About the Project
“The list poem is part of an ancient and honorable tradition. A cataloging of images, names, or events, you find the technique used to great effect in the Bible and Homer; Walt Whitman often used his unreeling litanies to make the diverse conglomeration of his America sing! onto the page. So, in honor of Alice Kociemba’s Red Letter contribution, a list:
* How fortifying, to read Alice’s words of gratitude when the daily news is driving us to distraction.
* How sly of the poet to make her phrasing seem so casual and off-handed, even as its rhythms carefully build and release, plucking at the strings of our own taut nerves.
* How generous, to remind us that the inconsequential moments of our days are still our days! And may actually reveal quiet depths of feeling.
* And why does the heart plummet, just a bit, when she mentions “a single cup”?
* And when she risks addressing that “someone” who might be “taking care”, I began wondering what my someone was like – and how desperate the night would feel to a person who suspected no one accompanied them toward that dawn.
* And I must offer my thanks to her for bringing this “Thank you” poem to a close with a startling image that feels both lavish and utterly true.
* And I should let you know that Alice is the author of Bourne Bridge (Turning Point) and the chapbook, Death of Teaticket Hardware. She’s published widely in literary journals and anthologies.
* And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that she is the founding director of Calliope Poetry which hosts poetry readings and writing workshops on Cape Cod, MA where she works tirelessly to keep their mission as her guide: Appreciate. Create. Celebrate.“
– Steven Ratiner
“When our family was young, we called it apple weather – those crisp, sun-skimmed days of early October – and immediately began making plans for an excursion west to visit an orchard. More than just the apple-picking, we loved having time together, wandering the green aisles, climbing rickety ladders into the tangled branches to select that perfect specimen, sun’s fickle kindness on our upturned faces even as the cold breeze skirmished at our backs. Jessie Brown’s lovely poem imbues apple weather into every bracing line – but also something more, something that I think is especially ingrained in the consciousness of New Englanders: the inseparable connection between the dazzle of autumn days and the intimation of winter’s dark approach, the savor of late beauty magnified by the knowledge of impending loss. Perhaps, behind the urge to press the harvest into cider, is our wish that it can endure beyond that of each fragile fruit – even though every sweet sip exacts (if only in dreams, in poems) its mortal price. But knowing all this, we can begin to take some responsibility for the green revival, and for what will await the generations that follow ours.
Jessie is the author of two short collections, What We Don’t Know We Know (Finishing Line Press) and Lucky (Anabiosis Press). Her poems and translations have appeared in local and national journals like The Comstock Review, New Madrid, Full Bleed, Minerva Rising, and the American Poetry Review – and her work has earned her a prize from the American Academy of Poets. She leads independent poetry workshops for adults and serves as a poet-in-residence in schools and libraries around Massachusetts. But Jessie also works to stretch the ways poetry and other art forms interact; her collaborations with artist Adria Arch have been exhibited along Arlington’s Minuteman Bikeway and in other communities. She is also a founding member of the Alewife Poets, a group that has endured for decades.”
– Steven Ratiner
“What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American. It’s the title of a poetry collection by the late great Richard Hugo – and it sprang instantly to mind when Somerville poet Michael T. Steffen offered his poem ‘Walleye’ to the Red Letters, though I wasn’t quite sure why. Certainly there’s walleye and pike swimming throughout Hugo’s poetry, as he writes about fishing in Montana and the Pacific Northwest, but that’s merely the superficial. In Steffen’s poem, set in his childhood home of Norfolk, Nebraska, he elevates the quietly significant dramas of small-town life until they fill memory’s spot-lit stage (and certainly Hugo would smile upon that.) Especially for a young person, these glimpses of how grownups live, what they value, how their small gestures end up assuming an outsized significance – these are part of our essential education. The poem is filled with contrasts and transformations: the neighbor changing from the besuited businessman, governed by his banker’s hours, into the ‘scruffy’ and perhaps more thoroughly-satisfied fisherman; those delectable smells of fish frying turning into the ‘stubborn stink’ that’s left behind; and even the hazy weather that rewards the fisherman’s patience compared to the bright blue Monday morning that drives fish to hide in the shadows. Steffen’s restrained imagery and sometimes darting syntax require a similar patience if readers are to reel in what’s moving there beneath the surface – which, to my mind, includes the sort of elusive but well-loved experiences that feels quintessentially American.
