Friday, July 02, 2021

The Red Letter Poem Project The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning (Perhaps)


PUBLISHED TODAY!  I was asked to write an essay for Askold Melnyczuk’s Arrowsmith Journal about what I learned from the first year of the Red Letter Project.  It also became a meditation about the relationship between poet and reader.  If you’d like to take a look, here is a link –


-- and you’ll also be able to check out the variety of marvelous literary projects that appear under Askold’s Arrowsmith imprint.  Enjoy!


The Red Letter Poem Project


The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning (Perhaps)   

At the outset of the Covid pandemic, when fear was at its highest, the Red Letter Project was intended to remind us of community: that, even isolated in our separate homes, we could still face this challenge together. As Arlington’s Poet Laureate, I began sending out a poem of comfort each Friday, featuring the fine talents from our town and its neighbors. Because I enlisted the partnership of seven local arts and community organizations, distribution of the poems spread quickly – and, with subscribers sharing and re-posting the installments, soon we had readers, not only throughout the Commonwealth, but across the country. And I delighted in the weekly e-mails I’d receive with praise for the poets; as one reader recently commented: “You give me the gift of a quiet, contemplative break—with something to take away and reflect on.”

Then our circumstance changed dramatically again: following the murder of George Floyd, the massive social and political unrest, and the national economic catastrophe, the distress of the pandemic was magnified. Red Letter 2.0 announced that I would seek out as diverse a set of voices as I could find – from Massachusetts and beyond – so that their poems might inspire, challenge, deepen the conversation we were, by necessity, engaged in.

Now, with widespread vaccination, an economic rebound, and a shift in the political landscape, I intend to help this forum continue to evolve – Red Letter 3.0. For the last 15 months, I’ve heard one question again and again: when will we get back our old lives? It may pain us to admit it, but that is little more than a fantasy. Our lives have been altered irrevocably – not only our understanding of how thoroughly interdependent we are, both locally and globally, but how fragile and utterly precious is all that we love. Weren’t you bowled over recently by how good it felt just to hug a friend or family member? Or to walk unmasked through a grocery, noticing all the faces? So I think the question we must wrestle with is this: knowing what we know, how will we begin shaping our new life? Will we quickly forget how grateful we felt that strangers put themselves at risk, every day, so that we might purchase milk and bread, ride the bus to work, or be cared for by a doctor or nurse? Will we slip back into our old drowse and look away from the pain so many are forced to endure – in this, the wealthiest nation on the planet? Will we stop noticing those simple beauties all around us? The poet Mary Oliver said it plainly: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I will continue to offer RLP readers the work of poets who are engaged in these questions, hoping their voices will fortify all of ours.

Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington News Blog (, and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene ( If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to:

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 #66

I first came across the African American spiritual years before I traced the source back to its Biblical roots: “Ezekiel saw the wheel,/ Way up in the middle of the air.” The simple but rousing song offered a cosmological vision and was, to my young mind, quite reassuring: there was order in the universe, discernable pattern, and forces far greater than my own to guide its course. “And the little wheel run by Faith;/ And the big wheel run by the Grace of God;/ A wheel in a wheel,/ Way up in the middle of the air.” What does it take to upset our vision of an orderly world? To return us to our childlike fears that chaos, perhaps, lurks at every turn, and the whole beautiful mechanism may come crashing down around us?

I think it may be necessary for us to acknowledge that we’ve all been shaken to the core: by the pandemic itself; by the loss of loved ones, or even just the threat of loss; by the sense that our nation’s traditional structures and foundational beliefs – once thought virtually indestructible – could, without warning, crumble before our eyes. Or worse, might never have existed in the first place – at least in the forms we imagined. But we are not the little children in the back seat of the car, trusting our godlike parents to steer; we are those very adults whose hands control the wheel – and there are children depending on us to navigate safely. Making her second Red Letter appearance, Joyce Peseroff offers a beguiling poem that seems to occupy a space somewhere between innocence and experience, or perhaps both at once. The speaker is literally positioned in the front seat of a car – but for her, this last year-and-a-half has made the world feel strangely mutable. She entertains the naïve belief that, looking away for a moment, a whole season might have slipped by without warning. And when she offers a litany of all the markers, ceremonies, rites of passage erased by the crisis, I could feel the little boy in me suffering his quiet outrage. . .until the poet conjures the voices of actual children in the back seat – and then I felt my grip tighten on the wheel once again.

And so the small wheel of the poem touches upon the great wheel of the year, turning still, offering us the day of longest sunshine, preparing us for the slow diminuendo ahead. I feel my life located within Joyce’s poem and, for the moment, at peace. “At the Summer Solstice” is making its first appearance in these Red Letters – but if you’d like more of her work, I can recommend Joyce’s newest collection Petition (Carnegie Mellon University Press) for its deeply humanistic vision and bracing voice.


At the Summer Solstice

Rain had sluiced the budding

cones from tips of pines

and in the dark, our headlights

took them for a fall mulch

of brown, tire-shredded leaves.

We thought another season

had gone AWOL, like spring

in its isolation bubble—no friend

given in marriage, or fitted

for a graduation gown, or standing

over thawed ground to bury

winter’s dead. Perhaps summer

too had passed without goodbyes

whispered face-to-face,

a crush kissed in a canoe,

or license plates tallied on

the holiday drive to Mama’s

Colorado cousins. Are we there yet?

kids ask a mile from home—

space and time a fluid mystery.

­–– Joyce Peseroff

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