July 18, 2021

A Project in the Pandemic: An Artist's Initiative

Writing is a recursive activity. It begins with generating new material, then developing and revising, and in the later stages editing and proofreading. But that is just the first part because the next thing is sharing your work with others in the form of publication and readings. Preparing and reading the work to an audience facilitates more changes usually deletion of unneeded phrases. Teaching writing classes brings the opportunity to dive into more literature to find gems to share with workshop participants and ideas for new writing prompts. It enriches my own writing practice.

Gifts and Grants

I was a recipient of an Artist's Initiative Grant for Poetry from Minnesota State Arts Board in 2020. The grant application requires the thoughtful planning of a writing project, including goal-setting, creating a timeline and a budget and evaluation of outcomes.  

In my last book, Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range, I wrote narrative poems inspired by material I'd discovered in Minnesota history archives about learned about little known people - influencers! -- in northern Minnesota. These people: doctors, journalists, union organizers, ministers, teachers, iron-workers, farmers, and others were in the community that my Finnish immigrant grandparents arrived in in 1917, just in time to confront the 1918 flu epidemic, a massive wildfire, anti-immigrant sentiments, and the World Wars. I understood the gifts of immigrants. By entering a new culture and a new language that they did not know, they could teach all of us to make do, be creative, build sustainable lives, grow in new ways. 

In my new work, I'd begun exploring the Laurentian Divide, the three way continental divide that formed three major watersheds in northern Minnesota, "the top of the continent."  Near Hibbing, the waters split with some flowing into the Mississippi River, some flowing toward the Great  Lakes and St. Lawrence (River) Seaway, and some flowing north to Hudson Bay.  These rivers have been impacted by large iron ore and taconite mining operations. The new poetic work I envisioned explored the tensions in the landscape and how they influenced the current community and environment. I planned to research  and write, and to bring this enthusiasm into the community.  By encouraging others to explore their family and local history and write about it, I hoped to develop a polyphony of voices that brought forward the tenacity, creativity and resilience of this region.  I have long felt that the writers of northern Minnesota have a unique perspective and a strong voice that needs more amplification. 

History Repeats Itself

Well, sometimes what one expects is not what happens.  I think most people in the United States were confident that the 1918 flu epidemic could not happen again because of advances in medicine and technology. Nobody -- not the federal government, not the National Stockpile, not the CDC, not the politicians, not the cruise ships, not the schools, not the hospitals, not the business owners -- nobody was prepared for this pandemic. And because of it, the virus ran rampant. 

Stay at Home

 In 2020, I completed work on the new poetry manuscript and completed even more writing that I expected. I revised a novella based on historical material, stories reflecting those of women, laborers, and immigrants. I wrote 8 new short stories. In line with the established goals of my poetry project, I hired a consultant / editor Amelia Martens of Black Lawrence Press. I also had a poetry mentoring session with poet Sun Yung Shin (through Grand Marais Art Colony) to discuss the full manuscript and the arrangement of poems. Their feedback was valuable.  It's rare to find people who are able and willing to scrutinize a manuscipt in progress.  

The pandemic had one upside, which was to make more learning opportunities accessible online. I attended the NorthWoods Writers Conference, the Dodge Poetry Festival, and Associated Writers Program Conference, all on Zoom. Of particular value for me were the following workshops: a craft talk by Carolyn Forche (DPF) and a craft talk by Eduardo Corral (sponsored by Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri MFA program). At the AWP Conference, I focused on the sessions related to using historical material in writing. Of particular value were the following workshops: Revisiting History: Diverse Approaches to Historical Fiction; A Woman’s Place: Rewriting Women into the Historical Landscape; It’s Not Ekphrastic; The Past is Present: Writing the Legacy of Historical Injustice; and Docupoetry and Investigative Poetry.

Also, an important book I found along the way was Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History by Michel-Rolph Trouillot and books by the contemporary writer Saidiya Hartman, author of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. Hartman uses archival materials to write the stories of black women in the 1900s. Her work illustrates the way to bring out forgotten women and forgotten history.

