Poet Laureate recipients tend to get elected to their positions because they have something important to say. Sheila Packa, Minnesota’s Duluth Poet Laureate 2010-2012, and Jim Ferris, Ohio’s Lucas County Poetry Laureate 2015-2019, are two proven examples. Both poets are vocal and passionate about the social justice issues that they care about and the social justice organizations that they feel close to—for Ferris, it’s ADAPT, and for Packa, it’s the American Civil Liberties Union.
After getting to know their work while co-editing the anthology Undocumented: Great Lakes Poets Laureate on Social Justice (Michigan State University Press, March 2019), I found myself wanting to get to know both writers even more intimately and the result is the following interview where we discuss social justice, Donald Trump, climate change, and so much more.
Ron Riekki: What are the most important issues of social justice that need to be written about right now?
Sheila Packa: Lately, following the news of the ICE detention centers and the huge increase in prison populations in our country, I’m concerned. Under GOP leadership, these have become privatized, run by private, for-profit corporations. Incarceration is an expensive and ineffective method of addressing social problems. Regarding privatizing social services, it’s important to remember that corporations always put profit above all else, and they should not be in the business of providing social or human services, including education or criminal justice services. One can see the problems that have happened under the Trump policy with the detention centers. Small children are separated from their parents; this is an institutional form of child abuse. It breaks the family unit, it traumatizes the children, it hurts human development and penalizes the most vulnerable. It has not and does not address the problem. Children who are taken from their parents are at high risk of abuse and neglect in the institutions. This same thing happened to Native American children in the past. Horrendous treatment. I personally don’t want my tax dollars going to these institutions.
A second concern I have is the need to protect water resources. Water = Life. We all need clean water to maintain our health and the quality of life and health of future generations. Sulfide mining, fracking, oil pipelines, refineries, and the residual effects of chemicals contaminate our land, air, and water. Cleanup is costly and usually borne by the taxpayer. Instead of using “profit” as the central organizing principle, we need to use “people’s health” as the central organizing principle.
Jim Ferris: There is a powerful temptation to decry the forms of oppression that are most in our faces at the moment. But I want to resist that temptation for a moment, because the oppression that hampers the world is like one giant World’s Biggest Knot, and focusing on one or two threads is unlikely to untie the knot. Racism has been called America’s Original Sin, with plenty of justification. But I find myself thinking that ableism may well be the most fundamental form of oppression, because of the ways that the ability/disability continuum has been used to oppress people of color, women, sexual and religious minorities as well as people labeled as disabled. I think we need to write about all of it, with the care and detail that will not only make beautiful compelling art but also will shift the culture.
Ron Riekki: What is not being written about that needs to have a larger voice?
Jim Ferris: As I write this I am participating in a wonderful writers’ conference in the mountains. The conference organizers have worked really hard to make the conference a rousing success. The faculty is excellent, wonderful writers and human beings who clearly and deeply care about good writing, about the participants, and about making the world a better place. And there is still a disturbing undertone of ableism lurking.
The ableism is not just in the challenges of making charming old buildings accessible, though using a wheelchair here would be difficult indeed. Mostly, the ableism is in the assumptions about who we are and what we are doing: the desirability and indeed the primacy of normativity, that excellence cannot be achieved without in some way re-inscribing normativity, without bowing at the altar of the normate even as we try to make something wholly different. If all we can do is try to surpass what has already been done, then we are stuck on the same track, just trying to go a little farther—rather than forging new paths, not just illuminating but creating different ways of being, knowing, and doing the world.
What is not being written enough is why well-intentioned normals should change their minds and their ways of engaging, recognize that the problem is not just behaviors, not even just attitudes, but the fundamental concepts, the pressure toward norms that prescribe who is fully human—and who isn’t—who can fully participate in society—and who is not allowed to—who is ‘one of us’, and who is, to call on an old phrase, ‘beyond the pale.’
Explicitly, we should be noticing and calling out ableism wherever it arises. We are nowhere near done exposing, let alone correcting, the deep problems caused by racism and white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, and the all-too-wide range of other human differences that lead some of us to oppress others of us. But I think ableism is the least recognized of these pervasive ills. Since ableism is about all of us—every human is variably situated on the ability/disability continuum—this ongoing and desperately harmful construct of ideas dearly needs the light.
Sheila Packa: Women and children’s needs: over the past 30 years, women’s rights have diminished in many regions of the world, and with this, children are adversely affected. More attention is needed to access to health care, food, safety from domestic abuse, and access to education. Countries have been destabilized because of war, gang violence, religious fundamentalism, and climate issues. There is a worldwide refugee crisis (and its roots are often in government policies) that must have a global response to help stabilize governments and communities.
Ron Riekki: Do you often write about social justice issues? What incites you to write those poems?
Sheila Packa: The poem I wrote is a cento, and it is a collage of quotes from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels about the way that change happens. It is intended to give heart to people who work for positive change. I came to write about this while doing research for my latest book of poems, Night Train Red Dust, about my Finnish immigrant grandparents and women’s and labor history in Minnesota. In the early 1900s, a progressive movement occurred that supported women’s equality (and the right to vote), immigrant services (like settlement houses, language classes, etc.), and a concern about how big corporations exploited the working class and poor (and as a result child labor laws, occupation safety measures and the forty-hour work week came into being). Farm and other types of cooperatives helped create sustainability for the immigrants at that time. Good things happen when people work together for the common good.
