December 29, 2019

Creativity and Aging

Creativity does not diminish with age. In fact, creativity can actually enhance health and build resilience.  In 2019, I attended a creative aging teaching artist training (sponsored by the Aroha Foundation and Minnesota State Arts Board) and in 2020, I aim to teach writing classes with and for elders. Email me at if you as an individual are interested in attending or if you are part of an organization that is interested sponsoring a class.

December 17, 2019

False Starts

Einstein said, "No deep problem is ever resolved on the plane of its original conception."  Here's a great video from Granta featuring George Saunders talking about false starts.  The amateur reaction to false starts is to give up, says Saunders. The artistic reaction is to keep working.
We have all received this advice: Don't Give Up. Keep Trying. Success is 1% Inspiration and 99% Perspiration. How many false starts have you had? How many rejections? The next important question is: What did you do with those?

December 3, 2019

Image & Metaphor

Charles Simic

I think image is at the base of a poem. Metaphor is the poem.

Natalie Diaz has written about the use of image in her poetry. In "Building The Emotional Image"
If you want to convey fact, this can only ever be done through a form of distortion. You must distort to transform what is called appearance into image. 
The mystery lies in the irrationality by which you make appearance - if it is not irrational, you make illustration.  
Great art is deeply ordered. Even if within the order there may be enormously instinctive and accidental things, nevertheless they come out of a desire for ordering and for returning fact onto the nervous system in a more violent way.
Rebuild the image each time that you use it in order to make it new.  Take it apart.
What is it? What is it not?  Here is an example from Diaz:   Diaz's comment about irrationality intrigues me. Another person might have said "imagination."  Her term suggests a greater leap of some sort against logic. It is a willingness to go out of bounds. A subversion but in a good way.

For an amusing and in-depth consideration of the function of image and metaphor read "The Narrative of the Image: A Correspondence by Charles Simic":

In this examination of the narrative related to these two terms, Simic writes: "I kind of fancy "Image is the crucifixion, metaphor is the ascension," " and "Don't you think that reading most contemporary poets one would have to conclude that they have never been to the movies? I know for a fact that they have never heard a country fiddle or a banjo playing!"  He argues for being grounded and for the ability to dance.
Natalie Diaz

An Arts Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board and upcoming publications


News from my writing desk

I was thrilled and grateful to get the news that I'll receive an Artist Initiative Grant for 2020 in support of my poetry.  To get information on the grants that are available in Minnesota and a link to the application instructions and forms, go to:
"Sheila Packa will develop poems for a new manuscript "Surface Displacements" and present 4 readings & workshops focused on individual stories that reflect on local history and current tensions in the landscape."   
Publication news:

My short story, “Everlasting Life” will be in the December issue of Valparaiso Fiction Review. A set of five prose poems (a runner up for the chapbook contest by this press) forthcoming in The Laurel Review Issue 52.2.  The poem "My Geology" will be reprinted in Stone Gathering's special edition coming out in spring 2020: The Relevance of the Rural: What's Lost, What's Left, What Lasts.  The poem "Crossing Guard" will be in the forthcoming anthology Rocked by the Waters: Poems of Motherhood (Nodin Press). 

October 13, 2019

Poetry Readings Coming Up

Oct 26, 2019
noon - 3 pm at Fair Trade Books in Red Wing, 2526, 320 Bush St, Red Wing, MN 55066, USA
featuring Poets Laureate: James Armstrong, Rob Hardy, Ken McCullough, Sheila Packa

November 3, 2019
at 1 pm at The Bookstore at Fitger’s, Duluth, MN with the Sami Cultural Center of North America, featuring
--Ellie Schoenfeld, Duluth Poet Laureate 2016-2018
--Sheila Packa, Duluth Poet Laureate 2010-2012
--Ron Riekki, co-editor of Undocumented: Great Lakes Poets Laureate on Social Justice and My Ancestors are Reindeer Herders and I Am Melting in Extinction

November 8, 2019
at 7 pm - All Souls Day Poetry at the Underground Theater, Duluth Depot, Michigan Street, Duluth, MN 55802. 
Musical accompaniment by Richie Townsend with featured readers: Zomi Bloom, Brady Kamphenkel, Sheila Packa, Ellie Schoenfeld, Rocky Makes Room and Gary Boelhower (10 minutes each). There will be an additional hour of open mic (3 minutes each). Sign up with Duluth Poet Laureate, Gary Boelhower.

September 11, 2019

Book Review: Ada Limón: The Gathering

Ada Limón has a new book, The Gathering (Milkweed Press), that has gained a lot of attention. She was at the Northwoods Writers Conference in Bemidji in June 2019, and did an engaging reading and craft talk.

The Question

In the Guernica interview, Ada Limón asks: "how do we live in the world? How do we live? Because with the amount of loss and suffering that is all around us all the time—our own inevitable demise, the inevitable loss of loved ones, the damage to the planet—how do we live in that reality, yet still do the daily work of praise and presence and gratitude, without driving ourselves mad?"

