December 2, 2021

Translation as Discovery

Jhumpa Lahiri began her successful writing career with stories and novels. Her parents were Bengali, and Jhumpa wrote in English. After a trip to Italy when she was in college, she found herself increasingly drawn to the Italian language, and she studied it for many years. Finally, she and her husband moved to Italy, and since then she has written in Italian and translated many pieces of Italian literature, and lately Jhumpa has begun to write poetry in Italian.  In "The Joy of Translation as Discovery," she said:  

Translation shows me how to work with new words, how to experiment with new styles and forms, how to take greater risks, how to structure and layer my sentences in different ways. Reading exposes me to all this, but translating goes under the skin and shocks the system, such that these new solutions emerge in unexpected and revelatory ways. The particular ecosystem containing Latin, Italian, and English renders Italian more familiar, and English more marvelously strange. The attention to language that translation demands is moving my work not only in new directions but into an increasingly linguistically focused dimension: I would never have begun writing poetry without the intimate exposure to the Italian language that only translation can provide; this shift was particularly surprising given that I have never written poetry in English....It establishes new rhythms and approaches that cross-pollinate the process of contemplating and crafting my own work.

 Finding ways to dislodge herself from the familiar, she has entered a new phase where surprise and new ways of thinking have changed her writing life and enhanced her career.  To read more of her thoughts about this, see the full article here:

more info:

October 25, 2021

Shanai Matteson: Writing and Art on the Iron Range


In conjunction with her Overburden/Overlook exhibition at the
Shanai Matteson will facilitate a roundtable discussion with women artists on the Iron Range.

Sara Pajunen
Sheila Packa
Mary Erickson
and others

Please join the conversation on Tuesday, October 26 from 7-8 pm.

October 5, 2021

Poems: Wedding Blessings

Poetry's roots come from ritual and ceremony.  Eight years ago, I was commissioned to write a poem for the wedding of two wonderful women.  I wrote two poems, the epithalamion, and another as a candle-lighting blessing for their marriage (which faced the rejection of some members of their family).  Here is the blessing poem. Now they celebrate their 8th anniversary, and they continue to make the world a better place.  #lovewins

We light these candles
for those who cannot be here today
To thank them
For the times they shared the flame
The song, the prayer, and the love
In their eyes.
We light these candles
For our own arrivals and departures
And for those
Traveling farther and traveling closer.
With the light of many others,
We light these candles
For the road to love becomes a map
That each of us must draw
We light these candles
Send wishes of love
That will never be extinguished.
- Sheila Packa, Night Train Red Dust (Wildwood River)

September 20, 2021

Writing Advice

Library in the Faroe Islands

In The New Yorker, Colm Tóibin on writing: "...Get an image. Follow an object. Follow the thing to see where it takes you--or follow the rhythm..."  He wasn't just talking about poetry, but novels and short stories and all writing.   

In Lithub, “The first line must convince me that it somehow embodies the entire unwritten text,” said William Gibson. 

Advice from others might be useful, but chances are you must follow your own path.  Find a place that you can write. I think it's important to respect your judgment about what makes a good poem.  What is your aesthetic? What do you like in other works of poetry?  If a subject presents itself to you, then write about it. Use your own voice. Listen to the work. Explore it deeply and then focus. Use your strengths.  

September 10, 2021

Joy Harjo Comes to the Northland

The anthology of poets and writers inspired by the writing of Joy Harjo is now available through the Minnesota Library Publishing Project:


United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo (Muscogee Nation)
October 18, 2021 at 7:00pm CST on Zoom
sponsored by the Fond Du Lac Tribal Community College (FDLTCC) and AICHO.  
To register for this free virtual event go to

Initially this event was going to be live, but the pandemic! Join on Zoom for a wonderful reading and celebration of the United States Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo. 

Diane Seuss

 Do you want to explore ekphrasis? Read Diane Seuss's Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl This poet is intense, funny, brilliant and class-conscious. Do you want to see how a contemporary poet handles the sonnet? Her new book is Frank: Sonnets 

Read a poem here:

In 2019, Donovan writes that her poems "dance with form, turning it on its side and tearing it apart to create something new—as with the American sentences and sonnets with seventeen-syllable lines in her latest book, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl. I love what I call ‘freaking form,’ she tells me. “Like a bathtub that can be made into a shrine to the Virgin Mary.” To read the whole interview, go to

If you would like to hear her read in person at St. Mary's, register for the Zoom link:

September 8, 2021



A manifesto is defined as a declaration of one's beliefs, opinions, motives, and intentions. It is simply a document that an organization or person writes that declares what is important to them. A manifesto functions as both a statement of principles and a bold, sometimes rebellious, call to action.  It reflects your intent and your motivation.

