December 26, 2016

Democracy: A Poem by Leonard Cohen

In these dark days Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman found comfort and hope in the work of Leonard Cohen. Together they recorded this new version of “Democracy.” Amanda composed the piano and Neil recorded the lyrics. Their friends David Mack and Olga Nunes created this stunning video to go with the song. 

December 13, 2016

One River Many Stories

Congratulations to Tom Isbell and the cast at UMD Theater.  "One River" has been chosen to travel to the KCACTF Region 5 Festival this January. This is a unique and moving performance that celebrates the history and people of the St. Louis River in Minnesota. And yes there are a few poems of mine in the script.

Also--if you missed your chance to see "One River" this fall, or would like to see it again--there will be having an encore performance at the Marshall Performing Arts Center at UMD in mid January before they leave for the festival. Hope to see you there!  

Kayla Peters playing the character of Sheila Packa in the play. 

November 26, 2016

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes believed in humanity and he had hope for a world in which people could sanely and with understanding live together. 

Let America Be America Again
Langston Hughes, 1902 - 1967

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? 
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes.  Retrieved 25 Nov 2016.

November 22, 2016

Wislawa Szymborska

If history has taught us anything, it is that civil liberty and democracy can change in one day. Polarizing political campaigns turn into extremism.  Slogans and rhetoric can mask many things. People need to stand with the victims of violence and prejudice. Everybody needs to be treated with dignity and respect. We must stand together for justice and peace. 

The Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

See how efficient it still is,
how it keeps itself in shape—
our century’s hatred.
How easily it vaults the tallest obstacles.
How rapidly it pounces, tracks us down.

It’s not like other feelings.
At once both older and younger.
It gives birth itself to the reasons
that give it life.
When it sleeps, it’s never eternal rest.
And sleeplessness won’t sap its strength; it feeds it.

One religion or another –
whatever gets it ready, in position.
One fatherland or another –
whatever helps it get a running start.
Justice also works well at the outset
until hate gets its own momentum going.
Hatred. Hatred.
Its face twisted in a grimace
of erotic ecstasy.

Oh these other feelings,
listless weaklings.
Since when does brotherhood
draw crowds?
Has compassion
ever finished first?
Does doubt ever really rouse the rabble?
Only hatred has just what it takes.

Gifted, diligent, hard-working.
Need we mention all the songs it has composed?
All the pages it has added to our history books?
All the human carpets it has spread
over countless city squares and football fields?

Let’s face it:
it knows how to make beauty.
The splendid fire-glow in midnight skies.
Magnificent bursting bombs in rosy dawns.
You can’t deny the inspiring pathos of ruins
and a certain bawdy humor to be found
in the sturdy column jutting from their midst.

Hatred is a master of contrast-
between explosions and dead quiet,
red blood and white snow.
Above all, it never tires
of its leitmotif – the impeccable executioner
towering over its soiled victim.

It’s always ready for new challenges.
If it has to wait awhile, it will.
They say it’s blind. Blind?
It has a sniper’s keen sight
and gazes unflinchingly at the future
as only it can.

October 23, 2016

Meridel Le Sueur as a Poet

by Meridel Le Sueur

There is a nest in the marble pillar of your neck
Where young birds fly.
They beat their spiced wings within the blossom of your breasts,
Full flower.
The red and restless birds of your pulses are ravenous
And flutter sharply against my hands.

Night, and the fluttering of small birds
In the fragrant copse of your flesh, beloved,
Amidst white grasses, fragrant and sweet.
The silent singing of winged birds
Startled from their crimson marshes
By a too bold hunter;
Startled winging against your pale opal flesh, their sky,
Night and the throbbing of passing wings, multitudinous,in your body.

Your skin is tremulous with the amorous movement of caged birds.
One I captured, trembled in my hands,
And shut its green shadowed eyes to my flame lips,
My captive bird, beloved.

Your body is full of little birds moving in their sleep.
My lips find them in the intimate nest of your neck,
My lips startle them into flight beneath the marble arch of your arm.
Your body is full of little birds singing as they fly.

Poetry Magazine
May 1924

September 3, 2016


As a poet, I obsess over forms and patterns of language. Caroline Levine has a fascinating new book that examines form in the fields of literature, cultural studies, and politics. She eliminates boundaries at the same time that she explores a myriad of forms, and she offers a fresh way for writers to consider their material.