The Liminal

In an interview in the art-related Bomb magazine, Limón says about poetry: "What it does is live in the liminal spaces. It’s not interested in showing off wounds for coins, it’s interested in living, day to day, breathing moment by moment and staring out into the sea and noticing the small thing and saying the real thing and because of that, I believe it’s the most human type of art form. It is messy and complex and real and doesn’t have any answers for us, for that reason, I think it’s something we can trust."

The Music

Ada Limón had once been part of a band (named after her previous book, Lucky Wreck) in NYC. The music in Limón's poetry comes through alliteration. Content is primary, it seems. Her form follows content.

The Gathering is a book with heart.

August 18, 2019

Tony Hoagland Thinking about Poetry

Tony Hoagland's poetic voice was distinctive. He once said, "I discovered that identity was composed of a lot of other things besides familial trauma; it included race and money and being American and technology and historical currents." His topics were exquisitely presented with titles like Donkey Gospel, What Narcissism Means to Me, and Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty. He's a poet that touches the funny bone, but also he makes you think.  The Art of the Voice provides much insight into his technique and the craft of poetry. I recommend it. It contains his teacherly thoughts about voice in poetry as well as several writing prompts to help a student develop an interesting poetic voice. 

Also, I've found some wonderful essays online, definitely worth a read!


Biography & Critique:

August 14, 2019

Joy Harjo: Carrying Over a Thousand Names

For years, the poetry of Joy Harjo has always been arresting for its beautiful imagery and figurative language, its connection to the body and the earth, and its music.  She Had Some Horses, In Mad Love and War, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, and A Map to the Next World are among my favorite books of poetry, ever.

In this new collection, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, she extends her reach to provide a poetic engagement with the problems in the world. She a master poet, and she is teaching the readers her spiritual wisdom.  In previous work, she began this work. I'm thinking of an earlier poem, "Insomnia and the Seven Steps to Grace." I would not call her impulse didactic. It is a deeper knowledge that she shares.

This is a wide ranging journey from Oklahoma to Paris to New York City to Alaska to Hawaii. Part One: How It Came to Be addresses the reader directly. It is a singing of creation stories, contemporary stories, and music.  The poetry does not ignore or exist outside of contemporary politics, but it meets it head on. "The politics of politics makes a tricky beast. It destroys either side with equal hand. It has a hunger that never seems to end."  It is politically engaged, but in a spiritual way.  It is spiritual without being preachy. "Nez found God then forgot where she had left him." It is speaks to cultural genocide and murder, to name it, and at the same time, goes forward and brings all of us into the same fold.  "Let us not shame our eyes for seeing. Instead, thank them for their bravery."

The rabbit is an important figure in many tribal stories. He is fearful, impulsive, and does not consider the consequences. This is perhaps offset by his speed and ability to leap so far that his tracks are not easily found.  In "Rabbit Is Up to Tricks," Harjo writes:

And once that clay man started he could not stop.
Once he took that chicken he wanted all the chickens.
And once we took that corn he wanted all the corn.
And once he took that wife, he wanted all the wives.

Locating human behavior in a story of rabbit is a profoundly wise thing to do.  Considering another character, we can see the problem as well as empathize. It's also the same for us; we have insight. Empathy is an important quality, as it prevents the cycle of blame and othering. It is a key to conflict resolution.  Harjo speaks from her own tradition of Muskogee knowledge, and she weaves in other Native stories and Biblical stories. She speaks to all people, whether of not they have her heritage.

Part Two: The Wanderer and Part Three: Visions and Monsters speaks to all the ways that humans have become lost in violence, greed, and forgetfulness. In "The First Day Without a Mother," the color blue is significant. It is more than the eye can see. It is more than blue; it is a spiritual color, the color of sky, and the color of a raging fire. It is the blues music. "I keep looking back."

This book offers a formula for conflict resolution in the title poem, and it calls us back to listen to others and our own spirits. Throughout the book, she uses the metaphor of jazz as a symbol of how to survive the insurmountable obstacles. The horn, the song, and the dance are sacred ways to remember.  They renew us as well as teach us how to improvise, to continue, and to make something beautiful.  Harjo writes,"You cannot legislate music to lockstep...."  and "We will wind up back at the blues standing on the edge of the flatted fifth about to jump into a fierce understanding together."  This is a wise metaphor for survival. 

Part Four: The World begins with the poem, "You Can Change the Story...," reminds us how our expectations can shift the outcomes.  By taking control of one's own thoughts, fears, and actions and by allying ourselves others in love and tenderness, we can experience the power that we do have. There is a story of a walrus hunter who murders a woman; the poet slips into the murdered woman and speaks. The poet returns from death and speaks the story to the community. A well told story rings with the truth; all people can understand it.  In this story, the murderer is brought to justice. The articulation and shaping of our narratives are the reasons we must have art, music, stories, and poetry.

In the terminal of stopped time I went unsteady to the beat,
Driven by a hungry spirit who is drunk with words and songs.
What can I do?
I have to take care of it.
The famished spirit eats fire, poetry, and pain; it only wants love.

The famished spirit who only wants love is an endearing being. The aim is noble. Her failures are forgivable.  This book at first appears fragmented, however the inscriptions, section headings and "proems" are as necessary as the poems. This is a heartening piece of work, a ceremony, a dance, a deep gift from Joy Harjo. It has done in beauty.

