December 17, 2014

December 1, 2014

Issues of Class, Gender, and Politics

The photograph on the left is an image of the Richeleau Mine Pit near Virginia, Minnesota. Like many places, it reflects the unique beauty of the Iron Range. But this landscape has a subtext. This point on the landscape may change radically. To comply with a contract that gave the corporation mineral rights, the state will move Highway 53.  So this site might become the new access road into Virginia, Minnesota. Land isn't just land, it's "tonnage." Trees aren't just trees, they are "board feet."   These terms, economic measures, reflect the need for people to find economic support.  

To write about the Iron Range and the landscape of northeastern Minnesota is to write about issues of class, gender, corporate power, and economics. To write about people who live in this region is to confront limited choices caused by conflicting interests and the effects of privilege (or lack of it).  Competition for limited resources can bring out the ugly side of human nature. As a writer, I feel it is important to trace these tensions. They are the context and background of the poems and stories. They are the soil from which the narratives rise.

Here are some highlights from "Race, Class and the Creative Spark," an interview in the Nov 30, 2014 NYTimes
According to Justen Simien (Dear White People): The best stories hold a clean mirror up. They take the chaos in our experiences, strain them through the point of view of a storyteller, and give context and insight to our lives. Race and class issues especially need this mirror, as more and more of culture seems reticent to even admit these issues still exist, let alone address them. 
Ken Burns writes: For me, struggling to comprehend and interpret a complex and often contradictory American past (and therefore also an American present and future), race and class — and other social issues — are unavoidable. The central obligation of my work is to somehow honorably integrate these issues into a larger American narrative. To isolate them, out of context, is to perpetuate — in the case of race particularly — a kind of artistic and intellectual segregation.
The history of the Iron Range is diverse, and it is full of tensions. Corporations leave permanent marks, but so do many other things. In the early 1900s, over forty languages were spoken. Immigrants shaped the culture, the language and the heritage.  In my research, I've learned that the same era was influenced by the rising membership in the Ku Klux Klan. Along with its dreaded racism, the Klan was strongly anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic and anti-teaching of evolution in the schools. The Iron Range had cross-burnings.  Yet, the Iron Range culture also displayed progressive trends regarding education, women's rights, labor unions, and social welfare programs.  I agree with Ken Burns. Writers should work to integrate social issues into the larger American narrative.  Tensions are part of the landscape and the characters of the people. Voices need to be heard, and they need to be connected to the heart. This complexity contributes to the art.  

November 22, 2014

Three Dimensional Poetry

In the last year, I've been revising a collection of short stories and this last month, I wrote a play.  It's been like riding two horses, using the language as a poet and exploring narratives based on Minnesota's history.  Several poets have written plays: William Shakespeare, Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, WB Yeats, Lorcas, Langston Hughes, TS Eliot, Rita Dove, and many others.  So of course I have excellent role models in past and in contemporary literary circles.  

John Lahr of the New Yorker interviewed Sarah Ruhl, poet turned playwright. He writes:
Ruhl began her career as a poet—her first book, Death in Another Country, a collection of verse, was published when she was twenty—and she sees her plays as “three-dimensional poems.” Ruhl’s characters occupy, she has said, “the real world and also a suspended state.” ... She wants to project the delights of pretense, “the interplay between the actual and the magical.” 
Her literary volte-face was due in part to her confusion about the confessional “I” of her poetic voice, which she felt had been exhausted in mourning her father. In “Dream,” for instance, she wrote, “I wake this morning and gather a mouthful of dirt— / words—with a teaspoon, that you may speak to me again.” “I didn’t know what a poem should be anymore,” she said. “Plays provided a way to open up content and have many voices. I felt that onstage one could speak lyrically and with emotion, and that the actor was longing for that kind of speech, whereas in poetic discourse emotion was in some circles becoming embarrassing.”
Poetry is the genre known for its compression, imagery, and patterned language (which also can occur in plays and other genres), but poetry is not known for its characters, plot or dialogue. It's possible to never have to grapple with these elements at all.  When I began writing Night Train Red Dust, the narratives swept me along and I enjoyed the opportunity to explore other voices beside my own.  The book began to feel like a fully developed world to me; it connects to landscape and community.  This year, my writing explores more narratives of this place--northern Minnesota.  When Night Train Red Dust was published, I felt as if I'd only begun.  The poetic "I" in this book encompasses many, and I have found that writing a play provides a natural and logical step of exploring more voices.

Another poet who explores all the genres is Anne Carson. In Decreation, she brings together poetry, essays, a screenplay, an opera libretto, an oratorio ("Lots of Guns: An Oratorio for Five Voices") and a documentary written as a film's shot list. Of her original works, she told Sam Anderson of the New York Times:
We have a kind of inertia, sitting and listening. But it’s really important to get somehow into the mind and make it move somewhere it has never moved before. That happens partly because the material is mysterious or unknown but mostly because of the way you push the material around from word to word in a sentence. And it’s that that I’m more interested in doing, generally, than mystifying by having unexpected content or bizarre forms. It’s more like: Given whatever material we’re going to talk about, and we all know what it is, how can we move within it in a way we’ve never moved before, mentally? That seems like the most exciting thing to do with your head. I think it’s a weakness to fall back into merely mystifying the audience, which anybody can do.
Reading Anne Carson's work is exhilarating. I feel the release of any genre-related stops. Why not use whatever works? Why not find energy in juxtaposing stories and forms of any kind?  Why not think outside the box? We see this sort of playfulness in many writers, for example, Lydia Davis (fiction).  With a draft of my new stories and play in hand, I now plow into this landscape to listen and develop the rhythms, characters, and plot.

I like Carson's objective of making the mind move. But it's not exactly how I would describe my own aims. Exploring change and desire, my work arises from the landscape. Mesabi means the "giant in the earth."  The term has been interpreted to refer the economic power of the ore, but I think the capitalists have ignored the spiritual meaning. The earth--a spiritual power? Mainstream culture seems not to recognize such a thing, and yet people who go to the Boundary Waters or spend time along the shore of Lake Superior and its forests know what I mean.  As a writer, I want to acknowledge and honor this sense of landscape.

