December 17, 2015

The Sparkling Trail

"When creating a manuscript, I often assemble a constellation of books.  My own is born under these auspices. The other writers chosen for their sensibility, language, topic, and skills are like aunts in the fairytale who come to bless the newborn."

According to Wikipedia, de Kerangal's celebrated novel, Birth of a Bridge [Naissance d'un pont, 2010]', presents a literary saga of a handful of men and women who are charged with building a bridge somewhere in a mythical California. Birth of a Bridge was short-listed for the Prix Goncourt, and awarded the Prix Médicis and has been translated into several languages worldwide.

Mend the Living [Réparer les vivants, 2014] has also won several prizes including the Prix Orange du Livre and the Grand prix RTL du livre. Mend the Living was recently adapted for the stage at the theatre festival in Avignon, receiving rave reviews for its intimate look at the realities and philosophical questioning around organ donation.

Maylis de Kerangal was interviewed by Jessica Moore, her translator, for Bombsite (Arts) Magazine.  They discussed the way that a writer explores a story under the influence of a chosen few texts.  Jessica Moore says, "Books are shapers of our inner landscape. We are composed of the texts that have passed through us, leaving that sparkling trail..." and de Kerangal responds:
I write from all these books, and also through them. This is not at all something that overshadows a voice of my own. On the contrary, it’s through all these books that I love that I’ve been able to find something that is my own. I try to formalize this approach a little by gathering a collection around me as I begin a novel.
I don’t know if many authors do this, but one of the great movements of the beginning of a book for me is to summon these influences, to go in search of them. I put myself under their influence. And putting together the disparate collection of texts that will accompany me is already an act of writing. All kinds of books and printed matter: Mrs. Dalloway for instance, or poetry, scientific texts, articles from newspapers, novels. They aren’t on the same subject—the heart, for example, in Réparer—but they are texts with which I establish echoes, resonances. I compare this to getting together with a group of friends for a big bank robbery, a language hold-up. I already have my collection for the next book.
The interview explores de Kerangal's writing process and is a conversation about translation. Translation, de Kerangal says, is like listening to her music that is played upon a different instrument than the original. This is a wonderful analogy, as it evokes the process of composition and performance, and it reassures that although the translated is not exact, the interpretation can be beautiful.

December 10, 2015

Barry Lopez

The writer Barry Lopez has long provided deep insight into the natural world, human interaction with wildlife. This excerpt is about place, language and seeing. It's in Granta Magazine, Dec 2015:

If the first lesson in learning how to see more deeply into a landscape was to be continuously attentive, and to stifle the urge to stand outside the event, to instead stay within the event, leaving its significance to be resolved later; the second lesson, for me, was to notice how often I asked my body to defer to the dictates of my mind, how my body’s extraordinary ability to discern textures and perfumes, to discriminate among tones and colors in the world outside itself, was dismissed by the rational mind. 
As much as I believed I was fully present in the physical worlds I was traveling through, I understood over time that I was not. More often I was only thinking about the place I was in. Initially awed by an event, the screech of a gray fox in the night woods, say, or the surfacing of a large whale, I too often moved straight to analysis. On occasion I would become so wedded to my thoughts, to some cascade of ideas, that I actually lost touch with the details that my body was still gathering from a place. The ear heard the song of a vesper sparrow, and then heard the song again, and knew that the second time it was a different vesper sparrow singing. The mind, pleased with itself for identifying those notes as the song of a vesper sparrow, was too preoccupied with its summary to notice what the ear was still offering. The mind was making no use of the body’s ability to be discerning about sounds. And so the mind’s knowledge of the place remained superficial.
READ the entire essay:

December 8, 2015

Nobel Lecture by Svetlana Alexievich

No one captures a human voice as well as Russian/Ukrainen writer Svetlana Alexievich. This is an excerpt from her speech, "On the Battle Lost."   
So what is it that I do? I collect the everyday life of feelings, thoughts, and words. I collect the life of my time. I'm interested in the history of the soul. The everyday life of the soul, the things that the big picture of history usually omits, or disdains. I work with missing history. I am often told, even now, that what I write isn't literature, it's a document. What is literature today? Who can answer that question? We live faster than ever before. Content ruptures form. Breaks and changes it. Everything overflows its banks: music, painting – even words in documents escape the boundaries of the document. There are no borders between fact and fabrication, one flows into the other. Witnessеs are not impartial. In telling a story, humans create, they wrestle time like a sculptor does marble. They are actors and creators. 
I'm interested in little people. The little, great people, is how I would put it, because suffering expands people. In my books these people tell their own, little histories, and big history is told along the way. We haven't had time to comprehend what already has and is still happening to us, we just need to say it. To begin with, we must at least articulate what happened. We are afraid of doing that, we're not up to coping with our past. In Dostoevsky's Demons, Shatov says to Stavrogin at the beginning of their conversation: "We are two creatures who have met in boundless infinity ... for the last time in the world. So drop that tone and speak like a human being. At least once, speak with a human voice."

Twin Ports Arts Express Workshop

Lisa McKhann of Project Lulu

NEW workshop: 2016 Twin Ports ARTS Express 

art play for any body touched by cancer 

(patient, survivor, spouse, family, caregiver, or friend)

3 Mondays
January 11, 18, and 25, 2016 5:30 to 8 pm at On the Rocks Art Studio in Canal Park, Duluth

with teaching artists:
Elizabeth Kuth, painter; Sheila Packa, poet; Lisa McKhann, dancer; Joellyn Rock, digital artist

Note: you need not have any prior experience with art or writing - simply a willingness to play!

and some participants who are interested will be able to create experimental digital art and video at UMD's new Motion and Media Access Disciplines Lab (MMAD Lab).   

$20 registration fee, space is limited.  