Book Review:

July 27, 2019

Octavio Paz

See his reading and thoughts about poetry

Octavio Paz, 18 October 1988 from Lannan Foundation on Vimeo.

Octavio Paz - 1914-1998

At times poetry is the vertigo of bodies and the vertigo of speech and the vertigo of death;
the walk with eyes closed along the edge of the cliff, and the verbena in submarine gardens;
the laughter that sets on fire the rules and the holy commandments;
the descent of parachuting words onto the sands of the page;
the despair that boards a paper boat and crosses,
for forty nights and forty days, the night-sorrow sea and the day-sorrow desert;
the idolatry of the self and the desecration of the self and the dissipation of the self;
the beheading of epithets, the burial of mirrors; the recollection of pronouns freshly cut in the garden of Epicurus, and the garden of Netzahualcoyotl;
the flute solo on the terrace of memory and the dance of flames in the cave of thought;
the migrations of millions of verbs, wings and claws, seeds and hands;
the nouns, bony and full of roots, planted on the waves of language;
the love unseen and the love unheard and the love unsaid: the love in love.
Syllables seeds.

July 13, 2019

The Sublime

Rilke's poem has remained in my memory for a long time. It's one of my favorites. This is from Orchards by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

The sublime is a departure.
Instead of following,
something in us starts to go its own way
and getting used to heavens.  
Is not art’s extreme encounter
the sweetest farewell?
And music: that last glance
that we ourselves throw back at us! 

The Latin word sublimis means "looking up from."  Edmund Burke, in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, defines the sublime as a quality of art or experience that "excites the ideas of pain and danger" that produces "the strongest emotion that the mind is capable of feeling" (302) and that causes "astonishment...horror, terror;...the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect." The Romantic poets tried to create this emotion.  Kant defined sublime as "that is beyond all comparison (that is absolutely) great, either mathematically in terms of limitless magnitude, or dynamically in terms of limitless power."

I rather like Rilke's definition. In my thinking, as a poet and writer, the sublime occurs when one lets go of the material and allows it to develop on its own. The art leads the artist.  Because of pure attention and deep listening,  the artist is able to break away from the usual and achieve new ground.  He says, "be attentive to that which rises up in you and set it above everything that you observe about you. What goes on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love..."  (Letters to a Young Poet)

July 12, 2019

Brigit Pegeen Kelly - Prose Poem

It was not a scorpion I asked for, I asked for a fish, but maybe God misheard my request, maybe God thought I said not "some sort of fish," but a "scorpion fish," a request he would surely have granted, being a goodly God, but then he forgot the "fish" attached to the "scorpion" (because God, too, forgets, everything forgets); so instead of an edible fish, any small fish, sweet or sour, or even the grotesque buffoonery of the striped scorpion fish, crowned with spines and followed by many tails, a veritable sideshow of a fish; instead of these, I was given an insect, a peculiar prehistoric creature, part lobster, part spider, part bell-ringer, part son of a fallen star, something like a disfigured armored dog, not a thing you can eat, or even take on a meaningful walk, so ugly is it, so stiffly does it step, as if on ice, freezing again and again in mid-air like a listening ear, and then scuttling backwards or leaping madly forward, its deadly tail doing a St. Vitus jig. God gave me a scorpion, a venomous creature, to be sure, a bug with the bite of Cleopatra's asp, but not, as I soon found out, despite the dark gossip, a lover of violence or a hater of men. In truth, it is shy, the scorpion, a creature with eight eyes and almost no sight, who shuns the daylight, and is driven mad by fire, who favors the lonely spot, and feeds on nothing much, and only throws out its poison barb when backed against a wall -- a thing like me, but not the thing I asked for, a thing, by accident or design, I am now attached to. And so I draw the curtains, and so I lay out strange dishes, and so I step softly, and so I do not speak, and only twice, in many years, have I been stung, both times because, unthinking, I let in the terrible light. And sometimes now, when I watch the scorpion sleep, I see how fine he is, how rare, this creature called Lung Book or Mortal Book because of his strange organs of breath. His lungs are holes in his body, which open and close. And inside the holes are stiffened membranes, arranged like the pages of a book -- imagine that! And when the holes open, the pages rise up and unfold, and the blood that circles through them touches the air, and by this bath of air the blood is made pure . . . He is a house of books, my shy scorpion, carrying in his belly all the perishable manuscripts -- a little mirror of the library at Alexandria, which burned.
Brigit Pegeen Kelly is the author, most recently, of "Orchard."
Published in NYTIMES at

July 9, 2019

Tom Sleigh: Traces of the Journey

The Poetry Book Club at Zenith Bookstore meets on the second Wednesday of each month at 5:30 pm. On July 10, 2019, the selection is Tom Sleigh's House of Fact, House of Ruin.  

Book Review:

Poetry is always political. Even if it is not about a political event, the political is expressed in the word choice, perspective, and land that it arises from.  Once I attended a workshop taught by the Irish poet Eavan Boland. She says land is always inseparable from politics. But she also criticized poets who use political events, especially traumatic events such as the Holocaust, as a type of "political tourism." She underlined poetry's ability to recreate a moment, and she cautioned poets against re-traumatizing others. I knew what she meant by this.

