March 25, 2014

Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range

"I excavate these words from a vein of iron….” these poems are “test drills and core samples” — a weave of memory, archive, dream, song, story — drawn from the history and people of the Iron Range of northeastern Minnesota. These pages sound the whistles and roar of the mines, the dust in the lungs, the dangerous crossings into a new language, the accordion’s
breath. Culled from violence and tenderness, bone and ash, ore and light, they map a place, a time, a journey through love.”

Pamela Mittlefehldt, PhD and co-editor
The Heart of All That Is: Reflections on Home
Holy Cow! Press


Wildwood River Press announces the publication of Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range.  ISBN: 978-0-9843777-7-0  Available at bookstores.

This collection of poems draws from the rich geologic, mining, Native, immigrant, and women's stories on the Iron Range. The book has two sections, Track I: Night Train and Track II: Red Dust. Night Train is a narrative about travel and immigration. Red Dust is about derailments--of many kinds including labor strikes, cancer, violence, accidents, and relationship splits.  The project Night Train Red Dust is also more than a book. It's a work of transmedia and it forms a multiverse: the poems are in the book, several essays and articles about the poems and the Iron Range are on the Red Dust blog (linked on the book website, and live music and video are done in theater or installation settings. The essays and articles offer literary explorations of writers, influences and Iron Range history. 

The book uncovers and excavates layers. It asks the questions: are we using everything until it's gone? taking from another body?  The characters in these stories are metamorphosing, dealing with overburden, effluence, and tailings. They walk on the Divide, like the Laurentian Divide, and they are rivers flowing in opposite directions. The stories reflect the lives of the people who built this community: Mary Bassett Bray, MD; Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, union organizer; women miners in WWII; Meridel LeSueur, writer; Rev. Milma Lappala, Unitarian minister; Viola Turpeinen, accordionist. This is a working class story of the midwives, farmers, miners, immigrants, and many others with iron in their veins. 

The Iron Range is economically supported by and environmentally damaged by mining.The poems provide strong images of the beautiful landscape of open pit mines and ore dumps, the Boundary Waters, and the wildlife. My grandparents arrived here because of the employment opportunities: one grandfather was a lumberman, and many relatives worked in the mines. My aunts worked in the iron mines during World War II, in the war effort. I have tried to present the music and the frictions of the Iron Range. 

The poems are inspired by family stories and the rich archives of the Iron Range Research Center and the Minnesota Historical Society.This project began when I started to look for information about my grandmothers. In the archives, I found many stories of women who deserve to have their memories preserved. This book reflects the community where I grew up, and the place where my grandparents built homesteads. 

KUMD Radio feature:  poems from the book: (audio file):'s.Words/Women's.Words.September.22..2013.Sheila.Packa

Poetry video:

Sample poem

Vermilion Trail

I am leaving
the Mesabi Iron Range
on the same trail
that a gold prospector
came in on,
with a compass gone awry
and red dust on my boots.
Me, the daughter
of a cat skinner
born on the Divide.
I can say we got by.
In my pocket
is the copper penny
of my childhood,
once I reforged it
on the DM&IR
track south of Biwabik.
My father hung
a lead pipe between
two pines in the yard,
the somersault around the pole
was “skin the cat.”
I was good.
I never crossed
a picket line, never
scabbed. Worship was
in the union hall.
In the open pit,
if we got a raise,
that was why.
Payday was playing a
jukebox in the bar,
dancing with a pool stick.
Whiskey was a life
waiting for somebody
to marry it.
I laid myself off,
packed my trunk,
picked up where
my immigrant past
left off —

This poem "Vermilion Trail" was originally published in Ploughshares and it is in the anthology To Sing Along the Way: Minnesota Women Poets from Pre-territorial Times to the Present. New River's Press.   

Bio:  Sheila Packa, the granddaughter of Finnish immigrants, grew up near 
Biwabik on the Iron Range. She has three previous books of poems (The Mother Tongue, Echo & Lightning, and Cloud Birds). She is the editor of Migrations: Poetry and Prose for Life's Transitions, an anthology of seventy-five Lake Superior regional writers. She received Loft McKnight Fellowships, one in poetry and one in prose. She has also received three fellowships and other funding support for projects from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council. In 2010-2012, she served as Duluth's Poet Laureate.

To find more information about Iron Range history and link to the URLs used in the research for this project:

To read an earlier article about the development of these stories for a live multi-media performance at the Fringe Festival in Minneapolis August 2013:

See the website and

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