Friday, October 01, 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 #78



In his essay "A Defence of Poetry", Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world".  Award-winning author Martha Collins might just be the sort of poet he had in mind.  Shelley was not advocating that poets ought to control the levers of government; but he hoped the clarity of their thought, the power of their moral suasion might provide the sort of wise leadership a people could rely upon.  Many writers have become self-appointed ministers-without-portfolio, taking on the vital social and political issues of their time – and Martha is a perfect example.  After discovering that her father had witnessed a racial lynching as a young boy in Cairo, Illinois, she “became obsessed with thinking about what that experience might have meant to him.”  Like a one-person legislative committee, she began a far-ranging investigation of the ways our concepts about race are embedded, often invisibly, in our individual and collective imaginations.  It was clear to her that no political solution could effect any real change unless these ideas and images were untangled first.   


The result was, not one, but three complete poetry collections published across a decade: the first, Blue Front, was issued by Graywolf Press; the next two, White Papers (where today’s Red Letter selection first appeared) and Admit One, under the imprint of the University of Pittsburgh Press.   Employing original source material from her extensive research, her poems interweave the fragmentary strands of consciousness – the sort that might be spoken in public as well as the private monologues we might never dare give voice to, not even within the walls of our own homes.  Hers are more potent than any congressional ‘white paper’ in that they are documents of psychic intimacy in whose presence we too may come clean to ourselves about what we actually feel.


Because she is quiet and self-effacing, I suspect Martha might bristle at my use of the Shelley quotation.  So I’ll say that she’s, if not legislator, then certainly educator-at-large – because this poet has assigned herself this intensive exploration in order to come to grips with the emotional material she herself was carrying.  Martha’s work makes the facts of our American condition manifest and inescapable.  But like any good teacher, she knows these tools might then become of use to all the rest of us who’ve come to understand – especially in the age of Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor – how much we’ve yet to learn.




White Papers #1




Because my father said Yes

but not in our lifetimes Because

my mother said I know my daughter

would never want to marry...


But mostly because they rarely spoke

of or noticed or even whispered

about and did not of course ...


Because magazines rarely TV

rarely textbooks rarely or not

at all except for figures like

George Washington Carver

who'd lived in our state


Because among the crayons

there was one called Flesh


Because paintings rarely or never

until because books from the library

never until because college literature

not at all the American lit anthology

had only Gwendolyn Brooks

who was not assigned


Because a few years after Brown

v. Board of Education I wrote a paper

that took the position Yes but not yet



                         –– Martha Collins


  1. A crayon called Flesh. In four words Martha Collins has spoken the enormity of The Great American Racial Divide. This poet should go down in history.

  2. A crayon called Flesh. In four words Martha Collins has spoken the enormity of The Great American Racial Divide. This poet should go down in history.

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