Tom Sleigh's poetry reflects his journeys in places of violent combat. His latest book House of Fact, House of Ruin was published in 2018 by Graywolf Press with a companion book of essays, The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing in an Age of Refugees.  His work is the effort to witness and bring the hard facts into literature. In Iraq, Lebanon, Mogadishu, Dadaab (a large refugee camp) and other places, he has met and talked with military personnel, Red Cross workers, and civilians. His work is also a poetry of witness but also of form (images, figurative language, and sound patterns). Many of these poems are sonnet forms with a subtler rhyme.  It's effective. It honors the tradition while at the same time playing with sound in way that suits contemporary times. This attention to craft and his sensitivity create very good poems.  He says: 
political emotions are always complex, and deeply troubled. So the accurate expression of mixed emotion seems to me to be at the core of the poetry I most care about. Yeats said it in a somewhat more rhetorical way when he wrote that the purpose of art was to hold reality and justice in a single thought.
It would be wrong for poetry to ignore the reality of our world: the wars, the suffering, and the stories of survival. He describes the influence of the poet Bashō on his own work. Sleigh's earlier book uses the haibun form, and this book reflects the "color."  The journey was to Iraq.  The titles are direct but when it comes to the content, the poems have a similar imagistic, evocative, and haunting quality.

In the 1600s, Japanese poet Bashō (1600s) wrote Narrow Road to the Interior:
The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.
The text collects the images and observations Bashō found in his wanderings.  The journey was through the landscape of Japan, and it was also an inner journey. As a scholar of Buddha and Confucius (among others), he created a literary art that held the vivid images of place, detachment from things, and passing of all things including the self. An important term is the Japanese concept of aware. Ivan Morris describes it as "the pathos inherent in the beauty of the other world, a beauty that is inexorably fated to disappear together with the observer."  Also important were the "pillow word" (referring to the double entendre or word that evokes many meanings) and the "pivot." This turn is very important in haiku. It creates an ambiguity that deepens the meaning.

In an essay on, poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil writes:
the form is thinking of haibun as highly focused testimony or recollection of a journey composed of a prose poem and ending with a meaningful murmur of sorts: a haiku. The result is a very elegant block of text with the haiku serving as a tiny bowl or stand for the prose poem.
She goes on to list the important elements of the haibun form
  • detachment from the self (no personal pronouns)
  • concentrated use of sensory detail
  • the use of a seasonal word or one that alludes to the season
  • a turn or pivot in the 3rd line of the prose section
  • haiku at the end with approximately the 5-7-5 syllables in the three lines. 
Tom Sleigh writes about the importance of Bashō's work to his own: 
…this quality that I find most galvanizing in Bashō’s work—not the Buddhist trappings, or the delicate melancholy, or his sensitivity to flowers and mist; but his submersion of self in the world as he finds it, a world that is always every moment fighting to restore its equilibrium, but only as a way of losing it.
I like Sleigh's work here in this book. Some of his early poems are not among my favorites, as they feel more cocky and less attentive. This is not the case here. Even when Sleigh is not writing haibun, he is using the elements of this form. It feels right. 

Other writing by Tom Sleigh, available online:

June 29, 2019

Prose Poem or Microfiction?

It doesn't matter, does it, whether a piece of writing is labeled a prose poem or a flash or microfiction? Is it the same, apples to apples?  Or is it apples to oranges?

Russell Edson said, “A good prose poem is a statement that seeks sanity whilst its author teeters on the edge of the abyss.”  

As for me, I haven't yet decided. Is there a difference in compression? in the predominance of figurative language? in the music of the language?  Yes. No. 

No end words: 

Poetry yields as many end words as there are lines in the poem. End words are particularly important in poetry. They are usually very important: nouns or verbs. They can be used skillfully to develop enjambment and to increase meaning through a line break and ambiguity. Prose poems have but one end word. This may allow a poet to give the emphasis to the word that ends the prose poem. In microfiction or flash fiction, not much attention is paid to the end word of a paragraph.  Maybe not enough attention.  

Stanzas or paragraphs

Stanzas are poetry's paragraphs. Turns occur between stanzas. Leaps can be made in time and space. In prose, there are transitions, associations, and leaps but the paragraph might be barely noticed. It is easy to conclude that form is less important in prose. One still can use music, rhyme, rhythm, and sound patterns. They are "buried' inside the paragraph.  


The form of a poem might be considered a container. Poetic forms have history, patterns, associations: sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, quatrains, etc.  Prose forms are more loose and flexible. A poem or a prose might be a letter, a list, a story. Content is perhaps more important in prose. The intention might be to entertain, investigate, or illuminate. 


Perhaps the answer resides in which audience one wants. Naming the genre or using a genre form sets up an expectation. In prose, genres are sci-fi, fantasy, murder mystery, romance, western, or nonfiction. Poetry is a genre.  Prose poetry might be blend of genres, a hybrid form. Of course writers of both poetry and prose explore and widen the boundaries.  There is plenty of genre-bending. 


