sheila packa

poet & writer

text exhibit image

Sheila Packa is a poet, writer, and teacher with Minnesota and Finnish roots. She has four books of poems, The Mother Tongue, Echo & Lightning, Cloud Birds, and Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range. This last project reflects women's history, labor history, immigrants, mining and geology from Minnesota's Iron Range. In collaboration with composer and media artist Kathy McTavish, she performed Night Train Red Dust live in a media presentation at the Fringe Festival in Minneapolis in 2013. On the book website, background information is available about the people and places, and it includes links to historical archives, images, literary works and articles about the Iron Range.

She has been Duluth's Poet Laureate in 2010-2012, and she teaches workshops in the community. She edited a collection of poems by Lake Superior area writers, Migrations: Poetry and Prose for Life's Transitions that received recognition at the North East Minnesota Book Awards. This anthology was the result of a community wide writing project and a Community Arts Learning Grant. Allying with the Women's Coalition, Domestic Abuse Intervention Program, and Family Justice Center, she facilitated several writing workshops. Recently, she was part of the One River: Many Stories, a community journalism project. Her poems became part of playwright/director Tom Isbell's award-winning documentary One River that was performed at UMD and the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in 2017.

Her poems have been in several literary magazines and anthologies, including ReWilding: Poems for the Environment (Split Rock Review); Rocked by the Waters (Nodin Press); Laurel Review; Entropy; Unbroken; Jet Fuel Review; Precipice: Writers at the Edge (Precipice Collective), Undocumented: Great Lakes Poets Laureate on Social Justice (Michigan State University Press), Waters Deep: A Great Lakes Poetry Anthology (Split Rock Review), Forgotten Women (Grayson Books), The Heart of All That Is (Holy Cow! Press), When We Were Weavers, (Squares and Rebels), Good Poems American Places (Viking Penguin), Finnish-North American Literature in English (Mellen Press), Beloved on the Earth: 150 Poems of Grief and Gratitude (Holy Cow Press!) and To Sing Along the Way: Minnesota Women Poets from Pre-Territorial Days to the Present (New Rivers Press). Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac and Prairie Home Companion has also featured four of her poems. She has published short fiction in Valpairiso Fiction Review, The Cortland Review, Chicago Memoryhouse, Sinister Wisdom, and other literary magazines.

Sheila received a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant in Poetry (2020), National Finlandia Foundation grant (2016), a McKnight/ACHF/ARAC Individual Artist Fellowship Grant (2012) and two Arrowhead Regional Arts Council fellowships for poetry, ARAC Career Opportunity grants (2007, 2013, and 2016), two Loft McKnight Awards, (poetry 1986 and prose 1996) and a Loft Mentor Award in poetry (1995), and a Community Arts Learning Grant (2010). She was awarded the 2011 Goldie Award for Poetry from the Golden Crown Literary Society for her book Echo & Lightning. She was a semifinalist in the Raw Stages (for 2016) competition at the History Theater. Helsinki composer Olli Kortekangas used four of her poems for Migrations a cantata for mezzosoprano and male voice choir. This classical music piece premiered by the Minnesota Orchestra in 2016. The recording Sibelius: Kullervo Kortekangas: Migrations: Minnesota Orchestra: Vänskä is available through BIS. She is currently at work on a new project.

short bio

Sheila Packa is a poet and writer. 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 creative writing workshops in community settings and often performs her work in music and media installations with her creative partner Kathy McTavish. She received a 2020 MSAB Arts Initiative Award for Poetry, a fellowship from the Finlandia Foundation in 2016, two Loft McKnight Awards (in poetry and in prose) a Loft Mentor Award, and fellowships and grants from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council. She has four books of poetry and edited the book Migrations, an anthology of Lake Superior writers. She served as Duluth’s Poet Laureate in 2010-2012.


surface displacements image
Surface Displacements

These poems travel through mining excavations 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. These are stories and images, historical and contemporary, about people who arrive or are displaced, whose language is replaced by another language, and who find a fluid space full of gaps, silence, and 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

Thank you to the following organizations for grant support for various aspects of this project:

Sheila Packa was a fiscal year 2022 recipient of a Creative Support for Individuals grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity was made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund. She was also 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.

Sheila also received an Individual Artist Career Development grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council in 2015. This activity is made possible in part by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, thanks to appropriations from The McKnight Foundation and the Minnesota State Legislature and general and arts and cultural heritage funds.

This book project, originally titled Three Rivers, was also made possible with the support of a grant in 2016 from Finlandia Foundation National, Finlandia Foundation National invites applications for its grants program, which awards funds to projects related to Finnish-American and Finnish history, heritage, preservation, arts and culture.

Available in bookstores.
ISBN 978-1-9477873-6-0
Distributor: Ingram

To purchase Surface Displacements:

night train image
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

Available in bookstores.
ISBN 978-0-9843777-7-0
Distributor: Ingram

To purchase Night Train Red Dust online see:

For more information about the book, see

cloud birds image
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 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 Shelia 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

Available in bookstores.
ISBN: 9780984377725
Distributor: Ingram

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

To purchase Cloud Birds online see:

echo and lightning image
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.

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!"

Available in bookstores.
ISBN: 9780984377718
Distributor: Ingram

To purchase Echo & Lightning online see:

cloud birds image
The Mother Tongue

published by Calyx Press but available through Wildwood River Press (inquire by email)

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)


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)

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: