Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Duluth poet Sheila Packa shares her favorite poetry

Sheila Packa lives in Duluth and is nominated for the Minnesota Book Award.
Marianne Combs | MPR News

April is National Poetry Month and Minnesota Now has been connecting with poets around the state about their inspiration, past and present. Sheila Packa lives in Duluth and is nominated for the Minnesota Book Award for her collection, “Surface Displacements.” She joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk all things poetry.

And she shared a poem that influenced her and reminded her of her grandparents’ journey from Finland: “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop.

One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

- April is National Poetry Month, and we've been talking with poets around the state about their inspiration past and present. Sheila Packa lives in Duluth and is nominated for the Minnesota Book Award for her collection, Surface Displacements. Sheila is on the line. Sheila, congratulations. This is huge!

SHEILA PACKA: It's great. I'm thrilled.

- And what did you-- how did you first find out about this honor?

SHEILA PACKA: Well, I remember I was-- they had an announcement on a particular day. And I kept checking my email, like every 15 minutes . And then I saw it was posted, and I just did a little happy dance.

- [LAUGHS] As you should. It's a huge honor. Congratulations.


- Let's talk a little bit about your collection. You use water to bring together a number of ideas. What is it about water that connects all these themes for you?

SHEILA PACKA: Yeah, well, my book has stories about surface displacements. And if you like being on water, I think you'll like the poems. The poems travel through lots of the waterways and flows in Northern Minnesota, and also through some of the water-filled mine pits. So--

- Right.

SHEILA PACKA: --but it's also about writing about a new language that displaces the old on the Iron Range. There's the Great Northern Continental Divide is crossed by the Laurentian Divide. It's a very interesting aspect of the landscape. So waters flow in three directions, in opposite directions. One goes to the Great Lakes, Saint Lawrence, another watershed goes to Hudson Bay, and the other goes to the Mississippi River. So in my book--


SHEILA PACKA: I try to cap-- yeah, [INAUDIBLE]?

- Go ahead, it's fine.

SHEILA PACKA: I was going to say, there's just-- there's a lot of conflicts and contradictions, and the poems reflect that. Extraction affects marshes, watersheds. 4 billion tons of ore have been extracted from the Iron Range, and more is going to be taken out. Sometimes I think we are taking out the ground that we're standing on.

- Mm, so can I ask you about your process? Where is your starting point for a new poem? Is it a word, a phrase, a picture, a scene outside? Where's your starting point?

SHEILA PACKA: I usually start with an image. The book cover is a drone photograph of looking into a water-filled mine pit. And in the photograph there's these broken stones. They aren't worn smooth by waves like the stones that are in Lake Superior.

And so that image really was arresting to me. And I often write about the landscape. It's a metaphor, I think, for people as well. So yeah, that's what I start with.

- Each poet that we're talking to this month is bringing a piece that got them hooked on poetry. What did you choose?

SHEILA PACKA: Oh, it's "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop.

- And why did you choose that?

SHEILA PACKA: Well, in a few lines, she's talking about the art of learning to live with loss. And she-- one stanza is, I lost two cities, lovely ones and vaster. Some realms I own, two rivers, a continent. I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

And that touched me because my grandparents had also lost two rivers and a continent when they immigrated. And despite that, I think they did have the art of losing. And they had lots of joy in their life. You know, they loved music and dancing.

And so I think that's really influenced my work because I often write about the immigrant experience in Northern Minnesota, and language, and rivers. Those are always important kinds of energy in my poetry.

- Excellent. Sheila, I appreciate your time. Again, congratulations.

SHEILA PACKA: Thank you. Thank you so much.

- Sheila Packs is a poet and the author of the collection Surface Displacements. It's a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, which will be announced next month. By the way, you can hear her read a poem that got her hooked on poetry, "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop, on our website right now, mprnew.org.

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