This workshop is presented by Project Lulu 
For full information visit:          -

To register - call or email Lisa McKhann 218-349-9121 or

December 3, 2015

Rosemarie Waldrop: Shall We Escape Analogy

Rosemarie Waldrop is a German-American citizen, a teacher, translator, and experimental poet. She and her husband Keith Waldrop created a press (Burning Deck). They published a magazine, chapbooks and created the Once Festival for experimental composers.  She has contributed greatly to the conversation about poetry in the U.S.  Considering poetry, silence, and witness,  I've gathered some excerpts from an extraordinary interview of Rosemarie Waldrop by Matthew Cooperman (read the entire interview at

Waldrop once wrote:
When eye and mind are interrupted in their travel, a vertical dimension opens out from the horizontal lines. Suddenly we’re reading an orchestral score as it were. No longer one single voice.
This short excerpt provides deep insight into her own art.  Waldrop's poems seem to evolve from her own life experience. She enjoys intertextuality [characteristic of the work of Poet Jabes, who she translated], explorations of pattern or sounds, and fluid forms:

I vividly recall my first bus ride on arriving in this country, from New York to Michigan. The feeling of SPACE, of relatively wild space, of woods going on and on was overwhelming to me.... You might say it’s a natural site for a poetics of metonymy, of horizontal expansion. 
...the discrepancies between my two languages need not be an obstacle, but could, on the contrary, become a generative force. 
I don’t usually start with “content,” but with something formal, a pattern, a sequence of sounds, a particular phrase, a rhythm. The “content” will come in obliquely. As Gertrude Stein says, “nobody knows what contemporariness is. In other words, they don’t know where they are going, but they are on their way.” 
[About intertextuality]: I would not actually call what I do “citational.” In a citation, as I would define it, you want to bring the author and his/her authority into your text along with the citation. Whereas I mostly collage unidentified fragments and use them for texture the way Picasso or Schwitters tore a piece of newspaper and glued it in, the way Rauschenberg will work in a piece of a reproduction of a painting. 
Just think how the infinite potential of language exceeds our grasp, no matter how thoroughly we analyze systems of grammar and vocabulary or how extensive our study of instances of embodiment, or parole. But most of all, even though we clearly created it, language defines us, creates us. Just as the God we created creates us. Here I mean that the being that can conceive of God is different from a being that has no such transcendent ideas.  
I suppose I talked about artistic form as not rigid, as preserving an element of fluidity, which makes a dialogue with the reader/viewer possible. “Non-teleological thinking” is an excellent term. I prefer calling it “form and discontent.”

Against Analogy

Finding her own voice, Waldrop articulates her reasons for her own poetic design methods.  As a child, she witnessed catastrophic changes.  As a young adult immigrant, she experienced profound changes in language and landscape.
[Influences]: Coming out of the cellar after my home town was bombed in 1943 and seeing rubble where a street had been was the first drastic change of my world. But: “A second followed in 1945, a not exactly Nietzschean revaluation of all values. ‘Our leader’ turned into ‘the criminal,’ ‘the enemy’ into ‘Amis’ [abbreviation of ‘Amerikaner’], ‘surrender’ into ‘liberation.’ This went deeper. And took years to understand.”  
When I worked on my thesis, Against Language?, in the sixties, I noticed a move away from metaphor (and “expressiveness”) toward the horizontal dimension of contiguity, composition, syntax in contemporary poets like Charles Olson and the German Helmut Heissenbüttel, with Gertrude Stein as probably the earliest example.  
 This was the beginning of a reaction, not only against Imagism and Pound (or against Surrealism and Expressionism in Europe), but against the credo of “organic form” with its reliance on metaphor to express “inner” states, the credo that had defined poetry ever since the Romantics.
 I began to experiment in this direction by avoiding literal metaphors in my poems, but in an intuitive way, whereas Anne-Marie Albiach and Claude Royet- Journoud had a fully conscious, explicit program. A manifesto: “shall we escape analogy”—without question mark.  
That the war experience of our childhood played some role in this is just a hunch. It is easier to see such a role in our emphasis on fragmentation, interruption, disjunctiveness, blank space. But I might say that in war you experience such crushing force from the outside that it is hard to see the world in terms of analogy to inner states—or divine design.


The interviewer Matthew Cooperman pursued questions about silence pertinent to poetry of witness and the inability of language to reach all meaning. Here are her responses: 
Silence and elision figure in many poets’ work. Almost by definition: every line of verse at its end turns toward silence, toward the white of the page, toward what is not. (It is one of the challenges of the prose poem to preserve this silence once there is no white space at the end of a line because there is no line. It has to be displaced into syntactical/ grammatical “turns.” Or semantic shifts. Recently I have created silence inside the sentence by using periods rhythmically where they don’t belong grammatically). 
 One could also say that white space, while it interrupts the text nevertheless is the larger continuity, and that the poem rests on this continuity, on this silence that is present in the white of the page. 
I suppose I talked about artistic form as not rigid, as preserving an element of fluidity, which makes a dialogue with the reader/viewer possible. “Non-teleological thinking” is an excellent term. I prefer calling it “form and discontent.”


Just as Waldrop does not identify herself as a German writer, preferring to identify as one among many immigrants who have come to the shores of the United States, she is reluctant to call her work, poetry of witness.  

we must be aware of—and responsive to—the horrors as well as the beauties. We must not sequester ourselves.  
I have difficulties with what’s called “poetry of witness.” The main one is that most often there is no room for questioning. The lines are drawn from the start, both intellectually and emotionally. 
And it’s a vast war, not only against a large part of the population of Iraq, but against the Bill of Rights, international law, the earth, non- Christians, the poor, and, if the Social Security “Reform” should be adopted, against the old. Poetry, like philosophy, leaves everything as it is. But in spite of this, when your government consistently lies through its teeth, it just may be very important to pay attention to words in the way poetry does. 

For biographical information, visit

Poetry sample:

Essay about Waldrop:

November 25, 2015

Startle Yourself

Advice to poets:

"Your poem [essay or memoir] effectively begins at the first moment you’ve startled yourself. Throw everything away that proceeded that moment."