She is a person sensitive to pattern, and she begans this book with a reference to Jane Eyre.  In the description of Lowood, the school that Jane Eyre attends, Levine notices the organization of the day: girls lining up in two straight lines, ascending stairs to a room where in fours, the girls assemble in circles around the tables.   She explores these recurring and interesting shapes in Brontë's writing for its aesthetic and social implications.  She borrows a concept from design theory, the affordances of form.  She says:

"Broadening our definition of form to include social arrangements has, as we will see, immediate methodological consequences. The traditionally troubling gap between the form of the literary text and its content and context dissolves. Formalist analysis turns out to be valuable to understanding sociopolitical institutions as it is to reading literature. Forms are at work everywhere," Levine writes in the introduction. She continues with the analysis:

Over many centuries, form has gestured to a series of conflicting, sometimes even paradoxical meanings. Form can mean an immaterial idea, as in Plato, or material shape, as in Aristotle. It can indicate essence, but it can also mean superficial trappings, such as conventions—mere forms. Form can be generalizing and abstract, or highly particular (as in the form this thing is what makes it what it is, and if it were reorganized it would not be same thing). Form can be cast as historical, emerging out of the particular cultural or political circumstances, or it can be understood as ahistorical, transcending the specificities of history. In disciplinary terms, form can point us to visual art, music, and literature, but it belongs equally to philosophy, law, mathematics, military science, and crystallography.  Even within literary studies, the vocabulary of formalism has always been a surprising kind of hodgepodge, put together from rhetoric, prosody, genre theory, structural anthropology, philology, linguistics, folklore, narratology, and semiotics.  
…forms are the stuff of politics….the work of political power often involves enforcing restrictive containers and boundaries—such as nation-states, bounded subjects, and domestic walls. But politics is not only about imposing order on space. It also involves organizing time: determining prison and presidential terms, naturalization periods, and the legal age for voting, military service, and sexual consent. Crucially, politics also means enforcing hierarchies of high and low, white and black, masculine and feminine, straight and queer, have and have-not. In other words, politics involves activities of ordering, patterning, and shaping. And if the political is a matter of imposing and enforcing boundaries, temporal patterns, and hierarchies on experience, then there is no politics without form.  
For a long time, I've called poetry a pattern language, and I'm delighted to bring this method of seeing patterns to a broad spectrum of perception, composition, human experience.

Levine, Caroline. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Princetown University Press. c2015.

July 8, 2016

One River Many Stories

One River Many Stories was a community wide story-telling event for the Duluth and St Louis River region.  It was initiated by Paul Lundgren, John Hatcher and many others in the Journalism program at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and it included students, area poets and writers, journalists, photographers, artists, scientists and activists.  The One River Many Stories presented a series of events: an art show at the Duluth Art Institute featuring the photography of Ivy Vainio and area citizens and an interactive map, workshops for adults and kids, readings and a celebration.      

On April 27, 2016 creative writers came together to present their stories and poems at UWS. This was recorded by KUMD radio for future broadcast.   It's available to stream or to download the mp3 at

For more information about One River Many Stories, see

Thank you to Karen Sunderman and the camera crew at WDSE, John Hatcher, Jennifer Moore, and Judy Budreau and the many others involved in the project.   

