April 27, 2014

Two Worlds

In Cloud Birds, the poem "Two Worlds" was selected to be in a choral music composition by Finnish composer Olli Ortekangas. It was commissioned by Osmo Vänskä for the Minnesota Orchestra, and it will likely be performed in the 2015-16 season. This music, "Migrations," is to be scored for mezzo-soprano, symphony orchestra and male choir and the theme will be immigration.

I crossed through a mirror,
in one world people were leaving,
in the other, arriving.
On the other side, the ancestors’
face in mine
as if through a fire’s light
spark to tinder and coals to ash,
as if through the herring in the sea,
through memory’s country,
through clouds to the land,
over the border.
My name on their stones.
Words resurface.
Walk the same walk
under the same stars,
footsteps over footsteps.
Sit at the table sing a hymn
in the old tongue.
Forward and back
the road is the road
where gravity meets gravity.
Ten rivers into the Baltic,
ten rivers into the inland sea.
The longest distance,
the farthest point

One line  elicited a question from the composer: to which hymn was I referring?  I was able to send him this video clip, taken at the home of Mikko Himanka in Kokkola, Finland during my visit.   It happened to be the evening prayer that Mr Ortekangas remembers from his childhood.  There were some changes in the poem as it became integrated into the musical composition: punctuation! Also we worked out some line changes. This reflects the poem as it will be sung. Altogether, four poems will be in the composition.   Here is link to the composer's website: http://ollikortekangas.com/biography/

April 26, 2014

Weaving: Telling Not Just One Story

Weaving Text

Think of writing text as weaving. The result is fabric. The word text comes from a Latin verb texere,  to weave, braid, intertwine or compose. Words with the same root are texture and textile.  Writers are weaving together people, places, things and other stories.  My mother was a weaver, and I write. The texture of the writing reflects all of these things; these together with the personality comprises a writer's voice. The context has to do with time, place, community and purpose.  For Tillie Olsen and many women writers, the practice of incorporating other texts and stories acknowledges and honors the struggles of others. Olsen's mission was to lift the voices of those who are not in the history books. 

Hypertext and Intertext

The internet creates the opportunity for weaving. Hypertextuality can provide links to images, oral and written history, maps, other texts and stories; therefore, it increases content and provides more context.  Hypertext increases the intertextual links between stories.

April 24, 2014

Tillie Olsen: Listening to Silences

Tillie Olsen
Many of the stories -- about half-- in the book of poems Night Train Red Dust reflect the people and history of the Iron Range.  It's also a meditation on the layers of history and earth, and how those layers contain stories of resistance. Individuals are not isolated. We influence and draw strength from one another. In order to understand this period of time, it's useful to consider writers and artists of the same era.

"I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron, " says Tillie Olsen in a story.  

The era of the 1900s to 1930s was a progressive time when women finally won the right to vote. Efforts to address social problems were strong. Many women activists who helped achieve the vote for women also were part of the Temperance Movement, and this provided new opportunities for leadership. Settlement Houses offered services to immigrants and families. Along with industrialization, our nation was confronted with the hazards of machinery, factories, and unsafe working conditions.

Muriel Rukeyser: These Roads Will Take You Into Your Own Country

Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) is described by an essay on the website of the American Poetry Foundation in this way: "Impassioned, self-confident, eclectic, a poet of powerful expression, a poet of the political and the personal...."  In an earlier era, 1938, she travelled to the coal mining region and wrote about what she witnessed using her form: poetry.  This work inspired me to take on the same challenge of writing about mining in northern Minnesota. For this reason, I chose a line from one of her poems, "The Book of the Dead," as an inscription for Night Train Red Dust.  

