Past Duluth Poets Laureate

Barton Sutter, 2006-2008

Duluth’s first poet laureate, Barton Sutter, enjoys working in a variety of genres. He has published poems, essays, and stories in dozens sutterof magazines and produced eight books, the most recent of which are Chester Creek Ravine: Haiku (Nodin Press, 2015) and The Reindeer Camps and Other Poems (BOA Editions, 2012). My Father’s War and Other Stories (Viking, 1991, U of MN 2000) won the 1992 Minnesota Book Award in Fiction. The Book of Names: New and Selected Poems (BOA Editions, 1993) won the 1994 Minnesota Book Award for Poetry. For several years, Sutter wrote and broadcasted monthly commentaries for Minnesota Public Radio, and these essays were collected in Cold Comfort: Life at the Top of the Map (U of MN, 1998), which won both the 1999 Minnesota Book Award for Creative Nonfiction and the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award.

Sutter’s verse one-act Small Town Triumphs was produced by the Great American History Theatre of St. Paul in 1992. His play Bushed: A Poetical, Political, Partly Musical Tragicomedy in Two Acts, with original music and arrangements by Marya Hart, was produced by Rubber Chicken Theater of Duluth in 2008 and named Best Local Play of the Year by the Reader Weekly. Pine Creek Parish: A Verse Play with Music, another collaborative effort with Marya Hart, was produced by Southwest Minnesota State University in 2010 and received a commendation for playwriting from The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, Region V.

In 2005, Sutter won the George Morrison Artist Award for his contribution to the arts in northeastern Minnesota. In 2006, he was named the first Poet Laureate of Duluth. He has received other awards from the Academy of American Poets, the Bush Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, the Loft, and the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council.

Jim Johnson, 2008-2010

Jim Johnson has published eight books of poetry: Finns In Minnesota Midwinter (North Star Press of St. Cloud, 1986),  A Field Guide To Blueberries (North Star Press, 1992), Wolves (winner of the Minnesota Voices Award, New Rivers Press, 1993), Dovetailed Corners (Holy Cow! Press, 1996), The Coop Label (Dovetailed Press, 2005), Driving Gravel Roads (Red Dragonfly Press, 2009), The First Day of Spring in Northern Minnesota (Red Dragonfly Press, 2012), and Yoik (Red Dragonfly Press, 2015). His last two books have won Northeastern Minnesota Book Awards for Poetry.


He has taught in the Duluth public schools and at the College of St. Scholastica. He was the 2008-2010 Duluth Poet Laureate as well as the 2014-2016 Poet Laureate.

His inaugural program included a collaboration with his wife Barb Hanka, his daughter, and his son in a show they performed called “Remembering Finn Hall.” Performed at Weber Music Hall on the UMD campus, the program involved poetry, traditional Finnish music, and dance.

Johnson also conducted a workshop and poetry reading in conjunction with Duluth’s FinnFest 2008.

Sheila Packa, 2010-2012

Sheila Packa is a poet, writer, and teacher with Minnesota and Finnish roots. She was a semifinalist in the Raw Stages competition (2016) at the Minnesota 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 at the Minnesota Orchestra in 2016.

She has written four books of poems, The Mother Tongue, Echo & Lightning, Cloud Birds, and Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range. This most recent 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.

sheilapackaShe served as Duluth’s Poet Laureate in 2010-2012, teaching several workshops in the community. She edited the collection of poems, Migrations: Poetry and Prose for Life’s Transitions, that received recognition at the Northeastern Minnesota Book Awards. This anthology was the result of a community wide writing project and a Community Arts Learning Grant.

Her poems have been in several anthologies, including 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 The Cortland Review, Chicago Memoryhouse, Sinister Wisdom, and other literary magazines.

Sheila received a National Finlandia Foundation grant (2016), a McKnight/ACHF/ARAC Individual Artist Fellowship Grant (2012), and two Arrowhead Regional Arts Council fellowships for poetry, an ARAC Career Opportunity grant (2007), two Loft McKnight Awards (poetry 1986 and prose 1996), 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.