 —Stephen Dunn

November 22, 2015

The Baltics by Tomas Tranströmer

The poem "The Baltics" by Tomas Tranströmer has been translated by Patty Crane from Swedish into English.  This is just a small excerpt of the three part long poem:


Wind enters the pine forest. It sighs heavily and lightly.
Likewise the Baltic sighs in the island’s interior; deep in the forest you’re out on the open sea.
A new breath of wind and the place is desolate and still again.
A new breath of wind, murmuring about other shores.
It has to do with the war.
It has to do with places where citizens are under control,
where thoughts are built with emergency exits,
where a conversation between friends is really a test of what friendship means.
And when you’re together with those you don’t know so well. Control. A certain candor is all right just don’t take your eyes off whatever’s wandering the edges of the conversation: something dark, a dark stain.
Something that can drift in
and destroy everything. Don’t take your eyes off it!

 Read the poem in its entirety at

November 19, 2015

And We Who Move Away: Nelly Sachs

Nelly Sachs

Nelly Sachs won a Nobel Prize in 1966.  She was born in Germany, a Jew. With the help of a Swedish friend, she escaped Nazi Germany a week just before she was due to enter a concentration camp. As a refugee, she moved to Sweden. Her writing is about the Holocaust. She was a friend of Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann. 

"Writing is my mute outcry; I only wrote because I had to free myself."  --Nelly Sachs

And we who move away

And we who move away
beyond all leaves of the windrose
heavy inheritance into the distance.

Myself here,
where earth is losing its lineaments
the Pole,
death's white dead nettle
falls in the stillness of white leaves

the elk,
peering through blue curtains
between his antlers bears
a sun-egg hatched pale─

Here, where ocean time
camouflages itself with iceberg masks
under the last star's
frozen stigma

here at this place
I expose the coral,
the one that bleeds
with your message.

An excerpt of Bewitched is Half of Everything

Solace lives far
behind the homesickness scar.
where a different green speaks with tongues
and the seas abandon themselves timelessly.

(─Translated from the German by Michael Roloff from Und neimand weiss weiter, 1957)

see more english translations at

Nelly Sachs and the Hubris of Pain:

November 13, 2015

The Endotic

Narrative Machine by Lorenzo Sandoval

In the search for literary trends or possibilities, I've come across the word "endotic," the opposite of "exotic."  The endotic is an artistic or literary practice to focus on the ordinary as opposed to the extraordinary. First, I've excerpted a blurb from a workshop recently taught by artist Lorenzo Sandoval, and then I did some exploration of his source, Georges Peres. I've collected excerpts (and their sources) here. Sandoval has created narrative machines. Peres was an experimental fiction writer. These ideas intrigue me. 

Exploring the Endotic
by Lorenzo Sandoval

Contrary to the exotic, the endotic is a very subtle but powerful tool to generate a situated practice from. It is subtle because it looks to the imperceptible of the everyday life, to the visible but hidden details of the space and gestures of the bodies around us. It rescues the astonishment from the forgotten and obvious, trapped by its naturalization. The endotic is a powerful tool because it leads us to read and listen to our surroundings, always looking from unexplored stances. From this immanent display, the very local traces a priceless threshold from where to approach the complex global. The second element we aim to work with in this workshop is microhistory. This methodological branch of history changed the scale and direction of the historical devices to instead look at smaller events and to listen to the relevance of the unwritten voices of dismissed subjects from hegemonic history.
Sandoval's 2015 workshop:
Review of Sandoval's art:
Narrative Machines:

Information regarding Sandoval's source, Georges Perec:
Georges Perec (March 7, 1936 in Paris - March 3, 1982 in Ivry-sur-Seine) was a French novelist, filmmaker, documentalist, and essayist. He was a member of the Oulipo group. His father died as a soldier early in the Second World War and his mother was killed in the Holocaust, and many of his works deal with absence, loss, and identity, often through word play. 
Many of Perec's novels and essays abound with experimental word play, lists and attempts at classification, and they are usually tinged with melancholy. 
Perec is noted for his constrained writing. His 300-page novel La disparition (1969) is a lipogram, written without ever using the letter "e". It has been translated into English by Gilbert Adair under the title A Void (1994). The silent disappearance of the letter might be considered a metaphor for the Jewish experience during the Second World War. Since the name "Georges Perec" is full of "e"s, the disappearance of the letter also ensures the author's own "disappearance". His novella Les revenentes (1972) is a complementary univocalic piece in which the letter "e" is the only vowel used. This constraint affects even the title, which would conventionally be spelt Revenantes. An English translation by Ian Monk was published in 1996 as The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex in the collection Three. It has been remarked by Jacques Roubaud that these two novels draw words from two disjoint sets of the French language, and that a third novel would be possible, made from the words not used so far (those containing both "e" and a vowel other than "e").

Here are some excerpts of writing by Georges Perec
What’s needed perhaps is finally to found our own anthropology, one that will speak about us, will look in ourselves for what for so long we’ve been pillaging from others. Not the exotic anymore, but the endotic. (The Infraordinary)
“Question your tea spoons.”  (Species of Spaces and Other Pieces)
“What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us. We live, true, we breathe, true; we walk, we go downstairs, we sit at a table in order to eat, we lie down on a bed on order to sleep. How? Where? When? Why? 
Describe your street. Describe another. Compare.”  (The Infraordinary)
Also, a recent essay regarding Perec's creative work and a celebration of Paris: 

October 16, 2015

Earth Body: The Art of Ana Mendieta

Covered by Time and History: The films of Ana Mendieta is showing at the Katherine Nash Gallery in Minneapolis. In four rooms of the gallery, the installation of several short films (in continuous looping) immerses the viewer in her art.

Mendieta called her practice Earth Body. It was a fusion of body art and earth art. In the 1970s, an art critic identified her work as being feminist and goddess like. Mendieta did not agree with this analysis, and she made some changes to prevent further assumptions. Her work does have a spiritual quality, but she was also exploring her culture, immigration, and violence toward women.

Mendieta imprinted herself on the earth. She did not bury herself, but maintained the abstract figure /outline on the surface. This female earth form degraded as it was exposed to the elements.  Often the form was filled with fire or water. Her performance art she documented by video and photographs. I found the sculpture and her earth works to suggest a vulva-like shape. She also had film and images of herself marked with animal blood (and a sidewalk, and a wall). This series was triggered by the murder of a female student, to acknowledge and address the violence. Some films are of her holding a decapitated chicken, wings flapping. It's visceral and powerful work.