Her title refers to the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It expressed her metaphor that the miners in the coal industry were archetypal figures that descended into the underworld. The Academy of American Poets has an essay about this important work that reflected many voices in the community, historical documentation, and a socio-political perspective:

April 22, 2014

Lake Superior Magazine: Cloud Birds Book Review

Book Review by Mike Link from Lake Superior Magazine Feb/Mar 2013


April 21, 2014

Consanguinity: Gladys Koski Holmes

Consanguinity by Gladys Koski Holmes
Bedding Plants by Gladys Koski Holmes
Gladys Koski Holmes (1932-2005)  lived almost all of her life in the same small community of Angora, on the edge of the Iron Range. Her work was drawn from her own experience in a familiar Northern Minnesota rural environment, and from roots that extend back through grandparents who emigrated from Finland. Koski earned a master's degree in art from the University of Wisconsin-Superior in 1989.
Self Portrait by Gladys Koski Holmes
Iron Range Transition by Gladys Koski Holmes


Koski won the prestigious George Morrison Art Award in 2002 for significant artistic contributions to the arts of the Arrowhead Region. She exhibited her work in a number of exhibitions in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Finland.

In an exhibition catalog for the Viola Hart Endowment exhibit, Gladys wrote about herself, "Because I have always lived in this remote area where art is a foreign language spoken only by a few, I have found myself stretched across a chasm that bridges two disparate worlds: the Iron Range and the Urban-out-there. It has meant a continual search for elements from each and a struggle to synthesize them into some sort of cohesive whole. Through using recognizable imagery that provides a sense of place, while using symbolism and surrealism as transportation into yet another world--observations, ideas, and perhaps a bit of nailing down of culture and history are taking place. It is both the tangible and intangible--tangible objects collaged onto the frames, and the painted realm within.  

"I think these traits come from the very inborn, Finnish characteristics of protecting one's privacy while maintaining persistence in pursuing whatever needs pursuing, and of a spiritual quest for the unknown that draws upon trees, rocks and water. The use of materials stems from a heritage that reaches back for generations in which there is an inner drive to make something out of little or nothing, and make it good as possible, no matter the painstaking process. The strength of women, ancestral women, and the example set by old, rural Finnish women, reaches out through my work."

April 20, 2014

Video Poem: Tremont Hotel

This is a video poem "Tremont Hotel" originally presented at the Radio Pluto Exhibit at Prøve Gallery. It is also published in the book Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range.
tremont hotel from Wildwood River on Vimeo.

On a historical note, the Tremont Hotel was one of the early lodgings available in Duluth. It was built in 1890.  In 1920, it became the Gardner Hotel.  In the 1980s, it was remodeled into a single room occupancy residence, and then it closed in 2008.  Now it has been sold to a developer to be rehabbed into apartments.  In the poem, the narrator's voice reflects stories of early Canal Park and its brothels.  Canal Park also had immigrant boarding houses where many Finnish men lived.

Video Poem: Was It I by Sheila Packa and Kathy McTavish

This is a video poem "Was It I" from the book Cloud Birds. It is the poem that initiated Night Train Red Dust! Spoken Word:

was it I (spoken word) from Wildwood River on Vimeo.

Written text only:
was it i / 2 from Wildwood River on Vimeo.

Lines in Poetry: Linkage Theory, Enjambment, and Associative Leaps

Paul Hurt from the UK focuses attention on the myriad ways to create a line of poetry:
         Applying Linkage Theory to poetry: 

Joseph Kalar: Sketch

Joseph Kalar: Sketch

In 1927-1935, Joseph Kalar, described as "a kind of north woods Rimbaud," began to write in poetry and short form prose called "proletarian sketches."  This depression era poet was from Biwabik, Minnesota--the Iron Range. In the introduction to the small volume of poems edited by Ted Genoways, an interesting biography and literary critique explains: "…the sketch allowed writers like Kalar to address proletarian issues without without either the aesthetic distance implied by poetry or the plot demands of a traditionally constructed piece of fiction. Genoways borrows a description from writer Douglas Wixson, "The plotless nature, the personal-narrative quality of the sketch, preserving accents and idioms, was a form suited to the needs of the nonprofessional writer."