The Poetic Process of Molly Peacock

Creative work develops in such interesting ways, in a combination of both freedom and constraint. In a Brief Guide to Oulipu on, the reader can consider ways to create literature using structural constraints:
Although poetry and mathematics often seem to be incompatible areas of study, the philosophy of OULIPO seeks to connect them. Founded in 1960 by French mathematician Francois de Lionnais and writer Raymond Queneau, Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (OULIPO), or Workshop of Potential Literature, investigates the possibilities of verse written under a system of structural constraints. Lionnais and Quenuau believed in the profound potential of a poem produced within a framework or formula and that, if done in a playful posture, the outcomes could be endless.
Molly Peacock has spoken about the evolution of her book: Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions.  I find it fascinating to consider her project from its inception to the finished form.  In an interview by Laura Bast (, Ms Peacock says:
A dear friend of mine, Phillis Levin, had given an assignment to her students to write a poem with an ambiguous pronoun, where you may not know who or what is behind this pronoun, and your reader certainly doesn’t. So I thought, I’m going to try this. When I started it, I was thinking about the idea that things only mean if they come into language. As a child I thought, “I have thoughts in my head. But I can’t put them into words.” I think that is the essence of poetry. A poem is about the things you don’t have words for.
In a blog post, Molly Peacock wrote
As a writer in my seventh decade, I’ve been shocked at the twists and turns my own creative life has taken. Alphabetique began as a book of poems, then transmogrified into twenty-six brief imaginary biographical tales of those shapes we call letters.
In another interview in Duende Literary Magazine, she says:
My poems reveal themselves both in an inchoate idea and in a design, or a form.  I seem to create a kind of mental playing ground before the poem can develop.  I didn’t know how “The Poet” would evolve, except that I had set myself the assignment of writing a prose poem for each letter of the alphabet, and for using as much alliteration as I could without destroying the sense of the story. “P” was for poet, but I didn’t want to convey that autobiographically. Instead, I wanted to make a statement about all of poetry, but to take the grandness of that enterprise and make it fun, too.  I thought of the first poems that influenced me as a girl:  poems by Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki.  Their haiku on the page had always looked to me like lily pads on a pond. The point of view of a young man in a far-off time seized me.  He wore a kimono.  (I always write poems early in the morning, often in my kimono-like bathrobe.) Could I actually write both the story and the poems of this young man?  By the pond, and with a desire to include that delicious word “petrichor,” the poem was launched.
Book reviewer Steven W. Beattie writes:
Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, and the other Oulipo writers, united by what Daniel Levin Becker calls “strict technical constraints or elaborate architectural designs,” have had a largely unacknowledged effect on Canadian writing in the 21st century. Their influence is most apparent in the realm of poetry: the key Canadian Oulipo text is Christian Bök’s Eunoia, which won the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize. Bök’s volume – a series of sections each employing only a single vowel – recalls Perec’s novel La Disparition, written entirely without the use of the letter “e.” 
The success of Bök’s experiment – Eunoia is one of the bestselling works of poetry this country has seen in the new millennium – has led to a proliferation of conceptual poetic works that employ Oulipo-like constraints, but this phenomenon has not really made inroads into prose. It is fitting, then, that Molly Peacock, a memoirist and author of the well-received 2010 non-fiction hybrid The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, is also a poet. Peacock’s latest work, the intriguing and beautifully produced Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions, while not as rigorously constrained as Bök, recalls the Oulipians in its premise and execution. 
As the title suggests, the book comprises 26 vignettes, each centred on a character named for a single letter in the alphabet.
While the Oulipo techniques might sound too artificial or esoteric, the work of Molly Peacock provides an example of its possibilities and pleasures.

To buy her books, visit her website:

May 29, 2016

Experiments in Text

Lance Olsen writes experimental fiction.  He teaches this form at the University of Utah.  He's interested in theory and has explored in his writing hypermedia text.

Using structured collage, he creates books from assembled small text units that he calls narraticules. These small, finely written paragraphs of about five sentences are building blocks and can create interesting juxtapositions and provide polyphonic effects.

In Olsen's book,  Head in Flames, he uses these units to reflect shifts in voices, time periods, and consciousness.   Changes in font are used as well.  Readers can read the work in a linear fashion, or in a horizontal fashion (following the same font).

 He's interested in remixing other writers' texts in the form of quotation, saying he likes "how it cuts up and cuts off what it’s quoting, and by doing so releases new meanings and contexts that can and do surprise author as well as reader.

His work reminded me of the Piglia's: "Theses on the Short Story."  Piglia focused on story within a story in short forms.  Olsen works in long forms, and he brings together disparate elements in interesting ways.  In "A Long Note on New Narrative" by Robert Glück 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.
The new hybrid writing, reflected recently in Claudia Rankine's Citizen and Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts, offers an engaging, elastic form that appeals to the way we think these days.  Some say we have a new brain, influenced by the internet and its devices.  All of us in the culture have attention that is further and further divided, and all of us must face complex and developing tensions and rifts in our growing population. This new narrative form provides ways to bring forward multiple threads: history, memoir, philosophy, art, and what-have-you.

