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.

March 12, 2019

How to Get Published

Are you wondering about how to submit your writing to publishers? Much of it happens online these days. Here's a free video course about sending your writing out to literary publications, contests, and anthologies. In "How to Get Published," you will learn how to select your work, choose your market, and write a bio and cover letter. The teacher has also provided helpful links and templates: a spreadsheet to track your submissions, a cover letter, and bio. 

Here is the direct link:

The course is offered by Rachel Mindell, a Content Strategist at Submittable. The series of videos are available through Skillshare. You will be asked to become a member (and you can view the video if you choose the free option).  Enjoy! And good luck with sending out your work.

February 18, 2019

Undocumented: Great Lakes Poets Laureate on Social Justice

I'm thrilled to have a poem included in this collection edited by Ron Riekki and Andrea Scarpino (Michigan University Press).


THURSDAY, APRIL 11 at 7pm, at CONTENT BOOKSTORE in Northfield, MN  

SUNDAY, APRIL 28, at 2 pm at ZENITH BOOKSTORE in Duluth

For book information, go to:

THURSDAY, JUN 27 at 5:30 pm at DULUTH PUBLIC LIBRARY (downtown)

January 31, 2019

The Black-out Poem, Found Poem

Lately, there have been many who have posted poems using the black-out method. It is a variation of the "found poem." Here is an example that I pulled out from an excerpt of Heidegger's essay.

The Origin of the Work of Art by Martin Heidegger

Poetry, however, is no aimless imagining of whimsicalities, and no flight
of mere representations and fancies into the unreal. What poetry, as clearing
projection, unfolds of unconcealment and projects into the rift within the
figure is the open; poetry allows this open to happen in such a way, indeed,
that now, for the first time, in the midst of beings, it brings them to
and sound. If we fix our gaze on the essence of the work and its relation to
happening of the truth of beings, it becomes questionable whether the
essence of poetry, of
that is to say, projection, can be adequately thought in
terms of imagination and the power of imagining.

The Origin of the Work of Art by Martin Heidegger

no aimless flight and
poetry, as clearing
unfolds   unconceals
the rift within the figure

open; poetry
allows shine and sound.
on the work and its
happening that is to say,

January 24, 2019

Poetry and Music

The review of Minnesota Orchestra's Sibelius Kullervo / Kortekangas Migrations CD:
Olli Kortekangas’s striking Migrations, which Vänskä commissioned to mark the 150th anniversary of the beginning of modern Finnish emigration to North America; four knotty settings of poems by Sheila Packa, separated by more reflective orchestral interludes. As a bonus on the second disc there’s more Sibelius: the male-chorus version of Finlandia.
Looking back, it was thrilling to see the Minnesota Orchestra perform this composition with my poems and to have it recorded by BIS:  See the full review

January 21, 2019

Natalie Diaz: Devouring Her

Event: Poetry Book Club on Feb 13 at 5:30 pm at Zenith Books, facilitated by Sheila Packa This is the selected book for discussion.

Book Review

Natalie Diaz has created an outstanding book of poems with strong figurative language, passion, and allusions to influential and mythic stories.  Hunger. Teeth. Mouth. Biting. Eating. Devouring. Apple. Fruit. Red.  The addict has an unending appetite, but he is devoured by the addiction. Family relationships are also fed upon by the addict who uses up resources and second chances. Love is used up, exhausted, broken and reclaimed.

Another kind of hunger: the lover feasts on the beloved.  "I Watch Her Eat the Apple" is a delicious and erotic love poem that evokes Eve in the Garden of Eden, but it's a contemporary woman who tears the sticker from the apple skin "...this woman / who is a city of apples, / there is only me licking the juice / from the streets of her palm."  This is one of the most beautiful lesbian love poems I've read.

Diaz draws on her American, Latinx and Mojave heritage (and a long heritage of literary tradition in Europe and the Middle East) to create powerful poems.  The title also brings in the images of the old Aztec culture in association with this brother who is addicted: art, poetry, rituals, junctions with Spanish explorers, and religious ceremonies that sometimes included human sacrifice.

At the same time that Diaz relates stories of growing up on the reservation and her brother's drug addiction, she speaks out against colonialism, racism, sexism in our contemporary culture. She claims herself and her right to have pleasure from the damaging effects of poverty and these -isms. There's sex, love, and death in her poems. As Muriel Rukeyser has said, the poem creates a form of theater. In Diaz's poetic theater, she claims the use of violent images, grief and sorrowful images, physical and sexual imagery.  This book of poems has wide reach.

The Passion

The word passion has its root in Latin, and it meant to suffer or endure. In Christianity, it was the crucifixion of Christ. In My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz the suffering is caused by addiction, poverty, racism, and exploitation. Poems pick up images or words from Christianity: the gospel, Mary, mercy, prayers, Jesus, Eve, apple, and Gethsemane, heretics, charismatics, the Rapture. In the narrative forms, Diaz intertwines images from the passion of love into these tales of suffering.   
The grief is an intense, deep anguish and sorrow. Natalie Diaz: “My friend and I call grief the beautiful terrible because it is a wound that opens you but also shows you the miracles of what is inside you. Rather than try to escape my griefs, I’m trying to recognize them as a wildness I can submerge myself in, to be washed clean by the very thing that aches me so deeply. To give my grief to a beloved’s body, to take her grief into my body, to rearrange ourselves with it and become both more and less of one another and of our own selves—this is a lucky thing.” See this poem of hers, "Grief Work" archived at

Love and grief, passion and violence, sorrow and celebration animate these poems. The reader experiences the work's visceral and vivid images and its compelling immediacy. Octavio Paz says in The Bow and the Lyre:
Two opposing forces inhabit the poem: one of elevation or uprooting, which pulls the word from the language: the other of gravity, which makes it return. The poem is an original and unique creation, but it is also reading and recitation: participation. The poet creates it; the people, by recitation, re-create it. Poet and reader are two moments of a single reality.
In his review in Rumpus, Ryan Teitman describes the poems like this:
...They embrace what Lorca called the duende: the kind of force and struggle that—unlike the angel and the muse— “surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.” They aren’t the kind of perfect, crystalline poems that seem to have fallen from the heavens. These are rangy, muscled works that have both a dancer’s grace and a mechanic’s oil-stained hands.
The duende was a spirit that enters the body of Spanish dancers and other artists. It is a dark spirit that is passionate, both erotic and close to death. Lorca describes this possession, and it lifts the work of the artist into spell-binding ecstatic expression. It is an experience that artists like Billie Holiday achieved, for instance.

The body of the poems

Diaz has used her own forms and some very ancient poetic forms. The title of Diaz's abecedarian evokes an antiquated Christian tract, but the poem itself reflects the voice of a contemporary narrator. The abecedarian is list poem. Each beginning line begins with the successive letter of the alphabet. an ancient form that was used in laments in medieval times which were commonly community expressions of grief, often the lamentation was conducted by an individual who specialized in this, like a shaman. The poem itself is an interrogation of Christianity's perspective toward Native American people and colonization.  "You better hope you never see angels on the rez. If you do, they'll be /marching you off to / Zion or Oklahoma, or some other hell they've mapped out for us." 

The pantoum is a usually built as a series of quatrains, with the second and fourth lines of each quatrain repeated as the first and third lines of the next.  Poet Nzotake Shange used the pantoum form skillfully.  

The triolet is a short poem of eight lines with two rhymes that recur inside of it. It's a French form, and in the 17th century, the triolet form was used by a Benedictine monk Patrick Carey in devotionals.  "Downhill Triolets" effectively use repetition to express the recurring crises that occur in the life of an addict.  

The ghazal also has a long history. It is made of anywhere from two to fifteen couplets. Each couplet can be thematically or emotionally distinct. The ghazal does not reflect a continuous narrative with sequential paragraphs or stanzas. According to 
The first couplet introduces a scheme, made up of a rhyme followed by a refrain. Subsequent couplets pick up the same scheme in the second line only, repeating the refrain and rhyming the second line with both lines of the first stanza. The final couplet usually includes the poet’s signature, referring to the author in the first or third person, and frequently including the poet’s own name or a derivation of its meaning.
This was used by Lorca and many others, but this form originated in 7th century Arabia and later used by Iranian, Pakistani, and Indian musicians. The Minnesota poet Robert Bly and many American poets have used this form as well.  Bly described the ghazal as a form often used by women, and it carries a tone of intimate communication. 

The prose poem is also used very effectively in this book. The last poem, "A Wild Life Zoo," closes this book of poems with a visceral story of the mauling and death of a zoo visitor who has provoked the lion in its cage. "Here kitty, kitty..." also reminds me of a cat-call made by men to women.  Evocative images of fruit, red dress, teeth, a circle of teepees of Indians on the warpath, the salty olive-like eye, the asshole.  In the last line, the narrator also seems to provoke the same fate in the lines "rang my bowl against the cage to let them know." Them might be the Zoo's Delta Force Team who has shot tranquilizers at the lion (like a tambourine of pink aloe flowers) or it might be the crowds (like bandits) who have split and now are next to the electric koi and the snakes (boa constrictors).  The lion is a powerful metaphor. It is a poem so vivid that it leaves its mark on a reader.  