In her film, she explained that she used the earth to express her connection with nature. This connection began as a child in Cuba, and later as an immigrant in the US, she found that her practice helped maintain her roots and connection with her culture.

Adriana Herrera Téllez, in Arte Al Día, has an excellent article about Mendieta's work that provides insight into her practice. Mendieta has been described by Olga Viso (currently at the Walker Art Center) as "inventive and iconoclastic."  Téllez believes Mendieta has influenced several other artists, including Marina Abramovic, yet Mendieta has not received the attention she deserves. Téllez describes her artwork in this way:
experimental art, capable of fusing aspects of primitive and conceptual art, mythical traditions and ecology, the land and performance, the non-territorial concern for violence against the female gender and the transcultural, displaced identities and the universal archetype.
Amanda Boetzkes says, “the artist does not only attempt to create a space in which the earth receives her body, but through her way of withdrawing it, provides a surface on which the elementary may appear the silueta fills with water, combustion or is blown apart and illuminates the face of the earth.”

Ana Mendieta's work has been a source of inspiration for me.  Here is a poem that I wrote to pay homage to her.

for Ana Mendieta

So light
the trembling of leaves
in the water’s mirror
shadow of your contour
shoulder on shore
line of tree your spine.
So dark
the stones depth, cold hip
I trace the root
in the earth’s script
where you’ve cast runes
written yourself in blood
or feathers spilled and mud
taken up with gunpowder
returned what never returns
to the continent or your hands.
Memory of fire that cast its spark
into the vast body giving birth
and reaching
the branch that breaks
beneath the feet,
drew yourself upon a leaf
from a tree or upper story.
Lost with certainty
the perfect execution—
self was never the answer
only earth.

c2012 Sheila Packa in Cloud Birds, Wildwood River Press, 2012.


Boetzkes, Amanda. The Ethics of Earth Art, University of Minnesota Press, 2010. P. 163

Téllez, Adriana Herrera. “Ana Mendieta Revisited.” November 30, 2010. Retrieved 15 October 2015. Arte Al Día / International / Contents / Artists / Ana Mendieta

October 6, 2015

Loose Narratives: The Art of ParkeHarrison

Today, I had the opportunity to listen to the two artists talk about their process. Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison collaborate to create haunting and magical realist images. Their work is narrative, and they explore the connections between humans, nature, and technology. Along with Bob's focus is on photography and performance art, Shana brings her experience with choreography and painting.  See this link to view images: and

As a writer, I was curious about how they created such deep narratives. Their approach is theatrical, and each image is like a still from a movie. Each series begins with a long period of research and planning. They bring props. They choreograph. They manipulate the photograph to add or subtract color, to blur or obscure elements, and highlight certain things.  This is a slow and painstaking process. Each year, they create about eleven individual works.
 reclamation from Catherine Edelman Gallery on Vimeo.

The protagonist, "Everyman," expresses valiant effort and ineffectual attempts to address environmental damage.  The character often has his back to the viewer, and in this way, brings the viewer toward the world inside the frame. There are many odd elements: a man wears a suit to do things nobody would wear a suit to do. He holds clouds on a string, or he sprouts seedlings from his body. There are machines or laboratory equipment used in curious ways. Veins become roots, and plants are spindly and reaching. Cones are prevalent as are clouds. He attempts to mend the crack in the landscape by stitching with an oversize needle. The narratives strongly connect to the body, and they are piercing.  There is foreboding and magic. All this--such rich narrative--exists in image, object, body, atmosphere.

Artist Talk with Robert & Shana ParkeHarrison (2010) Introduction from Catherine Edelman Gallery on Vimeo.


A Midwest Emmy

A 2015 Midwest Emmy goes to Last Call for the Mitchell Yards – WDSE-TV - The Playlist. I'm thrilled to be among the artists featured in the documentary about the Iron Range. Congratulations! Many thanks for supporting arts and culture in the Northland!

Karen Sunderman LaLiberte, Producer/Off-Line Editor
Steven Ash, Director / Photographer / Editor
Lance Haavisto, Photographer
Juli Kellner, Executive Producer

In the category of Historic / Cultural

September 29, 2015

Disliking poetry...

 Marianne Moore has a celebrated poem, "Poetry"

I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect
contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.

A lot of people say that they dislike poetry. It's a frustration with form, perhaps. Some resent the attention to metrics, allusions, sound elements or multiple meanings when these are not part of the awareness in everyday speech. In "Diary: On Disliking Poetry," an excellent critical essay, Ben Lerner writes:
Great poets disdain the limits of actual poems, tactically defeat or at least suspend that actuality, sometimes quit writing altogether, becoming celebrated for their silence; bad poets unwittingly provide a glimmer of virtual possibility via the radicalism of their failure; avant-garde poets hate poems for remaining poems instead of bombs and nostalgists hate poems for failing to do what they wrongly, vaguely claim they once did. There are varieties of interpenetrating demands subsumed under the word ‘poetry’ – to defeat time, to still it beautifully; to express irreducible individuality in a way that can be recognised socially or, like Whitman, to achieve universality by being irreducibly social, less a person than a national technology; to propound a measure of value beyond money, to defeat the language and value of existing society etc – but one thing all these demands share is that they can’t ever be fulfilled with poems. Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the demand of Poetry, and the jeremiads in that regard are defences, too, protecting the urgency and purity of the poetic impulse towards alterity from the merely real.
He distinguishes between the vision, the possible poem, and the actual which is limited by the limits of language.In his own work, Lerner shifts between poetry and prose. The novel has an elastic and curatorial form, he says, and his contain his poems and essays.  Lerner received a MacArthur Fellowship and is described in this way:
Ben Lerner is a novelist, poet, and critic exploring the relevance of art and the artist to modern culture with humor, compassion, and intelligence. Lerner began his writing career as a poet and essayist focused on contemporary literature and art. His three volumes of verse capture the often elliptical drift of thought, appearing spontaneous even as they layer linguistic and conceptual complexity. 
Bringing to the novel a poet’s relentless engagement with language and a critic’s analytical incisiveness, Lerner makes seamless shifts between fiction and nonfiction, prose and lyric verse, memoir and cultural criticism, conveying the way in which politics, art, and economics intertwine with everyday experience. Both of his novels, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) and 10:04 (2014), hold up a mirror to the writer’s consciousness. While Atocha is a comedic portrait of a young artist coming of age, Lerner’s concerns in 10:04 are larger and more pressing, reflecting his narrator’s (Ben) growing maturity in relation to others and keen sense of the social structures that constrain him. Ben struggles to create meaningful fiction in a culture addicted to artificial stimulation, a theme interspersed with acute, at times comic, reminders of the neuroses of American society. 
Here is an excerpt of a sonnet in The Lichtenberg Figures:
Forgotten in advance, these failures are technological
in the oldest sense: they allow us to see ourselves as changed
and to remain unchanged. These failures grant us 
an unwelcome reprieve
and now we must celebrate wildly
until we are bereft. 
The ambiguity is pleasing, and allows the subject to remain open. He could be referring to language or poetry.