In an interview published in Rain Taxi, Lance talks about his influences and forms.
Push yourself. Take chances. Remain curious. Remain crazy. Don’t do the same thing twice. Try to fail in interesting ways. Ask yourself: what forms and fictions comprise the realism our culture understands? Don’t rescript yesterday. Always write what you want to read, not what you think others do. Don’t compromise. Realize if you’ve got an answer, chances are you’re not a writer. Realize, along with John Cage, that you shouldn’t be frightened of new ideas; it’s the old ones that should scare you. Realize, along with T. S. Eliot, that only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go. Reach out and support other writers. Realize you write because you don’t know what you think until you do, and then you know it even less. Understand this writing thing isn’t a competition; all of us can win all the time. Think of yourself as part of an oceanic conversation about life and narrative that extends across time and space, and ask yourself where your voice fits in, how you can help other voices be heard. And if you plan to write for fame or fortune, do something else immediately. Seriously.
As I explore my own presentation of new work, to be published in a transmedia form, I find his thoughts useful.  Instead of narraticule, I consider the building blocks to be stanzaic. I too want to avoid linear readings, preferring a multi-verse in which the reader chooses his or her own path.  I want to express the process of this new work.

For the interview with Lance Olsen:

For notes about multiverse stanzas in transmedia:

May 24, 2016

Casting More Than One Shadow

Mary Oliver has described poetry as writing that casts more than one shadow.  By this phrase, she refers to the way that poems can yield more than one meaning. Recently, I found a corollary regarding short stories by Ricardo Piglia.

A short story [cuento] always tell two stories [historias].  In the classic short story, there is a visible story that has another secret story embedded inside of it. At the end, the secret story comes to the surface, producing an effect of surprise.  The two stories often operate with two different "systems of casuality."  The key elements function for both the presenting and the secret story.  The modern short story, according to Piglia, "abandons the surprise ending and the closed structure; it works the tension between the two stories without ever resolving it, telling "two stories as if they were one."  

Piglia, Ricardo.  "Theses on the Short Story."  New Left Review 70. 2011.

May 9, 2016

About Writing

“Something is always born of excess,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in June of 1945.  “Great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.”

“A word after a word after a word is power.”
—Margaret Atwood

"Writing is really a way of thinking — not just feeling but thinking about things that are disparate, unresolved, mysterious, problematic or just sweet."
—Toni Morrisson

“I am an excitable person who only understands life lyrically, musically, in whom feelings are much stronger as reason. I am so thirsty for the marvelous that only the marvelous has power over me. Anything I can not transform into something marvelous, I let go. Reality doesn't impress me. I only believe in intoxication, in ecstasy, and when ordinary life shackles me, I escape, one way or another. No more walls.”
—Anaïs Nin

"Poetry isn’t a profession; it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something out of that."
—Mary Oliver

April 14, 2016

Azimuth: Writing into the Wilderness

The wilderness is as difficult to navigate with language as it is with other conveyances. One goes from the known to the unknown. Romantic poetry often idealized the wilderness and emphasized individualism. But individualism may have gone too far.

In the wilderness, ordinary mechanical methods of transportation give way to travel by foot and boat, usually off the grid. In order to navigate over unknown terrain, people use a method called orienteering. Azimuth is an old word, and its origins come from the French, Arabic and Latin. It refers to the way or path. It is a word used in nautical settings, in surveying, in astronomy and in orienteering. Its measure is in degrees. A traveler must use a compass in addition to the map. Further, the gap or a declination between geographical and magnetic north must be calibrated. The proposed path needs ongoing attentiveness.

When it comes to wilderness, we do not have the mind of a fox, and we make more tracks than necessary, many in the wrong direction. People who do orienteering expect to go off-course. But the goal is not a private destination, but the life-enhancing survival of the ecosystem.

Similarly, poets create adjustments in the language. Rock should not be "tonnage." Trees should not be "board-feet." The pronoun "I" must be broadened from "my personal, financial interests."  In order to preserve human culture, we must start valuing entire ecosystems.

The wilderness is the "not I." In the wilderness, the I is one bird of a flock of birds, one squirrel among millions, and one tree in a living forest. In the wilderness, we can easily become lost. Uncertainty prevails. I can describe my access point and wanderings. I can describe encounters. And I can describe an experience of being lost, of survival perhaps. These are individual meridians that reveal as much or more about the writer as they do about the wilderness.

The wilderness is speechless. Sometimes, nature writers are assumed to be doing pastoral writing, and they can anthropomorphize and emphasize beauty and serenity. The Romantic poets' work does this. They can provide a sense of reverence and offer a greater perspective. But writers might explore the strangeness. Sounds haunt, and silence fills us. Animals lurk; they appear and disappear. The landscape has unexpected or unknown features. It is the place of balancing, for finding that we are not as important as we thought, that we are part of a system of many dimensions, and technologies can easily amplify missteps.