Steffen’s poetry has appeared in venues such as Another Chicago Magazine, The Boston Globe, Harvard Review Online, Ibbetson Street, and Taos Journal. His first book, Partner, Orchard, Day Moon, was published in 2014. A new collection, On Earth As It Is, is forthcoming from Cervena Barva Press and from which today’s poem is taken. I, for one, am grateful to be the beneficiary of this poet’s bountiful catch.”
– Steven Ratiner
“Back in 1969, when we were sending our first men to the moon, I heard this lament on many news broadcasts: ‘if only we could send a poet along with the crew…’. Being a young writer at the time, the notion was a source of pride: that we all might be able to grasp unimaginable situations via the leap of a poet’s imagination.
I recalled this thought while reading Dorian Brooks’ poem ‘Unlatch.’ I am not a woman; I will never understand how a mother feels for that little being born from her own body. And even after many news reports, it is difficult to fully imagine the plight of an immigrant parent, desperate for asylum, whose family’s survival hangs in the balance. But Dorian’s poem offers readers a vital, almost physical intimation of what exists beyond the headlines. And somewhere, in the tension between the beautiful restriction of the sonnet and the unbound emotionality of the subject matter, our hearts too are launched.
Born and raised in Connecticut, Dorian has made Arlington her home since 1985. Her poems have been collected in two books: A Pause in the Light (Holy Cow! Press) and The Wren’s Cry (Ibbetson Street Press), and have appeared in numerous literary journals. (‘Unlatch’ first appeared in Ibbetson Street magazine last fall in an earlier form.) Dorian writes: ‘Poetry, for me, is a way of trying to make emotional sense of the world and our place in it, through form, metaphor, and imagination’ – and this poem is a perfect example. An activist, she co-founded with Anna Watson the group Solidarity with American Indians to raise awareness of attitudes toward Native peoples as reflected in the media and popular culture; and she is a past president of the Lexington-area chapter of NOW.”
– Steven Ratiner
“Perhaps we can read Robert Frost’s formulation as not just two roads diverging but an endless succession of forked paths, each requiring us to make a choice which may (or may not) in fact make all the difference. Case in point: after graduating from Amherst College and considering the next choice in an academic track, David McCann instead joined the Peace Corps and was among the first group in 1966 to serve in Korea. However he imagined this work beforehand, I doubt he envisioned that it would begin a lifelong friendship with the Korean people and devotion to their literature. Returning to America, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees and went on to a stellar career teaching Korean literature at Cornell and then Harvard. Some 31 books later David, as poet and translator, has created a sort of self-appointed poetry ambassadorship where diverse literary traditions serve as the passport to a deeper understanding of, not just East and West, but our shared humanity.
His poems have received a Pushcart Prize and Touchstone Award in the US, and a number of awards from Korean literary and cultural organizations, including the Manhae Prize in 2004, and the Korean Culture Order of Merit in 2006. One of David’s sijo poems, “Landscape” (included below), had the honor of being installed on a carved monument stone in the Boryeong Sijo Park in Korea. As David explains, sijo is the Korean counterpart to the Japanese haiku – a vernacular verse form that developed in contrast to the Classical Chinese quatrain. The sijo is written in three lines, each comprised of four phrases or words. The first line introduces an idea which the second line carries into a deeper reflection. The third line begins with a twist or turn, a different view or interpretation, and then brings the poem to its conclusion. As was true in many Asian traditions, these poems were meant to be sung aloud, the very definition of lyrical poetry. It is, perhaps, that musical charge that first touches a reader’s heart, prompts a feeling we all can relate to: wanderers on a long and tangled path, raising our voices, as we try to find our way home.”
– Steven Ratiner
“Some 30 years ago, when I created a poetry interview series for The Christian Science Monitor, Martín Espada was one of the first poets I invited to participate. He’d only just published his second full-length collection, but I was excited by his long Whitmanesque cadences, his dynamic use of metaphor, and one more thing that made his writing stand out from the crowd: ambition. But I’m not simply referring to a determined drive to succeed — that’s almost a commonplace among young writers. It was clear that Martín aspired to create a poetic voice that did more than represent his personal consciousness. Even then, he envisioned his words speaking for his people. At the outset, his people might have referred to those of his Puerto Rican heritage; or that of diverse immigrant families struggling to make their way in the US; or, enlarging its scope, any individual who felt marginalized by society, anguished by prejudice; or simply those painfully aware that their stories and dreams were left out of the greater American narrative. Today, after more than 20 books as a poet, essayist, editor and translator, it’s clear that Martín’s conception of his people includes any agile mind on the other end of his sentences willing to engage with this fiery imagination.