According the Poetry Foundation, "A prose composition that, while not broken into verse lines, demonstrates other traits such as symbols, metaphors, and other figures of speech common to poetry. See the prose poem,"Information" by David Ignatow:

Perrazo and Dal wrote an academic paper examining the differences and similarities between these two forms. They identify criteria: brevity, fragments, ambiguity, and pivots. Either the prose poem or the flash fiction (or microfiction) could be narrative. The difference might be that the microfiction suggests a larger story or is a pivotal moment in a larger story. 


Amy Hempel has written brief fiction.  "Sing To It," in the book of that title, is less than half a page.  Of her writing, Amy Hempel said, “I leave a lot out when I tell the truth. The same when I write a story." In a review of Hempel's work, Ruth Franklin said, "For Hempel, a story often takes place not at the moment of crisis but in its aftermath." Hempel recalls a writing class with Gordon Lish.  For his students’ first assignment, Gordon Lish instructed them to write about their worst secret: the thing they had done that, as he put it, “dismantles your own sense of yourself.”  

Lydia Davis is a master of short fictions. "Letter to a Funeral Parlor" is simply that, a brief and amusing (and poignant) demand for an explanation of the use of the word "cremains."  Davis cites the influence of Russell Edson. She is interested in stories, and she is interested in etymology. In her work, they often come together in ways that are comic and profound.

Diane Williams writes very brief narratives. They are elliptical, associational, and sometimes even musical.  See and, plus

Peter Orner dislikes the term flash fiction. This form is not new, he says. "How many lines are in the story of Adam and Eve?" he asks. Well, I looked it up. Chapter 3 of Genesis is less than 700 words. Electric Literature has samples of flash fiction.

Nick Ripatrozone wrote an essay examining this question. He says, "...genres are not spouses. Monogamy has no place here: the writer should–and must–be flexible to genre. Genre, mode, form: these considerations are contextual and situational." 

June 12, 2019

Danez Smith: Crowning

The poetry book club meets at Zenith Books June 12 at 5:30 pm.  Come and join us! 

Book Review

The opening poem in Danez Smith's Don't Call Us Dead sings with music. Figurative language vaults the images into myth.  His subject goes right to the heart. There's grief and rage and America right now: violence, race, HIV, gay men. Danez confronts and is confronted by fear, and he uses it for new vision. This is done with a mastery of language and metaphor.

summer, somewhere

somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown
as rye play the dozens & ball, jump

in the air & stay there. boys become new
moons, gum-dark on all sides, beg bruise

-blue water to fly, as least tide, at least
spit back a father or two….”

Poetry is physical and connected to the breath.  In language, adept use of sound creates powerful and moving effects.  In contemporary poetry, the music and rhythm has more movement and freedom.  In Danez's work, an examination of this short excerpt reveals a very interesting rhythm that surprises and pleases the reader.

Traditional ways of analyzing poetic lines involve 'scansion,' or scanning the lines to look at the accented syllables.  In poetry, each unit of metric rhythm is called a "foot." This poem has a wonderful combination of rhythms.  Iambic is a heart beat rhythm ( x / ) with the accented syllable second. Trochaic is the opposite with the accented syllable first.  Dactyl and spondee are the names of three syllable feet (dactyl: (/ x x) and spondee (x x /). However, meter is not the only determination of sound. The actual rhythm might de-emphasize metrics or emphasize some syllables more. 

The language choices are superb: "a trapgod hymn (what a first breath!)" and "sprinkler dancer, i can't tell if I'm crying / or i'm the sky..."  Curious, those interesting shifts from the lower case to the upper case pronoun i/I.  "...fingers always/ dusted cheeto gold..."  The poems vibrate with energy.  Images of birth are combined with death. Images of sex are combined with death.  Images of death are combined with re-birth.  Danez skillfully uses vernacular and language of myth: "if we dream the old world/ we wake up hands up...."

              ...say the word
I can make any black boy a savior//
make him a flock of ravens
his body burst into ebon seraphs.

Danez takes these images and moves them ever higher from metaphor to myth:  "the forest is a flock of boys/ who never got to grow up // blooming into forever / afros like maple crowns."   And once again, a capitalized letter creates a shift in meaning because the word goes from a noun to a name: "  " Forest run in the rain, branches // melting into paper-soft curls, duck under the mountain for shelter.  watch// the Mountain & Forest playing..."

If you are reading this book, are you uncomfortable? If you are white, you should be. If you are straight, you should be. This mirror shows us America. Danez's poems reveal a person who is willing to be vulnerable.  Gay sex is visceral in this collection. The poet has been diagnosed with HIV. He's talking about blood.  Blood connects to racial violence in America. He's created a documentation of several incidents of racial violence, lynching and death at the hands of the police.   "crown" is a crown sonnet, a series of sonnets that are linked by a repeated image in last line and first lines. The title also evokes the first moment of birth, crowning. 

The striking thing for me about his collection is the claiming/ naming/ breaking through. The last poems are a prayer and a dream about every black person is standing by the ocean.  The last lines:  "& then one woman, skin dark as all of us / walks to the water's lip, shouts Emmett, spits// & surely, a boy begins/ crawling his way to shore"

The water's lip certainly connects the ocean to the body. Spit, another body fluid, and bit of magic that brings us around from fear of HIV to intimacy. This boy might be Emmett Till, bringing us around from violence to regeneration.  Or this boy might be another, a swimmer and a survivor.  He is being born, crowning, about to emerge.


