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.
This is a screen recording of a database driven web film.
For detail about the origin of these poems:
Vestiges began as an ekphrastic poem I wrote for a photograph by John Gregor. Near shore, several long timbers were visible beneath the surface of Lake Superior. The timbers were long, cut square, and embedded were hundreds of large spikes, and the spikes broke the surface of the water. Perhaps this was the remains or footings of a larger structure: an ore dock or a loading dock, but as it is now, a hazard to anybody who might take a kayak through the place, especially if there were waves. The day that the photograph was taken was calm, a transparent blue in sky and water. A faint movement in the water caused by the flow through the spikes. On days like these, the water seems to breathe. (This poem and another called Concentric Circles were selected for the exhibit, Words to Art, at the Waterfront Gallery in Two Harbors in September 2013.)
The image brought to mind a conversation. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Bruce Liberty, a retired ship's engineer who had a career as Chief Engineer of the US Steel's fleet of ore boats. I wrote a profile about him for the newsletter of the Marine Museum. He was in his 80s. He was still a master engineer who was able to take anything mechanical or electrical and improve its function and design. He had designed a fuel delivery system that saved the company a lot of money. A colleague of his told me that after Bruce was done, an engine ran better than it did when it was new. He often redesigned and made improvements on anything he worked on. Bruce was dying of mesothelioma when I met him, and he told me many stories about shipping on the Great Lakes. His father was a steamboat captain, and as a child, Bruce spent summers on the boat with his mother. Keeping ship, they called it. He told me stories from his career in the Merchant Marines. Once, when he was young and traveling on a freighter -- this was in the old days, before the new ships were built -- a storm came up. The waves were large, and washing over the deck. The storm was so intense, that the steel beams of its structure bowed, and the rivets and bolts flew like bullets into the wind. The next day, it was his job to replace those. This was the kind of work he did. He tore apart ships' engines. The pistons were so large that it was possible for a man to walk right into the bore, and he did that when inspecting damaged engines and supervising their repairs. He spent a good portion of his time explaining the mechanicals to me. So this came into the narrative of Vestiges.
Vestiges is thrown onto the screen where symbol fonts are floating and turning. We have made our own symbol fonts. They are much more lean than visual images, and they can evoke moods or environments.
Midway through the work sample, one can see typing. The words were entered live during the screenshot to demonstrate the capacity of the Graffiti Angel software that Kathy designed; it allows input from others on mobile devices as well. The words I was typing are a fragment of another poem, still unpublished about the Iron Range. I had auditioned some other poems my books. "When it doubt throw it out," is the motto nowadays. This small excerpt was all that was needed. Sometimes, the Graffiti Angel turns the text into morse code. The image also evokes the distress signals emitted by a ship going down in a storm.
"Beneath the map" served as a good transition because the first line was parallel to the first line of Vestiges, and it presaged My Geology, the second poem set in the abstracted video images of driving through the Oliver Bridge between Gary New Duluth and Wisconsin. It's an old railroad bridge on top, with the road running on a second level, beneath the tracks. When we were searching for places to get bridge images, I remembered the Oliver Bridge. I drove back and forth through the bridge maybe twenty times while Kathy rode shotgun with the video camera. This video works well to evoke the industrial environment of mining.
My Geology is a poem that taught me how powerful is our landscape. I placed it first in my book, Night Train Red Dust. The places where we walk enter into us; in my case, as a child, I walked across the vein of iron and taconite on the Iron Range. There is an ASCII art image behind the video in My Geology that rotates on a near/far axis, evoking a map or contract or a train car. In this section, numbers were entered into the input box, and they cascade like taconite down a chute into the hold of a freighter. Both of these poems are published in Night Train Red Dust. The music used found sound (a soprano sax, both notes and the musician blowing air through the instrument) and cello by Kathy McTavish.
Anyway, I want to continue doing this kind of work, creating confluences between text, music, and images and finding ways to create maps where the viewer can get core samples -- layered story, image, and sound. I think of those who walked in the places where I walk, and often in the archives I find amazing stories. Besides people, I'm also very aware of the wild animals: birds, foxes, bear, wolves, moose, deer, fishers, rabbits. They have stories too. When these all are assembled in layers, the result is a moving and deep narrative.