Saturday, May 29, 2021

The Red Letter Poem Project

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 #61



I love this story: a father, José Ruiz, is an accomplished painter but a poorly-paid teacher at the local art school in Málaga.  He begins offering art instruction to his young, willful, but obviously gifted son.  As time passes, the boy’s abilities seem to develop with uncanny speed.  Eventually, examining one of his child’s efforts, the parent is so deeply moved he leaves the room and returns with his own set of paints and brushes and gives them to young Pablo, aged thirteen – and Picasso the Elder retires from painting.  The anecdote can be seen as an example of the deep humility any teacher must bring to the enterprise of developing young minds.  But it is also illustrative of the pain – the glorious, soul-shaking self-examination – every good teacher must face if they are to enable those same students to eventually break free and carve out their own path in the world, perhaps to even eclipse the very teacher who first spurred them on.


Something of that dynamic is taking place inside Steven Cramer’s marvelously edgy poem “Justice,” an homage to the esteemed poet and educator Donald Justice, who taught Steven at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  In fact, Justice’s reputation as a gifted teacher at times surpassed his stature as a poet – though, in a wonderful essay written after his mentor’s passing in 2004, Steven makes clear his high regard for each of Justice’s twin devotions.  And yet, there is that moment of breaking away, of wresting control from even the memory of one’s teacher – the hard but necessary step every one of us must take if we’re to make our best efforts resolutely our own.  The poem skates along that knife’s edge: how to turn away from and yet maintain deep affection for those who helped form our impressionable selves.  And for those of us not lucky enough to have had a teacher like Justice, I recommend the collection Compendium, assembled by two of his former students; they brought together all of the poet’s pedagogical materials on the art of prosody – the form and musicality that distinguishes poems from all other writing.


It’s hardly a coincidence that Steven has authored six highly-regarded collections of poetry, while also becoming a talented and rigorous teacher at Lesley University (where he was the founding director of their MFA program.)  Here, in the heart of commencement season, it’s good to be reminded that such work honors those teachers that inspired our own growth, even as we in turn cultivate the minds of young students just beginning to rise – the truest form of poetic justice.





While corks popped, I led you up

through flickers, then swells, of applause.

Your lectern was a cairn of books, mine

risen from the base of yours.


You bowed.  Not unlike, I thought, that bum

rummaging through trash near the hotel vestibule.

“Vestibule, in a poem,” you said, “undoes

everything I taught you.  Still, keep trash.


Peering out, you winced, as when you’d tear

your glasses off and hold

our mimeo-blue bones up to the light.

Once, I swear, I saw you sniff.


“Now, now, if ever, love opening your eyes,”

you began, the line not yours but Weldon Kees—

yet done such justice, everyone

longed to be you being him . . . except me,


sorry.  I’m keeping vestibule,

glad you liked trash.  Though I can’t defend the bum,

he stays.  Afterwards, we allowed

one hug, as we’d never done


in a world where acids yellow

the signatures of your perfect-bound

debut, shelved between József and Juvenal.

The heat of that hug; the Bentons we shared; our smoke.


                                                ­­–– Steven Cramer

                                                          (from: Listen – MadHat Press)

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