The Red Letter Poems Project

About the Project

When I was first appointed as Poet Laureate for Arlington, MA one of my goals was to help bring the strength and delight of poetry into unexpected settings.  The Red Letter Poems Project was intended to share some of Arlington’s poetic voices in bright red envelopes, sent in a mass mailing to randomly-selected households – a small surprise amid the advertisements and bills.  Before our team could make this happen, Corona struck. But I feel now such an outreach is more important than ever during this time of anxiety and isolation.
So I’ve created this e-version of the Red Letter mailings in grateful partnership with many of our town’s cultural resources: The Arlington Commission for Arts and Culture, The Arlington Center for the Arts, The Arlington Public Library, The Arlington International Film Festival – and our newest partner Arlington Community Education.  We’ll send out a poem from a new poet every week, reaching many thousands of potential readers. Each installment will also be available on the websites from these organizations; and, if you enjoy them, we encourage you to forward them to friends –  in Arlington and beyond –  or to post them on your social media platforms with the hashtags: #RedLetterPoems, #ArlingtonPoetLaureate, #SeeingBeyondCorona – and hopefully we will reach an ever-widening circle of readers who can appreciate a momentary respite from these challenging times. If you want to make sure you receive these poems directly – or to receive notices about future poetry events – send an e-mail to: steven.arlingtonlaureate@gmail.com with the subject line ‘mailing list.’
In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters. To my mind, all poetry and art – and, in truth, even the Corona crisis itself – serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.
– Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #18

“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

Red Letter Poem #17

“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