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.