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 https://www.zenithbookstore.com/. 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 poets.org: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/grief-work

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 poets.org: 
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: https://therumpus.net/2013/10/when-my-brother-was-an-aztec-by-natalie-diaz/
Book Review:   https://www.poetrysociety.org/psa/poetry/crossroads/new_american_poets/natalie_diaz/

Essay: "A Body of Athletics" by Natalie Diaz published in PEN America. https://pen.org/a-body-of-athletics/

Interview NPR: https://www.npr.org/2018/10/14/657341924/macarthur-genius-poet-natalie-diaz-tackles-issues-facing-native-americans

2018 MacArthur Fellow: Meet the poet: https://www.macfound.org/fellows/1007/

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 https://www.npr.org/2018/04/23/604910290/art-of-the-wasted-day-makes-a-case-for-letting-the-mind-wander

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, "...so 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 http://www.versedaily.org/acquired.shtml "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: http://www.nereview.com/vol-35-no-3-2014/carl-phillips/ 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 https://www.zenithbookstore.com/


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: https://www.facebook.com/events/323573284890742/

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. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69955/how-to-read-a-poem

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 https://gulfcoastmag.org/online/blog/mass-culture-and-the-american-poet-the-poem-as-vaccination/

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  https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/coming-and-going

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.  

January 1, 2019

League of Minnesota Poets Spring Conference 2019

League of Minnesota Poets

Mark your calendars now for the LOMP Spring Conference on April 27 at the Grand Ely Lodge on Shagawa Lake.

Sheila Packa, poet, writer, teacher, and former Poet Laureate for Duluth, will be the Keynote speaker. Stay tuned for more information.

Lodging options include the Grand Ely Lodge, 400 N Pioneer Rd, or the Adventure Inn, 1145 Sheridan St in downtown Ely. Mention the League for a special rate of $129.95 (plus tax) at the Grand Ely Lodge; availability and rates for the Adventure Inn can be found online at adventureinn-ely.com A third option is A Stay Inn Ely, 112 W Sheridan St. If you mention the League, your rates will be $100 per room. Contact them at (218) 365-6010 or email info@jaspercompany.

See the winter newsletter of the League of Minnesota Poets: https://www.mnpoets.org/sites/default/files/lomplighter-pdfs/2018-12.pdf