Poetry Society's Adrian Matejka writes: "At its center, this collection is about the transformation of traditions—the traditions of poverty, the traditions of Indigenousness, the traditions of poetics."  
Transformative, yes, she is. Natalie Diaz is a model for any woman dealing with the challenges of gender, race, and class.  She's a model for any poet who is interesting is literary allusions, metaphor, physical detail and word choice. This primary metaphor of devouring/being devoured evokes an earlier work of a French lesbian writer, Monique Wittig.  The Lesbian Body.  Diaz is also a strong lesbian voice who claims her identity, her pleasure, and her autonomy. Nobody can hold her back, and nobody should. This woman promises to bless everybody with her brilliant work. 


Book Review:
Book Review:

Essay: "A Body of Athletics" by Natalie Diaz published in PEN America.

Interview NPR:

2018 MacArthur Fellow: Meet the poet:

Natalie Diaz was a successful professional basketball player before she was a poet. In the essay noted at the end of this book review, I've included a link to her essay, "A Body of Athletics," published by PEN America.  This essay also exemplifies her mind: she has a wide associational capacity. She gathers the wit and wisdom across several disciplines: sports, literature, media, Mojave language, religion, and music. She has participated in Standing Rock protests and has her work published in Orion magazine and several places. She is interested in language, in preserving the Mojave language, in protecting the land and the water, and she can synthesize and create astounding works of art.

January 12, 2019

The Unbidden

Patricia Hampl's book-length essay, The Art of the Wasted Day, combines a literary quest for Montaigne with her own memoirs.  She often speaks in second person, to you. In this book she means her husband who has recently died.  Her first quest resulted in the other quest, a desire to continue a conversation with her beloved.  She argues that creative work requires writers to have more solitude and unstructured time. It requires attention, being present in the moment.

There is wisdom in the advice of these two writers.  Michel Montaigne said:

If it doesn't go along gaily and freely, it goes nowhere worth going. We say of certain words that they smell of oil and the lamp because of the certain harshness or roughness that labor imprints on productions in which it has a large part. But besides this, the anxiety to do well, and the tension of straining too intently on one's work, puts the soul on the rack, breaks it and makes it impotent; as happens with water, which because of the very pressure of its violence and abundance cannot find a way out of an open bottleneck. 

Hampl writes that Montaigne (in the 1500s) developed the personal narrative essay as a "basket" of thoughts. She also has written her own book as a basket of thoughts, and in its free-ranging and leisurely pace, I contemplate my own efforts to complete a writing project. When I consider previous writing, I know that not straining is good advice.  D. T. Suzuki, in the introduction to Zen in the Art of Archery writes:

Man is a thinking reed but his great works are done when he is not calculating or thinking. "Childlikeness" has to be restored with long years of training in the art of self-forgetfulness. When this is attained, man thinks yet he does not think. He thinks like the showers coming down from the sky; he thinks like the waves rolling on the ocean; he thinks like the stars illuminating the nightly heavens; he thinks like the green foliage shooting forth in the relaxing spring breeze. Indeed, he is the showers, the ocean, the stars, and the foliage.   
Effort that becomes forced is not good effort. If something doesn't work, it doesn't help to do it harder. One must change. Instead, one might find another angle. Relax. Stop trying to control it. Find the voice and listen more deeply. Let it go somewhere else. Pay attention.

In Hampl's words as she introduces the quote from Montaigne, "In order to be trustworthy, writing must have a chaotic charge, an unbidden quality" (p 69). This also reminds me of Richard Hugo's Triggering Town. The initial writing is simply a place to start. Hugo began his writings with a description of a town he had traveled through, and in his practice, something else emerged on the page. This second topic, unbidden, was the true subject. 

To read an excellent review of Hampl's book, see

January 10, 2019

Writers Read at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin

I'm honored to be one of the writers selected for this warm and festive Writers Read event at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin!

Friday, January 25 at 7 pm
Alvord Theater | Ponzio Campus Center

The reading was recorded by Wisconsin Public Radio and aired Feb 22, 2019.  Listen at

January 9, 2019

Gorgeous Mistakes: Ocean Vuong's Night Sky With Exit Wounds

Many things are mistaken or have been mistaken for something else in Ocean Vuong's gorgeous and tender book of poems, Night Sky with Exit Wounds.