As far as the writing, there is definitely a feeling that I've released this stream, and it keeps pouring. Maybe the poems have just gotten much bigger--and they have grown into essays and stories and drama--more three dimensional.

November 21, 2014

Echo & Lightning is a collection of ecstatic poems that trace the intersections between women and God: ascension and descent.  This book is the libretto for the voice and cello composition, here.  

Audio poems and cello:

Single poems:
Loveroot, Silk Thread
The River Falls

Section 1:
Section 2:

October 30, 2014

Night Train Red Dust, in a cross-media installation, will be at the Northrup King Bldg in Minneapolis on Nov 7, 8, and 9, 2014.  Experience the traffic and hear the train pulling earth. Walk in the same footsteps as the women miners, journalists, organizers, doctors, ministers, farmers and artists that made Minnesota strong.

October 4, 2014

Wilderness: The Adjustment

Composition by Mike Olson, "Noopiming." The music of this piece is unusual. The composer used a choir of eight voices who sung the single word, Noopiming. This is an Ojibwe word for in the north, inland, in the forest. Olson then took the recorded sounds and electronically separated and blended the syllables and notes to create this  haunting and beautiful piece. For me, it conveys the feeling of the wilderness perhaps because of its small fragments arranged into a whole.  The sound creates an ecosystem, or echo system. Photographs are by Dale Robert Klous

The Body / The Body of Earth

Write with the body, commands each writing teacher. Use the five senses. This makes writing come alive. Along with writing from our own body, I recommend something more. Consider the other body that we are inside. Write with the details of a river, sea, city, mountain, desert or forest. Be awake to the layers beneath your feet and the ghosts. Other people and animals have tread in this place, old roots have reached in and never been pulled out and stones speak.

Wilderness as Metaphor / Wilderness as Wilderness

The wilderness is our most valuable asset because it contains what we don't know, don't understand, and can't grasp. It is mystery. This is expressed by Wendell Berry, in his "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front":
Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
When we awaken to the wider sphere, we are aware that wilderness is alive with its own hidden movement and life. Animals go with intention, and they act upon the environment. They travel or wander or track. Populations rise and fall in accordance with the law of balance. Its boundaries are natural. Watersheds and flows and forces and cycles come to bear upon our experience and become part of our story. Sigurd Olson said:
Wilderness to the people of America is a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium.
We need the wilderness more than the wilderness needs us; we are in fact part of its multiple systems. I do not want to sentimentalize. 

September 28, 2014

Writing and Healing: Arts Express

On October 11, I'll be in Grand Rapids to lead a writing workshop for people with cancer, family members, friends, and caregivers.  October 4, visual artist Elizabeth Kuth will conduct a drawing and art workshop.  A creative community is already forming. If you are interested, please sign up at Project Lulu. Grand Rapids Arts Express  We would love to have you join us!

The Writing Workshop

Creativity, at heart, is serious play. If you come to this writing workshop, expect that you will do guided writing exercises in an encouraging environment.  Participants might ask: "Must I write about the illness?"  The answer is you can write about whatever you want to!  The focus is positive. Whether beginning or experienced writers, participants will have the opportunity to explore their own images, memories, and landscape. Writing exercises are structured but provide artistic freedom and can help writers find their own material. In session, we experiment with forms, like this definition form, used in the poem "Anxieties" by Donna Masin:

It’s like ants
and more ants.

West, east
their little axes

hack and tease.
Your sins. Your back taxes.

Each person has a unique writing voice, and this workshop is aimed at helping identify and strengthen it. Nobody will be required to share his or her personal writing, but we will have time at the end to read work if he or she desires. We will also talk about ways to revise and answer questions that the participants might have about sharing their writing with family or friends, privacy, and other concerns.

As a writer, I rely on my own daily writing practice. I edited a collection of poetry and prose, Migrations: Poetry and Prose for Life's Transitions. This book brought together the writing of seventy-five Lake Superior region writers and it encompasses changes of many kinds: relationships, health, home, work, aging, relocation, dislocation, environmental changes, and migrations. In order to collect work for the anthology, I brought my writing skills together with my social work skills in this project. As Poet Laureate of Duluth, over a period of a year, I conducted 45 writing workshops and support groups. I visited the Women's Shelter, Family Justice Center, Domestic Abuse Intervention Program, high schools, YWCA's Girl Power, and community groups. I have a lot of experience with teaching, helping people find their strengths, and fostering a supportive community of writers. And personally, my mother suffered acute myeloid leukemia. Serious illness and other significant life events mark us.

Writing about place yields good material. The body is also a landscape. In writing practice, we turn on all of the five senses to both stir and soothe. Here's a poem of mine, "Shore," (from Echo and Lightning) that transcribes or inscribes a feeling into the landscape:

it wasn’t pain but waves
pounding on shore
rolling of small stones
up the slope and back again
breaking waves
with their spatter of white foam
all night long re-living 
that peak or pitch
recognizing, reorganizing
building up and dissipating
all night long
it was the world
creating, recreating, retreating
and waves capitulating

Lately, I've been very interested in exploring layers - history, spirituality, geography, landscape, music, and dreams. Each person has marvelous sources that can become wellsprings for creative work.

I ask participants to give permission to the self to be a beginner. More prompts: Write about a remedy or healing food that was used by somebody in your family. Write about an important object or tool that you received from another person. Sometimes, I ask participants to reach back another generation: Write about what political or social events or life situations affected a grandparent. How did these affect their relationships in the family?  These provide opportunities for exploration and reflection, and the first draft may want to turn into a poem or story.

Journaling Improves Health

Several research studies have demonstrated that writing practice improves health outcomes, helps regulate emotion, increases problem-solving skills, and reduces stress. Journaling is considered a complementary therapy in cancer treatment.  Here is an excerpt of a Rita Dove's "Beethoven's Return to Vienna."

I had been ordered to recover.
The hills were gold with late summer;

This type of poem is called a "persona poem."  The poet wears a mask, becomes another person, and examines another's story.  In these two lines from the poem, Dove uses interesting vowel and consonant sounds, to explore the experience of an accomplished composer and musician who becomes deaf.

