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 Poetry in Duluth

Sheila Packa is the 2010-2012 Duluth Poet Laureate.

UMD Alumna Becomes New Duluth Poet Laureate

Sheila Packa, a '81 graduate of UMD, will give her first reading as the 2010-2012 Duluth Poet Laureate at 3 pm on Sunday, Oct. 3 in the Weber Music Hall. Cellist Kathy McTavish will accompany Packa's reading.

Sheila Packa has a vision for her two-year term as Duluth Poet Laureate. She is taking a unique approach by involving the community in her efforts. Some of her workshops and readings will challenge participants to tackle big topics such as transition, migration and blessings.


One of Packa’s first workshops as the Poet Laureate will be about transitions. “I want people to write poems for any transition in life: a birth, a death, a wedding,” Packa said. “My son just got married, and I wrote poems for him. Everyone has transitions, and everyone needs an acknowledgement of that transition. That’s how people can connect to poetry.”

Writing about transitions has practical value. The words can be used in a greeting card or in a heartfelt speech. Each poem represents a piece of the poet's soul. "Poetry is the best gift," Packa said.

Voice and Inspiration

Packa has published four books of poetry. “The voice of my poems is set in the outdoors, which is not typical because a lot of women’s writing tends to be in domestic scenes.” Packa draws inspiration from the landscape, other poets, music and dance. She appreciates the patterns in the words.

"My poetry is about exploring images and experiences," Packa said. "It’s more about language than about feelings.”

When writing poetry, Packa strives to be a “painter with words,” creating visual images that bring the poem to life. She wants people to feel connected to her poetry. “I hate sentimental poetry because I think it puts us to sleep. I love art that surprises us and breaks open emotion,” Packa said.

Community Building

The Poet Laureate’s job is to promote poetry and expand the audience. “I knew the press and publicity would be good for my career, but I also wanted to leave a legacy,” Packa said. “I want people in Duluth to get something from the work we do together.”

According to Packa, community is essential to writing. It can provide encouragement, support and advice. “That's why I want to set up a community-wide poetry project.”

Because poetry is so important to Packa, she wants to instill that same enthusiasm in others. “For me, poetry is essential. During the times in my life that have been most difficult, like the death of my parents, poetry was really important to me. It was the only thing I read that made sense. There’s something about it that speaks to the spirit," Packa said.

Women Writers
The Duluth Poet Laureate position was established in 2006. The first two laureates were men. Partly because Packa is the first woman Duluth Poet Laureate, she is invested in bringing women to the forefront. “Twenty-five years ago I didn't hear much about female writers,” Packa said. As a self-proclaimed feminist, Packa feels that women need to share their first-hand knowledge with the world. “I think some women give away their power by being silent. We all benefit when they speak up,” Packa said.

Packa is the author of four poetry books, including Dear Bird.

Practical Goals and Success in Poetry

Packa grew up on Minnesota's Iron Range and graduated from UMD with a degree in Social Development in 1981.

“When I was in college I wanted to major in English literature and writing, but I felt that it wasn’t a marketable skill,” Packa said. “I went into social work instead, but my passion for writing was always under the surface.

While at UMD, Packa dabbled in a few creative writing and English literature classes. At the age of 25, Packa, curious about writing and poetry, joined a writer’s group.

“We met monthly,” Packa said. “We were there to encourage each other to keep writing.”

Soon after, while taking a workshop from Minneapolis poet Phoebe Hanson, Packa was encouraged to apply for the Loft McKnight Fellowship in Poetry. “I hadn’t yet sent my work out, and I was kind of intimidated by other writers,” Packa said. “I won, which shocked me." It was early in her career and receiving the fellowship reassured her that she was on the right path.

Years later, Packa continued her pursuit and attended Goddard College in Vermont where she received a master’s degree in creative writing in 1995.

Packa has advice. “Follow your passion and believe in yourself. You need to trust that your instincts are valid,” Packa said. “It is easy for people to dismiss their secret passion and not take it seriously, but you should always do what you love.”

Sheila Packa's work has been featured in the Anthology of Finnish-North American Literature in English, Beloved of the Earth: Poems of Grief and Gratitude, and To Sing Along the Way: Minnesota Women Poets from Pre-Territorial Days to the Present. She is the author of four poetry books: Fearful Journey, (2008), The Mother Tongue (2007), Dear Bird: Poems from Lake Superior (2006), and Always Saying Good-bye (1998) She also has two poetry/cello CDs, Echo and Lightening and Undertow, featuring her poems and music by Kathy McTavish.

Visit Sheila Packa's Poetry Blog and her website.

Driving at Night
by Sheila Packa

Up north, the dashboard lights of the family car
gleam in memory, the radio
plays to itself as I drive
my father plied the highways
while my mother talked, she tried to hide
that low lilt, that Finnish brogue,
in the back seat, my sisters and I
our eyes always tied to the Big Dipper
I watch it still
on summer evenings, as the fireflies stream
above the ditches and moths smack
into the windshield and the wildlife's
red eyes bore out from the dark forests
we flew by, then scattered like the last bit of star
light years before.
It's like a different country, the past
we made wishes on unnamed falling stars
that I've forgotten, that maybe were granted
because I wished for love.


Written by Mandee Kuglin, edited by Cheryl Reitan

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