Read "a poem where I be and you just might" and an excerpt of Danez's thoughts about this poem:

Granta Magazine:  "crown"

Publisher, Graywolf Press:

May 22, 2019

Walt Whitman at 200

Come join us! Friday, May 31 at 7 pm.  “Walt Whitman at 200: A Birthday Party with Poetry Readings, Presentations, and Cake” will take place at the Hartley Nature Center, 3001 Woodland Ave., Duluth. 

The event will feature readings by Duluth Poets Laureate Bart Sutter, Deborah Cooper, Sheila Packa, Ellie Schoenfeld, and Gary Boelhower; presentations by Mara Hart, Professor John D. Schwetman, and Professor Chris Johnson; and book sales of recently published anthologies by Holy Cow! Press.

May 7, 2019

Writing about Place

Meena Alexander said, "Poetry and place—if poetry is the music of survival, place is the instrument on which that music is played, the gourd, the strings, the fret."

In poetry and prose, place is critically important. In her book "On Writing," Eudora Welty wrote:
Place, to the writer at work, is seen in a frame. Not an empty frame, a brimming one. Point of view is a sort of burning-glass, a product of personal experience and time; it is burnished with feelings and sensibilities, charged from moment to moment with the sun-points of imagination. It is an instrument — one of intensification; it acts, it behaves, it is temperamental. … The writer must accurately choose, combine, superimpose upon, blot out, shake up, alter the outside world for one absolute purpose, the good of his story. To do this, he is always seeing double, two pictures at once in his frame, his and the world’s, a fact that he constantly comprehends; and he works best in a state of constant and subtle and unfooled reference between the two. It is his clear intention — his passion, I should say — to make the reader see only one of the pictures — the author’s — under the pleasing illusion that it is the world’s; this enormity is the accomplishment of a good story. I think it likely that at the moment of the writer’s highest awareness of, and responsiveness to, the “real” world, his imagination’s choice (and miles away it may be from actuality) comes closest to being infallible for his purpose. For the spirit of things is what is sought. No blur of inexactness, no cloud of vagueness, is allowable in good writing; from the first seeing to the last putting down, there must be steady lucidity and uncompromise of purpose.

In an essay poet Meena Alexander wrote:
While poetry is bound to the sensorium, to the sensual powers of bodily being, to memory that draws its power from feelings heightened by the senses, it is also bound to place. It is in place that we locate ourselves, mark ourselves in relation with others; it is in place that we survive. But what becomes of the past when place is torn away, when the sensorium is radically displaced, and when exile or dislocation marks out the limits of existence?

April 30, 2019

Poetry Events

Poetry Events

May 20, 2019  (Monday) 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm - Celebrating the recent publication of "Undocumented: Great Lakes Poets Laureate on Social Justice" edited by Ron Riekki and Andrea Scarpino at Content Bookstore, Northfield, MN with 5 Poet Laureate recipients: James Armstrong, Emilio DeGrazia, Rob Hardy, Ken McCullough, and Sheila Packa.  For information about the book, see

May 31, 2019 (Fri) 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm – Organized by Duluth Poet Laureate Gary Boelhower, the event “Walt Whitman at 200: A Birthday Party with Poetry Readings, Presentations, and Cake” will feature readings by Duluth Poets Laureate Bart Sutter, Deborah Cooper, Sheila Packa, Ellie Schoenfeld, and Gary Boelhower; presentations by Mara Hart, Professors John D. Schwetman, and Chris Johnson; and book sales of recently published anthologies. The event is free and open to the public and refreshments will be served. For additional information, please contact Gary Boelhower, Hartley Nature Center, 3001 Woodland Avenue, Duluth, MN 55803.

Poetry Book Club @ Zenith Books

May 8 (Wed) 5:30 pm – 7:00 pm – In May, we are discussing “The Beauty” by Jane Hirshfield. Zenith Bookstore, 318 North Central Avenue, Duluth, MN 55807.

June 12 (Wed) 5:30 pm – 7:00 pm –  In June, we are discussing Danez Smith's "Don't Call Us Dead," a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award. 

April 27, 2019

A Free-flowing River: Thoughts About Poetry

To see the slides, click on this link:

April 27, 2019 Keynote Address for the League of Minnesota Poets Spring Conference in Ely, Minnesota.

This keynote presents my experience of a northern watershed and an intertextual exploration of poetry. This examines ideas of flow, rhapsody, turns, landscape, headwater, time, erosions, opposing forces, tributaries, the body, permeability, mosaics, and it includes Works Cited.

April 22, 2019

The Muse

"When I Met My Muse"
by William Stafford

I glanced at her and took my glasses
off–they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. “I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.

I'm especially fond of Stafford's poem because it emphasizes the muse is connected to one's own set of perceptions. "Writer's voice" is the unique set of perceptions, attentions, obsessions, and experience of the writer. It reflects his or her culture, words, habits, and landscape. A writer needs a muse. Each writer has a unique experience and image of his or her source of inspiration.