Project Lulu is a nonprofit organization founded by the artist Lisa McKhann after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  She helps others go through being "a patient" to becoming actively creative. Some of the former participants went on to develop scripts for staged readings and performances. Art is transformation!

So bring a notebook and pen. Prepare to have fun and relaxation. Lisa McKhann of Project Lulu writes, "art can both elevate and communicate life's simple hardships in a way that deepens our common humanity. Our motto is Reflect - Create - Expand."

Go to Project Lulu to learn more, and to find out more about Elizabeth Kuth and her art workshop. Come and be a part of the healing community.


September 20, 2014

Old Iron Range in Minnesota

Last Tuesday I went to Hibbing with the WDSE Channel 8 Playlist people and we did an interview and video about Night Train Red Dust. We went to the Mitchell Yard which is a 1906 Roundhouse (behind the Sunny Hill distributors near Hibbing). After me, they interviewed a music group from Hibbing. The building is crumbling, and I felt the ghosts of the Iron Range past. I wonder if our nation can continue to sustain economic development that causes environmental degradation. Can we have economic development AND environmental protection?
 Inline image 1 
The Mitchell yard ran 24/7 during WWI and WWII. Now it's owned by an artist, Dave, who has a vision of rehabbing the building to be a pre-vocational school (great place for a machine shop) and artist workshop (he is a sculptor). He has a vision of developing more unity, similar to the efforts of everybody on the Iron Range to help win WWI and WWII. Can we focus our energies on reducing poverty, homelessness, and violence? on creativity instead of destruction?
For Mitchell Yard, fundraising will be necessary! This is a worthy project, and he needs 1-2 million!
I'm standing in front of the old coal fired boiler. Karen Sunderman of WDSE took this photo. They plan to make a program about all of us. Here's a link to the Mitchell Yard website:

September 7, 2014

Drawing Longer Lines: Poets on Fiction

In poetry, the past juxtaposes with the present. They can easily occur simultaneously. The narrator is not a character; character is not important. Often a poet works on the level of language, the sound, rhythm and things in between. Words have denotations, connotations, and associations. A poet who writes fiction faces conventions about character, plot, setting, and dialogue. 

Traditional points of view are first person (I), second person (you), and third person (he or she). In my work, sometimes I need zero person – to omit the “I” or blur it. Rilke did this in his novel, the Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and effectively illuminated need to depart from the self, or to place the self somewhere else—outside the work, and then completely inside of it. Other artists and writers have said the same thing. In order to fully create an artistic work, Dorothea Lange, the photographer, said one must annihilate the self.

Plot generally traces a chain of cause and effect, but sometimes this is too linear. Traditionally, it has been defined by conflict: man against man, against nature, against himself. One aspect deeply related to plot is verb tense. Without present and past tense, causality comes under question. This definition of plot has been problematic--my stories are not like that--and continually I reach for something else.

Other poets have faced this dilemma and have found solutions. W.H. Auden (a poet and librettist) wrote: "Drama is based on the mistake. All good drama has two movements, first the making of a mistake, then the discovery that it was a mistake."  Anne Carson defined metaphor simply as the mind making a mistake. In her definition, the mistake can be a marvelous one. Is the answer then to go deeply into mistakes?

After annihilating the self, can one construct another? Can one step from metaphor to metafiction? Can the forces of language carry into prose? In this essay, Fanny Howe finds a creative solution using form:
Increasingly my stories joined my poems in their methods of sequencing and counting. I would have to say that something like the wave and the particle theories troubled the poetics of my pages: how can two people be in two places simultaneously and is there any relationship between imagination and character?  
There is a Muslim prayer that says, "Lord, increase my bewilderment," and this prayer is also mine and the strange Whoever who goes under the name of "I" in my poems--and under multiple names in my fiction--where error, errancy and bewilderment are the main forces that signal a story. …  
The circumnambulation takes form as alliteration, repetition, rhyme.  
 Q--the Quidam, the unknown one--or I, is turning in a circle and keeps passing herself on her way around, her former self, her later self, and the trace of this passage is marked by a rhyme, a coded message for "I have been here before, I will return". The same sound splays the sound-waves into a polyvalence, a daisy. A bloom is not a parade.    (To read more, go to  Bewilderment by Fanny Howe)
Sina Queyras uses line and stanza breaks in what is actually an essay, "Tightrope: Weighing Pound and Drawing the Line."  The title conveys her skill with language. She references the imagist Ezra Pound.
Writing that is discovering is reaching is tightrope walking.

Nature is not natural and if it is it is not nature.

Take the library to the street; bring the street to the archive.

Not the prayer, the moment before prayer.
She creates multiple meanings with the phrase "drawing the line." It conveys the need to set limits, and to make a mark. This level ambiguity takes effort. Once developed, ambiguity makes poets in prose more difficult. Queyras' economical and evocative statements are written so that poets can understand. In my experience, what one begins to write triggers another topic. The real topic emerges as you go. One must walk across ground shifting beneath the feet while a mountain is building. It takes strength, balance and momentum. Prayer is the conventional response to fear or danger. She brings attention to the moment before, where the actual story or drama resides, the fear or danger that one must write.

Poets who write fiction create interesting works. Queyras says, "Write who and how you know who you are and will" and "Create your own aesthetic."

September 2, 2014

August 26, 2014

Rilke: Poet as Novelist

Rilke's Point of View: I, You, and He

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge was Rainer Maria Rilke's only novel. It was written while Rilke lived in Paris, and was published in 1910. Especially, I am captivated by his doubleness. He is both inside and outside himself, male and female, past and present, and seeing the world through his memory, and seeing memory as the world. Rilke accomplishes an interesting exploration of the writer's voice that is both the same and different than the person writing. His fluid use of pronouns--he is the I, and he is the you, and he is also the he; this expresses his vision of the artist. His work is novel in its structure, language and point of view, and it provides a fascinating exploration of the writer's process.

