March 31, 2015

Minnesota Orchestra: Poetry and the Composer

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In February 2016 the Minnesota Orchestra and Vänskä, joined by Finland’s YL Male Voice Choir and vocal soloists Lilli Paasikivi and Tommy Hakala, will make a live, in-concert recording of Sibelius’ Kullervo. The Orchestra, YL Male Voice Choir and Paasikivi will also record Kortekangas’ Migrations, and the Orchestra and Choir will record Sibelius’ Finlandia, all live in concert.

The Orchestra’s offerings of contemporary music include the world premiere of Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas’ Migrations, with the YL Male Voice Choir and mezzo Lilli Paasikivi singing text by Duluth-based poet Sheila Packa.

March 26, 2015

History and Memoir

I want to celebrate the poet Natasha Tretheway. Her work inspired me while I wrote Night Train Red Dust (a poetic people's history of my Iron Range). Natasha Trethewey's work comes out of the intersection of history and memoir. The people she writes about had been forgotten by history, nearly erased. Of her book, Native Guard, she said, "I was thinking about the buried history we overlook. Really so much of it is literally beneath us -- the real bones of the people who are beneath us. The Native Guard was a troop of black soldiers who fought for the Union cause during the Civil War. They are a forgotten story in Mississippi and in US history. Here are excerpts from interviews with the poet:

I think I’m someone who has a constant awareness of things that are invisible... I think it in some ways comes from growing up in New Orleans...people either love it or they hate it. People who hate it think it’s seedy. I always think that seediness is just the presence of this history. There are ghosts everywhere around you.
This book won the Pulitzer Prize, but it also holds her own family story about her mother who was murdered by her stepfather. This connects the violence in the political sphere with violence in the domestic sphere. It gives this work a deep emotional heart. The poems are beautifully crafted and haunting.

For a long time I thought the main thing was the Native Guard. When I took my grandmother to a restaurant on the beach on Ship Island, someone heard our conversation and told me this history that I hadn’t learned my whole life. It occurred to me that there was all kinds of historical erasure like that -- things that get left out of the record and are equally important in the history of us as Americans. I started doing research about the guards, and that was what I wanted to write about.
My more personal poems, about me and my place in the South, started to enter into this book. I saw that connection. I started thinking about my place as a southerner, and as biracial, and as a black southerner and what gets left out of history and who’s responsible for remembering, recording, those things that are left out -- the native duty of many of us."
She served two terms as US Poet Laureate, and I look forward to reading her new work, and I hope she will continue to receive accolades and recognition of her important writing.
See more information and links at
Also see: 

March 18, 2015

Art, Code and Narrative

James Coupe, Sanctum. Commissioned by the Henry Art Gallery, with support from the Barton Family Foundation, Linden Rhoads and DXARTS.
Skill Share: A Northern SymposiumMarch 27-28, 2015 at the Soap FactoryFree, registration required for both days on EventBriteSponsored by the Jerome Foundation
Join us for a conversation on art, surveillance and narrative plus an afternoon knowledge-share of information every artist working with media in the public sphere needs to know.  Part artist talk, part skills fair and part happy hour, this gathering aims to build knowledge, peer learning and expand networks around contemporary digital art in conjunction with Art(ists) on the Verge.
Friday, March 27, 7 pmJames Coupe: Metadata and Meta Narratives
Co-presented with What’s Up Pop Up by Sarah Lutman and Associates
Using surveillance systems, social media, and neuroscience, James Coupe makes art that approaches narrative in unusual ways. Some works are composed by using pre-existing literary or cinematic templates as a framework; others take social media as a narrative framework in itself. For example, in (re)collector, a city-wide surveillance camera network attempted to reconstruct Antonioni’s classic film, Blow Up, from people’s everyday activities; and in Today, too, I experienced something I hope to understand in a few days, Facebook’s profiling algorithms are used to generate films that use people’s status updates as scripts.
The talk will consider the use of narrative in Coupe’s work alongside a discussion of metadata, surveillance and autonomous systems.
James Coupe is an artist and associate professor at the University of Washington’s renowned DX Arts program.

