December 10, 2020

Listening to Silences and Gaps

What don't we know?

Michel-Rolph Trouillot's book examines the omissions and distortions in our history books. It's a wonderful analysis that distinguishes between "the past" and "history of the past." In this book, he does a full examination of the Haitian revolution which occurred 1798-1804. It's nearly unheard of, and yet, it was a slave rebellion that overthrew a government.  Trouillot also considers many debates about Christopher Columbus and the discovery of America and incidents surrounding the "Remember the Alamo." He also examines the outright denial of the Holocaust, shedding insight into how and why those things happen. He also considers the narratives around the taming of the Wild West and notes the history of the West is often framed around western films featuring John Wayne. A dominant culture can not or will not fully see or fathom political or cultural events that challenge their world view. These are silenced, omitted, dismissed, or disregarded. 

Since the publication of Silencing the Past in 1995, a broader cultural understanding has reframed Columbus Day in the United States. Columbus himself kept a journal, and he wrote no entry for Oct 12. The Spanish monarch for whom he established a trade route took very little notice. It was only in the beginning of the 1900s that a (rather fictional) story of Columbus emerged and a festival was held. This festival led to further fictional narratives. Since the publication of Trouillot's book and others, we have learned about the violence, oppression, and smallpox infestation that Columbus and other Europeans brought when they arrived. As a result of Columbus capitalist venture, millions of Native Americans died and were displaced and continued to be displaced and harmed by European settlers. It is still a federal holiday, but in some locales, the day has been renamed as Indigenous Peoples Day. In some states, such as Minnesota, the state employees no longer are granted a Christopher Columbus holiday.  

Slowly, we see new research that changes the old stories. A new history book, Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power by Pekka Hämäläinen examines the complex cultures and political influence of Chief Red Cloud and the Lakota people. This culture and their territory influenced the formation and history of the United States. It isn't anything you would learn in primary or secondary school history class. 

The new stories can transform the way that we see our world, not only the large events but also the smaller, individual stories. New technologies and methods have allowed more precise and accurate data. This is threatening to some people like Donald Trump who condemned history classes that include lessons on systemic racism, teaching what he called “lies” and “left-wing indoctrination.” He called for a "patriotic" education. This is a troubling call that seeks to suppress the truth. Allowing a political agenda to dictate history is a mistake, and it is characteristic of tyrants. Verifiable information would be ignored and silenced in favor of a story that aggrandizes policies that are detrimental and even deadly. Trump is an example of what what is bad about politicians in George Orwell's famous essay, "Politics and the English Language." Hopefully the defeat of Trump in the 2020 presidential election will diminish the racism that he helped to stoke. 

New writing by Saidiya Hartman is a welcome perspective that celebrates the lives of girls and women in the early 1900s.  She has conducted intensive research in the archives of black Americans. The original sources were sociological surveys, records of home visits made by social workers, newspapers, and primary sources that clearly revealed a racial bias. Her analysis in her books bring fresh stories about these people, places, and events. She is the author of Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in Nineteenth Century America (Oxford University Press,1997) and Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (Farrar,Straus and Giroux, 2007), Wayward LIves, Beautiful Experiments (Norton, 2019). In these books, Hartman is providing deep insights into the rich culture as well as providing a critical examination of the institutions in those eras.

I appreciate Trouillot's advice about researching the gaps and silences in history. There is a "canon" which must be continually examined for its biases. It has been said by others.The writer Tillie Olson, a depression era novelist and essayist, was fully committed to "listening to silences." In an obituary of Tillie Olsen in Slate Magazine, Jess Row said, "Look around you on your way to work, she might say to us, or the next time you eat at a restaurant or visit a nail salon, and listen: That deafening silence is the sound of literature not being written." An interview with Tillie Olsen was published at the Modern American Poetry website (currently under re-construction). Here is an excerpt:  

Q: What gives you hope?
OLSEN: History gives me hope.
Q: Even though this century's been so violent?
OLSEN: The century has also been full of resistance. Why is it that the resistance movements--often so heroic and so ingenious--get obliterated from consciousness? There's always been resistance, and there comes a time when changes are made. The fact that human beings do not put up forever with misery, humiliation, degradation, actual physical deprivation but act is a fact which every human being should know about. We are a species that makes changes.There was a period in my parents' lives--it was a period in our country's life--when the ideal and the real were dynamically contiguous. They really felt that the international movement was going to change the world and make it a more just, human place. They were young when they came here, but they'd lived so very, very much.The world is so different from the world of their youth and the world of my youth. Still, power is primarily held by people of wealth and position. By and large, class interest still rules in our country.