In Papermill, there are several vivid sketches by Kalar.  Because I grew up near Biwabik, I was particularly intrigued by his writing. "Dust of Iron Ore" describes the mining location of Merritt (near Biwabik) and an area called "Chicken Town" where he lived as a boy with his family. His father worked in the underground iron mine.  
The miners, emerging like bats from shafts leading deep into the earth, were stained red and yellow with it, their clothes streaked and hardened with the dust, from which emanated a peculiar stink of dampness, sweat, and iron ore.
He continues the story describing the thousands of rats that swarmed the dump and the discovered of a man dead of suicide (by shotgun blast) on the dump. In "Mesaba Impressions" Kalar writes:

April 17, 2014

A Call to Action: Wake Up and Be Creative

Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto, calls artists to help people find a story that reflects not dominion over nature but a story that reflects we are not separate. Paul Kingsnorth and the others of this project hope to break through denial and help people respond to the irreversible changes that climate change has already caused. The core of this plan is to do that through art and storytelling. The NYTimes recently published an article about Kingsnorth, but unfortunately, they portrayed the Dark Mountain project as a fringe group that conducts strange rituals; actually they were merely employing theater art.  Theater is powerful, even transformative. As for the New York Times, I'd reply, "In much Madness is divinest Sense," to quote a poem by Emily Dickinson.

April 13, 2014

Webs: Transmedia and Poetry

Today, a group of artists gathered at the Prøve Gallery in Duluth to talk with Kathy McTavish about her recent transmedia or net-art exhibit that is on display in the gallery this month. She did a workshop and Q&A about the art, transmedia story-telling, new technologies, and the web.  This post reflects the day's conversations and the participants' next steps. I've included some useful links at the end of this article.  

At the art opening last Friday, I was one of the writers who could "input" text into the film generator.  Her art was the "origin of birds." This posting is about my experience with it, a meditation on the "origin of words." Entering words was addictive. My text was not the only text on the wall-- the generator was randomly combining live twitter feed, climate reports, data, and other phrases. A few other poets were entering phrases as well.  The effect was similar to spraying graffiti on a wall, only to have it drift away and be replaced by other graffiti.

On my computer, at her web-page, whatever I entered in the text box would appear in the projection on the walls. This was new! wild! Generally as a writer, I do my work in solitude at my desk.  In the film, the text was performing live. It was me performing live, actually, but because I was at a table in the corner, I was not visibly part of the exhibit. My words appeared whenever I pressed 'enter.'  I noticed interesting juxtapositions and flows. I had surprises and sudden flashes of inspiration.  It occurred to music (her compositions in cello were also part of the film).

Sometimes, I'd share my text box with friends. Cecilia Ramón sat down at my computer and translated the text she watched on the projection into Spanish for our viewing pleasure. The other designated poets showed some of their friends how to access the text entry point, so a number of people were participating at the same time. Some of the writing sparked material I intend to go back to when I'm at my desk. Some was silly or forgettable. It cascaded or even precipitated on the screen, like the live tweets.  My writing evaporated (much like the way that 'too much information' is ignored or disregarded in other settings). I did walk away with the appreciation of how poetry, with its concentrated form and powerful image and sound elements, makes an ideal text for video work.  

Kathy McTavish's work was an exploration of climate change, the effect of overwhelming news and data, and the individual walking through the world. In addition, the software she created suggested new ways to combine multiple elements. I went to her workshop because I'm interested in finding ways to take my poems and stories off the page and into new media.  

The web, of course, applies to the world wide web but the term also offers an image for the artist or storyteller.  A spider's web is circular with many connections.  Web art or story-telling similarly presents a nonlinear form with many entry points and multiple connections. It might be participatory.  Henry Jenkins defines transmedia as "the art of telling one story over multiple media, where each medium is making a unique contribution to the whole."  I found Henry's blog (he is an expert in transmedia) with a lot of fascinating interviews, ideas, and links. 

In the workshop, we discussed her work and some examples of i-documentaries. Kathy had an interesting phrase about some of the work by other artists as having "a hole in the center." Especially artists who are writing about or creating work about trauma or atrocity, the hole in the center could contain the unsaid, the unspoken or the disappeared. I understood how the image of web or circle can offer a useful format for many uses. Kathy also talked about semantic webs, CSS3, HTML5, and Javascript as tools.  