This begins with the moment he began to see. "I think that I should begin to do some work, now that I am learning to see." ...  The narrator Brigge struggles with his writing. A poem is not a feeling, he says, it is an experience. The poems should be written after one has lived a full life, experienced love and lost it, travelled, etc. This not the case for him, he says. His work does not measure up to the standards that he created. Not only that, he struggles with his vision. He sees cause for alarm on the street, in his apartment building, in his family, and in himself.

August 12, 2014

Migrations: The Score by Olli Kortekangas

 A Poet and A Composer

Recently, I received a copy of the musical score "Migrations," by Olli Kortekangas of Helsinki, Finland, a Cantata for Mezzo-Soprano, Male Voice Choir and Orchestra. Intended as a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of modern immigration of Finnish people to Minnesota, the work was commissioned by Osmo Vänskä of the Minnesota Orchestra and will be performed in February 2016. 

The poems that Olli selected as the basis of his musical composition are from two books of my poems. The titles were changed on a few of the poems to enable the audience to understand the arc of this musical story: Two Worlds, Resurrection, The Man Who Lived in a Tree, and Music We Breathe.

"Two Worlds" (CB) explores the two worlds that each of us walks inside: our past and present, this world and the other.  The mirror image created in the poem also occurs in the music. The next poem, "Resurrection," is the poem "Migrations" in Cloud Birds.  In the book, the poem has an inscription, a quote by HD, "In resurrection is confusion...."  from her long poem, "The Flowering of the Rod."  The third poem is from Cloud Birds as well. "The Man Who Lived in a Tree" is a narrative poem about a Finnish immigrant to America who worked in an underground iron mine but contracted a lung disease and returned home to Kalajoki, Finland to die. While ill, he hoisted himself into the limbs of a tree and did not want to descend. The fourth poem, "The Music We Breathe," is titled "What Is Found" from the third section of Echo and Lightning.  Using the image of bird flight, this poem reaches beyond loss into new beginnings.

Migrations has long been on my mind. All of my grandparents are Finnish, and I believe that immigration affects families deeply, particularly in relation to borders, language and landscape. Immigrants make massive transitions as they enter a new culture and language, and many feel that speaking a new language brings out different parts of the self. Some feel they become a different self in the new language. This is perhaps why my grandmother was reluctant to speak English; she wanted to preserve an important part of her self. She lived in Minnesota, but she rarely left Finnish language and culture. This was a border that she kept. I myself am most comfortable on borders, and less so in the midst of things. As a poet/artist, I also perceive the permeability of borders.  I can cross back and forth into Finnish and American culture.  My work is always narrative, but it does cross the border of genres and perhaps exists in a state of "between."

It is a great honor to have my work used in his music. As a composer, Olli Kortekangas has received commissions from ten countries. His music has been featured in concerts and at festivals around the world, and his works are included in the repertoires of many leading orchestras, choirs, and soloists. He has received numerous scholarships and awards in Finland and abroad. His oeuvre consists of more than 100 works, from solo pieces and chamber music to orchestral works and operas.  Recently, he used work by poet Wendell Berry in his music, "Seven Songs for Planet Earth," that was performed at the Kennedy Center in 2011.  New projects are underway for him. At our panel discussion in Minneapolis at Finnfest, Mr Kortekangas reflected that his great grandfather immigrated to the United States, but that he was lost on the way. Nobody in the family knows what happened, whether he died on the ship enroute or after he arrived. His grave is unknown. 

Migrations is an apt metaphor for change. We all encounter new cultures and new experiences with or without preparation.  Immigration is actually a gift, even though it is often perilous. It helps us understand the process and inevitability of change and it enriches American culture.

For more information about Mr Kortekangas: see

August 3, 2014

The Stairway of Surprise

Deep in our culture run archetypal stories. The Kalevala, Nordic Tales, creation stories, and fairy tales are stories of quest and strife, and heroism and love. These archetypal stories are told over and over in many forms. Star-crossed and tragic lovers, once and future kings, and quests emerge again and again in our contemporary literature. Jungian psychology has examined these with great interest because they reveal deep patterns. As a writer, and reader, I am drawn to their power. Ralph Waldo Emerson was inspired by Norse sagas and the Tales of King Arthur. Here is a poem that he wrote about Merlin:

July 25, 2014

New Projects

I strive to re-create the flows of the northeastern Minnesota landscape, and I borrow metaphors that express the pattern of change in individual stories and narrative poems: the erosions, floods, migrations, lightning strikes, industrialization, excavation, mining, roads, and harbors. Night Train Red Dust will become part of a new media project, and I can't wait to get started!

Vestiges / My Geology : short work sample from Sheila Packa on Vimeo.

In this short sample are several layers. Web film: html5, css3, javascript (nodeJS server) This is a screen recording of a database driven web film. For detail about the origin of these poems:

July 22, 2014

Marosa di Giorgio

In the Introduction to History of Violets, translator Jeannine Marie Pitas writes about the Uruguyuan poet Maroso di Giorgio (1932-2004): "Navigating the precarious terrain between recollection and creation, beauty and danger, religious transcendence and violent eroticism, her poetry brings a new world into being."  This sentence aptly describes the hyper-sensuality of this gifted poet. Although some reviewers have complained, in reviews of the recent publication by Ugly Duckling Presse, and perhaps found her too odd or hermetic or dwelling too much in childhood and fantasy, I find her work riveting.  

Leonardo Garet writes that she has created her own epic mythology: the first three books an account of creation, and the next three "the dance between Eros and Thanatos,"  and the last books tell the story of "the world on the other side of the looking glass."  This is a form of magical realism, and it brings the reader into a world that is innocent and erotic, dreamed and dangerous.

The daisies...were like deformed, circular birds with a single golden or silver head, surrounded by so many wings...burned the whole garden...the pungent fragrance of grapes, figs, honey, daisies set the whole house aflame. Because of them we were emboldened, like the insane, like drunks. And so we went on through the whole night, the dawn, the next morning and through the day, committing over and over again the loveliest of sins. 
This prose poem is from The History of Violets, and it illustrates the tenor and quality that the poet achieved.  It vibrates with a wild energy that reminds me of the liminal state Clarice Lispector induces.

July 18, 2014

What Kind of Poet Are You?