Social Distancing

Initially I had hoped to present writing workshops for Seniors, but this was the population most at risk of serious illness from the COVID19 virus. I had established a venue at a Senior Center in Duluth, but cancelled the class in order to keep people safe. I had an event scheduled for Hibbing with the Boreal Writers Group, but this was also cancelled because of the virus, with the promise we would reschedule after the pandemic. Well, the pandemic is still happening. But in the past year, I was able to do some community presentations. I taught a writing workshop on October 24, 2021 sponsored by the Lyric Center for the Arts (held on Zoom). The second workshop was in-person, post vaccination, sponsored by the Northwoods Arts Gallery in Cook, Minnesota.  

In February 2020, I participated in poetry readings along with other featured poets. One event was at Zenith Bookstore, sponsored by the Finlandia Foundation Northland Chapter in honor of Runeberg Day (the Finnish holiday that celebrates the poet Johan Runeberg) and another was with three other poets at Poetry at the Zoo. In March and April, publication readings to celebrate new anthologies (Rocked by the Waters, an anthology of motherhood), and ReWilding (Split Rock Review) were not able to occur in person due to COVID.  The poetry reading held annually in the Duluth Homegrown Music Festival was cancelled and several others were moved online.  

I was the featured reader at a poetry event November 8, 2020, sponsored by the Duluth Poet Laureate Gary Boelhower and the DPL Committee. Blair Powless was also featured. I also was one of four featured poets reading at the Duluth / 365 Poetry Event on December 13, 2020 that focused on climate issues. I also gave a reading to students of a creative writing class at Lake Superior College on March 29, 2020.  The writing workshop I was able to do was sponsored by the Lyric Center for the Arts, which was moved from an in person format to Zoom.  The online platform was better than nothing, but it had limitations. Connectivity was one. Social distancing was the other. Zoom impacts the personal connection that one could establish in person. The format is not ideal. Nevertheless, I and the participants could make it work.  It's always great to have folks writing together and sharing their work. Always, there's the unexpected and vivid images, the flashes of doubt and the flashes of brilliance. This is the truth of writing -- to waver between opposites, to suffer self doubt and to question everything.  If one is strong as a writer, one learns not to give up.   

Finally, in July 2021 I was able to do another workshop in person, but after months of social distancing and caution, after witnessing the health crises, the political polarization and radicalization, the shootings in many cities, the attack on the US Capitol, the lack of trust about vaccines, about the election, about the news media, I sensed something different. It was like we were all wondering. Maybe it was me. Maybe it was the haze of smoke that had drifted in from Canadian wildfires. We've witnessed the climate disasters of drought, floods and wildfire. We've seen surges of desperate immigrants, and children held in cages wrapped in foil blankets in detention centers, and we've seen the collapse of buildings. There's been so much grief. In my family alone, one suffered a stroke, another suffered a failed knee replacement surgery leading to nursing home placement, and another was in a car accident, I had a close friend who died of a respiratory virus that wasn't diagnosed as COVID.  In the lives of everybody I meet, I know there are losses the same and often much greater. The pandemic affected our ability to grieve together, and now, post vaccination, we can come together but we are still grappling with the virus's physical, emotional, economic and spiritual effects. 

Getting Through 

Re-entry is not easy.  It seems we are all tiptoeing around, wondering what's next.  Friends talk about the terrible state of the world, but then we remind each other about the things going on in the early 1900s. Throughout history, right?  It's always this bad. Right?  Yet it seems really exceptionally bad. The world seems fraught with tension. I think the most important task right now is to strengthen our communities by building more connections and networks between people of all kinds. It's the time for new vision, for re-vision, the time for more voices, more ideas and positive constructive action. I'm part of a group in Duluth, the Interfaith Committee for Migrant Justice. We do what we can to help those that need it the most, we sponsor who we can, and we work to build understanding and compassion in the community.  

The world is different now. We are all in the same boat, entering a changed culture and a changed environment that we do not know. I hold on to the hope that our immigrants and grandparents have something to teach all of us. We have to learn to make do, be creative, build sustainable lives, and grow in new ways. There is no other choice.  Maybe we can do it with writing, with music, with art, with community.  I hope so.  

July 7, 2021

The Poet's Melody

Alice Oswald's poetry has been called "water music." As an example of her work, read the poem linked here: "A Short History of Falling." In an interview with Kit Fan, Oswald reflects about punctuation in poetry. It is actually an opportunity to build sound and rhythm, and in the deconstruction and reconstruction of new phrases and sentences, to see the world in new ways.  