Other artists at the workshop: a musician, a visual artist, a digital media artist, a fiber artist, three poets. We decided to meet with our own work next time. We launched a research institute.  Each of us will create a web aspect of our own work over the next few weeks.  Individually, we will spend an hour with "The Hour of Code" or go online to the "Code Academy." We will each find a example of a transmedia project that inspires us or we might emulate.  Next week when we gather we will bring our concept.  Kathy will help us take it into a transmedia form, social media formats, or code. Individually, each of us will walk away with a web component for art.

Because my book of poems, Night Train Red Dust is forthcoming from Wildwood River Press, I am thinking about women's stories and the five noteworthy women from the past (1900-1930) that I told stories about in my book: Mary Bray, MD; Viola Turpeinen, musician; Rev. Milma Lappala, Unitarian minister; Meridel LeSueur, journalist and writer; and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, union organizer for the Wobblies, and my grandmothers.  These women have inspired me and deserve greater attention for their contributions.  So I thought about an i-documentary or a video story about these women. I look forward to seeing the work that emerges from our group.  Stay tuned! And thank you Kathy!

Here are some useful links:

April 2, 2014

The Blog Tour: Welcome!

What am I working on?

Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range: stories of women’s, labor, immigrant and mining on the Iron Range in Minnesota. Forthcoming June 2014 from Wildwood River Press.

Love on the Iron Range: Liz, the main character, grows up on the Iron Range to work in a taconite mine and later, become a musician. This novel is structured with twelve linked stories (daughter, sister, mother) based on Minnesota’s Iron Range and its immigrant, women’s and labor history. Several motifs or images of engagement, rings, wedding dresses, birds, water-life, and naming connect the stories. The narrator’s names are various, and the structure of the narrative is musical.

Recent Collaborations: “Migrations:” A collaboration with Finnish composer Ollie Ortekangas who has been commissioned to create music for Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra. We also plan to work together on an opera. A collaboration with media artist and composer Kathy McTavish around her net - art installation “origin of birds.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I am from the Iron Range. It has geologic layers and friction between the natural and industrial. I excavate. There are fractures. Glimpses at objects often open up other perspectives and histories. I work out of certain tensions and silences. I search for structures instilled by my landscape: rivers, forests, and shorelines. I believe there is a connection between women and birds.

Because I grew up in two languages, I am influenced by the rhythms and culture of Finland, and also its modernism. Traditional forms in poetry do not appeal to me. I believe that writing is a physical art, that it must find ways to enter the body. Good art must “break something open.” 

In my fiction, the narrators have odd perceptual experiences. I explore obsessions. I discover that certain motifs or objects appear in different stories and they become visual languages. It happens subconsciously. My poems in Night Train Red Dust are driven. They are fast moving trains or rivers.  Previous books of poems:   The Mother Tongue poems are about growing up on the Iron Range and mother/daughters. Echo & Lightning explores bird migration as a language of women's intersections with the divine.  Cloud Birds explores women walking through violence and a story of immigration.    
Why do I write what I do?

Does any writer get to choose the material? I believe this is given. We can either accept it or reject it. Certain things haunt me: images, phrases, absences, and I write about them. I write about my dreams, I find patterns and I read a lot. 

How does your writing process work?

The process is always changing.  Each project has a new set of rules that I need to discover. It’s my job to follow and learn.  Carl Jung wrote “…a work of art is not transmitted or derived - it is a creative reorganization…. One might almost describe it as a living being that uses man only as a nutrient medium, employing his capacities according to its own laws and shaping itself to the fulfillment of its own creative purpose.” In some ways, this is alarming idea, but I do think that creative work does take a life of its own. It's wise to learn to nurture this plant and make it beautiful.

My process works best if I have more than one project going, because then if one needs time or I if reach an obstacle, then I can work on the other. Somehow they cross-pollinate. Sometimes I will take what I wrote in a poem and try to create a story from it or I will create a character based on favorite authors and add them to my fictions. I experiment and find what works the best. I like to wander through archives, scan microfiche newspaper files, and surf the internet. I fall into rabbit holes. I feel a personal mission to write women’s stories in order to honor and make those stories stronger. I am inspired by many great writers.