Jim Ferris: I can’t help but see how power is implicated in just about everything we humans experience. It can’t help but surface in my poems.
One of the big things I find myself using in poems is the conflict between the normate ways of experiencing and using the world and the lived experience of those situated as Other. Is the elder driving slower than everyone else because she is old, or because she is African-American? Or both? Other reasons? Just because?
Ron Riekki: Trump. Your thoughts?
Sheila Packa: Trump fails to treat others with dignity and respect. He lies and blames others. He prefers spectacle over substance and celebrity over integrity. If a leader cannot take personal responsibility, maintain accountability to the public, and work toward the common good, then he or she shouldn’t be in office.
Jim Ferris: (Sigh.) He is a reflection and an outcome of something that has been a part of American thought (if we can call it ‘thought’) for a long time, the idea that this land was given to a select group to use, enjoy, and rule over—or we could use verbs like dominate and pillage. I’m reminded that Ronald Reagan’s Interior Secretary James Watt didn’t think the country needed to practice stewardship because end times were coming soon so go ahead and use it all up. Trumpishness shows the same level of thoughtfulness and responsibility.
Ron Riekki: Climate change. Your thoughts?
Sheila Packa: Serious wildfires are going on right now, and these impact regions much larger than just the places in flames. Smoke and particulate pollution are impacting large swaths of territory in the west and north, and this impacts people with asthma and other lung conditions. Plastic in the oceans impacts marine life and the food we eat. Loss of the arctic regions raises the temperatures of the oceans and amplifies hurricanes. In the near future, high temperatures will get worse. Our government and citizens make a dramatic change in policies and practices otherwise our grandchildren’s quality of life will drop. Each of us must reduce our carbon imprint. This means developing more alternative energy, stopping driving as much, conserving and protecting water resources, avoiding using plastic, and providing assistance to those impacted by drought, flood, fire, and hurricanes.
Jim Ferris: I worry that we are dancing close to the tipping point. I do think Trump will be seen to mark the end of an era; I hope we don’t have to endure even more widespread pain, chaos, and destruction as a result of waiting too long to address this clear and present problem, this imminent catastrophe.
Ron Riekki: For people who are interested in more writers who write well about issues of social justice, who would you recommend? What particular writing by them?
Jim Ferris: Eli Clare (Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure and Exile) and Jamaal May (The Big Book of Exit Strategies), Sheila Fiona Black (Iron, Ardent) and Patricia Smith (Incendiary Art), Marilyn Nelson (A Wreath for Emmett Till, How I Discovered Poetry, American Ace) and Ross Gay (Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude) and Alison Kafer (Feminist Queer Crip) and Kaite O’Reilly (peeling, And Suddenly I Appear, the ‘d’ monologues), Ellen Samuels (Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race) and Sami Schalk (Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction), Kim Nielsen (A Disability History of the United States) and Liat Ben-Moshe (Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the US and Canada) and Tim Seibles (Fast Animal) and Toi Derricotte (The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey) and Thylias Moss (Wannabe Hoochie Gallery of Realities’ Red Dress Code). I could keep going, but this is a good start.
Sheila Packa: I recommend reading Roxane Gay, Zadie Smith, Claudia Rankine, Joy Harjo, and Barbara Kingsolver. Read George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” I recommend the writing of Michael Ondaatje because his writing is beautiful, and his characters experience the effects of war. Find writing you love and make art. Write your own stories and share them. Help others in your community tell their stories.
Jim Ferris: I’m also looking forward to Leah Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, due out in Fall 2018.
Ron Riekki: Other than writing about social justice issues and reading about these issues to learn more, what actions need to be taken? Recommend some steps that you advise people to follow to make significant improvements to this world. What are you doing to make change?
Sheila Packa: I spend less time on Facebook. I donate money to political candidates who I think have the right values. Last year, I worked on a committee in our local community focused on changing police policy with undocumented immigrants. This was initiated by the ACLU). I support the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, and arts organizations. I do writing workshops in the community. Art is a powerful tool in social change.
Jim Ferris: We can’t recycle our way out of this mess.
I still believe in the slogan “think globally act locally.” The best actions to take are specific to place and community. Don’t wait for the government or for others to take action; find the best things available to you and do them. Connect with young people: it’s their world, we’re just using it for a while. Recognize the future that is already with us, live in that future, the world will follow. You don’t have to solve all problems—or any problems—all by yourself. Find community, make community. Team up with one other person and get started. That’s how we turn this corner—together.
JIM FERRIS, Poet Laureate of Lucas County, Ohio, 2015-2019. Books include The Hospital Poems (2004) and Slouching Towards Guantanamo (2011). Chair of the Disabled & D/deaf Writers Caucus (2016-2018) and past President of the Society for Disability Studies. Ferris holds the Ability Center Endowed Chair in Disability Studies at the University of Toledo.
SHEILA PACKA was Duluth Poet Laureate 2010-2012. She has four books, The Mother Tongue (2007), Echo & Lightning (2010), Cloud Birds (2011), and Night Train Red Dust (2014)and recently collaborated with Helsinki composer Olli Kortekangas. The Minnesota Orchestra premiered their work, Migrations, in 2016. She teaches at Lake Superior College and in the community.