The wilderness holds 'the prior to birth' and the 'after the death,' both creation and destruction, and the cycles of generation. The stories of animals and cycles and the images come with the hope that these will transcend the limitations of language. For me, the best wilderness writing can be the azimuth that enables us to value the not-I, necessary to our equilibrium.

April 6, 2016

Adrienne Rich: Feminist Poet & Essayist

Adrienne Rich and her thinking had great influence on American poetry and feminism.  I feel lucky that she was in the world when I was coming of age. She had a powerful voice.

You want to ask, am I lonely?
Well, of course, lonely
as a woman driving across country
day after day, leaving behind
mile after mile
little towns she might have stopped
and lived and died in, lonely

from Diving Into the Wreck “Song,” by Adrienne Rich

Here is an excellent article about her life and work:

Here is a link to her famous poem, "Diving Into the Wreck,"

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone. 
There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment. 
I go down.
Besides Diving Into the Wreck, another book that was important was The Dream of a Common Language.  The book had a section, 21 lesbian love poems.
to move openly together
in the pull of gravity, which is not simple,
which carries the feathered grass a long way down
    the upbreathing air.
This small excerpt captures opposing forces: the downward pull of gravity and the up-breathing air. It was difficult to live as a lesbian, openly. No it was not simple, but because of her writing, so many more of life's possibilities were illuminated. She was skillful at her craft.

To read her influential essay, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,"

Interview with Adrienne Rich by Michael Klein:

April 4, 2016

Upcoming Readings Spring 2016

Here are my poetry events this spring on my calendar:

Hibbing, Minnesota : Tuesday, April 5, at 2 p.m. Finnish Americans and Friends at the Hibbing Tourist/ Senior Center on The Hibbing Tourist/Senior Center is located at 1202 E. Howard St. (across from the courthouse) in Hibbing.

Chicago, Illinois:  Sunday, April 10, 2016 || 1:00 – 3:00 pm. Woman Made Gallery literary event: "Identity and Definition: featuring Hannah Kucharzak, Carrie McGath, Erikka Mikkalo, Sheila Packa, Keli Stewart.

Superior, Wisconsin: Wednesday, April 27, 2016 7 pm Yellowjacket Union, UWS, Superior. This reading is an event by One River Many Stories, a community wide story-telling experience centered on the St. Louis River.

Duluth Township (near Two Harbors, Minnesota):  Wednesday May 4 at 12:30 pm at the Homesteader's Meeting at the Community Center on Hwy 42.

Duluth, MN:  Thursday May 12 at 7 pm at Beaner's Central:  River Stories.  Sheila Packa, Julie Gard, Michelle Matthees and others will read poems at 7 pm.

Born to Write

Thank you to the Finnish American Reporter for this article!

If language is a river, then I swam in two rivers. My grandparents were born in the Ostrobothnian region in western Finland. My parents were bilingual, and spoke English and Finnish. The language was not a barrier. For me, it was part of the music. There was a lot that was never translated that I learned at a level subliminal or physical. It's no surprise that I'm obsessed with languages.  

Finnish was the adult language, the language of secrets. In my family, it was also the language of the inebriated. English was the broken language, the official language of which my parents insisted the children should all master. It was necessary for groceries, schools, doctors, and offices. It was NBC, CBS, and ABC.

I was strongly influenced by the women in my family and their stories. My grandparents disembarked from Hänko, Finland. Ahead of my paternal grandmother was a house to be built and a few months after, a fire that burned it down.  Ahead of my maternal grandmother waited eleven children to bear and a few she had to bury. The last child she delivered herself.  

My parents had many siblings, and they loved music and dancing. My aunt Martha, who lived next door, was a naturalist and visual artist. My younger sister designs clothing, and my older sister built her own house and raised horses. Many of my aunts and uncles played accordions. The bellows of an accordion sound like breathing. Family visits were like big reunions, held often. But now my parents have passed on, and so have many of my aunts and uncles. Life is much more quiet!

I grew up in a working class family on the Iron Range in Minnesota. We lived on the Vermilion Trail, a century old route near the St Louis River, Lake Esquagama, Silver Lake and Bass Lake. I had no idea of the history of this place until recently. Our home was also in the midst of iron and taconite mines. My father was a heavy equipment operator, and my older sister was a train engineer for a mining company. I spent one summer in college working as a laborer at Minntac.  Of the Iron Range, I say: Whiskey was a life waiting for somebody to marry it.