If writers and researchers delve into the silences, the results will yield important pieces to the puzzle. We will learn more about the obstacles, understand more complexity, and contemplate more stories of resilience. These words of Tillie Olson attest to the value and power of written language.  If we record our history, we can help provide hope to ourselves and the future generations.

October 23, 2020

Poetry Reading


Online Poetry Reading November 8 at 3:00 pm
The Duluth Poet Laureate Project will conclude its “Second Sunday Reading Series,” an online open poetry reading organized by Gary Boelhower, 2018-2020 Duluth Poet Laureate, on Sunday, November 8th, from 3 to 4 pm. 

The reading will feature Sheila Packa and Blair Powless, followed by a reading by Marie Zhuikov, David Tryggestad, Diane Friebe, Kyle Hyesen, and Katri Sipila. 

The poetry reading will be offered through the ZOOM online video communications technology. The public is invited to view the reading through a ZOOM online portal; please register for the program with Gary Boelhower through email, Poets who wish to participate in the open reading segment should contact Gary Boelhower.

The Duluth Poet Laureate Project began in 2005 and is funded by donations from The Friends of the Duluth Public Library, Lake Superior College, Lake Superior Writers, and the English departments at the College of Saint Scholastica, UMD, and by generous individuals. The Zeitgeist Community Arts Center is the fiscal sponsor. More information can be found at

Sheila Packa is a fiscal year 2020 recipient of an Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature; and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

September 14, 2020

Writing on the Iron Range


Writing On the Iron Range: Workshop 

Sheila Packa, author of Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range and other works

Oct 24, 2020, Saturday, sponsored by the Lyric Center for the Arts, Virginia, MN 

Due to the pandemic, the workshop will occur on Zoom. 
Writing on the Iron Range Workshop

Have you always wanted to write down some of your life stories? Tune into this writing workshop!  In the morning, starting at 10 am, we’ll look at some examples of good writing and play with some interesting and fun approaches.  We will use guided writing exercises that enable participants will draw on their own experiences, memories, family history and landscape to make a story, memoir or poetry. 

Participants have time between sessions to develop or finish the writing prompt assignment for the later session, starting at 5 pm. During this early evening, session 2, we will do a short writing prompt and participants have the opportunity to share their writing in our group. We will discuss the strengths. There will be time for talking about editing, publishing or anything the participants would like. 


Oct 24 Session I: 10:00 am to 11:30 am. 

Oct 24 Session II: 5:00 6:30 pm

Sessions are not the same. Participants are welcome to attend both or just one session. This workshop for beginning or experienced writers. 

Register here
The Zoom link will be sent to you when you register. 
Questions:  Email:

Sheila Packa is a fiscal year 2020 recipient of an Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature; and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

August 25, 2020

Borders and Lists


One of the most interesting novelists I've read lately is Yuri Herrara. His three books, termed "nuevo noir" seem to capture today's most perilous situations. W.S. Lyon writes "his real subject is border condition, a state of exile, an existence between two extremes—this side and the other side, narco and gringo, life and death." His three books are Signs Preceding the End of the World, The Transmigration of Bodies, and Kingdom Cons. Herrara says: 
...the protagonists in all three novels are what I would call “border characters,” though not only in the sense that they live on the actual physical border between two countries; they share the border condition, which is any situation where you have different individuals and different communities exchanging values, exchanging goods, always in conflict but also in different levels of dialogue.

In different fashions, in different contexts, these three characters try to put things in contact. They try to put different people in contact—enemies, or people that seem to be enemies, or people that are far away from each other. They try to understand and shape the different roles that they are in the middle of, between.

In an interview in Latin American Literature Today, novelist Yuri Herrara says

I make a lot of lists before I prepare a book: lists of stories, lists of words I like, lists of words that I won’t use. That last one might be the most important list, and that has to do with the need to avoid cliches, to not repeat certain predigested concepts in place of problems or emotions that are much more complex than those concepts. So, the list of words I refused to use in Kingdom Cons included “Mexico,” “United States,” “border,” “drugs,” and “narco trafficking.” And that wasn’t enough to avoid being called a writer of narco novels, which is fine, since once a book is out there the readers can find different ways of reading it, but I think that’s not the only possibility.
Herrara distills different cultures, languages, and experience, using words or phrases from each. Aristotle wrote in Poetics: "Every word is either current, or strange, or metaphorical, or ornamental, or newly-coined, or lengthened, or contracted, or altered." This seems to be the case with Yuri Herrara's language. His translator Lisa Dillon writes of Herrara's unique patois — a language made from a mix of places and traditions and ways of being. He teaches at Tulane University, but he writes his novels in Spanish. It was a challenge for her to find the most accurate translation for his neologisms. Herrara uses an invented word for walking, traveling, crossing. Brilliantly, the translator uses the word "versed.

