Friday, June 04, 2021

The Red Letter Poem Project #62

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 #62



“One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” This formulation by Andre Gide – Nobel Laureate and, perhaps, modern France’s greatest man of letters – seems as good a rationale as any for the generalization that poetic genius tends to be expressed quite early in a writer’s career (think Keats or Rimbaud.) Perhaps the young poet has less commitment to the comfort and stability of our settled land-locked existence, and is thus more willing to venture out beyond even the safe limits. Or perhaps – from a different perspective – the young tend to possess a sense of their own invulnerability; daring experimentation, then, is just another way of testing imaginative capabilities and taking one’s bearings. It’s my impression, from the poems I’ve read of Yim Tan Wong, that this writer is comfortable sailing out into uncharted waters, pursuing – if not the promise of achieving something new – then at least the possibility. Her shifting tones of voice and unpredictable bursts of imagery often make for a wild ride. But there is nothing frivolous about the passage each poem invites us to share; clearly the poet’s heart is both compass and ballast.

Born in Kowloon, Hong Kong, Yim Tan grew up in the mill town of Fall River, Massachusetts. She is a Kundiman Emerging Asian American Poets Fellow and holds an MFA from Hollins University. Her first poetry collection has been a finalist for Four Way Books’ Levis Prize as well as the Alice James Books/Kundiman Poetry Prize. I’ve read her work in a number of literary journals and am not alone in anticipating her book’s publication. “White Noise”, making its debut here, seems to reflect the cerebral static we’ve all been experiencing for the year-and-a-half of our Covid existence. But is its voice the sort of broadcast babble we have a hard time escaping – or our own inner narrator trying to cut through the dissonance of our torrential fears?

As the poem’s no-nonsense speaker barks out her cryptic commands, I for one could feel my own “possibility machine” shifting into gear. Speaking for the multitude of no-longer-young poets (or readers of poems, for that matter), I’m happy for Yim Tan’s reminder: that even the willingness to venture into undiscovered territory cannot help but add wind to our sails. And, of course, there have been numerous gray poets who kept on dazzling us well into old age (think Szymborska or Ruth Stone.) “I practice at walking the void” wrote Theodore Roethke – a poet who grew more daring with the years. Yim Tan Wong’s poem salutes that spirit.  




White Noise

Turn the television off

The stereo too

All appliances and lights

Cut the ignition to your worrying machine

Resist the furniture

Resist what you have been told

Comfort, safety and reason are

Cut the ignition to your confusion machine

Stop guessing the future

And don’t let the past

Tell you who you are

Don’t let the past

Talk that way to you

Demand respect

Make demands of the modern, convenient,

urban, suburban, urbane jungle

Noisy overthinking inflames the swollen tentacles of delusion

Stop talking

Stop supposing

Stop barking up invisible trees

Dress the part of someone escaping

The worry machine

Put on this shirt made of garden-fresh

Sink your fingers into the muck just because

You don’t know what hides there

Leave every window open

Let in the night sounds

Let in the cold, let in fireflies,

Let in the fire

Let the waters rise around you

So you become a new


With its own flowers, trees, its own four-leggeds,

Finned ones and winged ones,

Its own pandemic poisons and cures

Its own anti-viral loaded memory


the ignition

to your possibility machine



                        –– Yim Tan Wong

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