I value my immersion in Finnish culture.  When I met relatives in Finland, I noticed two characteristics that I've come to consider particularly Finnish: quiet attentiveness and acceptance. As a writer, it's been helpful to be a good observer, to be receptive, and to be able work skillfully with the things at hand.  My mother's cousin MIkko Himanka in Kokkola, Finland is a writer of local history.  His father died before he was born, and he has dedicated his time to recording the stories of war orphans.  

I was reared beneath Norway Pines. I think of them as my clan: tall with strong trunks and long and buoyant limbs. What I mean by this is that people are not separate from the landscape. The patterns and events in nature occur also in human experience: river flow, migrations, floods, or lightning strikes. As a child who loved to swim, I wasn't just moving in the water, but water was moving in me. I'm interested in the correspondences here. Our body is also the body of earth. History is the accumulation of stories, generation after generation, similar to layers of sediment and compost. We walk on our history. We take our harvest from it, and we bury our dead in it.  One more thing: bears. I see bears a lot, and I dream about bears. Maybe they are magic.

Good Finnish design uses natural materials in an inventive and economic way.  I seek to achieve this in my own work. This not always about adding things. It's also about knowing what to omit. Art and writing is the ability to make something from nothing, using any materials. As a writer, it's quite satisfying to invent a form and find correspondences.  There's a pattern, and it's the job of artists and writers to reveal it.

April 3, 2016

Poet Margaret Randall

Margaret Randall was a visiting lecturer at the University of Minnesota Duluth on March 31, 2016.  She held a small poetry reading in the wine bar at Chester Creek Cafe, and I was one of the lucky ones in the audience.

Margaret Randall is an internationally known writer, poet, photographer, radical feminist, and political activist. She lived much of her early adult life in Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua and has written over a hundred books including collections of poetry, oral histories, memoirs, essays, translations, and photography books. She is 80 years old, and Randall has long been an inspiration to many.

Margaret is one of the most prolific poets that I've met. Poetry is natural to her as breathing, and she creates resonant poems that engage with every part of life. She draws from a full life time of experience, from the McCarthy era, to the radical 1960s, to the political activism she was involved in Nicaragua, and to this very day, she is a vibrant human being engaged with all of life. She read us poems of her experience in Cuba and she read us love poems. She had poems about the Syrian refugees and Copernicus. Her poem, "To the Corporate Citizen" was very powerful.  

An audience member asked her about the political in poetry. It seems that in the US, the more political a poem is, the more it is dismissed. Randall responded by saying that no topic should be off limits to poets. There is no difference between political poems or spiritual poems or poems of any topic.  There should only be one measure: is the poem good or bad?

In the discussion following the reading, she also responded to a question about her political and social activism.  An audience member asked: How did she keep going?  She paused for a moment and reflected on times in her life when she felt all hope was gone and that the battle for justice had been lost. Yet, in time, events happened, people came together, and proved otherwise.  Her age and experience seemed to give her a longer perspective, a wider angle of view. She said: Do the work, do what you can, keep trying. It makes a difference.

On Wednesday in the Wine Bar, all I heard were good poems and great poems. I left the reading full of wonder and appreciation for a woman who has written her way through life, with a strong passion for justice and a strong voice that rises above many.  

Here is an excellent 2014 review of Randall's writing, plus some fascinating history:

Some poems by Margaret Randall

Margaret Randall's website:

March 7, 2016

The Real Work

The Real Work 
by Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work

and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

"The Real Work" by Wendell Berry, from Standing by Words. © 1983. Counterpoint.  

"The Tracing....and every misstep along the way." 

March 3, 2016

Music in the Fire: A Book Review of Julie Gard's Home Studies

Review by Sheila Packa, published at March 2016

Home Studies by Julie Gard is about a lesbian family in a small town in North Dakota. The narrator and her partner have adopted a daughter from an orphanage in Russia. The couple’s small town is not an easy place to live, what with the harsh winters, the lack of acceptance, and the arsonist. But these prose poems do not just aim to tell a personal story. From this domestic center, concentric waves travel across our culture.

The title evokes Robert Lowell's Life Studies, a groundbreaking book when it was published in 1960 that explored personal stories of family and mental health. (Sylvia Plath named his book as a strong influence on her own work.) Gard's title also refers to the process of adoption, in which a home study involves an investigation and assessment to determine whether an individual or a couple can provide a safe and stable home. Turning around the notion of home study, Gard’s book widens the angle on that definition to explore the everyday shortcomings, crises, and stresses on every family. Gard weaves intimate narrative threads into spacious stories.