Most poets dread this question and the question: what type of poetry do you write? The landscape, the elements (water, wind, fire, and earth), and the body capture my imagination.  I've written erotic poems, love poems, spiritual poems, and dreams.  In the past, I've done series about women and cars, fiber and cloth, birds and animals. I often collaborate with other artists and musicians--create confluences.  Like many other poets, I hesitate to label myself because labels are for jars.

Surrealism is the word for creative work that is dreamlike. My flash fiction, "The Accomplice," was published in Cortland Review.  Through dreams, it explores domestic abuse, tyranny, and escape. Read it here:

July 11, 2014

Poems and Objects

Dinggedicht, defined by the Oxford Dictionary, is the German world for "a poem focused upon an object, though the object frequently fulfills a symbolic function."  Object poems, poems about things, originally seemed to focus on art objects, making ekphrastic poems. Now they focus on any simple object.  It can be a household object, a tool, a treasured object or a discarded or found one. The poet can convey a great deal with the very narrow focus of this form.

July 3, 2014

Carolyn Forché
Poets pay attention to forms. A lament is a very old poetic form that expresses the grief of an individual or a community. Finnish shamans perform laments as did ancient Mesopotamian cultures. The Hebrew Bible contains examples the form. Nancy C. Lee writes: "Lament in the Hebrew Bible is an expression of sorrow, a description of distress, or a protest about injustice." It can be a dirge, a poem of sorrow, a prayer.

Laments are ritualized crying, and they occur in fixed and non-fixed forms, in ancient and contemporary poetry. Blue Hour by Carolyn Forché provides an eloquent example.

June 26, 2014

Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing

Hélène Cixous, a French writer, wrote Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. The book was published in 1993, and she has written many others, but I continue to reread this one because her secrets of writing are fascinating.

She says writing is a "strange science of farewells. Of reunitings."  The reader is plunged into the book with a marvelous speed.  "Writing in its noblest function, is the attempt to unerase, to unearth, to find the primitive picture again, ours, the one that frightens us. Strangely, it concerns a scene...we are the audience of this scene...witnesses to an extraordinary scene whose secret is on the other side." This sentence is key to the beginning of the writer's voice because each person has a unique extraordinary scene that they have witnessed. It awakens consciousness.

June 25, 2014

Book Review by Julie Gard: Night Train Red Dust

Book Review 

Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range 
Reviewed by Julie Gard 
New World Finn, Summer 2014

In Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range, Sheila Packa fearlessly explores the Finnish and Northern Minnesota roots of her life and language. Family history, landscape, industry, and the animal world are all essential elements of the poet’s psyche and vocabulary.

In “My Geology,” language is excavated, hard-earned and fiercely chosen: “I claim my words from the broken / English, damaged roots, / Finnish syntax and geomagnetic fields.” Access to language and a place in history is claimed not just for the poet, but for her entire community. Packa’s voice is bold and Whitmanesque in poems like “Zenith City,” which is a playful, polyphonic tribute to Duluth, and “Strange Highway,” which encompasses multiple generations and experiences:

June 20, 2014

What I've Learned About Poetry: A Manifesto of Sorts

It begins with an ache. 
Nothing is too small not to notice.
Let it tell you what it is. 
Fall into a crack.
Create a motion.
Stay in the body. Write inside.
Stay in the body of earth. 
Consider the object to be a symbol and then a tool. 
The beginning must lead the middle to the end. 
Leave room for shadows or ghosts.
Remember the workings of tiny gears inside the clock.
Repeat in a way.   
Be thorough in whatever you are doing.
Stay true. 
What you are given more than suffices.
If you are going in the right direction, the universe will synchronize and give you a gift.
Time falls away from the beginning.
If a sacrifice is needed, it’s the ego. 
Simplicity is your direction.    
The ending happened before you stopped. 

June 18, 2014

Calvino and Artists Inside the Invisible Cities

Italo Calvino inspired the creators of Sophronia Two, featured at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis during the Northern Spark Film Festival on June 16, 2014.

The film in the tent was created by digital artist Joellyn Rock.  Shadow movements were created by her, improv actors, and audience. The graffiti angel (video, text and music - a live film created by software) projected large across the walls of the gallery space was created by Kathy McTavish. Shadow dancing was added by the audience.  Improv writing in the projection was done by Rob Wittig.  Other netprov writers contributed. During the show, Sheila Packa, Kathleen Roberts, Katelynn Monson, and audience participants added text to the live projection via handheld devices (through a textbox located at the Sophronia website Kathleen Roberts adopted the persona of the city of Ersilia and Katelynn became Zaire.  For a glimpse of the pre-show improvisational writing, see
Live musicians, with an accordion and harmonica, also brought their talents to the festive all night event.

 Calvino: "The city of Sophronia is made up of two half-cities. In one there is a great roller coaster with its steep humps, the carousel with its chain spokes, the Ferris wheel of spinning cages, the death-ride with the crouching motorcyclists, the big top with the clump of trapezes hanging in the middle. The other half-city is of stone and marble and cement, with the bank, the factories, the palaces, the slaughterhouse, the school, andall the rest. One of the half-cities is permanent, the other is temporary, and when the period of its sojourn is over, they uproot it, dismantle it, and take it off, transplanting it to the vacant lots of another half-city. And so every year the day comes when the workmen remove the marble pediments, lower the stone walls, the cement pylons, take down the Ministry, the monument, the docks, the petroleum refinery, the hospital, load them on trailers, to follow from stand to stand their annual itinerary. Here remains the half-Sophronia of the shooting-galleries and the carousels, the shout suspended from the cart of the headlong roller coaster, and it begins to count the months, the days it must wait before the caravan returns and a complete life can begin once again."

June 9, 2014

It Don't Mean a Thing (If it Ain't Got That Swing)

The Invisible Connection between Italo Calvino and Ella Fitzgerald: It Don't Mean a Thing (If it Ain't Got That Swing)

I am thinking about swing--the rhythm found in creating music or dancing or writing a poem. After reading Calvino's essay "Cybernetics and Ghosts," about narrative, I begin thinking about jazz forms and Ella Fitzgerald singing It Don't Mean a Thing (If it Ain't Got That Swing). These artists have a strong and compelling voice. They have a connection.