It would exhaust my entire space to list all the honors showered upon this poet (the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Award, the American Book Award, the 2018 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for a lifetime’s achievement, and more), but I will tell you the two I am most impressed with. The first is the palpable eruption of energy in an auditorium any time Martín performs (and his readings are indeed bardic performances); the experience of a poet’s language being so thoroughly embraced by strangers is a trophy of extraordinary value. One of his best-known poems is “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100”; written after 9/11, it is dedicated to the 43 members of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union working at the Windows on the World restaurant, who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center. They were a veritable United Nations of immigrants, some of whom were undocumented, invisible in life and more so in death. If you haven’t heard Martín deliver that poem, I’d suggest an immediate trip to YouTube. And that second great honor (one Martín himself prizes above all others): a framed letter on the poet’s wall from the membership of Local 100 who felt their lives, their voices, found safe harbor inside the poet’s verse. What praise could matter more. He’s offered us here a new poem that will appear in his forthcoming collection, Floaters (W. W. Norton & Co.), arriving in January — a love poem to his wife Lauren (also a fine poet and teacher) and a tribute to the revolutionary act that is kindness in these troubled times.” – Steven Ratiner
“Can you imagine the relief? In the early development of the human species — when a winter meant unbearable cold, scarcity of food, and a suffering that might well be interminable — a new knowledge eventually solidified: circular time. Communicated to the tribe through shamanic songs shared around a fire, or ceremonial paintings on the walls of caves, this understanding offered the promise that spring will indeed follow winter, that the animals will return, the plants grow, and life endure. Gary Snyder wrote: “Poets, as few others, must live close to the world that primitive men are in: the world, in its nakedness, which is fundamental for all of us — birth, love, death: the sheer fact of being alive.“
Deborah Melone, in her lovely chapbook The Wheel of the Year (Every Other Thursday Press), carries on that tradition by creating an 8-poem sequence to follow the solar cycle of a year. Based on the pre-Christian agricultural rites, her poems have a somewhat formal structure and diction; her half-rhymes and rhythmic cadences become almost incantatory — and we join her in celebrating the wheel of existence that carries us all. The poems bear the ‘pagan’ names for the summer and winter solstice; the fall and spring equinox; and the “cross-quarter days” which further divide the year. Deborah is also the author of Farmers’ Market, and her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines. For several years she chaired the Advisory Committee of The School Street Sessions, a venerable reading series focused on the history and literature of New England. Memory, tradition, the communal impulse: they guide much of this poet’s work and, hopefully, will invigorate ours. ” – Steven Ratiner
“So: who was yours? After months of strict isolation, who was the first outsider you permitted across your doorstep? Lifelong friend in need? Beloved grandchild? Repairman responding to some emergency? For Lilia Cuervo — retired minister, scholar, poet — the necessity was to restore a more perfect cleanliness to her home, not to mention some precious peace of mind. But as her poem makes clear, our parents are always able to cross our psychic threshold and no distance, no order of quarantine will ever stop them.
Lilia’s poem is a pantoum, a Malaysian verse form dating from the 15th century but admired worldwide for its formal complexity. A series of interwoven quatrains, the second and fourth lines of the first stanza become the first and third lines in the subsequent one, and so on. The challenge, especially for the contemporary writer, is how to keep the poem from feeling stagnant despite the formal straitjacket — and Lilia does this masterfully by inserting her native Spanish and improvising on the refrains. The strategy seems fitting as the speaker’s mind struggles to maintain freedom even amid memory’s old restrictions. Of course, her whole life involved such determined effort:when she was young, she assisted her mother who worked as a nurse to the poorest of the poor in their Colombian homeland; then, defying expectations, Lilia became a respected demographer and traveled to the U.S. as a visiting professor; and eventually she became the first Latin American woman to be ordained a Unitarian Universalist minister. And yet, even for the most accomplished individuals, can any escape the force of those parental voices we carry inside? Perhaps a poem can help. So: whose inner voice are you hearing now?” – Steven Ratiner
“Celebration?!” wrote a friend, incredulous after reading my intro to last week’s Red Letter. “Have you been paying attention — these days, what’s to celebrate?” I think he misunderstood me, perhaps imagining something on the order of fireworks, birthday sparklers. But a poet like Con Squires provides the ideal response, again and again throughout his poetry: memory, dogs, New Orleans jazz, a friend’s voice, Atlantic waters lapping below his home, second chances — and, oh yes, the sight of a child, any child, for whom nearly every minute of each ordinary day is charged with awe, surprise, fear, relief, unanticipated pleasure. Deep attention — a poet’s stock in trade — equals, in my mind, celebration.