Vuong came to America as a child, via a refugee camp in Thailand and he ended up there via his family's flight from Saigon when the Americans pulled out of the war.  His art is transfixed upon the image of exit wound which summons the narrative of departures, loss, violence, and war in "Aubade with Burning City," "Trojan," and "Untitled" (after 9/11 and Mark Rothko).  This is met in equal measure with narratives of love and devotion. Vuong explores the father/son connection in "Threshold" "Telemachus," and "The Smallest Measure." 

"Threshold" captures the exquisite balance between light and dark themes: "I didn't know the cost // of entering a song—was to lose/ your way back. // So I entered. So I lost / I lost it all with my eyes// wide open. "

He also writes about lovers and gender-bending. In "Trojan," Vuong writes: "…he steps/into a red dress. A flame caught / in a mirror the width of a coffin. Steel glinting/ in the back of his throat. A flash. A white / asterisk. Look/ how he dances…" This act of courage has the potential to invoke violence too.

Vuong is a master of figurative language. Anne Carson, in her own poem, "What I Think About Most" writes "Aristotle says that metaphor causes the mind to experience itself // in the act of making a mistake." Metaphor transfers meaning between seemingly disparate objects, and it is a delightful experience. In addition, Vuong's sound patterns are resonant. His vowel harmony or assonance is skillful, as well as the alliteration.

His poems in this collection are unified by theme and, in each poem, by the arrangement and rearrangement of the totemic images.  Kate Green, a poetry teacher I've had, used this concept for the recurring images in a book of poems.  Each is a doorway to story.  Each writer has a unique set of totemic images.

These words act as a constellation that will guide you through the work.  Exit wound is of course caused by a gun, but it also a wound his father suffered in Viet Nam, Vuong's self portrait, the stars in the sky, the painful end of love, and light coming through a hole in the wall. It was the final note in JFK's life. As one poem about his grandmother suggests, it is the baby that is born of rape.

He is a poet engaged in a literary conversation with many other stories and writers.  This deepens the meaning and recognizes the canonical works that have inspired him. Allusions are made to the Odyssey, Li-Young Lee, Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo," Orpheus and Eurydice, and Icarus. In the ending poem, " what if my feathers are burning / I never asked for flight / Only to feel this fully...."

Not just literature, but Voung evokes music. Notably these are "Of Thee I Sing," from the American anthem, a poem about Jacqueline Kennedy in the convertible when JFK was assassinated and "Always and Forever," a song by Luther Vandross, his father's favorite song. "…Tonight / I wake and mistake the bathwater wrung // from mother's hair for his voice."

Vuong uses many forms of poems: aubade (morning poem), haibun (japanese form of lyric prose followed by a haiku), ekphrasis (a poem conversing with a visual art piece), anaphora (a incantatory pattern of each line beginning with the same word or phrase but with varying line endings), and ode (a poem of honoring or celebration).

From Vuong's book notes, I find two other contemporary poets, both gay men, whose work has influenced his own. "Acquired Immune Deficiency Disorder" by Eduardo Corrall uses the images of a deer, a harp, strings, rain. It's published in Verse Daily at "Parable" by Carl Phillips narrates a story about a saint who could call up a full catch of fish by a gesture of his hand. You can read it here: These poems nearly form a frame for this book.

For navigation, inspiration, and romance, Voung lifts his narrative and lyric work to the stars. He writes"the stars / were always what we knew // they were: the exit wounds/ of every/ misfired word." His narratives connect to meta-narratives, and it's all done with aching beauty. I recommend that you always keep this book.

Event: Poetry Book Club on Jan 9 at 5:30 pm at Zenith Books, facilitated by Sheila Packa


January 7, 2019

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield will be in Duluth on March 5, 2019 7:30 pm at Mitchell Auditorium, College of St. Scholastica.

Francis X. Shea Memorial Lecture

See Facebook event for details:

In her book, Nine Gates, Entering the Mind of Poetry, Hirshfield writes:
Every good poem begins in language awake to its own connections — language that hears itself and what is around it, sees itself and what is around it, looks back at those who look into its gaze and knows more perhaps even than we do about who are, what we are. It begins, that is, in the mind and body of concentration. 
By concentration, I mean a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open. This quality of consciousness, though not easily put into words, is instantly recognizable. Aldous Huxley described it as the moment the doors of perception open; James Joyce called it epiphany. The experience of concentration may be quietly physical — a simple, unexpected sense of deep accord between yourself and everything. It may come as the harvest of long looking and leave us, as it did Wordsworth, a mind thought “too deep for tears.” Within action, it is felt as a grace state: time slows and extends, and a person’s every movement and decision seem to partake of perfection. Concentration can also be placed into things — it radiates undimmed from Vermeer’s paintings, from the small marble figure of a lyre-player from ancient Greece, from a Chinese three-footed bowl — and into musical notes, words, ideas. In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.
You can order the book through the publisher at

Also see Jane Hirshfield's article posted at the Poetry Foundation, "Spiritual Poetry."

