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.