Case in point: following a divorce, and at a time when his life felt in disarray, Con met his future wife — the partner with whom he still shares his days. Later, being introduced to her brother and sister-in-law, he remembers the couple seated on their couch, each with one of their twin babies held in the crook of an arm, a symmetrical tableau, feeding them from bottles. Con goes home and puts pencil to paper: celebration. I find such simple beauties throughout this poet’s work, in collections like Dancing with the Switchman and Ifka’s Castle, not to mention his novel about ancient China, The First Emperor. Years pass; the babies grow; the poem remains evergreen. The biographical note he sent me ended with this sentence: “Con Squires is 84 and getting younger by the minute.” Quod erat demonstrandum.” – Steven Ratiner
“Elegy. Acknowledgement of grief. Awareness of the void we feel in even the most beautiful of summer days. Well over six hundred thousand families around the world — 150,000 in our country alone — will forever hear that word, Corona, and feel every nerve in the body plucked like a bass string, reverberating deep. But elegy is one face of a two-sided coin, and the obverse is celebration — knowledge of how a certain face, a familiar voice made our day brim with abiding joy. We each carry our share of unvoiced elegies, for losses great and small; and we must also find in our awareness the possible celebration every new day presents, simply to maintain our humanity. Often a poet’s work assists us in both.
I think of Jo Pitkin as an Arlingtonian — even though, after fifteen years, she traded the waters of Spy Pond for the majestic Hudson River in upstate New York. What I remember best were her tireless labors on the yearly Heart of the Arts Festival, back when the Arlington Center for the Arts was young, helping our town to enjoy the work of painters, dancers, musicians, craftspeople and, yes, poets. Jo’s poems have a painter’s eye and a musician’s sense of rhythmic invention. She is the author of four full-length poetry collections including Commonplace Invasions where today’s poem first appeared. “Luna Moths” is sort of a pre-elegy when the prospect of her father’s loss first entered her consciousness. But in my reading, it’s a tribute to our sense of relationship — to the people we most care about and the places that summon our deepest attention. In pronouncing her quiet words, in imagining the brief beauty of the luna moth, we too might feel the complexity of our moment: its somber joy, its pained exultation.” – Steven Ratiner
“The old expression, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, has taken on rather unnerving new significance in the age of Covid. Perhaps it’s finally dawned on us all that surviving this now multi-faceted crisis will be a long and grueling ordeal. Patience, endurance, faith in one’s inner compass: these are qualities we can emulate from long-distance runners. And poets.
Susan Lloyd McGarry has, for many decades, fashioned a life that combines personal creativity with civic engagement. She’s edited or co-edited literary magazines, academic journals like the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, and numerous essay collections such as the recent Ecologies of Human Flourishing. She’s operated out of a belief that clear vision and empowered language are not just intellectual concerns but matters of human survival. That’s what reminded me of one of her older poems, “The world speaks…”. In granting permission to share it as a Red Letter, she asked that I call attention to that time frame so no one would read the word “chemo” and mistakenly think she was running that dire race again. But reading the poem now, my hope is that we are all reminded of the many and diverse challenges being faced by people all around us, often completely invisible to our gaze. We would do well to offer — and accept — a little encouragement as these long days unscroll.” – Steven Ratiner
“John Pijewski’s poems are terrible. And shockingly honest. And, I should quickly add, often devastatingly beautiful. They are colored by a sad truth of our world: pain begets pain. During the Second World War, John’s father was forced into a Nazi labor camp whose brutal conditions damaged him irreparably. Years later, safe, and making a new life in the United States, the father visited that same brutality upon his family. In John’s first book, Dinner With Uncle Jozef (Wesleyan University Press) – and now in Collected Father, a new manuscript he’s spent decades compiling – he has delved into that dangerous territory: how the nightmare of one generation shadows the ones that follow. More importantly, the writing explores a central question that’s much with us today: with what thoughts and actions can we attempt to break that sorrowful chain?