Poetry Book Club @ Zenith Books

Are you available on the second Wednesdays of the month at 5:30 pm?  Have you ever wanted to talk about the amazing book of poems you've just read? Welcome to the Poetry Book Club at Zenith Books in Duluth, Minnesota!

Each month, we'll feature a book of poetry. In January, the book will be Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds. In February, it will be My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz. The book club will be facilitated by former Duluth Poet Laureate, Sheila Packa. 

The following months, I hope to select really good poetry books via recommendations by the participants. Maybe you're a writer or maybe just curious. This book club is for everybody who loves to read poetry. Order your book club book with Zenith Bookstore for 15% discount.

At the meetings, we'll talk about metaphors, sound patterns, and anything else that might happen to come up in conversation about poems.  We won't have a rigid structure, but I will facilitate the conversation.  So pick up a book, read some of it or all of it, and come and talk about your impressions!

Not used to the idea of a poetry book club?  We can talk about the content of the poems and the form. The following things are common to all poetry:
  • Sound patterns: repeated words or phrases, alliteration, repeated vowel sounds (assonance), rhyme, meter, beat. Poetry is connected to the breath. Poets use spacing and punctuation to help the reader say it aloud. 
  • Visual patterns: some poets create a visual pattern on the page. There are line breaks (usually the line ends on an important word) and stanza breaks (stanzas are similar to paragraphs)
  • Figurative language: images are important (nouns and verbs predominate), poems often use metaphor (one thing used to describe something else), personification (giving human attributes to things or animals), metonymy (using just a portion of something to name something else -- example, hands might be used to refer to workers, crown might be used to refer to king or queen)
  • Form: Poems might have a traditional meter or form, or the poet might create a unique pattern or form.  Observations are welcome about the length of the poem, about stanzas, lines, line breaks, enjambment (a sentence that runs over a couple of lines) and other elements of the physical form.  These are a few of the many different types: elegy (like eulogy), love poem, ode (celebration of things or people or places), aubade (morning poem), ekphrastic poem (written to or for a piece of visual art), sonnet, villanelle, etc.  
Here's a link "How to Read a Poem (and Fall in Love with Poetry" from the book by Edward Hirsch.

Talking about a poem generally always leads to discoveries and a deeper appreciation. Sometimes it might lead to you writing some poems of your own.  I look forward to our conversations. 

January 6, 2019

Tony Hoagland: Flying in the Face Of it All

Is poetry relevant in the current political climate or in the face of mass culture?  The late Tony Hoagland answered that question eloquently in the essay, "Mass Culture and the American Poet: The Poem as Vaccination" recently published in Gulf Coast Magazine:
The symptoms of our commercialized environment are familiar—a loss of fundamental contact with reality, an inability to think and feel clearly, a sense of proportion that is relentlessly invaded, destabilized and distorted. The end result is a sense of being both magnificently stimulated and trivialized, and an anesthetized condition of self that is, paradoxically, a radical kind of suffering. The problem we have inherited is a permanent one: how is it possible for the American poet to grapple with these aspects of mass culture, whose mind-bending presence is equal to any event in our private lives? How is it possible to include the marketplace in our report on the world, without being engulfed by it? Is irony sufficient? Will aloof superiority serve well enough?
Hoagland provides nice examples of how well poetry can rise to the challenge.  Read the essay at

In a second essay "The Pursuit of Ignorance..." published in the New Ohio Review, Hoagland meditates on poetry's ability to articulate not knowing: Dante, Emerson, Transtromer, Merwin, and others. "The greatest human intellectual achievement of the twentieth century was the discovery of how fucking clueless we human beings are," he writes in the first sentence.  To read more, go to

Hoagland himself was a master at creating poems that were pointed cultural critiques and also full of wit and compassion.  In his obituary in the NYTimes in October 2018, Neil Genzlinger wrote: "He found insights and imagery in the everyday: a pool in an Austin, Tex., park; a spaghetti strap on a woman’s dress that won’t stay put; an old man dying from too much Fox News. " Read this poem by Tony Hoagland, "Coming and Going," at

Tony Hoagland has several poetry books. These are some of my favorites titles:  Recent Changes in the Vernacular, Application for Release from the DreamWhat Narcissism Means to Me, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, and Donkey Gospel.