Saturday, May 15, 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 #59



Paradisal, don’t you think?  Those images on television commercials or older programs where people approach – in a cafe, on the street – and just talk to each other!  Sometimes even with strangers!  And in some instances – I tremble just to think of it – they embrace!  Fifteen months ago, such ordinary contact would not have earned our attention, let alone our rejoicing.  But now, after our long isolation and the gradual arrival of Covid vaccines, we’ve begun a process people are calling re-entry – slowly feeling our way back into the shared world.  But much has happened in the interim – aside from the pandemic – and it’s not quite the same place we retreated from all those months ago.


Adnan Onart’s poem comes from those before-times, when our human instinct for connection, conversation, kinship could be given easy expression.  Beginning with the title, his poem adopts a playful tone, gently defies expectations, leads us in unanticipated directions: how those few narrative details begin to build a small portrait of this chance meeting between strangers; how their simple fellowship is based on ties to their religious tradition, and the uneasy place that earns them in American society.  When the poem takes a darker turn, I found myself wondering about the nature of my own re-entry: how was I going to be more aware of difference, the role it plays in even casual interaction, and my own unexamined biases?  Since we’ve all been forced to undergo a collective awakening – concerning issues like race, political ideology, and our suddenly palpable mortality – will we be able to put into practice what we’ve learned about our country, about ourselves, or simply slip back into old patterns of behavior?  For me, poems like Adnan’s become a marker by which I can (hopefully) navigate.


Adnan was introduced to Red Letter readers with his wonderful poem “Morning Prayer” (RLP #31), one of the most popular pieces I’ve featured.  His work has appeared in a number of journals including Prairie SchoonerColere Magazine, Red Wheel Barrow, and The Massachusetts Review.  His first poetry collection was The Passport You Asked For (The Aeolos Press) – and he is also a talented street photographer, roaming Boston neighborhoods in search of images that illuminate this, his adoptive home.  I believe that’s a central theme in all his creative work: what we share – and how that very notion of we comes about in the first place.



Ramadan in Dunkin Donuts



From his asking about the time

and double-checking his watch,

I understood:
he was about to break his fast.

Selamün Aleyküm, I said,

the only Arabic I knew
for all practical purposes.
Aleyküm Selam, he replied.
He was setting his table:
two donuts, one Chocolate Glazed,

the other Boston Kreme
and a thick lentil soup
he had apparently brought
from the grocery store
across the street.
Do you want to sit down
and share?

I thanked him, no.
Aren’t you fasting?
I explained:
my high blood pressure,
my medication.

He pointed to one of the donuts:

Still, he said, let’s share.
The collapsing Twin Towers,
the beheaded hostages,
and the jumpy look on people’s faces

hearing my name.
We already do, I said.



–– Adnan Adam Onart

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