READ the complete review at

February 26, 2016

Creating a Just World: Poetry & Social Change

Can poetry instigate change? Yes it can, in many ways. Here are some excerpts of poems from poets whose work has had political influence. Some of these poems are visionary, some are poems of grief, and some are satire. At the workshop, using prompts and guided writing exercises, participants will explore their own concerns and vision for a better world.  Che Guevarra said, “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”

Pablo Neruda

Neruda wrote poems that were political in order to trigger social change.  He also wrote love poems and poems of all kinds.
He or she who does not turn things topsy-turvy,
who is unhappy at work,
who does not risk certainty for uncertainty,
to thus follow a dream,
those who do not forego sound advice at least once in their lives,
die slowly. 
He who does not travel, who does not read,
who does not listen to music,
who does not find grace in himself,
she who does not find grace in herself,
dies slowly.

Let's try and avoid death in small doses,
reminding oneself that being alive requires an effort far greater than the simple fact of breathing.

Allen Ginsberg

Ginsberg addresses America in this poem (anaphora: the list structure with a repeated beginning word). His perspective was from a radical, gay poet. Often the "you" in his work was a large audience.

America stop pushing I know what I’m doing.
America the plum blossoms are falling.
I haven’t read the newspapers for months, everyday somebody goes on trial for murder.
America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies.
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I’m not sorry.
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet.

I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.
America I still haven’t told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over from Russia.
I’m addressing you.

America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

Sonja Sanchez

This elegy pays homage to Malcolm X.
do not speak to me of martyrdom,
of men who die to be remembered
on some parish day.
i don’t believe in dying
though, I too shall die.
and violets like castanets
will echo me,
yet this man,
this dreamer,
thick lipped with words
will never speak again
and in each winter
when the cold air cracks
with frost I’ll breathe
his breath and mourn
my gunfilled nights.
he was the sun that tagged
the western sky and
melted tiger-scholars
while they searched for stripes.

Patricia Lockwood

In satire, Lockwood takes on the culture and women's issues.
Can rape jokes be funny at all, is the question.
Can any part of the rape joke be funny. The part where it ends—haha, just kidding! Though you did dream of killing the rape joke for years, spilling all of its blood out, and telling it that way.
The rape joke cries out for the right to be told.
The rape joke is that this is just how it happened.
The rape joke is that the next day he gave you Pet Sounds. No really. Pet Sounds. He said he was sorry and then he gave you Pet Sounds. Come on, that’s a little bit funny.
Admit it.

To see full text: Rape Joke by Patricia Lockwood

These poets are but a small sample of poets who seek to make a difference in the world, to bring about peace and justice. Poet Stacy Ann Chin created a No H8 project with her young daughter. Speaking about raising her daughter Zuri, Stacey Ann Chin said,
“I want her to know that what she believes, what she says and what she does matters in terms of what the world will look like tomorrow. Protest is everywhere and protest itself is not violent in nature — it is being involved in a conversation," says Chin. "I want my kid involved in those conversations, and I want her to know she is extraordinarily powerful. What better way to feel powerful than to be involved with an ongoing conversation about what’s going to happen with the world?” 

Poets bring an extraordinary attention to language and sound.  Who else can better articulate the vision of a better world?

To read an interesting essay about the function of poetry, see

Here are the names of a few poets of note who have worked to build a better world:

Claudia Rankine
Amiri Baraka see
Margaret Randall
Muriel Rukeyser  see:

February 15, 2016

After the Performance

 After the performance, I'm back at my desk.  The Duluth Reader had a music review from Sam Black:

"This past Friday featured the dark (and amazing) Kullervo Symphony (1892) by Jean Sibelius, along with a Finlandia finale. A new composition, Migrations, by current composer Olli Kortekangas, was also premiered. This featured the texts of four poems by Duluthian Sheila Packa, who has strong Finnish roots.
This turned out to be two and a half riveting hours of music in Finnish and English, sung by the 58-member YL male chorus from Finland, as well as soprano Lilli Paasikivi and baritone Tommi Hakala. Maestro Vanska has performed this piece for probably twenty years, and his interpretation of this dark and violent excerpt from The Kalevala is authoritative. I was not in Minneapolis, but I sat glued to my radio performance from 8:00 - 10:30 pm for this glorious music from one of the world’s truly great orchestras. It looks like Friday, February 19 will be next, with two of Sibelius’ Symphonies along with the Violin Concerto. I invite you to tune in."