One feels the archetype in these stories, yet they do not seem facile or contrived. There is violence all around the main character, and he or she must walk through it as in order to complete his or her assigned errand. In The Transmigration of Bodies, the protagonist is a "fixer," a go-between between rival gangs, who must collect the body of a beautiful young woman and return it to her family. This exchange occurs amid a mysterious epidemic.

In Signs.., the protagonist Makina is a young woman whose grandmother sends her on a journey across the border from Mexico to the United States to look for her brother who has disappeared. This story evokes the journey through the underworld as she meets and deals with various narcotics dealers, criminals, and coyotes. These figures evoke underworld gods. In fact, Aztec mythology underlies this novel. "Each chapter title taken from the name of a layer of Mictlan—we see the Mexica world itself being reborn, with no memory of itself, out of a place of silence." Makina is an interpretor, a conduit of messages, a telephone operator in a town with few phones.

In Kingdom Cons, a street musician is suddenly lifted up from his poverty by a drug kingpin who likes his music. He lives within the narco's luxurious compound and writes and performs music to an audience of connivers and underground operators of all kinds. It is a scenario which might be characteristic of a jester or minstrel in a king's court. He tries to maintain loyalty but he is swept into assisting an escape of the wealthy man's daughter. 

Herrera's three small novels form a trip-tych. Despite the diverse characters, they capture a harrowing between-world experience and do so with a lyrical, spare writing style that evokes so much more than what is on the page.

For more about Yuri Herrara:

Notes from his translator, Lisa Dillman

July 13, 2020

Index Cards

Nabokov's novel Lolita ripples with sound: 

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. 
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. 
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. 
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

An unforgettable voice. First, the scandal. Second, the attitude. Third, the words themselves, at play in many ways, alliterative and rhythmic.  His flights of imagination are breathtaking. He said  "every writer is a great deceiver" and then points to Nature. One only needs to look at biomimicry and the ways that animals evade predators. Vladimir Nabokov talked about his writing process, which was a method of jotting on index cards which later he rearranged and dictated to his wife. His writing then is a fusion of oral story-telling and "the correct names, or the inches and tints of things."  Enchantment, as he says. This is how he explained it:

All I know is that at a very early stage of the novel’s development I get this urge to collect bits of straw and fluff, and to eat pebbles. Nobody will ever discover how clearly a bird visualizes, or if it visualizes at all, the future nest and the eggs in it. When I remember afterwards the force that made me jot down the correct names of things, or the inches and tints of things, even before I actually needed the information, I am inclined to assume that what I call, for want of a better term, inspiration, had been already at work, mutely pointing at this or that, having me accumulate the known materials for an unknown structure. After the first shock of recognition—a sudden sense of “this is what I’m going to write”—the novel starts to breed by itself; the process goes on solely in the mind, not on paper; and to be aware of the stage it has reached at any given moment, I do not have to be conscious of every exact phrase. I feel a kind of gentle development, an uncurling inside, and I know that the details are there already, that in fact I would see them plainly if I looked closer, if I stopped the machine and opened its inner compartment; but I prefer to wait until what is loosely called inspiration has completed the task for me. There comes a moment when I am informed from within that the entire structure is finished. All I have to do now is take it down in pencil or pen. Since this entire structure, dimly illumined in one’s mind, can be compared to a painting, and since you do not have to work gradually from left to right for its proper perception, I may direct my flashlight at any part or particle of the picture when setting it down in writing. I do not begin my novel at the beginning, I do not reach chapter three before I reach chapter four, I do not go dutifully from one page to the next, in consecutive order; no, I pick out a bit here and a bit there, till I have filled all the gaps on paper. This is why I like writing my stories and novels on index cards, numbering them later when the whole set is complete. Every card is rewritten many times. About three cards make one typewritten page, and when finally I feel that the conceived picture has been copied by me as faithfully as physically possible—a few vacant lots always remain, alas—then I dictate the novel to my wife who types it out in triplicate.