Alice Oswald: I’ve always thought that in poetry, to have no punctuation makes for more punctuation, because it means you really notice the kind of joints and pauses between phrases because you have to. Whereas, I sometimes think that if you put in the punctuation, people will read poems more like novels. They will kind of be searching for the sense rather than hearing the sound of the grammar. And I am more and more interested in the fact that grammar, which sounds like a boring pedantic thing, is really what a poet’s vision is. You know, the way you construct a sentence is the hierarchy that you see in the world. You know, if you have a main clause and a main verb and you know, everything depends on each other, then you’re seeing a sort of a world of causes and effects. If, a bit like Homer, you just have these sentences, the phrases that build in rows, always joined with an and, then you see a different kind of world altogether, and that the grammar itself manifests as a tune. So any poet’s melody is actually the same as how they’re seeing the world, really. And I think that you don’t begin to get that feeling of what grammar is doing, unless you sort of take the props away, take the punctuation away.

April 27, 2021

Docu-poetry and Investigative Poetry

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

According to Poetry River, "Documentary poems combine primary source material with poetry writing. Myriad sources inspire documentary poetry, including news articles, letters, photographs, dairies, court transcripts, medical records, and a variety of public records."  

It is similar to poetry of witness which expresses lived experience and direct observation by the poet. Muriel Rukeyser's Book of the Dead addressed a coal mine disaster in the 1930s. During WWI and WWII, Paul Celan is a poet of witness. In the 1970s, Carolyn Forché's book The Country Between Us left a strong mark on our culture. The Colonel is a prose poem example of this. It is reportage, her encounter with a colonel in Nicaragua who had collected the ears of people who had been tortured.  Investigative poetry similarly stems from a journalistic impulse, but the poem uses the tools of poetry: compression, image, sound, pattern.  When she published her book, it was sometimes criticized for being political. Attitudes toward political poetry have changed since then. In an interview published On the Seawall she says:

What I find now is that there’s been a great opening in the last 20 years, and poets are almost expected to address contemporary concerns. It’s almost the reverse of what it was before. We have emergent poetics among communities that were suppressed before: African-American poets, Asian-America poets, Indigenous poets of the First Nations, Latinx poets. I find that that’s where much of the most exciting work is being written, and they are quite politically aware in that work, although the work is not always expressive of political views.

There are many ways to address contemporary concerns. Layli Long Soldier's book Whereas, engages with a single document. A declaration made in 2007 by the US Congress, addressing the atrocities committed against Native Americans in the 1800s.  It is poetry in conversation with the document, reflecting and responding to its language and to the events which it refers (Graywolf Press) Her poem "38" is from this collection.  

Philip Metres, in the Kenyon Review, wrote: 

For me, the best documentary poems draw us back to the headwaters of poetry, where tribal elders, griots, troubadours, holy fools, tricksters, medicine men, witches, and shamans all do their work, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable."

First, to use Muriel Rukeyser’s words, the poem can “extend the document,” thus giving second life to lost or expurgated histories...

"Second, the poem itself can be extended through the document, given a breadth or authority that the lyric utterance may not reach on its own. Documentary poetry comes out of a desire to break open what has often been seen as the monology of the lyric. While the lyric at its best can be subtly dialogic, negotiating self and other in nuanced ways, documentary poets are drawn to the chorale effect, employing multiple voices and voicings that merge into a larger (but often dissonant) symphony. Documentary and investigative poems that don’t simply “contain multitudes,” as Whitman boasted, but breathe and seethe multitudes."

Third, and finally, the practice of investigative poetics extends the very idea of poetry, enabling a rethinking of what poetry is and what it can do; in this sense, it returns to a more fundamental and primal relationship to its audience. Documentary and investigative poetries come out of the sense that we are called to be co-creators of history through language and action.

Language and action. In her book of essays, Sister Outsider, Audré Lorde wrote about the necessity of transforming silence into language and action.  She wrote:

And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger. But my daughter, when I told her of our topic and my difficulty with it, said, “Tell them about how you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside.”


In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear – fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live. 

Poetry could very well be as powerful as any form of political or social activism, and perhaps more so. The language is powerful and unforgettable. Writing is an act of claiming one's own experience and voice. Whatever one writes about makes it stronger. Does lobbying, protesting, writing to legislators, voting, writing letter to the editors, etc do as much? 