Deborah Cooper, 2012-2014

Deborah Gordon Cooper has been writing poetry for over thirty years. Her work has been published in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including ArtWord Quarterly, The Roaring Muse, Kalliope, Wolf Head Quarterly, North Coast Review, Minnesota Monthly, Nimrod, Rosebud and Dust and Fire.

cooperShe and her husband, Joel, who is a printmaker, have exhibited their collaborative images and poetry throughout the Midwest.

Deborah has used poetry extensively in her work as a Hospice Chaplain. She has taught poetry writing classes at the St. Louis County Jail and conducts writing circles for the homeless. She also conducts workshops on the interfacing of poetry and spirituality.

Deborah is the author of six collections of poems, including Between the Ceiling & the Moon (2008) published by Finishing Line Press as part of its New Women’s Voices Series. Her new work appears in Blue Window (Clover Valley Press, 2017). She contributed to the anthology Bound Together: Like the Grasses (2013), also published by Clover Valley Press. Under the Influence of Lilacs (2010) is a comprehensive collection of her works.

She co-edited three anthologies with Holy Cow! Press: Beloved on the Earth: 150 Poems of Grief and Gratitude (2009), The Heart of All That Is (2013), and Amethyst and Agate (2015).

During her term as Poet Laureate, she produced events around the theme “Poetry in Sacred Spaces.” She also coordinated Noteworthy II, a collaboration pairing poetry with musical composers and performers. One series of events focused on listening to the poetic voices of homeless Duluthians.

Jim Johnson, 2014-2016

During his second term as Duluth Poet Laureate, Jim Johnson facilitated writing workshops at the Duluth Public Library and a reading by area high school poets (as he also did during his first term) at Sacred Heart Music Center. He celebrated Midwest Voices in a reading by area poets that was part of the Duluth Dylan Fest.

Ellie Schoenfeld, 2016-2018

Ellie Schoenfeld, selected as the 2016-2018 Duluth Poet Laureate, resides in Duluth and has been active in the local literary community for many years.

In 1992, she cellieo-founded Poetry Harbor and organized free readings. From 2004-2010, she served on the board of the Spirit Lake Poetry Series. She has facilitated a monthly writing group in the Federal Prison Camp and conducted a series of writing workshops with an HIV-positive support group.

Her work has been published in journals and anthologies as well as in “Bound Together: Like the Grasses” (Clover Valley Press, 2013) and “The Dark Honey: New and Used Poems” (Clover Valley Press, 2009).

Schoenfeld organized public events and left a lasting tribute to poet Connie Wanek in the form of a wildflower trail at Hartley Nature Center. Another major event during her tenure was a unique collaboration between poets and dancers called “Wordy Dancing.”

Gary Boelhower, 2018-2020

Poet, author, and College of St. Scholastica professor emeritus Gary Boelhower served as the 2018–2020 Duluth Poet Laureate. When public events were suspended because of the COVID 19 pandemic, he continued to fill in by performing miscellaneous duties of the Poet Laureate.  

Gary Boelhower

Boelhower has published three poetry collections: Naming Rites: Poems with Holy Cow! Press in 2017, Marrow, Muscle, Flight: Poems with Wildwood River Press in 2013 (which won the Midwest Book Award), and Sacred Times, Timeless Seasons with Hi-Time Publishing in 1986. His poems have also been published in anthologies: Amethyst and Agate, The Heart of All That Is, The Cancer Poetry Project 2, Beloved on the Earth, Migrations, Trail Guide to the Northland Experience in Prints and Poetry, Response, and County Lines; and in journals and magazines: America, The Freshwater Review, Lake Superior Magazine, New Millennium Writings, Northern Sounds, Out of Words, Pathways, Plainsongs, Prove, Shavings, Twyckenham Notes, and Willow Review.

He was awarded the Foley Prize in poetry from America magazine and a career development grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council. Boelhower is professor emeritus at The College of St. Scholastica, where he teaches courses in health humanities, ethics, spirituality, and leadership. He lives in Duluth with his spouse, Gary Anderson.