 Invisible Cities is made of several stories, each with the same form, told by Marco Polo to the emperor Kublai Khan and these descriptions are arranged in eleven sections: Cities and Memory, Cities and Desire, Cities and Signs, Thin Cities, Trading Cities, Cities and Eyes, Cities and Names, Cities and the Dead, Cities and the Sky, Continuous Cities, and Hidden Cities. It is a beautiful form that reminds me of Islamic art.  The content of Calvino's work was matched by the form that he used. He employed patterns. This gives his writing a strong poetic form.  Swing can be noted not so much in the syllables and metrics as in poems--but in the narrative patterns. Swing--or patterning--also occurs in the arc and reach of an individual's body of work, and even of literature in general.

June 8, 2014

Poetry and the Imagination

Poetry and imagination are joined at the imaging.  --Sheila Packa

I imagine that yes is the only living thing.  --e. e. cummings

My imagination is a monastery and I am its monk.  --John Keats

What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth."  --John Keats

Works of imagination should be written in very plain language; the more purely imaginative they are, the more necessary it is to be plain. --Samuel Taylor Coleridge

People can die of mere imagination.  --Geoffrey Chaucer

The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.  --Percy Bysshe Shelley

We say God and the imagination are one… How high that highest candle lights the dark.
 --Wallace Stevens

All the best have something in common, a regard for reality, an agreement to its primacy over the imagination.  --Wislawa Szymborska

Poetry must have something in it that is barbaric, vast and wild.
  --Denis Diderot

For women . . . poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of light within which we can predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.
  Audre Lorde

Do you know how poetry started? I always think that it started when a cave boy came running back to the cave, through the tall grass, shouting as he ran, “Wolf, wolf,” and there was no wolf. His baboon-like parents, great sticklers for the truth, gave him a hiding, no doubt, but poetry had been born—the tall story had been born in the tall grass.
  Vladimir Nabokov

Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.
  Carl Sandburg
And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt. --Sylvia Plath.

June 1, 2014

Night Train Red Dust Book News

Laurie Hertzel, Senior Books Editor, Star Tribune

Here are links to book reviews and interviews:
Minneapolis Star Tribune 
September 20, 2014 Review by Elizabeth Hoover:

The epigraph to Sheila Packa’s fourth collection is from Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead,” a masterful long poem about West Virginia miners. Like Rukeyser, Packa acts as a powerful witness to the lives of people connected to the mines in a project that is poetry and documentary.

Packa writes about the Iron Range of Minnesota and its labor history: work, strikes and injuries: “Thick ores and clay and blood / mix in crush wounds and miner’s lung.” She includes poems about women miners “with the air of Amelia Earharts” who “face the lay off” when men return from war. Her syntax mimics the relentlessness of labor; readers work through long sentences squeezed into short-line poems.

From strawberries to saunas, Packa sensitively portrays the culture of this area’s immigrant communities. She writes of music that “echo[es] time and resistance,” and how “one language blooms from another.”

The landscape acts as a major character. It has its own history, but it also absorbs the stories of the people who live there: “Old rocks speak in grandfathers’ tongues / of workers strife, gun and knife.”

While below, the mines claim the lives of workers, above the landscape bursts with life: “The surface of the lake glints like silver-plate” and spring makes frogs in frozen mud “jump-start their hearts.”

Elizabeth Hoover is the assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.

Hibbing Daily Tribune, 
"Taken together, Packa’s poems act like a pack of strikers jumping the berm of an iron mine, hoping that in number one of them would avoid the bulls to reach the works. The elements of poems overlap, but the mission, the theme, each follows its own path. What it means to be an immigrant, what it is to be cheated, what it is to work your life out through your arms."

"More than that, though, also the landscape. The colors. The odd mix of isolation and community comprising life on the Iron Range. I’m no regular reader of poetry, certainly not in the form of anthologies like this. But “Night Train, Red Dust” resonated with me; like songs mixed onto a great album, back when albums meant something. I read this with the windows open and frogs practically screaming out in the swamp. There was a light breeze. Goosebumps speckled my arms for most of the evening." --Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. 

For the full review see:

Next: Grand Rapids Herald

"It shouldn’t be understated that besides the interesting content, looking at the local history in a new light, Packa’s collection of poems is wonderfully well written. Thoughtful in each word and punctuation mark, the poems with few exceptions offer readers a joyful experience in the aesthetic of language while at the same time giving those of us who won’t be satisfied until we’ve deconstructed the last phoneme a new reading project as well." --Nathan Bergstedt. The reviewer is the Arts and Entertainment Editor for the Grand Rapids (MN) Herald Review. He is also a gifted poet, playwright, story-teller and actor.
For the full review, see:

And also thank you from Editor Jean Cole for this feature article in the Hometown Focus in Virginia, Minnesota!

Thanks to Tony Potter of the Hibbing Tribune for this interview:
 "Through the use of research and words, an Eveleth-born poet paints images of life and death, success and struggle, hope and despair from the early days of the Iron Range."

Mesabi Daily News: 
"If you have experience with immigrants, you know the extreme change they make in language, culture and landscape,” she said. “It’s difficult and often perilous.”
Packa said she is continuously inspired by the rich history and culture of the Iron Range.

Mesabi Daily News:

And this from the Midwest Book Review Small Press Book Watch

Night Train Red Dust
Sheila Packa
Wildwood River Press
2 Chester Parkway, Duluth, MN 55805
9780984377770, $15.00, 98pp,
or Barnes & Noble:
or through your independent bookstore!

The Iron Range is an informal and unofficially designated region that makes up the northeastern section of Minnesota in the United States. It is a region with multiple distinct bands of iron ore. The far eastern area, containing the Duluth Complex along the shore of Lake Superior, and the far northern area, along the Canadian border, of the region are not associated with iron ore mining. Due to its shape, the area is collectively referred to as the Arrowhead region of the state. Sheila Packa has a blog ( featuring essays about people and places to be found in the Iron Range and which serve to inspire her poetry anthologized in "Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range". The themes of her extraordinary and highly recommended free verse poems range from accordion music and strong women, to coal mining, unionizing, and radical politics. 'Grouse': Along a deserted road, at the edge / of October / a grouse between shadow and light arrives / with tentative steps -- / as if to say to fox or wolf or husband with a gun: / I've come this far -- has it all been a waste? / In his sights the bird / bolts into flight.