April 12, 2019

Wilderness and Mineral Landscapes

Lately, musician Sara Pajunen has been composing Mine Songs: Sounding an Altered Landscape.  She has been recording sound and video in areas near mining operations and at harbors, and she uses this collected sound in her violin compositions. It's beautiful work. 

I have a poem published at Cortland Review, "Boundary Waters."  In this excerpt, I allude to the extraction of minerals in the northern Minnesota landscape.

a tail flick of a fin 
among the sunken 
in a vein of ore. 
To take from another body
is a question
answered by loon...

There is a tension here between the environmental quality and economic development in the form of taconite and iron mines. In order to sustain our lives, there is a balance we need to achieve between economics and environment.Read the entire poem at

Horses: A Lyric Essay

Entropy Magazine published my lyric essay, "Horses."  This was written for Sibelius' Symphony #2.

The series "Variations on a Theme" seeks to examine the intersection between music and literary works.

"Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced?"

Read the essay at Entropy's website:

April 1, 2019

Donald Hall: Goatfoot, Milktongue, and Twinbird

In the essay, "Goatfoot, Milktongue, and Twinbird: Interviews, Essays and Notes" Donald Hall considers the psychic origins of poetry.

This essay captures what feels true.  Donald Hall believed poetry had root in vatic expression, coming from God or the divine. In addition, he considers the experience that is preverbal as a major source of poetry, saying: "The mouth pleasure, the muscle pleasure, the pleasure of match-unmatch.”  Milktongue refers to the five senses, the infant nursing at the breast with milk in his or her mouth.  Goatfoot refers to muscle pleasure, like the rhythms of nursery rhymes, games and happy dances. Twinbird is the infant's discovery of his or her hands. Like birds, they are in the air. Initially, they seem independent but gradually a baby understands the hands are dependent and respond to his or her will. Also a delight grows when a child sees the mirror image, the match-unmatch of the hands. The words goatfoot, milktongue and twinbird contain both image and rhythm (dactyl).

In the following poem by Hall, one can trace these three: mouth pleasure, muscle pleasure and match/unmatch.


Pale gold of the walls, gold
of the centers of daisies, yellow roses
pressing from a clear bowl. All day
we lay on the bed, my hand
stroking the deep
gold of your thighs and your back.
We slept and woke
entering the golden room together,
lay down in it breathing
quickly, then
slowly again,
caressing and dozing, your hand sleepily
touching my hair now.

We made in those days
tiny identical rooms inside our bodies
which the men who uncover our graves
will find in a thousand years,
shining and whole.

Hall also once said, "Poetry begins in elegy."  See his essay about elegy here:

To see his entire book of essays, Goatfoot, Milktongue, and Twinbird: Interviews, Essays and Notes (digitally archived):

See the text of "Gold" by Donald Hall:

March 30, 2019

League of MN Poets: Poetry Reading April 26 and Keynote / Workshop on April 27, 2019

The wilderness of poetry...yes!  

I'm looking forward to this event. Please join the community of poets and me in Ely on April 26 at Northern Grounds and April 27 at the Grand Lodge.  

Commit to your own poetry practice and register at:

March 20, 2019

Experimental Poets

The Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Award Judges have selected Dawn Lundy Martin as the winner of the 2019 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for her book Good Stock Strange Blood (Coffee House Press). The judges describe Good Stock Strange Blood as a “formidable, sublime” collection that presents “an uncompromising poetics of resistance and exactitude.” Diana Khoi Nguyen is the winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award for her book Ghost Of (Omnidawn). Timothy Donnelly, chair of this year’s judging committee, described Good Stock Strange Blood and Ghost Of as books that will challenge the expectations of readers. “They are probably different from what many people are used to or expect from poetry,” he said. “Martin and Nguyen capture a whole new layer of being in their work that, to many, will still be unfamiliar.”

Martin's writing is poly-vocal and rooted in the body.  

Poetry by Dawn Lundy Martin:

Lecture about the racialized body and grief:

March 18, 2019


I appreciate Anne Carson's original mind. Her writing contains a meta-level. What seems droll or inconsequential will suddenly plunge deep.    

‘Lecture on the History of Skywriting’ was originally performed at the New York Live Ideas Festival in spring 2016 and followingly at the Whitney Museum in New York.
Anne Carson (b. 1950) is a Canadian poet, writer, essayist, translator, and professor of Classics. In the course of what has been called a “unclassifiable publishing career,” Carson has published a wide range of acclaimed “genre-bending” work such as ‘Eros the Bittersweet’ (1986) – which was named one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time by the Modern Library – , ‘Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse’ (1998), ‘Men in the Off Hours’ (2001), ‘The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos’ (2001), ‘Nox’ (2010), ‘Red Doc>’ (2013) and ‘Float’ (2016). She is the recipient of several prestigious awards including the Lannan Literary Award (1996), Griffin Poetry Prize (2001), T.S. Eliot Prize (2001), PEN Award for Poetry in Translation (2010) and Griffin Poetry Prize (2014).

March 17, 2019

In Honor of W.S. Merwin

W.S. Merwin died on Friday, March 15, 2019 at his home in Hawaii.  His poetry was a gift to us. 