February 6, 2016

Setting Poems to Music

"Migrations"-- Minnesota Orchestra Interview with Olli Kortekangas.  The musical composition, providing a setting to four of my poems about migration, was created to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Finnish - North American immigration and to serve as a prelude to Sibelius' Kullervo, a concert that also celebrates Sibelius' 150 years.  Watch the video to hear the introduction from Kortekangas:

February 4, 2016

From the Page to the Stage

From the page to the stage, poems change.  Here are links to audio recordings of my work (in my own voice with cello by Kathy McTavish): (2009)
Cover Art: photograph (in the Helsinki Cathedral) by Sheila Packa (2010)
Cover Art: Dudley Edmondson

Cover Art: Photograph by Kathy McTavish

Cover Art: Marce Wood

Migrations @ the Minnesota Orchestra

The Minnesota Orchestra tunes up before the Thursday a.m. performance.   The Playbill included the poems from Cloud Birds and Echo and Lightning that the composer used in his music! The symphony performance evoked the sound of water and wind. The sound was strong and layered. The YL Male Choir and Lilli Paasikivi (Mezzo) sang the lyrics.  Great voices!

Scroll down to see the story of the text.

Here's a review: "lush, haunting cantata with painterly images from the poet..."

Here's a review:

Duluth News Tribune article:

The Story of the Text: 

The poems existed first, and Olli Kortekangas created the music for them. We communicated regularly via email and since then we have met in person. He was very sensitive to the content and rhythms of the poems but it was necessary for some lines to be altered slightly and some lines to be omitted in the music. We consulted about these necessary changes and he sent me early sketches of his composition.

The poems are from my two books, Cloud Birds and Echo and Lightning.

The titles were changed on a few of the poems to enable the audience to understand the arc of this musical story: Two Worlds, Resurrection, The Man Who Lived in a Tree, and Music We Breathe.

"Two Worlds" (Cloud Birds) explores the two worlds of past and present, this world and the next world. An interesting connection was made. A line in the poem refers to a hymn I had sung in Kokkola, while visiting a second cousin, Mikko Himanka, a retired minister. Kortekangas asked me specifically which hymn, and I was able to identify it for him, and it happened to be a hymn he had sung in childhood. The sound of this hymn is echoed in the musical composition. Also the mirror image created in the poem also occurs in the music.

The next poem, "Resurrection," is the poem "Migrations" in Cloud Birds. In the book, the poem has an inscription, a quote by the poet HD, "In resurrection is confusion...." from her long poem, "The Flowering of the Rod," and the word resurrection better reflected the meaning of the poem.

The third poem is from Cloud Birds as well. "The Man Who Lived in a Tree," is a narrative poem about a Finnish immigrant to America who worked in an underground iron mine but contracted a lung disease and returned home to Kalajoki, Finland to die. While ill, he hoisted himself into the limbs of a tree and did not want to descend. This is a story I learned when I visited the graveyard in Kalajoki where some of my ancestors are buried. My relative Mikko Himanka told me the story.

The fourth poem, "The Music We Breathe," is titled "What Is Found" and it is from the third section of Echo and Lightning.

Migrations has long been a metaphor for me as a poet. All of my grandparents are from the western side of Finland, and I grew up immersed in the Finnish language and culture. I believe that immigration affects families deeply, particularly in relation to borders, language and landscape. Immigrants make massive transitions as they enter a new culture and language, and many believe that speaking a new language brings out different parts of the self. Some feel they are a different self in the new language. This is perhaps why my grandmother was reluctant to speak English; she wanted to preserve an important part of her self identity. She lived in Minnesota, but she rarely left Finnish language and culture. This was a border that she kept. Also I think that landscape exists also internally, in the psyche, and this influences us. Although I did not learn to speak Finnish very well, my English has picked up the Finnish rhythms. Because poems are physiological, their breath --the words, meters, rhythms and sounds --are re-created in the reader. To read my work is to experience the north landscape.

I myself am most comfortable on borders, and less so in the midst of things. As a poet/artist, I also perceive the permeability of borders. I can cross back and forth into Finnish and American culture. My work is always narrative, but it does cross the border of genres and perhaps exists in a state of "between."