Here are some manifestos (and some statements) from writers and artists: 

Wendell Berry

The Tracing, the path with every misstep along the way…

It may be that when we no longer know what to do,

we have come to our real work

and when we no longer know which way to go,

we have begun our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Theodore Roethke

On Poetry and Craft 

In poetry, there are no casual readers.

Nothing seen, nothing said.

The lyric is almost forgotten in this time of sawing and snoring and scraping.

Energy is the soul of poetry. Explosive active language.

Live in a perpetual great astonishment.

Rhythm depends on expecting.

The literal, that grave of all the dull.

I need the botanist's leaf more than the poet's flower.

Put it this way: I detest dogs, but adore wolves.

Eternal apprenticeship is the life of the true poet.

That intense profound sharp longing to make a true poem.

Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries.

Art is our defense against hysteria and death.

If we muddle and thump through a paraphrase, with side comments, however brilliant, we still do

not have the poem.

Talent talks; genius does.

Poetry is an act of mischief.

A poetry of longing: not for escape, but for a greater reality.

The greatest assassin of life is haste.

Make ready for your gifts. Prepare. Prepare.

Rosemarie Waldrop (experimental poet)

A manifesto: “shall we escape analogy”—without question mark.


The French film maker said of his work that it was "as if I wanted to write a sociological essay in the

form of a novel, and all I had to do it with was notes of music."

Frank Lloyd Wright

Form follows function – that has been misunderstood.

Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union. -Frank Lloyd Wright

Pablo Picasso

"When you start with a portrait and search for a pure form, a clear volume, through

successive eliminations, you arrive inevitably at the egg. Likewise, starting with the

egg and following the same process in reverse, one finishes with the portrait."

Vladimir Nabokov

"Style and Structure are the essence of a book;

great ideas are hogwash."

Pablo Neruda

Towards an Impure Poetry (an introduction he wrote for a book of poetry)

It is good, at certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at

rest. Wheels that have crossed long, dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable

burdens, sacks from the coal bins, barrels, and baskets, handles and hafts for the

carpenter's tool chest. From them flow the contacts of man with the earth, like a text for all

troubled lyricists. The used surfaces of things, the wear that the hands give to things, the

air, tragic at times, pathetic at others, of such things - all lend a curious attractiveness to

the reality of the world that should not be underprized.

In them one sees the confused impurity of the human condition, the massing of things, the

use and disuse of substances, footprints and fingerprints, the abiding presence of the

human engulfing all artifacts, inside and out.

Let that be the poetry we search for: worn with the hand's obligations, as by acids, steeped

in sweat and in smoke, smelling of lilies and urine, spattered diversely by the trades that we

live by, inside the law or beyond it.

A poetry impure as the clothing we wear, or our bodies, soup-stained, soiled with our

shameful behavior, our wrinkles and vigils and dreams, observations and prophecies,

declarations of loathing and love, idylls and beasts, the shocks of encounter, political

loyalties, denial and doubts, affirmations and taxes.

The holy canons of madrigals, the mandates of touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing, the

passion for justice, sexual desire, the sea sounding-willfully rejecting and accepting nothing:

the deep penetration of things in the transports of love, a consummate poetry soiled by the

pigeon's claw, ice-marked and tooth-marked, bitten delicately with our sweatdrops and

usage, perhaps. Till the instrument so restlessly played yields us the comfort of its surfaces,

the woods show the knottiest suavities shaped by the pride of the tool. Blossom and water

and wheat kernel share one precious consistency: the sumptuous appeal of the tactile.

Let no one forget them. Melancholy, old mawkishness impure and unflawed, fruits of a

fabulous species lost to the memory, cast away in a frenzy's abandonment-moonlight, the

swan in the gathering darkness, all hackneyed endearments: surely that is the poet's

concern, essential and absolute. Those who shun the "bad taste" of things will fall flat on the ice.