Work Cited:

Lerner, Ben. "Diary." London Review of Books 37.12 (2015): 42-43. 29 Sep. 2015 .

September 24, 2015

Proposals and Projects

Sometimes grant proposals don't get funded, and sometimes they do. It takes a lot of time to write specific project outlines and budgets, and even when the application does not receive funds from the grantor, I have found that my work on goal-setting has not been wasted.  

Research has shown that people who write goals down on paper are much more likely to achieve those goals. Grantwriters use this acronym:
Time bound
Writing projects, like art projects, are based on a series of tasks. To boost productivity, it's a good idea to set specific and measurable goals that fit these criteria. To increase the likelihood of receiving a grant, writers should get S.M.A.R.T. too. In addition, I highly recommend reading the grant instructions carefully, planning enough time to do a good job, and finding a proofreader for both the application and work sample.

Grants Available for Minnesota writers:

September 16, 2015

An Award for Preserving Minnesota History in Music, Art, Architecture and Poetry

Thank you and congratulations to WDSE The PlaylistKaren Sunderman, Steven Ash and Lance Haavisto!
The program "Last Call for the Mitchell Yards" has received an award from the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. This story about the Iron Range features Paul Seeba, Dan Turner, Dave Aho, and Sheila Packa. The gala and fundraiser for the Preservation Alliance will be at the St. Paul Athletic Club on Thursday Oct 8, 2015.

Here's a link to this wonderful documentary:

Information about the book:

August 20, 2015

The Argonauts: A Poet's Essay

The Argonauts by poet Maggie Nelson investigates sexuality, gender, motherhood, and love in her memoir -essay published by Graywolf Press, 2015.  The central metaphor comes from a quote by Roland Barthes in his book, Roland Barthes:
Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase "I love you" is like "the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name." Just as the Argo's parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase "I love you," its meaning must be renewed by each use, as "the very take of love and of language is to give one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new."   (Nelson, 5)
Maggie Nelson has applied the concept of the Argo, a boat that changes completely along the journey, to her relationship (her lover's kinks match her own) and to her lover's transition female to male. She finds the beauty of ambiguity. The metaphor also illuminates Nelson's pregnancy and birth of a son, the creation of her family, and her own artistic work as a writer.

The form of the book is capacious and uses poetic devices (metaphor, recurring images, repetition of words, enjambment, white space).  It captures 'the state of becoming,' or perpetual emergence. There are some people who resist poetry and say they don't like it and won't read it.  This book looks like an essay and it presents an argument. However, the book is grounded in the body and Nelson's experience. The Argonauts conveys queerness and the contradictions of desire. It resists hetero-norms.  It illuminates the subtle difference between lesbian and queer. It examines gender, motherhood and family in an unsentimental way. She brings together several ideas from gender theorists (Judith Butler), artists (Catherine Opie), and philosophers (Barthes, Wittgenstein, Lacan, and several others) as a way to investigate contemporary culture and her own life. The cover flap describes it as a "genre-bending memoir, a work of autotheory offering fresh, fierce, and timely thinking about desire."

The title and metaphor are from the Greek myth Jason and the Argonauts. Jason, the hero, goes on a quest in order to gain the throne that was lost by his father. The goddess Hera noticed his task matched her own mission to claim recognition from mortals (Jason's father the King had failed to pay homage to her). She assists, or perhaps one could say, uses Jason. Several elements of this mythic story add depth to the book. Nelson is smart, and I enjoyed the book.

July 12, 2015

Where the Heart Beats

I'm reading an interesting book by Kay Larson, a biography of John Cage, Where the Heart Beats: Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists. (Penguin 2012)  She includes an interesting quote from John Cage:  "What can be analyzed in my work, or criticized, are the questions I ask."

If one were to apply this to one's own work, it brings up interesting things.  One of the observations that others have had in my writing are shifts in verb tense: past and present.  I do have a question about time. Although some people declare, the past is the past - it is behind us - isn't the present made up of both here/now and memory?

June 18, 2015

The Terrain of Heaven and Hell: Marilynne Robinson

Since the publication of Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, I have had deep admiration for this fiction writer who I felt explored realms common to poetry.  What does she think of poetry?  Housekeeping engages readers with women characters in a mountain town in Idaho. Robinson skillfully, fully, beautifully uses the metaphor of water: fluidity, flood, lack of boundaries, and erosion and loss. Robinson connects her stories to myth or deep cultural (and Biblical) stories.