"Gift" by W.S. Merwin

I have to trust what was given to me
if I am to trust anything
it led the stars over the shadowless mountain

I must be led by what was given to me
as streams are led by it
and braiding flights of birds

March 13, 2019

Trethewey's Native Guard

The Poetry Book Club @ Zenith Books meets today, March 13 at 5:30 pm to discuss Natasha Tretheway's Native Guard.  In 2007, this book won a Pulitzer Prize. 

Myth is central to this book of poems, history is central, love and violence is central. Walt Whitman's words do well to summarize the poems of Native Guard: "Quick Mettle, Rich Blood, Impulse and Love, Good and Evil."

In interviews, Trethewey has spoken about feeling "ghosts everywhere around you." This book pays homage to her mother (murdered by her husband) and the black soldiers in the Union Army during the Civil War. It's a spare volume of poems that explores the contradictions of the South, the contradictions of marriage, and the contradictions of military service to the country.

Section I is about her mother. It begins with a poem, "Southern Crescent." A story embarks in this first poem, and it's a fitting entrance to the story. The mother is about to board the Crescent, the train, a fixture in the South, prided itself on excellent service. Two journey begin but are interrupted: the first, her mother going to meet her biological father but the connection is never made. He is not at the destination. In the second, the train derails and mother/daughter miss the connection.

The second poem of the collection is like the central integument of the book,"Genus Narcissus," The inscription by Robert Herrick emphasizes the ephemeral daffodils. The poem foreshadows the murder:

...I knew nothing

of Narcissus or the daffodils' short spring -- 
how they'd dry like graveside flowers, rustling
when the wind blew -- a whisper, treacherous,
from the sill. Be taken with yourself
they said to me; Die early, to my mother.
This poem is an important image for the book.  It evokes the myth of Narcissus and Echo that was written in Ovid's Metamorphosis.  Echo began as a talking nymph with magnificent voice and song.  In retaliation for a lie, Juno (Jupiter's wife) curses her by making her able to only finish a sentence not started, and unable to say anything on her own. She falls in love with Narcissus, and she follows him, echoing his words.  

Trethewey's connection between Echo and her mother is interesting. Women who are victims of domestic abuse do seem to lose their voice and song. Many do end up echoing the words of their abusers.   

Narcissus, a beautiful boy, was hunting when Echo saw him.  He rejects her. She prays to Venus of this -- and Venus makes Echo disappear until she remains a voice heard by all.
At the stream, he falls in love with his own reflection and he wastes away with love for himself. In awhile his body is gone and in its place a narcissus flower, a pale flower that grows by river banks so that it can be reflected. 

Reflections occur in form as well as content. The poem titled "Myth" presents a perfect mirror as it carries lines forward and backward.  "Graveyard Blues" is a blues form. Ekphrastic poems reflect photographs and the painting of Winslow Homer. 

The narcissism of this boy might well gesture toward the narcissism and self-absorption of the young. The poem seems to indicate this.  But narcissism and self absorption is always characteristic of an abuser in a domestic relationship, in Trethewey's step-father. Only concerned with himself, he does not love his wife well. As a result, they are both destroyed.  

There is another ghost or shadow here as well. The visual artist and illustrator Laurence Housman wrote a poem "Narcissus" about World War I: 
The New Narcissus
by Laurence Housman 
While war through Flanders sweeps in flood,And death goes flaring by,
Above the steam and stench of blood
Spring larks are soaring high;
And in the pause you hear their song,
While underneath, at rest,
Amid those mounds of human wrong
The young lie in the nest.
Down-nodding to the pit of death
The daffodils are through,
And shake their petals full of breath
Above a breathless crew.
Blithely they quaff and cast away
Light from their golden eyes,
Where, blind to all the beams of day,
The new Narcissus lies:
Who, in that dark and dreadful hole
Beheld a vision blest,
Saw the desire of his young soul,
And drank, and there found rest.
Within those eyes, beyond our ken,
Shut fast from present use,
The vision waits. There lie the men
Who kept the Christmas Truce.
This poem, this image of Narcissus, perfectly brings us to the topic of the Civil War, Section II of Native Guard. The new Narcissus is a dead soldier. The vision of war is triumph, but the truth is actually destruction. This is a stunning sequence of poems that blends history and images. The notes in the back of the book illuminate these poems even more.  A crown sonnet is the gem inside these fine poems, and the story is worthy of becoming immortalized in these poems.  The black soldiers in Union blue uniforms have no statues or commemorative markers for the sacrifices they made. Facing racism within the Union Army, they are denied even the term "native" though they are born on the soil. Instead they are called Corps d' Africa.  Not only have they died, but they were denied, and in history, nearly been forgotten.

Section III of the book holds an inscription by Walt Whitman, "O magnet South, O glistening perfumed South, my South/ O quick mettle, rich blood, impulse and love! good and evil! / O all dear to me." In this section, Trethewey returns to the more contemporary history of the south. The poem "Miscegenation" about her white father and black mother's marriage, illegal at the time. In the poem she makes reference to Faulkner's Joe Christmas and the origin of her name, Natasha which in Russian means Christmas child. At the time of her birth, her father was reading War and Peace. By these images, contradictions, connections Trethewey has created a work of remarkable and enduring beauty. She is well deserving of the Pulitzer Prize.