Fortunately, the darker poems are punctuated by unexpected moments of light, the simple beauties we too often overlook. In “Birds Before Dawn”, by saluting their tireless avian labor, John is able to recognize one of the few qualities he admired in his father: his unshakable work ethic. A similar perseverance marks Collected Father, an unscrolling of heart-wrenching song – but song nonetheless. In the challenging times we face today, perhaps such imaginative work is required of all of us.” – Steven Ratiner
Red Letter Poem #16
“Community. It’s a popular buzzword these days, extending even into those ethereal online neighborhoods where only pixels congregate. One curmudgeonly friend scoffs: “If they can’t stop by when you’re sick to bring soup, they’re not part of your community.” Soup notwithstanding, Bonnie Bishop’s poems are invigorated by new dimensions of the communal experience; over the last decade, she and her husband spent part of each year in New Orleans, exploring dimensions of the city that reach far beyond the tourist haunts. Her poems embrace – and are imbued with – the spirit of this place and its people. I was lucky to get a sneak-peek at her forthcoming chapbook River Jazz (Every Other Thursday Press) which is brimming with moments of how, again and again, she felt welcomed into neighborhoods and situations as diverse as the city itself: breakfast cafes, river wharfs, churches, parks, bayou waters – and, of course, the countless jazz clubs throughout the French Quarter, where the very lifeblood of a city is transformed into sound.
A poet, educator, and community organizer, she’s taught poetry and English for over three decades, from the elementary level up through college. Her first book, Local Habitation, came out in 2009, also through Every Other Thursday Press; and Finishing Line Press published her chapbook, O Crocodile in 2013. Bonnie’s writing reminds us that the strength of community – like that of history itself – is only preserved when no one is excluded.” – Steven Ratiner
Red Letter Poem #15
“Curious, in this time of pandemic, which items have been much-prized and in short supply: toilet paper, baking flour – and fireworks! And not just today, as we prepare to mark the Glorious Fourth (tempered by thoughts of the mass protests across the country that continue to celebrate, in their own way, the core principles of our democracy); but for some time now, fireworks stands in New Hampshire (where such explosives are legal) have seen long lines and parking lots crowded with out-of-state license plates. Perhaps it’s that amalgam of beauty and destruction which feels strangely compelling, especially in these wounded times.
The gentleness of Gayle Roby’s poetic voice is fortified by its careful modulation and the visual clarity she brings to bear. Born amid fields of corn and soybean in Decatur, Illinois, she entered the Peace Corps after college, and her time in India changed her perspective on her place in the world, on each individual’s need to make a contribution. She’s made Arlington her home for four decades and, after retiring as an English teacher, her time is filled with writing, gardening, and vigils for peace. Her poems have appeared in a number of literary journals including The Iowa Review, The Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, and Ibbetson Street where “Thunder Moon” first appeared. It’s part of a cycle of 13 poems, each titled with the Native American designation for that month’s full moon.” – Steven Ratiner
Red Letter Poem #14
“You know the old tri-part formulation: there’s what you know; and what you don’t know; and – most problematic – those things you don’t know you don’t know. But there are more dangerous possibilities to consider: how about what you won’t know? What you, consciously or unconsciously, refuse to make visible within one’s understanding – all so that the days will seem more peaceful, the nights undisturbed? The balm of such amnesia is certainly not a privilege everyone can enjoy. Especially now – when the world is offering up so many cruel reminders. Of course, even beginning to know takes work: it’s unsettling, overturns the norm, requires action, demands that we both see with clear eyes and imagine possibilities beyond our reach. I think the Covid crisis requires such an awakening. Not to mention the economic meltdown, skyrocketing unemployment, continuing political antagonisms. And then there’s George Floyd. And the long list of other names before and after his death. And the streets full of demonstrations demanding that, somehow, we not allow ourselves to slip back asleep.