In a review published in the Summer 2014 issue of New World Finn, Julie Gard says: "Altogether, these poems vividly capture personal and collective experience and serve as a powerful example of how a writer can help to shape the identity of a place. The collection ends with haunting traces, silence, and smoke. Language emerges from and disappears into wind, “[e]ven after all the ink” (“Dictate of Wind’), yet Packa’s words leave a lasting impression. As in “Consanguinity,” “Her incantations come.' " For the full review, subscribe to NWF or read the review at:

New Interview published on June 30, 2014 by Minnesota Post Amy Goetzman: "Range Poet Sheila Packa Mines Region for Forgotten Stories"

And thank you to Garrison Keillor and Writer's Almanac for featuring the poem "Rhubarb" on June 30, 2014 and "North Star" on September 3, 2014

May 24, 2014

The Never-ending Selfie: Who Is the I?

In fiction, readers are much more familiar with the concept of narrator, and they are comfortable with the idea of an unreliable narrator. No one assumes that a novel about a murderer reflects a writer who has committed this crime. Yet, in poetry, readers sometimes expect the narrator and the poet to be one—that this, somehow, is truth-telling. Readers need to consider the “I” in a poem more carefully.

Selfies posted on Facebook and on social media sites reveal both the given and the made: the face one is born with and the identity that we construct, and perhaps even more than that. Often others can see more than what is presented, a shadow self. Gertrude Stein believed there are two selves: “I am I who my little dog knows me,” and another interior self that cannot be observed and is not known. Her book Geographical History ends: “Identify is not there at all but it is oh yes it is.” Identity is fluid, changing, but always present.

Students of poetry are trained not to assume that the narrator of a poem is the writer. Some poems adopt a persona, and it is the persona who narrates the poem. The poet Ai Ogawa, for example, wrote persona poems. She explained that she did this because “first person voice was always the stronger voice to use when writing.” Duane Ackerson characterized her persona in Contemporary Women Poets as “people seeking transformation, a rough sort of salvation, through violent acts.”
Personae and truth-telling are not mutually exclusive. 

Visual artists have often explored self portraits. The Frida Kahlo with a monkey or parrot on her shoulder says something different than the Frida Kahlo with an excavation revealing the organ of her heart. So perhaps the question is: what images and colors does the self adopt and what do those express?

May 15, 2014

The Multiverse: Stanzas in Transmedia

Instead of universe, I think of transmedia as a multiverse. I've borrowed the word from particle physics. "In the multiverse scenario, the big bang produced not just the universe that we see but also a very large number of variations of our universe that we do not see," say science writers Joseph Lykken and Maria Spiropulu in their article on supersymmetry, and the failure of the Large Hadron Collider to provide evidence.  Transmedia is for poets. The spiral image shown here, from Scientific American, suggests the hidden beauty of invisible forms. If you keep looking, you will find more. 

The word 'multiverse' is not unfamiliar to poets, who spend their time writing verses.  Stanzas are made for associational leaps and shifts in time. Using stanzas as a metaphor, artists and writers can apply the concept of shifts in time and space to the various media used in transmedia. Speaking metaphorically, each type of media in a transmedia project is like one stanza of an emerging poem.  One inherently understands that one stanza can not possibly carry the whole content, except haiku. I find term multiverse more interesting than multi-modal or multimedia (the words evoke slide projectors and powerpoints for me) because it expresses the single overall effect, and even the simultaneity, that can be achieved in a well crafted transmedia art.

May 11, 2014

The Vermilion Trail

Initially, the Vermilion Trail, the oldest road in the Arrowhead region of Minnesota, was a footpath and trail for horses.  It holds so much history. Marvin Lamppa has written about the Lake Esquagama location as an important location early in history. There are burial mounds of the Woodland Indians, about 1000 A.D. and many Native tribes afterward. Besides a road, a chain of lakes and streams flow nearby and eventually empty into Lake Superior. Soon after the end of the Civil War, veterans arrived on this road because of the news of a Gold Rush at Vermilion. There was gold, but it was embedded in quartz, and it proved too expensive and difficult to extract. Geologists arrived to evaluate the iron. Native people willingly relocated when plans were put in place to begin mining. They were given "scrip," not money.

Night Train Red Dust focuses on the Vermilion Trail or Highway 4, and some of its stories are excavated, as layers of earth might be, to reveal a different time. A common story form is 'the road story.'  The Canterbury Tales, for instance, focuses on pilgrims. Mark Twain's stories centered around the Mississippi River. My work offers several perspectives on one stretch of road, a hundred miles perhaps, in a landscape itself that is being mined and shipped on trains to ships in the Duluth harbor to go to the steel mills. It is not just people who are on the train, but the earth.

May 7, 2014

høle in the skY: a poetics

The word poetics describes literary or artistic styles or theories. Aristotle explored all of its aspects in his book, Poetics: plot, tragedy, diction, language, rhythm, meter.  Just like the sun, the mind works. Understanding sometimes arrives after a long night. The mind makes associations. When I first encountered Kathy McTavish’s title for her new work, høle in The SkY, I had images of eclipse, Chief Hole in the Day, and falling stars.

"Every word is either current, or strange, or metaphorical, or ornamental, or newly-coined, or lengthened, or contracted, or altered," wrote Aristotle. How curious and true, not only generally, but for each poet, even each person. 

Two eclipses occurred recently, a blood moon on April 15 and a solar eclipse on April 29. Eclipses always make people uneasy. Eclipses carry shades of the apocalypse; some Christians think the end-times are imminent. Recent scientific news of climate change seems apocalyptic. Astrologers believe eclipses are significant and portentous. Writers have also been fascinated by the phenomenon: Emily Dickinson, James Fenimore Cooper, Virginia Woolf, Annie Dillard, and Anne Carson have written about the eclipse.

