done today, see the website http://movingpoems.com/

spoken word:
"Was It I?"  http://vimeo.com/30031642
(poem from Cloud Birds)

spoken word/ sequence of poems
"Immersion"  http://vimeo.com/19985791
(excerpt from Echo and Lightning)

Written word: 
"Black Iris" :  http://vimeo.com/29698643

The abstract visual images and sound are by Kathy McTavish.

Video poems are similar to music videos -- they are very engaging.  Some are animations, some are documentary, some are an intriguing amalgamation of visual images, photography, drawing, and what-have-you.   Poetry is able to come off the page and into a visually interesting and musical environment that can enhance the work.

The ones that work the least well, it seems, are the ones whose images provide a literal illustration of the words of the poem.  As a result, it causes the evocative quality of both the poem and the film to dissipate.  The film should work as a narrative or imagistic flow on its own; the poem can be spoken, written on the film frames, or occur like text on a foreign film. I think the best video poems form interesting interstices and gaps between poem and film that allow the reader to enter into the making of meaning.

October 1, 2011

The Migrations Project

About the Book:  http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/event/article/id/210797/
Migrations: Poetry and Prose for Life's Transitions just came out and I've been asked about where the project started and how it developed.  Maybe it started with a recent trip to Finland to visit some relatives; my grandparents immigrated to the United States. They had to start from scratch and do so in a new language. They came out of hope for a better life and more possibility, and the change caused great hardship. Maybe the project started with my own changes in relationships and home. Or maybe it was a background in social work and writing; they were two separate careers, but I began to see that engaging in the arts was an effective way to deal with problems. And my own capacity to pay attention as a social worker was improved by my writing.

For me, writing is not about self expression. That is like saying gardening is a physical activity. It's true, but it leaves out the fact that it's an act of faith, an investment and act of stewardship -- the attention to soil, irrigation, and plants results in growth.  It creates beauty and sustenance.

My mother's cousin in Finland, Mikko Himanko, was a war orphan. His father died before he was born, and he was raised by his mother and step-father. Now, a retired minister, Mikko spends his time interviewing and writing the stories of many war orphans. I think that's important work.    

Writing is a quest to find an image, a metaphor, a pattern that is beyond the self.  Like many arts, writing teaches us to pay attention. This is one of the great values of arts education, it increases skills of observation. It teaches us to listen. Writing gives one a greater capacity maybe not to solve the unanswerable questions but to hold them. It solves the question of where to put the hard stuff. To write about the obstacles or the barriers in life is to bring creative skills to the task at hand.

Migration, the annual cyclical pattern of birds in nature, happens to people. So does erosion, storm, and melting of glaciers  We are not separate from the landscape; the natural patterns express themselves in human lives. Earthquake, wildfire, drenching rain. Lake turnover. These are very interesting patterns that offer metaphors. 

Migrations is a theme of my work, certainly.  And because of a Community Arts Learning grant I was teaching writing to people in transition. I'm enthusiastic. Because of being in the role of Duluth Poet Laureate, I developed a community writing project of placemats printed with area writers poetry and given to diners at the Empty Bowl fundraiser for the Northern Lake Food Bank. Because it is my job to promote poetry and increase the audience, the project fell into place.

My project started small and got bigger as I read the beautiful work that people sent to me. Others refer to this as "scope creep."  It has certainly expanded my own skills at editing and helped me examine my theme through the words of many contributors. I've learned more project management skills.

I couldn't have done it without help from my partner Kathy McTavish and Wildwood River, our creative collaborative. Art making is at the center of our life, it's our business. She is a composer, cellist and media artist. I am a writer. We inspire and support each other.

It's satisfying to bring the work of a community of writers together into a book. It's like introducing your friends to each other. It shows the community the depth and breadth of the writing here. It offered the opportunity for me to bring together my two careers at the point where I leave social work to write full time. The book creates an opportunity for readers to reflect and to pay attention to the changes going on in their own life.