But in the speech he delivered at the Berklee College of Music’s commencement in May, singer/songwriter John Legend reminded us that, throughout American history, times of great crisis often allowed us to make dramatic changes to repair our nation. ‘I hope, years from now, when we look back on this unprecedented time, that we remember not the moments we lost but the way we rose up, together, to imagine a better future in which we defined ourselves by love, hope, resilience and community.’ Amen.” – Steven Ratiner
Red Letter Poem #13
“Unlike the previous Red Letter poets I’ve featured here, you’ll find no publication credits or literary awards in my introduction of Camille Maxwell – but that’s not terribly surprising considering she’s only recently completed the tenth grade at Arlington High School. But I will not be at all surprised if we check back in a few years and find all that changed. Here is a young woman who developed a deep love of language at an early age and for whom the allure of its music, its conjuring power is irresistible. I’m sure that playing violin (“and a little guitar”, she is quick to add) has reinforced in her the feeling that large moments can suddenly appear, right there at your fingertips – if one is attentive enough to seize them. She hopes to one day become a cardiac physician so I can imagine her – like William Carlos Williams – quickly jotting down a few lines of poetry between patients. In “Sunshine”, something as small as the aroma of a cup of tea (“I’m very picky about good quality tea!”), and the invitation of an open window, are enough to transport her mind…well, let’s just say beyond.
Though Camille is the first student writer to appear in the Red Letters, I certainly hope this will serve as an invitation for other young poets to consider taking that bold step and offering work to the community-at-large. We certainly need to hear from you.” – Steven Ratiner
Red Letter Poem #12
“Reading Polly Brown’s poems, I find a more permeable membrane between human nature and the natural world than is common in contemporary writing. Goat, goose, barn swallow; apple, catalpa, spruce – they each share the spotlight in her poems like much-loved family members, and are just as astutely observed. And grandparent, parent, child, grandchild seem to be elemental parts of the landscape, entwined with all that green urgency – and subject to sun, rain and all the varieties of mortal weather. But the effect of Polly’s approach is often a remarkable sense of at-homeness in the world, a feeling many of us will realize we’ve forgotten somewhere along the way into adulthood. And thus the poems comfort even as they challenge.
After two lovely chapbooks, she’s recently published a full-length collection – Pebble Leaf Feather Knife – from which this poem is taken. Polly has received awards from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the Worcester County Poetry Association, and has been a member of the Every Other Thursday poetry group for more than three decades. A lifelong writer and educator – each skill nurturing the other – Polly is in the process of moving back to her mother’s farm house in New Sharon, Maine, a place where many generations of her family had rooted their lives.” – Steven Ratiner
Red Letter Poem #11
” “Staying In” – Miriam Levine’s poem seems a somewhat prescient take on self-isolation. Granted, it’s only a rain storm that drives the speaker indoors, not an invisible contagion that swept across the planet. And she is describing a day’s quarantine, not the interminable condition through which we’ve all been suffering. And yet, metaphorically, the piece suggests there will always be external forces which upend our expectations, drive us inward. When our view of the horizon is blotted out, how will we navigate a new reality? It is in what we choose to focus our attention, and how we arrive at some form of acceptance, that the tenor of our lives is revealed.
Not just this poem, but in much of Miriam’s work her end-point contains a quiet feeling of celebration – even when describing dark days and deep sadness. Hers is a matter-of-fact beauty that I find immensely appealing. Throughout her five poetry collections – of which Saving Daylight is the newest – Miriam operates by the dictum of another woman poet who wrote “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”, helping us, too, to feel our way through uncertain circumstances. Though now she divides her time between New Hampshire and Florida, Arlington had previously been her home – and where she served as the town’s first Poet Laureate. The storm will eventually pass – this poem reminds us. And how will we choose to celebrate?” – Steven Ratiner
Red Letter Poem #10
“Are you having them too? Vivid, startling, wholly-unbridled dreams? They’ve become so common in this time of crisis that people on-line have dubbed them: ‘Covid dreams.’ Perhaps it’s because we’re all experiencing the same psychic weather: mortal anxieties and trivial concerns (often in the same moment) coupled with the often-surreal news reports and the capriciousness of what comes next. But it’s a poet’s job to raise one’s antennae, to be available to what’s traveling across the emotional airwaves and take the measure of our circumstance; Ellen Steinbaum does that as well as anyone. When she first showed me this piece it was under the heading “Quarantine poem 13”, which hints at her extensive exploration of what we’ve been going through, together alone. In fact, it’s the emotional intelligence coupled with an exquisite sense of restraint that makes her poems so alluring – strange and familiar all at once.