In 2014, Wyatt Mason interviewed Marilynne Robinson for the New York Times. This is an excerpt of his article:
All four of the novels are in conversation with — at times tacitly, at times explicitly — the stories of the Bible. Housekeeping is the story of two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, who, after their mother commits suicide, are abandoned to the care of their grandmother and, after she dies, are abandoned to the care of their grandmother’s two maiden sisters-in-law. They, in turn, overwhelmed by the burden of caring for children, abandon the girls to the care of the girls’ aunt. And she, the girls come to understand, is not a stable person herself. Without question, the novel is preoccupied with the generational, genealogical succession of suffering. But it also makes sustained allusions to the book of Genesis, particularly the flood narrative: God’s failed attempt to wipe the world clean of the very errors he could not eradicate from creation — his creations.
Robinson's female characters are adrift, most often by accident or by dangers posed by others. She places her characters in domestic situations, but they are not and never seem like they could be domesticated, for the characters reveal dimensions of the truly wild and uncivilized. I like that she places her stories on the margins of society and she uses these margins to explore being.  Her characters are wary but not fearful.  Yet Robinson is concerned about the pervasive fear in our culture today, and she feels it becomes a rationale for avoiding action.  Mason wrote:
And it was here that Robinson brought up fear: How it has come to keep us at bay from our best selves, the selves that could and should “do something.” In her case, that “something” has been writing. For Robinson, writing is not a craft; it is “testimony,” a bearing witness: an act that demands much of its maker, not least of which is the courage to reveal what one loves. 
“A lot of people who actually believe in the sacredness of life, they write things that are horrible, desolating things, ” Robinson said. “Because, for some reason, this deeper belief doesn’t turn the world. . . . It comes down to fear; the fear of making self-revelation of the seriousness of ‘I sense a sacredness in things.’ ”
In Housekeeping, Robinson opens the story with a tale of the grandfather and a train derailment:
The disaster took place midway through a moonless night. The train, which was black and sleek and elegant, and was called the Fireball, had pulled more than halfway across the bridge when the engine nosed over toward the lake and then the rest of the train slid after it into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock.   
 The sound of the language evokes poetry: the image is drawn with vivid strokes.  The alliteration: "midway through a moonless night." The m sound shift to l sounds: "black and sleek and elegant...called the Fireball, pulled..."  "into the water like a weasel sliding..."  Some vowel sounds also are particularly powerful:  through/moonless; nosed over; off a rock.  The midway-ness of the night and the train on the bridge underline the midway-ness of the lives interrupted by the event. It marks the town. It presages the suicide of the girls' mother who also takes her car and drives off a cliff.  It begins a cascade of loss: The train disappears, the mother disappears, followed by the grandmother, and the great aunts.

In Lila, Robinson opens the story with Doll mercifully removing the child Lila from the cold porch where she's been put. Her decision was an impulsive act, a kidnapping, but had she not taken her, the child probably would have died:
She hitched up her apron to cover the child's legs and carried her out past the clearing. The door might have opened, and woman might have called after them, Where you going with that child? and then, after a minute, closed the door again, as if she done all decency required. "Well," Doll whispered, "we'll just have to see."  
The road wasn't really much more than a path, but Doll had walked it so often in the dark that she stepped over the roots and around the potholes and never paused or stumbled. She could walk quickly when there was no light at all. And was strong enough that even an awkward burden like a leggy child could rest in her arms almost asleep.   
Again the spare and vivid images and the alliterative phrases create a powerful beginning.  This is an act of courage that saves Lila's life, and marks a fugitive existence. Doll must fight with her ready and finely honed knife--the members of Lila's family have followed in pursuit or in revenge--and Doll takes the life of a man. After Lila meets the Reverend, marries him, and waits her child's birth, the novel traces her haunting memories, secrets, and speculations about her origins. Her early life, in the company of Doll and the loose group of homeless, itinerant workers was a tenuous existence.

The knife is a significant metaphor of survival used to prepare food, defend, and even cut the girl's fine hair. It severs Lila from her past; it protects her, and finally it becomes a talisman of the woman who loved her.  This last remaining link to Doll Lila treasures.  In this marriage, Lila constantly thinks of departure; the thoughts are a metaphorical knife that threatens to cut her marital and community ties. She is welcomed in Gilead, but she finds it difficult to acclimate to a routine, safe life.  Trust is slow in coming. Her world doesn't feel quite real. She has been so damaged by neglect, mistrust, and abuse she can hardly relate to her new role as the wife of a pastor.

Lila's questions about her past are never answered, and her questions of why life is like it is are also left to linger, and slowly she and her husband, the elderly Reverend, find their way to a conversation, in their growing intimacy, that explores that question.

Poetry takes many forms; and I find it in the writing of Marilynne Robinson. In a review of Harold Bloom's American Religious Poems, Marilynne Robinson writes:
The threshold between the life we know and whatever follows is a mystery religion has always addressed, and for which it has tended to provide the imagination with language and imagery. Dante and Milton created grand visions of a cosmos ordered to serve the ends of divine justice. But there is strikingly little interest among American poets in mapping the terrain of heaven and hell. In place of mythopoesis, their attention is turned on the actual, the phenomenal. And it is turned on the universal, solitary, subjective experience of the transformation, or the end, of consciousness. If death is the mother of beauty, it is the mother also of the deepest self-awareness, the consciousness of the nerves and senses that translate experience as beauty, and as meaning.
The marriage of Lila and the Reverend is a good marriage, and yet it measures the distance between the two people with vastly different life experiences. They almost don't speak the same language.  Lila grew up illiterate and unschooled, except for one year.  She doesn't have words for things, but like many illiterate people, she makes like she understands. The one thing that she does read is the Bible, rich in poetry. Robinson's new book maps the terrain of heaven and hell with aching beauty.

June 5, 2015

Dusk 'til Dawn

This is a sneak peak of the large scale projection planned for June 13, 2015 Northern Spark Festival in Minneapolis. Mill City Requiem for Solo Instrument and Distance.  Interactive web film by Kathy McTavish with text by Sheila Packa.  These lines are from my poem "Dusk" in Echo and Lightning (Wildwood River Press, c2010).

on her body / dusk
the circle of light
from the lamp falls on a pot
upon a round bowl
in front of the window
on her hips
roses bloom
as if the light has found
a way to enter the body
it's raining outside
water flows into the vessels
and blossoms and out
on the umbrella
over the empty table
on the lilacs
as if music as if light
plunged into the clouds
and the clouds wrapped
around its fists
green leaves all hearts
and stems like vines
and the light in the body
went into the roots
and the roots were sending it back
as if we were wrapped
by clouds and rain
and in the center
darkness lifted

June 4, 2015

Northern Spark: Mill City Requiem - #nspk

Mill City Requiem for Solo Instrument and Distance is presented as part of Northern Spark 2015, produced by Northern
June 13, 2015, dusk till dawn, at the Mill City Ruins, Minneapolis, MN 

Sheila Packa, Kathy McTavish and cello
This is a live performance, a large video installation,  and an interactive, navigational mobile experience ::: The mobile device is a glass boat in a submerged storyworld. The user rubs Aladdin's lamp - touches the glass - an act of "reading" that will bring you into an underground storyworld.  At intervals, Kathy McTavish will perform live improv cello with the underwater soundscape and the projection. 