Losing the sun, the center of the universe, even for a few minutes causes deep disturbance. Many events dislodge routines and expectations, and such events trigger writing and art. 

May 6, 2014

My Geology

"We forget our past, as instinct, to avoid the emotions of regret or the specter of change. This is certainly true of the Native experience in Minnesota, but true of so much else as well, including the rough and still barely-understood story of the Iron Range," said Aaron J. Brown in a MinnPost article about the 1862 mass execution of Lakota men in Mankato, Minnesota.  In an effort to know the story of my immigrant family and the place where they settled-- Zim and Toivola, Minnesota-- I have woven together family stories with those of Iron Range history. 

Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range. These poems are about the Iron Range in Minnesota, the Vermilion Trail, and they are stories of travel and derailment about mining, radical politics, unionizing, accordion music and strong women.  Available in bookstores and online where books are sold:  Barnes & Noble or

Here are stories of Meridel LeSueur, writer; Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, union organizer for IWW; Charles Bray, MD and Mary Bassett Bray, MD, doctors in Biwabik; Rev. Milma Lappala, Unitarian; Violet Turpeinen, Musician; Mr and Mrs Philip Masonovich, miner & wife; Eric Enstrom, photograph (famous for "Grace"); Gladys Koski Holmes, visual artist; women miners, laborers, farmers and immigrants.   This poem begins the collection:

May 4, 2014

Poetry: the Spirit Boat

Poetry is rooted in old ritual.  I found an interesting blog, Spirit Boat, that explores shamanic tradition in Finland, both ancient and contemporary.  The Finnish word for shaman is noita or teitäjä. Tietää is an infinitive verb that means to know, tell, spell, bode, portend, or forebode. Teitäjä has the word "know" in its root; the word ending indicates one who does this. Similarly, the word oppia means to learn. Opettaja means teacher. In Finland, scholars have documented a very long tradition of shamanic practice. The title of the blog comes from Finnish cave drawings that depict figures in a vessel crossing to the spirit world. Leppä, or Harold Alden, points to the use of (oral tradition) poetry, cave drawings, carvings, and other arts as integral to shamanic practice.  The photograph here is a female Finno-Ugric shaman, date unknown. 

In English the word rune refers to "a mark or letter of mysterious or magic significance, or the small stones or pieces of bone used as divinatory symbols." The Finnish word runo translates as poem. In plural, it's runoja. In Finnish, a poet is a runoilija. In the photo to the right, rune-singers are performing the Kalevala stories, the oral storytelling tradition of Finland, a collection of creation stories, mystic adventures, wedding and folk poems, and incantations. These three performers are from Suistamo in the early 20th century. Playing the kantele is one of the most well-known singer of Kalevala songs, Iivana Shemeikka. Iivana Onoila and Konstantin Kuokka hold hands and sing astride the bench. 

The first written account of this practice of sitting on a bench in this way, hand in hand, was in 1778. Apparently, it was common to have two singers perform, one taking over when the other paused.  In "Body, Performance, and Agency in Kalevala Rune-Singing," Anna-Leena Siikala explores at length the performance style.  It makes me think of two people in a boat. This is intimate, and it's quite different than the practice of poetry performance nowadays.  I wonder if it might have a root with the Mongolian Tuvan throat-singers (mostly men) and Inuit throat-singers (mostly women). The Inuits I have seen perform in pairs, holding hands similar to the photographs of old Kalevala singers.  

This photograph shows another female poet from the past, a traditional rune singer Kaisa Vilhuinen. She lived in the Swedish part of 'Finnskogen' and died in 1941.  About the Kalevala, Anna-Leena Siikala writes:
The notion of intertextuality of Kalevala epic and incantations refers to the fact that these genres represent a larger field connected to the mythic knowledge of the other world performed by singers and seers. The concept of field has its advantages in incorporating communicative acts in the socially organized world.
The Kalevala combines genres. The Kalevala that we have today was transcribed by Elias Lönnröt in the late 1800s.  He did not collect all of the poems in the oral tradition. Some were lost. Different singers and different regions had variations. What he was able to gather became an epic. One can learn about the adventures of the magic singer Vainimoinen or about beer or ways to charm a bear (sometimes called "Honeypaws") or how to prepare for a wedding.  Siikala writes that the runoja (poems) pointed to the wider fields of knowledge: nature, farming, cultural ways and spiritual stories.

The Finnish culture bears resemblance to many Native cultures in the Americas.  One strong similarity is the way that both cultures considered many things--wind, stones--to be live beings. Each has a strong connection with the natural world.  Luonta is the Finnish noun that means nature. There is an interesting phrase in Finnish: Minä liikun luonnassa or Lounnassa liikuminen:  I like moving (or to move) in Nature. The words express the Finnish affinity for Nature and being outside.  Another strong element of the culture is the sauna (pronounced sow-na) -- it always was the first building erected on land.  The very first saunas were smoke saunas, but now it is mostly wood-fired or electric heat.  Water, stones, fire.  It is a place of cleansing, relaxation, and meditation. 

Sometimes, the old Finnish shamans would recite poems until they entered a trance state (called falling into a crack).  The metaphor of falling into a crack evokes a descent or being "between," and it describes well the process of writing poems. I consider poetry to be a spirit boat, in that poetry is a vessel or an object that holds the spirit. It seeks a mutuality of spirit, of one spirit speaking to another. Nowadays, poems are not necessarily written to be part of a religious ritual. At least mine are not.  However, writing poetry has become my spiritual practice. I honor its power of incantation and metaphor (metamorphosis).  

In performance, good poems hold the audience's attention. Many times, I've made final decisions about revision right before or onstage.  No other setting makes me more aware of the lines, individual words, and phrasings. My pencil slashes the paper, deleting every extraneous note, so the final result is precise and condensed. I believe the plays evolve into their best form through performance as well.  Often I perform poetry with Kathy McTavish on the cello, a much more powerful sound than the kantele. Occasionally I have performed poetry in dialogue with poet Ellie Schoenfeld.  One begins and then we take turns, selecting a response to the other's poem. It is a practice that is improvisional, demands deep listening in the moment, and I think it's similar to rune-singers. But we don't hold hands--or we haven't, yet.