A STRONG Community of Voices

Arlington Poet Laureate Steven Ratiner launched the Red Letter Poem Project at the outset of the Covid Pandemic.  Every week he sends out a carefully selected poem, accompanied by a short essay reflecting on the poem’s meaning and context.  He focused his 69th Red Letter on Neighborhood Haiku; he and his Beehive Poets Group were important collaborators.  We are grateful for Steven’s marvelous account of the July celebration of this ACAC initiative, a beautifully written essay which combines a vivid report of the event with insightful reflection on its meaning.
Red Letter Poem #69
Steven Ratiner, Arlington Poet Laureate
July 23, 2021

In last week’s Red Letter, I posed the question: What’s it going to take?  How – as we emerge from the tangle of crises that have bedeviled us for so long – how will communities across our nation make the hard choices to shape what comes next?  Well, by chance, I got to experience first-hand just such a response.

The Arlington Commission for Arts & Culture (ACAC) is a largely volunteer organization tasked with invigorating the arts in our municipality.  Arlington Heights, on the western end of town, had not been the focus of much recent arts programming; and so Cecily Miller – the Curator for Public Art and Engagement, and a masterful community organizer for all sorts of creative enterprise – came up with Heights Haiku, part of her continuing Neighborhood Haiku initiative.  In this case, it was a juried competition of short-form poems with our town as their general subject.  The forty-two poems that were finally selected (out of nearly 200 entries) would end up being hand-painted onto 29 shop windows along the main avenue, creating a sort of walk-through anthology.  Some of the winners were from published poets; others came from individuals who had never tried their hand at poetry before they participated in one of the writing workshops Cecily organized.  All were absolutely delighted to have their poems spotlighted in these public spaces.

Adorning the window of the realtor, Elana Grayson’s poem offers a glimpse of the neighborhood.  Her contribution is even more impressive when you learn that she has just graduated from the fifth grade:

Homes of gray, blue, white

Kids biking past, hair flying

Grass, shining with dew

Though Emmanuela Maurice has been writing for a while, she used the occasion of the Heights Haiku workshop to sharpen her skills.  Her poem is brimming with pure celebration:

Trees dance with the wind

Birds scat like Nina Simone

Breakfast for the soul.

I have to say, I may never regard the aisles of our hardware store quite the same after reading Jessie Brown’s selection:

Sale: nuts, bolts, rakes

extension cords – what tool

mends loneliness?

Most history buffs know the story of Paul Revere’s ride through our town on his way to alert the Colonial militia about the coming of the British troops.  How can you not smile to read John Pijewski’s delightful bit of anachronism:

On the road to Lexington

Paul Revere can stop for

tacos, curry, sushi, pad thai.

Cecily and her team also created a grand ‘opening night’ event that would both celebrate the arts while providing a bit of support for the local businesses suffering through the economic distress triggered by Covid.  It included a classical duo playing in a beauty/fashion shop, a jazz duo performing out on the street, and a roving accordionist. There was a guided stroll visiting all the shop windows, to read the poems and admire the presentation (the team of painters worked under the tutelage of famed letter-artist Kenji Nakayama.)  And the heart of the celebration: a two-part poetry reading at the Roasted Granola Café – two sessions, because the crowds were too large to fit in the café at once (and we poets well know that overflow crowds are not one of our usual problems.)  At the reading, the atmosphere was absolutely euphoric; then Stewart Ikeda, one of the co-chairs of ACAC, stood up to address the gathering.  He explained there had been an ”incident” the night before these festivities.  Susan Lloyd McGarry’s poem, painted on the glass door of the café, had been defaced.  It was not hard to guess why this one piece had been singled out:

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor…

Too many names to say.

Say them anyway.

It was shocking (though perhaps it shouldn’t have been) to be reminded, in our liberal town west of Boston, that hate respects no geographic boundaries.  “I imagine the person who defaced the poem felt it was a powerful act,” said Stewart, his voice somber but forceful.  “But it was not – it was a sign of weakness.  This is a powerful act: to create something, to make new poems, to come together to celebrate our community.  That’s true power.”  The event organizers had made sure one of the sign painters returned to restore Susan’s poem that very morning.  And then the audience, in one voice, recited the poem aloud: “. . .Say them anyway.” 

Some might regard a poem as a rather modest act (though history has taught us the resonance from such things cannot easily be assessed.)  To gather together and speak a poem aloud – our voices in unison magnifying each other’s power – I know it would be naïve to think such things reshape the landscape of social conflict.  Yet I must say that I left the reading feeling different – hopeful, fortified – not just because of the marvelous poems but inspired by the determination demonstrated by the owners of the café.  No one needed to explain to them that the vandals who defaced the painted haiku might return again, though perhaps this time with a brick – yet still they insisted their shop window would be host to the poem.  Rather than intimidating the community, this act only strengthened its resolve.  I’ve never been prouder of this town, of the choices great and small being made to alter what our tomorrow might be like.  Our tomorrow: the thought is a part of the essential purpose embedded inside all poem-making.  Let no bitter soul deface that.