At this time, we are increasingly aware of disruptions caused by climate change: wildfires, drought, intense storms, insect infestations, viruses and disease, extinctions, and the loss of habitat. We know about the changes occurring with ice at the North and South Pole, and how this melting will raise sea levels and damage cities and landscape along the coast. Talking about climate change, Amitav Ghosh in The Guardian writes:

In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities such as Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what can they do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.

To write about these things is to reflect the real issues that we grapple with every day. Poetry is succinct. It brings clarity. Poetry engages the five senses and the physical body, making it immediate.  Let us do everything we can to work with the matters at hand. Let us change the world into a better place.   

Change, Change, Rearrange: A Writing Workshop


This in-person generative writing workshop will be held at 
Northwoods Friends of the Arts Gallery
210 S. River St. in Cook at the NWFA Gallery in the building
 adjoining Dream Weaver Day Spa and Salon.

Tuesday, July 13 1:00 – 4:00pm

presented by Sheila Packa, author of Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range.  

What moves you? What has marked you? Come to this half day workshop. During the 3 hour session, we will do guided writing exercises that use personal memories, family history, and even music to create a piece of writing: a memoir, a poem, or a story.  We will play and experiment with writing in order to discover good material.  While the focus is on generating new work, participants will also consider some tips that make a piece of writing more vivid, immediate, and powerful. This workshop is for beginners and more advanced writers. At the end, participants will have time to share their new work if they like.  

Cost: $40.00 members, $55.00 nonmembers. Registration required at the gallery or 218 666-2153 .

To register: contact  Alberta Whitenack, Gallery Manager, Northwoods Friends of the Arts 218-666-2153
or contact NWFA via email at nwfamn.org@gmail.com or see the website at www.nwfamn.org and on FaceBook.

The NWFA Gallery at 210 S. River Street is open for viewing and purchasing regional art from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Wed., Thurs. and Fri..  Saturday open hours are from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.

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.

February 4, 2021

A Book Club for Poetry

In Duluth, since 2018, I have facilitated a book club for poetry at Zenith Books. The bookstore was kind enough to host us in between the stacks. In the past year, due to the pandemic, our book club moved online.  Zenith Books still orders books for us, and they sell them to book club members at a 15% discount.  Zenith Bookstore is a fantastic local bookstore, and they have continued to help the readers in Duluth get through the pandemic. You can order books online to be mailed or for curbside delivery.   

The book club has been meeting for over two years. Lately we gather together on Zoom (contact me if you would like an invite). The discussion is wide-ranging. We discuss the topic or theme and also examine voice, metaphor, images, sound patterns, and forms. Members often do more research to learn biographical or other related information about the poets.

Our list of books (in the order that we read them): 

Ocean Vuong: Night Sky with Exit Wounds
Natalie Diaz: When My Brother Was an Aztec
Natasha Tretheway: Native Guard
Danez Smith: Don’t Call Us Dead
Tracy K. Smith: Duende
Joy Harjo: Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings
Tom Sleigh: House of Fact, House of Ruin
Jane Hirshfield: The Beauty
Forrest Gander: Be With
Ross Gay: Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude
Ada Limon: The Carrying
Maggie Nelson: Bluets
Sharon Olds: Odes
Hanif Abdurriq: A Fortune for Your Disaster
Saeed Jones: Prelude to Bruise
Sarah Ruhl: 44 Poems for You
Farzana Marie: Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat Afghanistan
Sun Yung Shin: Unbearable Splendor 
Andrea Jenkins: The T Is Not Silent
Robin Coste Lewis: Voyage of the Sable Venus
Marilyn Chin: A Portrait of the Self as Nation
Louise Glück: Poems 1962-2012
Jericho Brown: The Tradition
Tomas Tranströmer: The Great Enigma.
Lorine Niedecker: Granite Pail or Selected Poems



January 24, 2021

Watched All Things Change


A Birth

by Muriel Rukeyser

Lately having escaped three-kinded death

Not by evasion but by coming through

I celebrate what may be true beginning.

But new begun am most without resource

Stupid and stopped.      How do the newborn grow?

I am of them.        Freshness has taken our hearts;

Pain strips us to the source, infants of further life

Waiting for childhood as we wait for form.

So came I into the world of all the living,

The maimed triumphant middle of my way

Where there is giving needing no forgetting.

Saw now the present that is here to say:

Nothing I wrote is what I must see written,

Nothing I did is what I now need done. –

The smile of darkness on my song and my son.

