sheila packa

poet & writer

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Sheila Packa is a poet, writer, and teacher with Minnesota and Finnish roots. She has five books of poetry: Mother Tongue, Echo & Lightning, Cloud Birds, Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range, and Surface Displacements. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College and has taught creative writing and composition at Lake Superior College. She leads poetry and writing workshops in community settings and often performs her work in music and media installations with her creative partner Kathy McTavish.

Sheila has published her work in several literary magazines and anthologies. In 2022, she received an Arrowhead Regional Arts Council Individual Artist Project Grant and, from the Minnesota State Arts Board, a Creative Support for Individuals grant. She received a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Award for Poetry in 2020. In 2016, she was awarded a grant from the Finlandia Foundation National. In the past, her work received two Loft McKnight Awards (one in poetry and one in prose), a Loft Mentor Award in Poetry, and fellowships and grants from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council. Helsinki composer Olli Kortekangas used four of her poems for “Migrations,” a cantata for mezzosoprano and male voice choir which was premiered by the Minnesota Orchestra in 2016. The recording Sibelius: Kullervo Kortekangas: Migrations: Minnesota Orchestra: Vänskä is available through BIS Records. Sheila edited the book Migrations, an anthology of Lake Superior writers. She served as Duluth’s Poet Laureate in 2010-2012.


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Surface Displacements

Surface Displacements is a winner of the 2023 Northeastern Minnesota Book Award in Poetry and is a finalist for the 2023 Minnesota Book Award in Poetry. Giving voice and beauty to the north, these poems travel through mine pits and waterways vulnerable to environmental contamination and climate change in Minnesota, where the Northern Continental Divide crosses the Laurentian Divide and creates three watersheds that flow into the Mississippi River, the Great Lakes, and Hudson Bay. Aware of the homeless, the past and present immigrants who are legal or 'illegal,' and excavations and silences, these images and stories that are historical and contemporary honor the resilience of people who arrive or are displaced, whose language is replaced, and who still find a fluid space full of possibility.

“In Surface Displacements, the spirit of the ancient Finnish shamans breathes again. Sheila Packa’s best early poems recalled her youth on Minnesota’s Iron Range, growing up in households where Finnish was still spoken, where the immigrant towns were gritty working-class, in a landscape of mine pits, forests, and water. That environment remains her fundamental source, though now everything has changed, changed utterly, as Packa has learned, with increasing confidence, to incorporate history, science, and myth, even as her language has grown more musical, her poems more spiritual. Like the old shamans, she has become a shapeshifter, able — through the dreamy trance of poetry —to speak in the voice of a snail, rivers and lakes, an entire landscape and its people.” —Bart Sutter, author of So Surprised to Find You Here

“There is a beckoning, a teaching, a singing and lamenting in Sheila Packa’s Surface Displacements. In rivers, headwaters, displacement and the otherworld we are given ways of navigating earth’s trauma in the sink and rise of all that is broken, all that survives. Whispers, dialogues, and the power of forgotten language are forged in the stellar poetic title poem that speaks of both beauty and loss. This is an important book of place, that calls out truth, journeys into landscape, history and the natural world. Ancestry runs through this book as challenge and praise, a way of naming that offers “the tongue with the old root.” Packa dives into the body of language and voices the body of the earth with skill and relish. “To speak is to mend” is an invitation to us all in this intimate and compassionate calling out of the elegant and fragile wonders of this world.” —Diane Jarvenpa, author of The Way She Told Her Story and The Tender Wild Things

Surface Displacements is a Lake Superior epic, an Iron Range chronicle, a Northland saga in which the human psyche merges with rock and water. This book has a heartbeat, and its rhythms are those of Great Lake seiches and flooded open pit mine waves. This poet’s practice is not only one of noticing but also of becoming, as self and landscape merge. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that humanity and geography have always been one, and Packa’s words remind us of what we know in our bones: that life is movement, displacement, and constant “shift(s) from state to state”; and also that we are connected to a core of belonging forged from earth and spirit. These gorgeous poems are incantations of legacy, deep roots, disturbance, destruction, flight, and transformation.” —Julie Gard, author of Home Studies

"Through the art of attention, Sheila Packa elevates the landscape of northern Minnesota to the holy. Each poem is a room rich with texture, imagery, and sound that resonates long after one puts the verses down. This is a book to simultaneously lose oneself and find oneself in." —Darci Schummer, author of Six Months in the Midwest

Wildwood River Press, 2022
Available in bookstores.
ISBN 978-1-9477873-6-0
Distributor: Ingram

To purchase Surface Displacements:

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Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range

These poems are about the Iron Range in Minnesota, the Vermilion Trail, and they are stories of travel and derailment about mining, radical politics, unionizing, accordion music and strong women. The book brings together history, geology and the community of people with iron in their veins.