Neruda, Pablo. Five Decades: Poems 1925-1970. Ben Belitt, editor and translator. Grove

Press, c1974 (pp xxi- xxii)

September 2, 2021

In the Kalevala: Three Rivers around Pohjola

The beauty of other cultures and languages is the discovery of different ways of thinking.  New frames. I've been reading a book of essays, Mythic Discourses: Studies in Uralic Traditions, edited by Frog, Anna-Leena Siikala & Eila Stepanova published by the Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki.  I also had the opportunity to listen to a lecture by Eila Stepanova sponsored by the Finlandia Foundation. This volume provides me with much more context and history as I read and study the Kalevala, the epic poem of Finland, collected from oral tradition, singing minstrels, by Elias Lonnrot. There are several translations of the book, and I have about four of those.  I've been reading the Kalevala for many years. It is a source for me, a place where I learn more about my family's Finnish history, heritage and culture. 

It takes time to see and understand subtleties. In the English language, many American and European people conceive of the afterlife with Christian perspectives. Most are familiar with the story of what happens in spiritual texts in the Christian narrative: heaven or hell.  Heaven is the most sublime place, the heavenly, blissful, sunlit blessed place with God, the creator.  Hell is the worst place, the miserable, painful, fiery, dark place with the devil.  For a time, the Catholic church held a category called purgatory.  But in the Kalevala, with its pre-Christian roots, this understanding is somewhat different  It is not even called the "afterlife" but the Otherworld, Pohjola.  The Finnish word Pohjola literally translates to North land.  

This is a different frame. The binary is less clear. Pohjola is either a womb or a grave or a strange village or country.  It is not heaven, it is not in the sky. It is an island set upon open waters. The concepts of Tuonela or Manala refer to the realm of the dead or the underworld. Rivers must be crossed in order to find Pohjola, and the rivers are the Rivers of Tuonela, Pojohola, and Manala which have dangerous rapids and waves like vertical swords. Not many return, it could be said.  Not any.  

In old tradition, in the time of Kalevala rune-singers, a lament singer must perform at funerals in order to ensure a safe passage for the deceased.  Eila Stepanova provides fascinating information and stories about the women's laments alongside the Kalevala.  Here is a description of the presentations and I have also included a link to both lectures.  

Women’s Laments alongside the Kalevala: Forgotten Symbols of Finland’s Nation-Building

Eila Stepanova discusses Karelian laments in the context of national romanticism in Finland starting from the nineteenth century up to the present day, beginning with Elias Lönnrot, who was also the very first collector of this tradition of women’s poetry. In the context of national romanticism in 1800s, this genre of traditional poetry was important in Finland’s nation-building project but has been forgotten in the shadow of Lönnrot’s Kalevala.

Eila Stepanova is a Finnish folklorist specializing on Karelian and more broadly on North Finnic lament poetry. She received her doctoral degree at the University of Helsinki. She is recognized as the foremost active expert on Karelian laments and as an expert in Karelian culture more generally with a variety of fieldwork experience. Stepanova is currently executive director of the Society of Karelian Culture (Karjalan Sivistysseura).

The Viking Age in Finland

The Viking Age is a period of history that has fascinated people for generations, and interest in it has only grown in recent years with the popularity of programs like The Vikings. Popular knowledge of the Viking Age has tended to focus on Scandinavians and their westward expansion across the North Atlantic. In this talk, I will introduce the Viking Age as a period of mobility and cultural contacts that also extended to the east along inland routes. In these regions, speakers of the language that would eventually become the Finnish, Karelian, and Vepsian languages were also active participants. I focus on territories where Finnic languages were spoken or where they would be spoken later. Today, we tend to imagine where languages are spoken on a map more or less along the lines of where they were spoken in the nineteenth century. At the beginning of the Viking Age, however, the situation was very different. Most people don’t realize it, but the Viking Age was pivotal in the histories of Finnish and Karelian languages and cultures, ultimately leading them to be dominant in the areas where they were familiar in recent centuries.

Frog is an Academy of Finland Research Fellow and Associate Professor of Folklore Studies at the University of Helsinki. He specializes in early Finnic and Scandinavian contacts and cultural reconstruction. He received his PhD from University College London in 2010 and an Associate Professorship from the University of Helsinki in 2013. From 2011–2014, he was co-coordinator of the Viikinkiaika Suomessa – Viking Age in Finland project, which produced the books Fibula, Fabula, Fact: The Viking Age in Finland (edited by Joonas Ahola and Frog with Clive Tolley, 2014) and The Viking Age in Åland: Insights into Identity and Remnants of Culture (edited by Joonas Ahola, Frog, and Jenni Lucenius, 2014). 

The direct link the lectures is here:  Eila Stepanova is first.  Frog is second. 

Here is a link to the pdf version of Mythic Discourses: Studies in Uralic Tradition.  If you are interested, I encourage you to buy the book.

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 or see the website at 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.