Friday, July 23, 2021

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

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 #69

In last week’s Red Letter, I posed the question: What’s it going to take? How – as we emerge from the tangle of crises that have bedeviled us for so long – how will communities across our nation make the hard choices to shape what comes next? Well, by chance, I got to experience first-hand just such a response.

The Arlington Commission for Arts & Culture (ACAC) is a largely volunteer organization tasked with invigorating the arts in our municipality. Arlington Heights, on the western end of town, had not been the focus of much recent arts programming; and so Cecily Miller – the Curator for Public Art and Engagement, and a masterful community organizer for all sorts of creative enterprise – came up with Heights Haiku, part of her continuing Neighborhood Haiku initiative. In this case, it was a juried competition of short-form poems with our town as their general subject. The forty-two poems that were finally selected (out of nearly 200 entries) would end up being hand-painted onto 29 shop windows along the main avenue, creating a sort of walk-through anthology. Some of the winners were from published poets; others came from individuals who had never tried their hand at poetry before they participated in one of the writing workshops Cecily organized. All were absolutely delighted to have their poems spotlighted in these public spaces.

Adorning the window of the realtor, Elana Grayson’s poem offers a glimpse of the neighborhood. Her contribution is even more impressive when you learn that she has just graduated from the fifth grade:

Homes of gray, blue, white

Kids biking past, hair flying

Grass, shining with dew

Though Emmanuela Maurice has been writing for a while, she used the occasion of the Heights Haiku workshop to sharpen her skills. Her poem is brimming with pure celebration:

Trees dance with the wind

Birds scat like Nina Simone

Breakfast for the soul.

I have to say, I may never regard the aisles of our hardware store quite the same after reading Jessie Brown’s selection:

Sale: nuts, bolts, rakes

extension cords – what tool

mends loneliness?

Most history buffs know the story of Paul Revere’s ride through our town on his way to alert the Colonial militia about the coming of the British troops. How can you not smile to read John Pijewski’s delightful bit of anachronism:

On the road to Lexington

Paul Revere can stop for

tacos, curry, sushi, pad thai.

Cecily and her team also created a grand ‘opening night’ event that would both celebrate the arts while providing a bit of support for the local businesses suffering through the economic distress triggered by Covid. It included a classical duo playing in a beauty/fashion shop, a jazz duo performing out on the street, and a roving accordionist. There was a guided stroll visiting all the shop windows, to read the poems and admire the presentation (the team of painters worked under the tutelage of famed letter-artist Kenji Nakayama.) And the heart of the celebration: a two-part poetry reading at the Roasted Granola Café – two sessions, because the crowds were too large to fit in the café at once (and we poets well know that overflow crowds are not one of our usual problems.) At the reading, the atmosphere was absolutely euphoric; then Stewart Ikeda, one of the co-chairs of ACAC, stood up to address the gathering. He explained there had been an ”incident” the night before these festivities. Susan Lloyd McGarry’s poem, painted on the glass door of the café, had been defaced. It was not hard to guess why this one piece had been singled out:

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor...

Too many names to say.

Say them anyway.

It was shocking (though perhaps it shouldn’t have been) to be reminded, in our liberal town west of Boston, that hate respects no geographic boundaries. “I imagine the person who defaced the poem felt it was a powerful act,” said Stewart, his voice somber but forceful. “But it was not – it was a sign of weakness. This is a powerful act: to create something, to make new poems, to come together to celebrate our community. That’s true power.” The event organizers had made sure one of the sign painters returned to restore Susan’s poem that very morning. And then the audience, in one voice, recited the poem aloud: “. . .Say them anyway.”

Some might regard a poem as a rather modest act (though history has taught us the resonance from such things cannot easily be assessed.) To gather together and speak a poem aloud – our voices in unison magnifying each other’s power – I know it would be naïve to think such things reshape the landscape of social conflict. Yet I must say that I left the reading feeling different – hopeful, fortified – not just because of the marvelous poems but inspired by the determination demonstrated by the owners of the café. No one needed to explain to them that the vandals who defaced the painted haiku might return again, though perhaps this time with a brick – yet still they insisted their shop window would be host to the poem. Rather than intimidating the community, this act only strengthened its resolve. I’ve never been prouder of this town, of the choices great and small being made to alter what our tomorrow might be like. Our tomorrow: the thought is a part of the essential purpose embedded inside all poem-making. Let no bitter soul deface that.


No comments:

Post a Comment