Projection, web design and code by Kathy McTavish.  "The River / Requiem" by Sheila Packa.  See the mobile first web design at  This is an image of the interactive web application.

Navigation: If you choose to share your location, will assign an avatar and a client # to you and track your distance from the center @ Mill City Museum on the Mississippi River.  The website lists all clients currently on line.

Telegraph: This is an internal telegraph service that enables users to type in phrases and see the words scroll on the mobile screen.

Live, freestyle poetry: On the night of Northern Spark, Sheila Packa and Kathleen Roberts will be doing freestyle, improv poetry on their mobile devices.  You can watch on your own mobile device, and add your words to theirs.  Sheila Packa, Kathleen Roberts, and friends will be at the Northern Spark projection site to meet with you and show you how to participate in the freestyle writing. Beware! It's totally addicting! Your text will scroll down the screen and become part of the scene.

E-book: "The River" adapted from Undertow and Echo and Lightning poems by Sheila Packa in html5, javascript, css3 with symbol fonts and vector graphics drawn to the screen.  For more information about the books, see

Music: Live and recorded music by Kathy McTavish / cello, found sound, and recorded voice by Sheila Packa

The aviary links you with twitter, an ongoing twitter-dialogue. Tweets in the story are by Kathleen Roberts, Kathy McTavish, Sheila Packa, and readers like you who tweet to #millcityio

Kathleen Roberts of Prøve Gallery, Duluth
and here's a photo of mad Kathleen:

History of the Mill City Museum: Originally, this building was a Gold Medal flour mill.  Later the building was abandoned and fell into disrepair, and homeless people navigated through the treacherous floors (with openings that could drop you down several levels).  Graffiti over the doorway read "Hotel Victory."  A photo exhibit "Homeless in the Mill" by JobyLynn Sassily-James, 1997, documents the Hotel Victory. It is on display in the Mill City Museum.  

Northern Spark is an all-night arts festival that lights up the night on June 13, 2015. On the second Saturday of June, tens of thousands of people gather throughout Minneapolis to explore the city's great cultural institutions, play in temporary installations in the streets, and enjoy experimental performances in green spaces and under bridges. Northern Spark is presented by Northern, a nonprofit arts organization with the mission to transform our sense of what’s possible in public space.  On June 13, tune into social media for up-to-date happenings. 

June 3, 2015

To Come Into Bloom Again

To Come Into Bloom Again

To feel the sun draw sap through the stem
to let the spring air shake the leaves
and to bend....

To feel the bud turn to blossom and when wind
scatters the petals, turn to fruit.

--Sheila Packa

June 2, 2015

Night Train Red Dust - NEMBA Award

The 27th Annual North East Minnesota Book Awards was on May 21, 2015.   Night Train Red Dust received recognition!

The judges wrote: "Sheila Packa’s newest collection of poetry is filled with three-dimensional images of the variety and complexity of life on Minnesota’s Iron Range during the middle years of the twentieth century. Like the iron itself, these poems 'bleed with rust/ and come with their own rules.'"

June 1, 2015


The Galen Palimpsest
I come to every text with the knowledge that it has risen from a culture, and that it overlays many stories. It is a map that lays over other maps, and words overlay other words from the language that influences the author and his or her place in the world.      


In an ancient book of hymns, The Galen Palimpsest, an undertext was discovered to be a 9th century medicinal book, "On the Mixtures and Powers of Simple Drugs."  According to a recent NYTimes article, scientists are at work using new technologies on the Galen Palimpsest to reveal was written beneath.  The palimpsest is so exciting because it reveals deep histories.  

The ancient manuscripts were difficult to make and the vellum or parchment were often reused for new texts. The old text was scraped off (scriptio inferior, the "underwriting" or undertext) and the new was inscribed (usually perpendicular to the old text.)   

According to Wikipedia, the word palimpsest: 
derives from the Latin palimpsestus, from the Ancient Greek παλίμψηστος (palímpsestos, "scratched again", "scraped again") originally compounded from ψάω(psao, "to scrape") and πάλιν (palin, "again"), thus meaning "scraped clean and used again". The Ancient Romans wrote (literally scratched on letters) on wax-coated tablets, which were easily re-smoothed and reused; Cicero's use of the term "palimpsest" confirms such a practice.  


I like writing that serves as a palimpsest, even if the paper is new paper or perhaps not paper at all but computer code or audio files online, what I like to find is evidence of the past histories, places, and language from which the new work arises. Some might think of this as spectral traces or shadows that lend depth and dimension.  Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki (July 24, 1886–July 30, 1965) wrote In Praise of Shadows 
We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates… Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.
One thing against another -- the shadows, the layers -- makes a texture, a weave, with which it is possible to find read far more than is written.  

May 14, 2015

Women's Stories in northern Minnesota

KUWS: Wisconsin - Women's History Month - People of Color - Radio Interviewer Gerri Williams April 26, 2015

Sheila Packa, Dani Pieratos, Dr. Linda LeGarde Grover, Mary Dedeke, writer and poet, Xuan Chen, UWS International student majoring in writing and philosophy and guest co-host Gerri Williams - just before the start of POC with Henry Banks Show last night @ WPR Northwest studios.

April 25, 2015

Experimental Histories & The New Narrative

Recently, I've been interested in using experimental forms of story within my creative work. Of course, this is not new in the field of literature (poetry, fiction, drama, or memoir), and it also isn't new in the field of history. Historians grapple with narrative, and they search for ways to convey several, even conflicting, perspectives. In historiography, the writing of history, some use experimental methods to provide a more complete story. In an article about designing a college course in experimental history, Martha Hodes wrote "complexity is a crucial component of sound historical analysis." It's also a crucial component of story-telling.