March 16, 2015

Algebra and Fire

Matthew 25:30 – by Jorge Luis Borges
And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness:
there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The first bridge on Constitution. At my feet
the shunting trains trace iron labyrinths.
Steam hisses up and up into the night
which becomes, at a stroke, the Night of the Last Judgment.
From the unseen horizon,
and from the very center of my being,
an infinite voice pronounced these things–
things, not words. This is my feeble translation,
time-bound, of what was a single limitless Word:

"Stars, bread, libraries of East and West,
playing cards, chessboards, galleries, skylights, cellars,
a human body to walk with on the earth,
fingernails, growing at nighttime and in death,
shadows for forgetting, mirrors which endlessly multiply,
falls in music, gentlest of all time’s shapes,
borders of Brazil, Uruguay, horses and morning,
a bronze weight, a copy of Grettir Saga,
algebra and fire, the charge at Junin in your blood,
days more crowded than Balzac, scent of the honeysuckle,
love, and the imminence of love, and intolerable remembering,
dreams like buried treasure, generous luck,
and memory itself, where a glance can make men dizzy–

all this was given to you and, with it,
the ancient nourishment of heroes–
treachery, defeat, humiliation.
In vain have oceans been squandered on you, in vain
the sun, wonderfully seen through Whitman’s eyes.

You have used up the years and they have used up you,
and still, and still, you have not written the poem."

–Translated by Alastair Reid

Aristotle and Ovid

New work is underway, and I search for new forms. The greatest influences on literature are Aristotle and Ovid.  They offer two different methods of story-telling.

Aristotle in Poetics focused his attention on these elements: plot, character, thought, diction, song, spectacle, and catharsis.  This design usually features a compelling narrative focused on the intense desires of a main character.  Sparknotes contains an analysis of Aristotle's Poetics:
Plot, derived from the word muthos (the root word for myth, Greek) applied to any art form, including music or sculpture. The muthos of a piece of art is its general structure and organization. It means not the sequence of events so much as the logical relationships that exist between events. The best kind of plot of muthos contains surprises, those that fit logically into the sequence of events. The best kinds of surprises are brought about by "peripeteia," or reversal of fortune, and "anagnorisis," or discovery.
In addition, I particularly value the following thoughts from Poetics by Aristotle:
Every word is either current, or strange, or metaphorical, or ornamental,
or newly-coined, or lengthened, or contracted, or altered. 
...the poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities.
...magnitude in the sense of the astronomical...brightness or power...  
On the other hand, Ovid's Metamorphoses has also greatly influenced literature and the arts. Larry A. Brown writes: "...there is no central hero, thus no simple Aristotelian unity to the work. So what binds this poem together, making it more than a random collection of stories? We might first consider three superficial strategies of unity within the poem:
  • All of Ovid's tales involve metamorphosis. But some stories (see Phaethon, Pentheus, Heracles) only have metamorphosis tacked on as an incidental element, almost as an afterthought. Ovid is more interested in metamorphosis as a universal principle which explains the nature of the world: Troy falls, Rome rises. Nothing is permanent.
  • Chronological progression: Ovid begins his poem with the story of creation and the flood, and ends in his own day with Augustus on the throne. However, chronology becomes unimportant in the vast middle section of work, as seen by the numerous anachronisms throughout (see notes on Callisto, Atlas, Cycnus stories for examples).
  • Transitional links: Ovid continually surprises us, as we never know where he's going next. He changes strategies using several techniques
Ovid presents a much more associational form, a theme with variations: "gods acting like humans (section I), to humans suffering at the hands of gods (II), to humans suffering at the hands of humans (III), to humans becoming gods (IV)," according to Brown.

Of the two styles of storytelling, I find myself more often prone to Ovid that Aristotle.  My work has been always focused on changes, including Migrations, the anthology of Lake Superior area writers that I collected.  Poetry is often associational.  But as I work on my new play, I can see the strengths of Aristotle's approach, and so I aim to incorporate structural elements of both.

Work Cited:

Aristotle.  Poetics. Written 350 B.C.E.  (full text) The Internet Classics Archive. MIT.  Web Retrieved

Brown, Larry A. Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Web. Retrieved 16 March 2015. 

Philosophy Study Guides. Aristotle. Poetics. 384-322 B.C.   SparkNotes. Web. Retrieved 16 March 2015.