Ellen has published four fine poetry collections (the most recent of which is This Next Tenderness) and a one-person play. Her poems have appeared in anthologies like Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems American Places. An award-winning journalist and former Boston Globe columnist, Ellen writes a blog with the irresistible title, “Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe” (www.ellensteinbaum.com).” – Steven Ratiner
Red Letter Poem #9
“Style is the feather in the arrow, not the feather in the cap.” So writes the literary scholar George Sampson – and I see that idea at work in Andy Oram’s poetry. His occupation is that of a writer and editor in the computer field; sometimes I wonder whether his poetry-mind is an escape from or an extension of his tech-mind – but the results are fascinating. He coaxes a reader to pivot, shift gears, dart – so that we discover both the poem’s target and the source of our own feeling simultaneously. What I found most interesting here was the poet’s aim: after writing a number of dark and distressing poems, colored by the pandemic and social isolation, he consciously set out to create a series of calming places, a mindscape he could visit to restore some balance. Remembering a long ago visit to a Japanese temple, he leads us here on a precarious path toward a place where we too can rest, observe, replenish ourselves for the hard work still ahead. Another poet once wrote that “Hope is the thing with feathers…”; Andy’s poem is fledged with that same delicate material.
This new poem is unpublished and I’m happy to have its debut with the Red Letters – but Andy’s poetry can be found in places like Ají, Arlington Literary Journal, DASH, Soul-Lit, and Speckled Trout Review.” – Steven Ratiner
Red Letter Poem #8
“Cathie Desjardins: it’s always pleased me that her name and her passionate interest coincide. Her poetry has often been of the gardens, and no more so than in her recent collection Buddha in the Garden which uses the year’s path through the seasons as the archetypical journey within all of our lives, the vines of beauty and mortality braided inextricably. When I asked her how this became so important to her, she recalls Michael Pollan’s idea: “The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature halfway” – and that she does: the garden as classroom where life-lessons are acquired with earth-stained hands; garden as laboratory where commitment and patience are tested, and one’s avid eye and attentive mind often blossom into mystery. A lifelong literacy teacher and writing specialist, she’s taught in many elementary and secondary schools in Massachusetts as well as colleges and writing centers, helping the power of language to take root in thousands of students. Her writing has appeared in numerous journals – and, closer to home, she served as Arlington’s second Poet Laureate, 2017-19.” – Steven Ratiner
Red Letter Poem #7
“Haiku is the most-popular, least-understood poetic form in the world. In Japan, its birthplace, it’s not simply a writing style but a way of life. Yet in some American schools, it’s taught as if it were merely a pretty little nature snapshot, a syllabic puzzle. To my mind, a haiku is more like the experience of a skipped stone crossing a wide pond – yet only touching the surface a few times, those few precise images. And when the momentum ceases and the stone disappears from view, suddenly we too become aware of how far the mind has traveled, the wealth of implication, and the watery depths there beneath our feet.