History archives offer rich resources for details, characters, settings, and plots; the story I've been working on recently mines historic archives to create a world that explores the effect of the past on contemporary life.

Stephen Muecke. "Experimental history implies a gap between what has made sense in the past, and what no longer makes sense, whether it is past events or new ones demanding to be gathered into the fold of meaning."  It used to be that people believed "objectivity" could be achieved. But now, no longer can readers accept "one story" that may reflect the dominant group in power. There is more than one gaze: male, female, and in between. There are many cultures on any point on a map, and many political perspectives. There are many species. There are class differences. Multiple subjectivities bring all of us closer to "the truth." The experimental form allows for more points of view and more connections.  

Of course, the historical record should reflect the materials in the archives and empiric evidence. Initially the juxtaposition of the word experimental with the word history may seem problematic, but certainly it is a more sensible approach.  Experimental does not need to mean fictitious. It refers to the process and structure of the narrative. Perhaps it might bring together old sound recordings with artifacts, images of now extinct species (for it is not only humans who have cultures), and old documents. Perhaps it might overlay maps and narratives and crop reports to reflect changes over time. The writer of fiction and poetry often embraces juxtapositions, a variety of voices, and other surprises. In the final form, the story must be believable.

What does experimental history look like?  Merle Patchett kept a blog, Experimental Geography in Practice: exploring correspondences between geographic research and experimental and artistic practices.  She wrote:
Through my PhD research I developed an experimental historiography that drew creative resource from the purposeful assemblage and rehabilitation of diffuse historical fragments to form unorthodox archives. My adoption of a form of historical ‘assemblage method’ (Law 2004) is to be read as a challenge the historian’s fidelity to conventional empirical and archival evidence, in that I attempted to make the materials I assembled count precisely by not forcing them to fit within a pre-determined narrative, recognising instead that materials themselves can create knowledge, or at least encourage open and imaginative thought. 
In this way I sought to craft a form of historiography that is alive to the ultimate alterity of past lives (human or otherwise), events, and places, recognising that what remains of them is always going to partial, provisional, incomplete and therefore what is being presented is always already, to invoke Derrida, “sous rature” – under erasure. 
I am now attempting to develop my form of experimental historiography into a form of curatorial presentation.
The phrase "the ultimate alterity of past lives" suggests that each historic personage holds a degree of complexity.  One version or one interpretation can be discarded over another version or interpretation. This scholar of geography and creative artist brought together sound recordings, old photographs, and excerpts of documents into beautiful and haunting presentations that allowed her to interrogate the cultural bias and assumptions of past explorers. These disparate elements, when placed in close proximity, express much more than a single-threaded narrative. They serve as collaborating evidence, and even more, the reader/viewer grasps possibility, tension, and meaning in the gaps.

Narrative has also a potential for healing. For awhile, the term "cultural competency" was used in human service organizations as they attempted to understand and provide services to diverse populations. A better term is now arisen: cultural humility. We should not presume that we can know enough about a person, a culture, or a landscape to make blanket statements. Deep listening helps a writer build believable characters and good poems. In poetry, a spare style will evoke multiple meanings.  It's best to avoid assumptions, and to listen to the gaps and silences.

Creativity can be a transformative force that gives breath and sustenance to people who are suffering. Artistic and activist memory work recognizes the effects of past atrocity on landscapes and their new inhabitants.  Mapping Spectral Traces is a group of scholars, writers, artists, and activists who attempt to address trauma in communities. The Creativity and Madness conference in Sante Fe, intended for mental health professionals, investigates the psychology of art and artists. Madness is analyzed in relationship to creativity.

Lewis Mahl Medrona, MD, PhD, spoke about the power of story-telling and history in the practice of narrative medicine. This practice can be surprising. He related a case study, the mental health treatment of a Native American man who suffered from alcoholism, diabetes, and post-traumatic stress from childhood.  Medrona's brilliant intervention involved a ceremony giving the man a new childhood. The line doesn't necessarily have to be drawn between fiction and nonfiction. What he offered this man was a new interpretation of his life, and new possibility. Interpretations of a real event demonstrates vastly different perspectives among eye-witnesses; different possibilities evoke different outcomes.

In "A Long Note on New Narrative" by Robert Glück, the author identifies and defines a method of literary practice termed New Narrative:
We were thinking about autobiography; by autobiography we meant daydreams, night dreams, the act of writing, the relationship to the reader, the meeting of flesh and culture, the self as collaboration, the self as disintegration, the gaps, inconsistencies and distortions, the enjambments of power, family, history and language.
This writing acknowledges multi-faceted life. If we lack imagination, we lack life's necessary tools. New narrative is conscious of meta-data, similar to other experimental forms. Many writers and poets employ these methods to present a more complex and bigger story. Experimental history, or literature, or music offers us new perspectives and new patterns. This dynamic and creative field brings new gifts.

April 15, 2015

Mitchell Yards - Artists of the Iron Range

Thank you to the Playlist WDSE for celebrating art and artists.  This documentary about a place, a time, and the artists Dan Turner, Sheila Packa, Paul Seeba, and David Aho will move you!

April 10, 2015

Night Train Red Dust

Thanks to WDSE Playlist:
The first poem, "Sketch" is about a true story that occurred in 1914 during the labor strike in Biwabik at the home of Philip Masonovich.  Two company guards arrived at the home, purported to check on a "blind pig" or still.  A scuffle ensued, and a gun went off and shot one of the guards who was outside near the horse and wagon.  Mr and Mrs Masonovich were taken into custody. Even the baby went to jail.  Charges were also filed against union organizers who were 75 miles away.   The sketch is proletarian form of writing: a character, a situation, but not necessarily a plot.  I chose the word sketch for the title because of the ambiguity of the situation.  Nobody really knows who said or did what, or who was to blame. We do know that the companied hired and armed men, and that these men used their guns.  A mine worker was shot in the back in Gilbert, and seven thousand people marched at his funeral, including the union organizer for the Wobblies, Helen Gurley Flynn. She later became one of the founding members of the ACLU.