–from an interview with Alvin Toffler, published in Playboy, January 1964
This is from an article written by Emily Temple and published on LitHub:

July 10, 2020

Moonlight in Her Voice

Poet Alice Oswald holds the Poetry Chair at Oxford University. In her inaugural lecture, "The Art of Erosion," she begins with a story of man who moved into a house that did not have room for his piano, so he brought it outside and placed it beneath an apple tree where it became an instrument of meteorological phenomena, playing when a branch fell upon the broken lid or when an apple struck the keys. This is the art of erosion.

A cyanotype is created by the sunlight eroding the photographic paper and leaving a profile of a leaf. The force of erosion by water, sun, or wind on language also makes a mark, wears a hole, leaves an empty space. Some poets have "constructed" poems, she asserts. Others have poems of erosion evoked by a phrase or transforming image. She speaks of Samuel Beckett. He spoke of the "black holes" in the work of Beethoven; it was not the sound so much as the sighing, he said. Beckett instructed the actors of his play to speak with "moonlight in their voices."  This phrase is an apt description of Oswald's work.

Ange Mlinko in the New York Review of Books identifies her work "water music." She says Oswald is a preternatural poet as opposed to a nature poet.  Erosions enacted on language in a poem create an opening. Like the piano, the poem becomes a new kind of instrument. Her poems ""Body""Flies" and "A Short Story of Falling" are examples of "moonlight in their voices."  The images creates a natural music.  “Poetry,” Oswald says, “is not about language but about what happens when language gets impossible.”

Listen to the podcast of her lecture at Oxford University:

Interview with Alice Oswald: "An Interview with Water:"

June 14, 2020

Art and Selfishness

In the era of the pandemic and violent racism, it's worth thinking about the value of one's time and whether writing poems or stories or essays is useful. In any case, this does not need to be either/or. One can nurture others, become an activist and write. Rebecca Solnit writes her insights:

Work and the Myth of the Art Monster
Creativity and Advocacy Are No More (Or Less) Selfish Than Motherhood
By Rebecca Solnit

There is certainly more self involved in artmaking, or some kinds of it, in that it is often solitary, usually introspective, and sometimes personal, but that plunge into the depths may be as much about dismantling the blithe vanities of the unexamined life as celebrating yourself. Even though you write out of a deep solitude, you generally write because you want to say something to other people, and you secretly hope it will benefit them in some way, by offering pleasure or new insight into the familiar or visions of the unfamiliar or just descriptions of the world and our psyches that make the world new and strange and worthwhile again.
Writing is work that can hold up its head with all the other kinds of useful work out there in the world and it is genuinely work. Good writers write from love, for love, and often, somehow, directly or otherwise, for the liberation of all beings, and the kindness in that is immeasurable.
Read the entire essay at LitHub:

May 19, 2020

Summoning the Muse

Incantation / Muse
by Sheila Packa

In the north
in the rising of waters
in the rising over the sun over the lake
in the rising of wind
in the rising of storms and love, of hawks, of music
where the dark world turns on its axis
beneath the constellations we are born under
where the stars cast their light infinitely
where the clouds cast their shadows

with your body’s strings, come
with your bridge across death, come
with your magic wands, come
with your ink stained breath
your winged instrument
with the flicker of lightning behind closed lids
with the spark that flares
with the smell of sulfur
touch the wicks and ignite the body
with the silk threads that are spun in the cocoons
weave the flights of migrating birds
above the silver lakes and blue green forests
above the smoke of the houses
above the circulation of the highways
lift me into the unfettered space
with your eyelash grant a wish
with your palm cupped against the cheek
let the waters rise brimming
with your cheek against my breast
let the waters come pouring
let the constant river come roaring
with your dreams made of star shine and smoke
with your music made of darkness and light

I come into your streams
I have untied myself
let go of my fear
I have been giving myself away
emptying myself for your gifts
I have prepared a home for you
lit the stars, turned down the blanket of night
come to meet you…


from Echo and Lightning
ISBN: 9780984377718
Available in bookstores
Wildwood River Press

April 8, 2020

A Course in Creative Writing

William Stafford was an excellent poet. This morning I found a gem in his book The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press). This poem speaks to the wily nature of writing. The source cannot be found with a map, although we often want a map or suspect that a map can be drawn by experts.

A Course in Creative Writing

They want a wilderness with a map--
but how about errors that give a new start?
or leaves that are edging into the light?--
or the many places a road can't find?