Brad Bennett is a third grade teacher who began writing haiku in college but, over the last fifteen years, has developed real mastery in the form, making its practice central to his daily life. His poems have appeared in most of the important haiku journals like Presence, Akitsu Quarterly, and Modern Haiku, and have been awarded honors too numerous to mention. He’s published two collections – a drop of pond (which won a 2016 Touchstone Distinguished Book Award from The Haiku Foundation) and a turn in the river – both published by Red Moon Press – where most of these poems appear.” – Steven Ratiner
Red Letter Poem #6
“The ties that bind. As we all know, there’s a bit of the double-edged blade contained in the phrase – and Jean Flanagan has spent much of her writing life exploring the ways ancestry and cultural history both bind us to past circumstances and offer meaning and cohesion in our present days. Focusing on Ireland and the Irish diaspora, her books Ibbetson Street and Black Lightning, portray a variety of familial relationships, from the utterly tragic to the joyous. A poem like “Clap Your Hands…” feels to me like the sort of benediction you might have heard from your Irish grandmother (had you been blessed with one.) Jean teaches in a variety of educational settings including an alternative sentencing program called “Changing Lives Through Literature.” She is also one of the founders of the Arlington Center for the Arts – a linchpin of our cultural community and a physical manifestation of the ways our lives are inextricably bound. ” – Steven Ratiner
Red Letter Poem #5
“To Seamus Heaney’s way of thinking, poetry was about providing that “extra voltage in the language, the intensity, the self-consciousness” that raises thought to another level. Often, we experience that intensity through its sounds, its musicality – and this is true even in contemporary poems that sometimes pose as normal speech. So it didn’t surprise me to learn that, when Thomas DeFreitas was 15 and he heard the great Irish poet read at Boston College, the event became a catalyst for him and helped make his love for poetry “all-consuming and irreversible.” An emerging talent at work on his first full-length manuscript, Thomas’ writing has appeared in a number of journals like Dappled Things, Ibbetson Street, Muddy River Poetry Review, and Plainsongs. His desire for the richness and complexity of experience that words can bring to us is abundantly on display in this boisterous fanfare of a poem – the lingua franca, perhaps, with which all our roving hearts converse.” -Steven Ratiner
Red Letter Poem #4
“Let’s admit it: some mornings, the walls of our own homes seem to be closing in and it’s hard to draw a deep breath. We feel the urge to take a sledge to the locked door and dash for the open road. Fear not, I can help: Teresa Cader’s poems do not tolerate hard boundaries; they seem to slip past restrictions with the ease (and sly exuberance) of an April breeze. No need for the sledge, though – Teresa’s language is equipped with the delicate picklocks and pliers to set us loose. Even if you didn’t already know that ‘boneshaker’ was a term applied to the early bicycle, the poet has us mounted up and peddling, gusts whipping our hair, as we glimpse the sorts of moments we might have missed in our old fast-paced existence. Teresa’s career was launched when History of Hurricanes won the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America; and the two collections that followed were equally acclaimed, bringing her a slew of prestigious honors. But what is most relevant here is that the poems themselves have the ability to transfer that gorgeous momentum to us as readers, powering dreams of our own beautiful escapes.” -Steven Ratiner
Red Letter Poem #3
“What I find most remarkable in Susan Donnelly’s poems is how rarely the situations she portrays seem so. She writes about the ordinary days every one of us inhabits; but somehow, burnished by her subtle music and modulated tone of voice, she elevates our shared moments into something worthy of quiet astonishment. In “Chanson…”, she depicts the sort of isolation most of us assume as a given – even when in the midst of crowds. The piece makes me wonder whether, once “social distancing” becomes a thing of the past, we will have learned to relish even our casual interactions — with or without the intercession of music or poetry. Susan’s first book, Eve Names the Animals was awarded the Morse Poetry Prize; two other full-length collections followed as well as six chapbooks, the most recent of which is The Finding Day. Perhaps, right now, there is singing close by that will transform our beleaguered day.” – Steven Ratiner
Red Letter Poem #2
“Back in the ’60’s, as a young poet learning his craft, I was drawn to visionaries with a flare for seeing beyond: Hart Crane whose “Stars scribble on our eyes…”; and Jimi Hendrix, guitar chords shooting off like rockets as he sang “Excuse me while I kiss the sky.” But I learned that even poems focused on the transcendent need to be grounded in the here-and-now of our shared world: a sip of coffee, mourning doves piping in the dogwood tree, the ones we love within arm’s reach. Before our enforced isolation, our grandson George had become my daily guru, teaching me how to appreciate the little mysteries erupting, well, everywhere. Perhaps right now you’re thinking of a young face in your life who has re-shaped your view of the world. I think this crisis challenges our understanding about what is really within our grasp. And so I thought this poem might be worth sharing now.” – Steven Ratiner
Red Letter Poem #1
“Our area is blessed with many extraordinary poets, but I return to the work of Fred Marchant most often, especially when I’m needing a clear and deeply humane voice, one that both comforts and surprises. From his first book — Tipping Point (which won the 1993 Washington Prize) – to his most recent, Said Not Said (Greywolf Press) which was an “Honors Book” in the 2017 Massachusetts Book Awards, Fred’s work demonstrates how language connects us to all that’s brought us to this point, even as it awakes us to what’s coming next.” – Steven Ratiner