"I excavate these words from a vein of iron….” these poems are “test drills and core samples” — a weave of memory, archive, dream, song, story — drawn from the history and people of the Iron Range of northeastern Minnesota. These pages sound the whistles and roar of the mines, the dust in the lungs, the dangerous crossings into a new language, the accordion’s breath. Culled from violence and tenderness, bone and ash, ore and light, they map a place, a time, a journey through love" --Pamela Mittlefehldt, PhD and co-editor The Heart of All That Is: Reflections on Home Holy Cow! Press

Wildwood River Press, 2014
ISBN 978-0-9843777-7-0
Available in bookstores.
Distributor: Ingram

To purchase Night Train Red Dust online see:

For more information about the book, see

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Clouds Birds

Cloud Birds is a flight through the western shoreline of Lake Superior north to the Iron Range of Minnesota. The poems are about bears, immigrants, bird migration, and women moving through violence. The cover image is a painting by visual artist Cecilia Ramón titled "Refuge I/Refugio I (Homage to Ana Mendieta).

"The meditations and assembled memories in Cloud Birds dissolve layer after layer of the defenses we erect against eternal human fears and longings. Images from the North, from the Iron Range--bears and birches, roads that had 'no end, only yearning,' set the poems in place and motion. Often the poems do not end in a period: instead they leave us following their trail, "a thoroughfare of light falling through the pines." --Connie Wanek, author of On Speaking Terms (Copper Canyon Press, 2010)

"Cloud Birds is about bears, wings, migrations--and apples, anger, rivers, roots, coffee, fields, longing and always, always love. The collection is wonderfully liminal. It is richly shaded and shadowed, a translucent layering of meaning and memory, of dream and thistle. It moves between narrative and music, between aura and the most grounded reality. Many of the poems linger as sound as much as image. Some are ephemeral. Some are achingly immediate. The poems invite the reader to become part of the process. Trust the free fall of Sheila Packa's voice and imagination. This is the mystery and power of her work." --Pamela Mittlefehldt, PhD, co-editor of Beloved on the Earth: 150 Poems of Grief and Gratitude (Holy Cow! Press, 2009)

Midwest Book Review writes: "The changing of seasons, the changing of life seems to move so much faster in the north." Cloud Birds is a collection of poetry from Sheila Packa, a Finnish American woman who calls Minnesota home, viewing the changing of nature and life as she sees it and always moving. Cloud Birds is an excellent compilation of poetry driven by both humanity and the beauty and uncertainty of nature. Cloud Birds: "we live on both sides of the border/in two countries/in and outside each other/bone and blood/in disguise without intention or force/without blandishments/blown by wind/silent like shadow crossing and crossing/over the boundaries without end/borne by moon or sun/burnished by wing."

Garrison Keillor read the poem "Not Forgotten," from Cloud Birds, on Writer's Almanac:
Featured: here

Wildwood River Press, 2011
ISBN: 9780984377725
Available in bookstores.
Distributor: Ingram

For more information about the book, see Sheila's blog

To purchase Cloud Birds online see:

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Echo & Lightning

Echo & Lightning (expanded version), is a book of encounters with migration and the divine by Sheila Packa. Exploring stories of women's intersections with God or the gods, the poems trace flights of the ecstatic and the irrevocable. The cover image is a painting by visual artist Cecilia Ramón. It is titled "Dawn."

Echo & Lightning won the 2011 Goldie Award for Poetry from the Golden Crown Literary Society.

Kirsten Dierking (author of One Red Eye and Northern Oracle) writes: "So many poems in Echo & Lightning reveal what has to be given away in order to be filled with something greater--a more intense spiritual awareness, a fuller connection with the landscape, a more generous and all-encompassing love. Echo & Lighting transforms us into something freer, wilder, more given to loving, while reminding us that to fly is to risk leaving the old behind ... "

Ellie Schoenfeld, author of The Dark Honey, writes: "These poems are the story of following one's own instincts to, in one way or another, migrate. They bring us to the exact moment when we surrender to our truest selves, when we allow ourselves to be transported, transformed, resurrected."