Maybe there's a land where you have to sing
to explain anything: you blow a little whistle
just right and the next tree you meet is itself.
(And many a tree is not there yet.)

Things come along toward you when you walk.
You go along singing a song that says
where you are going becomes its own
because you start. You blow a little whistle--

And a world begins under the map.


Stafford points to the value of errors. Mistakes offer opportunities or a change in direction. Leaves emerge. These are the new growth or the new departures.  A place that a road can't find is a very good place to write.  "Maybe there's a land you have to sing/ to explain anything..."  The impulse to sing: a lullaby, a celebration, a joy, or an occasion for mourning.

The word whistle here is an interesting sound/image.  It's a call or a signal. It's a personal tune.   " blow a little whistle/ just right and the next tree you meet is itself. (And many a tree is not there yet)."  I like this. The tree has an is-ness. It is not a reflection of the writer, an interpretation, or a metaphor. It is only itself.  "Things come along toward you when you walk....a world begins under the map."  The creative work emerges in the act of writing or creating, not before.  This poem is a lesson in paying attention, listening, and believing the work itself will lead you into a new world.

In his essay "A Way of Writing," Stafford said:
So, receptive, careless of failure, I spin out things on the page. And a wonderful freedom comes. If something occurs to me, it is all right to accept it. It has one justification: it occurs to me. No one else can guide me. I must follow my own weak, wandering, diffident impulses.
In these impulses, he found his material and then he developed it from there.  He wrote: "A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.") For more about Stafford's writing process, see:

April 5, 2020

Just Write

On April 8 at 5:30 pm the Poetry Book Club will be discussing 44 Poems for You by Sarah Ruhl (Copper Canyon Press.) This month, we will meet on Zoom. If you are interested in joining the group send me a DM on Facebook.

Sarah Ruhl (playwright, essayist, and poet) wrote:
The injunction to write becomes more crucial now than ever—it might save our culture from mendacity, it might banish boredom and existential dread, it might save our human spirit from isolation. Because existential dread occasionally inhibits the impulse to write, I am keeping an on-going list of reasons to keep writing that I hope you’ll add to:
Write for God. The cave. The envelope.
Write for your mother. Your father.
(Whether they are alive or dead.)
Write for the home-bound.
Write for the weary nurse.
Write for your friend who is sick.
Write for the future. Write for the past. Write for the present, but sideways.
Write for the theater-going politicians and judges. That is to say, write for Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
Write for the ancient ones who go to the theater and immediately slip into a deep sleep.
Write for the critics who haven’t even been born.
Write for the child who saw cruelty.
Write for those dispossessed of language.
Write for the actors who paint houses so they can still be in plays.
Write for the actors who can’t be in plays right now, who are waiting for the theaters to reopen.
Write for your daughter. Write for your son.
If they don’t exist write for the dream of them.
Write for your uncle to weep, your aunt to laugh.
your baby-sitter to cover her face with recognition.
Write for the accountants whose eyes are too tired at night for numbers.
for the farmers who grow your corn.
Write for all the retired librarians like Pat Watkins from Madison, Wisconsin who once wrote you a letter about your play.
Write for your teachers. Write for every single hour they left off writing their own sentences so that they could read yours.
Write to thank the books you love.
Write for the church you walked past with a sign that read:
And you mis-read it as: THEATER AS SACRAMENT.
Write for yourself.
Write for God. The cave. And the envelope.
And when you are not writing for the inward, for the cave, for the envelope:
Write for each other.

April 1, 2020

Writing on the Iron Range: Workshop

At the Lyric Center for the Arts

Writing On the Iron Range: Workshop and Reading
Sheila Packa, author of Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range and other works

Oct 24, 2020, Saturday at the Lyric Center for the Arts, Virginia, MN 

2:00 pm Workshop
7:00 pm Poetry Reading by Sheila Packa (free and open to the public) 
followed by an open reading (sign up at the door)
Writing on the Iron Range Workshop: Oct 24 Saturday 2:00-5:00 pm 
Fee: $20
Have you always wanted to write down some of your life stories? Come to this writing workshop! Using guided writing exercises, participants will draw on their own experiences, memories, family history and landscape to make a story, memoir or poetry.  We’ll look at some examples of good writing and play with some interesting and fun approaches. We will also have time to share the stories in our group. This workshop is for beginning and experienced writers.   
Register here

Sheila Packa is a fiscal year 2020 recipient of an Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature; and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.