Lately emerged I have seen unfounded houses,

Have seen spirits now opened, surrounded as by sun,

And have, among limitless consensual faces

Watched all things change, an unbuilt house inherit

Materials of desire, that stone and wood and air.

Lit by a birth, I defend dark beginnings,

Waste that is never waste, most-human giving,

Declared and clear as the mortal body of grace.

Beginnings of truth-in-life, the rooms of wilderness

Where truth feeds and the ramifying heart,

Even mine, praising even the past in its pieces,

My tearflesh beckoner who brought me to this place. 

from Poetry, January 1952


Muriel Rukeyser's poems are powerful and political. I used a line from her poem as an inscription to the book of poetry about the Iron Range.  "Let these roads take you into your own country,"  Rukeyser once said that the poem is like a theater. A line of a poem is a line of energy. 

This poem captures an awakening, a new birth, and expresses awe in the moment its happening. The voice is personal, narrative. The form very much epistolary, a letter.  One thing that I find very interesting in the poem is the rhythm. It's conveys the sense of impediments. This is how one feels after coming through huge change or trauma that she names as a "three-kinded death."  In the first stanza, she conveys a sense of feeling stunned:  

But new begun am most without resource

Stupid and stopped.      How do the newborn grow?

I am of them...


            Pain strips us to the source, infants of further life

            Waiting for childhood as we wait for form. 

There is a need to understand the new shape of life, a pause.  We wait for form.  

In the middle stanza, "So came I..."  is a reversal of the usual word order, and the first two syllables are emphatic. It's claims, declaims.  The voice is powerful.  After these words, two prepositional phrases, each with a longer breath line.  The second line of the poem has alliteration, the repeated m sound and the long a sound at the start and end are memorable.  There are stops and starts in the ensuing lines, syncopated rhythms, disruptions that seem to echo the content of the poem. 

Nothing I wrote is what I must see written,

Nothing I did is what I now need done. 


The anaphora structure, the same beginning on each line, and the end stops make this stand out. Often I've felt that the pandemic, the huge public health disaster, has changed the context of all of our lives. Lives are at stake.  Actions matter. Former worries seem paltry to the new worries: severe illness, possible job loss, loss of a loved one, isolation.  There is a need to evaluate one's normal activities up until January 2020, to reassess and change.  The world is a different place. It requires something different.  

The last stanza conveys the sense of amazement and wonder. A dream grows and becomes real:  

Watched all things change, an unbuilt house inherit

Materials of desire, that stone and wood and air.  

New meanings arrive, a sense of relief or reckoning, another sense of connection to pieces of the past that brought one over obstacle or barricade. The ramifying heart: great word choice. It beats. No it is a battering ram. It breaks through.  "My tearflesh beckoner" is such a powerful image of grief and desire.  

Beginnings of truth-in-life, the rooms of wilderness

Where truth feeds and the ramifying heart,

Even mine, praising even the past in its pieces,

My tearflesh beckoner who brought me to this place. 


It is a poem that expresses the moment, amid the long pandemic, a political victory hard won that brings integrity and compassion back to the White House. 

Yet, citizens witnessed an attack on the US Capitol by our own citizens, people who have been fed fear-based propaganda and a lie about the election and it led to violence and five people dead, windows broken, lawmaker's threatened by white nationalists and extremists. What does it take to maintain a democracy?  It is not polarization, not propaganda, not efforts to ignore the voice of the people, the voters.  It takes the rule of law and leaders who have a commitment to the democratic institutions and to integrity. Transparency. Dialogue. Egalitarianism. It takes the truth. 

Republican leaders now must decide how they will govern. They are at a crossroad. Fascism has been stopped, and they seem disoriented. "Stupid and stopped."  Will they remain silent? Will they go back to hostility, verbal attacks, red herrings, whataboutisms, oversimplifications and generalizations? 

 It's time for some critical thinking. "Nothing I wrote is what I must see written."  It's time to name the lie. Is it possible for them to confess how they spread the propaganda for their own profit or power?  They seem to be stuttering, fighting with each other for power, and anxious to put it behind without affixing consequences to Trump, without accepting responsibility for their own complicity. They must decide whether to operate under a mass delusion or to break that delusion.  I hope they get through this and return to egalitarian efforts. I hope they want to engage with voters of all races, of both genders, and understand that a government plays a necessary role to help the poor, to empower people, encourage each person to build skills and embrace opportunities.