Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Red Letter Poem Project: Now Hosted By the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene


The Red Letter Poem Project

The Red Letters 2.0: 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 going to be a novel way of sharing Arlington’s poetic voices, sent off in bright red envelopes, a one-off mass mailing intended to surprise and delight. But when the Corona crisis struck, and families everywhere were suffering a fearful uncertainty in enforced isolation, I converted the idea into an e-version which has gone out weekly ever since. Because of the partnership I forged with seven organizations, mainstays of our community, the poems have been able to reach tens of thousands of readers, throughout Arlington and far beyond its borders. I hope you too are grateful that these groups stepped up and reached out: The Arlington Commission for Arts and Culture, The Arlington Center for the Arts, The Arlington Public Library, The Arlington International Film Festival, Arlington Community Education, The Council on Aging, and – each of which distributes or posts the new Red Letter installments and, in many cases, provide a space where all the poems of this evolving anthology continue to be available. And I’m delighted to add our newest RLP partner: Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene – a blog that is a marvelous poetry resource.

But now we are experiencing a triple pandemic: the rapid spread of the Covid virus, which then created an economic catastrophe, and served to further expose our long-standing crises around race and social justice. My hope is to have the Red Letters continue as a forum for poetic voices – from Arlington and all of the Commonwealth – that will help us gain perspective on where we are at this crucial moment and how we envision a healing will emerge. So please: pass the word, submit new poems, continue sharing the installments with your own e-lists and social media sites (#RedLetterPoems, #ArlingtonPoetLaureate, #SeeingBeyondCorona), and help further the conversation. Art-making has always been the way we human beings reflect on what is around us, work to alter our circumstances, and dream of what may still be possible. In its own small way, the Red Letters intends to draw upon our deepest voices to promote just such a healing and share our enduring hope for something better.

If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your in-box plus notices about future poetry events, send an e-mail to: 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 serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.

– Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #56

Elizabeth Bishop – one of America’s great poets – remained deeply skeptical of the very artform to which she devoted her life. She feared its tendency toward pretense, posturing, imaginative self-deception. In an essay, she declared: “Writing poetry is an unnatural act. It takes great skill to make it seem natural…“. I think, then, she’d have been intrigued and heartened by the work of Chen Chen, a young poet who is currently making literary waves. His debut collection, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions) won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and the Thom Gunn Award; and his writing has brought him fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kundiman and Saltonstall Foundations, and Lambda Literary. A scion of Frank O’Hara and his ‘walking around poems’, Chen Chen invites the reader onto the emotional rollercoaster ride that is his inner monologue. Written in a kind of fevered vernacular, the poems are by turns playful, puzzling, startling, and always wildly imaginative. The poet himself has commented in interviews that “I forget how sad some of my poems are because people tend to point out the humor.” But we are so much more willing to take those emotional plunges because of the bracing momentum he’s created, his unspoken belief that the ride is far from over and more breathless surprises await.

Chen Chen was born in Xiamen, China, and grew up in Massachusetts. He teaches at Brandeis University as the Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence. In his poetry, he writes about family – both the one he was born into and that sense of the familial he endeavors to create. Poems touch on the cross-cultural riptides of being a gay Asian male in a society not always hospitable to those qualities. But above all, I think Chen Chen’s work is about joy, in all its manifestations: those all-too-rare skyfuls of fireworks and the diminutive sparkle of the everyday. In his poem “Spell to Find Family”, he writes: “My job is to trick// myself into believing/ there are new ways/ to find impossible honey.” And he performs this trick with deftness and aplomb. Ms. Bishop would approve.

Self-Portrait as So Much Potential

Dreaming of one day being as fearless as a mango.


As friendly as a tomato. Merciless to chin & shirtfront.


Realizing I hate the word “sip.”


But that’s all I do.


I drink. So slowly.


& say I’m tasting it. When I’m just bad at taking in liquid.


I’m no mango or tomato. I’m a rusty yawn in a rumored year. I’m an

arctic attic.


Come amble & ampersand in the slippery polar clutter.


I am not the heterosexual neat freak my mother raised me to be.


I am a gay sipper, & my mother has placed what’s left of her hope on

my brothers.


She wants them to gulp up the world, spit out solid degrees, responsible

grandchildren ready to gobble.


They will be better than mangoes, my brothers.


Though I have trouble imagining what that could be.


Flying mangoes, perhaps. Flying mango-tomato hybrids. Beautiful sons.

–– Chen Chen


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