The Northeast Minnesota Book Award reading team, May 2011 writes: "Lyrical, intimate, all while challenging your personal status quo or inertia. These poems by Sheila Packa evoke all the senses to come to attention - so you don't miss a single, heightened note. Written to be read to the voice of the cello, the experience of reading them to yourself is like swimming in very deep water (at night!)- exciting while pushing you beyond your present limits to LIVE more fully than you ever thought you might!"

Wildwood River Press, 2010
ISBN: 9780984377718
Available in bookstores.
Distributor: Ingram

To purchase Echo & Lightning online see:

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The Mother Tongue

Published by Calyx Press Duluth in 2007, the poems in this book are narratives about growing up in a mining town on the Iron Range, about mother/daughter relationships, and Finnish family heritage. It is printed on fine paper with illustrations by artist and printmaker Cecilia Lieder on the cover and inside at section breaks. The book makes a connection between a mother and daughter's attitudes toward sexuality. The section "Torrent" contains ekphrastic poems created in response to a traveling exhibit of black and white photographs of lesbian erotica by a Canadian collective, Kiss and Tell, and printed in postcard book, Drawing the Line. The photographs are created by women for women, and the images are a sequence that goes from sweet flirtation to role-play and gender-bending. There are nudes in indoor and outdoor settings and images of the continuum between vanilla through sadomasochistic sex. The photography exhibit posed the question: where do you draw the line? The galleries and exhibit spaces placed writing utensils and paper on the wall for viewers to respond. The responses varied from pleasure to outrage.

"Anyone who has ever visited Northern Minnesota can identify with the expert metaphors and beautiful repetition of sounds of The Mother Tongue. The collection is divided into three sections, The Mother Tongue--narrative poems about her youth; Torrent--erotic love poems clearly influenced by the poet's past and homeland; and Fluency--narrative poems about finding love, both romantic and platonic. Describing herself as a "daughter of love," Sheila Packa transcribes her experiences coming of age and finding love in Minnesota's rural mining community. Packa sees herself as part of her surroundings toiling deep in the heart of an iron mine, professing her love to her Iron Range boyfriend, taking a dip in the rust-colored "Wine Lake." And yet, struggles with her Finnish heritage give her poetry the emotional distance needed for a foreign reader. As she comes to understand the cultural differences which create a barrier between her and her mother, she writes, "We must go to make new/ love and let the past go." At the same time, her poetry celebrates the past, her heritage, and the North, which provides "the iron in our veins." Packa has received two Arrowhead Regional Arts Council fellowships for poetry and two Loft McKnight Awards." -Elizabeth Bance
Minnesota Literature Newsletter

"The Fiction/Poetry/Drama reading group loved this beautiful collection of poems. This 3-part collection includes 28 erotic poems, which sweep the reader up by surprise, interspersed with Packa's reflections about growing up as the daughter of a Finnish mother while living in the economically stressed region of the Iron Range. While these are personal explorations of identity and mother/daughter relationships, the reader travels along easily and willingly for the bumpy ride."
- Reading committee for the Northeastern Minnesota Book Awards (2008 Honorable Mention for The Mother Tongue)

Calyx Press Duluth, 2007
ISBN: 0-9772376-6-4
The Mother Tongue is no longer in print, but copies are available through Wildwood River Press. If you would like a copy, send an email to


assorted readings & interviews

the playlist (pbs)

track » live reading & interview

cortland review reading

track » boundary waters

writer's almanac

track » poems read by Garrison Keillor

one river many stories: community journalism project

track » live reading

wildwood river projects

(sheila packa/poetry & kathy mctavish/cello/sound)

surface displacements exhibition 2022

» media files

moving poems online journal of video poetry

track » my geology

video poetry

track » vimeo collection

installation: mill city requiem: for solo instrument & distance

track » sound recording

more information here

installation: road to williston

track » sound recording

more information here

undertow (2010)

album » undertow - all

track » immersion (3:16)

track » strange symmetry (3:13)

track » after (3:233)

track » eurydice (2:05)

track » vigil (2:25)

track » what sea (3:10)

track » river begins (2:11)

track » invisible embrace (3:07)

track » drift (1:57)

track » morning (1:48)

track » hull (2:59)

track » helpless (1:56)

dear bird (2006)

track » opening (4:44)

track » second thoughts (1:34)

track » reasons (1:51)

track » joy (2:31)

track » river rhapsody (2:24)

track » bagpipe kaddish (3:36)

track » falling (5:04)

track » silence (3:04)

track » the lighthouse (3:04)

track » amazing grace (1:09)

track » dear bird (3:09)

track » sanctuary (3:24)


email Sheila: