Friday, May 07, 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 CultureThe Arlington Center for the ArtsThe Arlington Public LibraryThe 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 #58



I stared at the headline on Yahoo News, convinced I must have mis-read the startling bold face: “The 50 Richest Americans Are Worth as Much as the Poorest 165 Million.”  Drawing on data from a comprehensive U. S. Federal Reserve study examining how income inequality had been exacerbated during the Covid crisis, they charted how dire the situation had become.  Inconceivable, isn’t it: a balance scale with 50 wealthy individuals standing on one tray and, on the other, fully one half of the entire American population.  This should not come as news to any of us – but this succinct portrayal of how utterly out-of-balance our society has become felt like a blow to the heart.  After all, wasn’t this a theme that ran through the last presidential election?  And hadn’t economists been raising red flags for several decades now?  No less prominent a Cassandra than hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio trumpeted this very warning in an essay two years back, and it earned him a spot on almost every news outlet.  “I was raised with the belief” he wrote, “that having equal opportunity to have basic care, good education, and employment is what is fair and best for our collective well-being.”  And now he feared that “the income/wealth/opportunity gap is leading to dangerous social and political divisions that threaten [society’s] cohesive fabric and capitalism itself.”  He wasn’t just making a critique of capitalism though; he was giving fair warning to his fellow one-percenters that some reformation of the system was in their self-interest – or else the mobs with pitchforks would be coming soon.  And now, after the January 6th insurrection, and the social justice protests across the country, and the vastly disproportionate Corona death rate between communities – perhaps his dark prediction is coming to pass. 


Not surprisingly, these forces have given rise to art, cinema, and poetry that try to offer a vision of another way forward, one that eschews violence and attempts to remind us of ideals that once knitted our lives together.  Arlington’s own Grace Solomonoff is just such a poet.  She divides her year between the U.S. and Panama, and each living situation sharpens her perspective on the other.  Often, her writing centers on the flora and fauna of the tropics and how she imagines our human place in this environment.  But sometimes her poems are playful, full of mythic and even phantasmagoric imagination, as she nudges readers back to that dreamscape we all once had access to – a place where broad humanist ideals weighed as heavily on the mind’s scale as profit margin.  A writer of varied interests, she’s had poems appear in journals like Prairie Schooner and Mother Jones, and received awards from the Poetry Society of America; but she also co-authored a book on marionettes and articles about artificial intelligence. Hers is a curious mind that wants to savor the full contents of this existence.  Perhaps, following her lead, we can step away from our monetary concerns, even for a moment, and remember what led us to dance in the first place.  That sort of freedom harms none, rewards the multitudes.



How I Spent My Day at the Bank of America




As the days grew like the money,

   stacked up, flat, identical,

we secretaries said, "What can we do?"


From the top floor we danced down

            among green confetti.

"Arrest them!" they cried

   and we kept dancing.

"Straitjackets!" they cried

   and we showered them with silver.


Suddenly the mail boys hip-hopped out   

   dancing with the finance advisers,

then tellers, waltzing,

corporate executives in a swan lake ballet.

We did the mambo through the hallways,

   discoed down the great front steps,

brought silver ingots to the subways

   gold pieces in the tenements.

      Everywhere we scattered little suns

and the bank was an empty fort,

and we gave all the money away,


       and we set the days free.



                                    –– Grace  Solomonoff

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

The Center for Arts at the Armory Needs Your Support


The Center for Arts at the Armory Needs Your Support

Parama Chattopadhyay

The Center for Arts at the Armory is a longstanding organization for creative arts. In 2007, the Sater brothers decided to spend millions of dollars to renovate and buy the palatial building from the City of Somerville. Since then, it has been a home to circus arts, ballet, theatre, symphony rehearsals and concerts, farmers markets, herbalist conferences, Somerville Open Studios, blood drives, poetry readings, smaller cafe performances, yoga workshops, acupuncture and fitness classes, interior design companies, and much more. The Out of the Blue Art Gallery, which is a 501(c)(3) performance and educational non-profit, came into its doors in April 2020, just as the pandemic created worldwide financial and public health havoc.

What is most important about the Center for Arts at the Armory is that it celebrates and supports small businesses that are just getting off the ground or have already experienced financial pits and falls. For this reason, the Armory has had its challenges managing finances. However, it always pulled through because of its tenants’ passionate belief in art. Until April 2020, the Armory was a hub of artistic activity, bubbling with cultural events such as Center for Arabic culture and folk dancing classes. During the pandemic, many of these events and rent for tenants became untenable. Businesses had to shut down and the Saters did not fight these businesses to stay on. Instead, tenants who manage organizations like Out of the Blue Art Gallery and John Lavoie Training decided to rent more space to keep the Armory alive and expand on their unique businesses as the world began to open up. At this time, the building is rented completely outside of the largest performance space by tenants who support small scale events and health practices whereas, earlier in the summer, the Armory had rooms for rent. The large concert hall has experienced unique challenges to raise necessary funds, but throughout the pandemic it has opened its doors to farmer’s markets and farm shares completely free of charge.

Cambridge Day on Monday of this week quotes George Proakis, Executive Director of the Mayor's Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development for Somerville, as stating, “If you remove the capital cost of the building from the equation by putting it under city control, you can build a sustainable operating model.” It should also be noted that this most recent effort by the City to seize the Armory comes after a public statement by Mayor Joseph Curtatone on Monday that he would not be running for re-election. Proakis is also involved with Somerville Arts Council, a lively arts organization which promotes its own artists through a variety of events like the most recent Somerville Open Studios which took place outside the Armory on May 1. Tenants in the current Armory building are confused as to why Proakis suggests that the Armory is not preserving art front and center. This is the very furthest thing from what you see upon entering the building. In fact, at this time, Dead Moon Audio on the basement floor is donating hours upon hours of free recording and audio engineering to broadcast virtual concerts to fundraise for ONCE Somerville Lounge & Ballroom to return. Acoustic Strings of New England on the first floor of the Armory has been offering contactless instrument pick up for all Somerville Public School students as well as low cost, in-person, and Zoom-based music lessons. Out of the Blue Art Gallery began its SMART Academy (Science, Math, Art, Reading, and Technology) several months ago and now boasts students from all over the world and locally in person and on Zoom for educational donations. In addition, it hosts 30 artists from diverse backgrounds in race, sexuality, and abilities throughout the corridors and halls of the Armory’s four floors.

ROOTED Armory Café & Farmstand also has experienced unique challenges in the pandemic. The cafe hosts artisanal products for local businesses while promoting those businesses on their bulletin boards and the ROOTED Cafe newsletter. For two months, the cafe had to close and workers were temporarily furloughed so that the remainder of building operations could survive. However, they were able to return more recently with outdoor seating, despite many attempts by neighbors to halt this development.

However, there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel. The Center for Arts at the Armory was thrilled to host Somerville Open Studios this past weekend and has also been approved for an “entertainment by performers and devices” permit by the City of Somerville Licensing Commission. This allows up to 52 people for outdoor arts, cultural and community events in the lawn area to the left of the Armory building when facing it. As soon as possible, the Center for Arts at the Armory will book these types of events to generate revenue, and will be back in touch again once they have a preliminary calendar.

The Center for Arts at the Armory is a valuable organization that seeks to provide opportunity to artists and small businesses from all demographics. Though it faces its unique challenges by serving some small businesses that are underserved and underrepresented, it truly delivers a creative mecca for all to enjoy. From all my conversations with tenants in this building, I have learned that there is great concern and bewilderment about why the city feels it needs to seize the building when there has been little commitment thus far to preserving the current organizations who open their doors to the community while collaborating with one another. My hope and the hope of several others is that, instead of seizing the building, the city can help promote the Armory and encourage outside renters to use the larger performance space at lower cost rentals so that the suggested, last ditch effort to preserve the building with a tech company in that performance space will be eliminated while reducing the emotional stress on current hardworking tenants.

Tova Speter and her chain of empathy


I caught up with Tova Speter recently.  She told me about a fascinating project she is involved with that links words with art. As a poet, I found this fascinating, so I connected with her.

Tova Speter is an artist, art therapist, art educator, and arts consultant with roots in Somerville, now based at Gorse Mill Studios in Needham. The scope of her work ranges from the facilitation of art workshops to consultation with community organizations on ways to incorporate the arts into their programming, as well as the engagement of various groups in creating collaborative murals. Tova also offers art therapy and mental health counseling services through her private practice and works as a practicing painter and installation artist. All of her work is based on her belief that engaging in art-making is inherently therapeutic and formative. In her own work she paints on scrap wood to highlight the often overlooked beauty that will shine through when the time is taken to shift to a new perspective. In her work with others she strives to provide “perspective-shifting” opportunities for individuals and groups to find the beauty, talent, and pride they may not yet be aware that they possess. Follow her on instagram @TovaSpeter and learn more at

Tell us about your Somerville connection, and how that supported or inspired your work?


I rented my first art studio in Somerville back in 2002 and was a Vernon Street artist for 15 years. The art community I found in Somerville was, and continues to be, an important part of my work as an artist. I sold my first art in Somerville, participated in 20+ exhibits, facilitated 6 community mural projects in the city, and collaborated with countless other Somerville artists and community members. Needless to say, Somerville was the place where I truly developed as an artist and I will always feel connected to the community there. 

Having worked at McLean Hospital for many years, and running poetry workshops for patients, I was interested to find out you are an art therapist.  Can you tell us a bit about art as a therapeutic tool?


Of course! There are many ways that art can be utilized in therapy. In my practice, I believe that engaging in art-making is inherently therapeutic and I offer clients the opportunity to make art as part of our sessions. For some, the art offers grounding that enables clients to feel more at ease as they talk, for others it might be easier to talk about one's art than to talk about oneself, still others might enjoy the time to express themselves artistically or to create something that can be utilized as a coping tool. The prompts/artwork can also act as a metaphor for other things that might be able to be practiced being worked through using art materials, processed and reflected upon, and then reimagined. I offer a wide variety of media and encourage clients to explore, express, and reflect.

You are all about working on art projects with many communities. You work with folks of all kinds of backgrounds and skills. Why were you drawn to this type of work in the arts.  

My first public mural over 20 years ago also became the last mural I painted by myself after a 5 minute encounter with a Kindergartner. After he very briefly engaged in painting, I witnessed a striking shift not only in the way this 6 year old saw himself but also in the way his peers saw him. Experiencing the power of art to offer space for positive change compelled me to dedicate my life to bringing creative (and often collaborative) art experiences to as many people as possible. You never know what 5 minute chance happening might alter the trajectory of your career!

Has making art helped you in your own life? Was it a balm during a time of trouble? 
I've always enjoyed art-making. Just having a studio space where I can go and be messy and leave out my supplies has been helpful as an escape. But I think I get the greatest personal benefit from the community art projects I facilitate. It feels like a gift every time I get to see a participant shift from feeling like they are "not an artist" to expressing that they are proud of something they created. And that fills me with positive energy that overrides any negative thoughts/feelings I may have been experiencing.

Your latest project is "Translations: connected art reflecting empathy (c.a.r.e.)" Here you pair words and images in a chain of empathy. Instead of a chain as a burden, it brings people together in a positive way. Can you talk a bit about this? 
I love the metaphor you describe here; I hadn't thought about the positive/negative duality of the word "chains."  The goal was to offer artists the opportunity to create individual art that was inspired by and would go on to inspire other artists despite being in isolation due to the pandemic. Though we couldn't make art together, this was still a way to make art that was connected. Wanting it to be accessible to all artists (as well as those who hadn't previously considered themselves artists) I encouraged people to participate in the modality of their choosing. Amazingly, the essence of the prompt carried through translations of words, images, music, etc. which made the whole chain that much more impactful. While each individual link in the chain is a piece of art in and of itself, there is an energy and strength that is revealed when they are all experienced together. Art can connect us in ways we cannot explain, and art can overcome 6 links of physical distance.

As a poet, I am interested to ask you--if you have written poetry, or are involved with a community of writers? 
I am not a writer, but I have been amazed at the poetry created when you read just the titles of the links in a chain. One of my favorites is:
Spread Hope and Positivity
In All Directions
At the Center
A delicate bridge

How can we participate in this project? 
All are welcome to participate in their preferred modality including completing a chain by "translating" someone else's artwork into a word/phrase. You can view the chains here and scroll down to the orange button to sign up to pARTicipate. I have a goal to facilitate the creation of 19 chains as a way to continue to feel connected despite the impacts of Covid-19. Over 75 artists have already contributed to 13 chains that have already been completed and 6 more are currently underway and in need of some additional links. After signing up you will receive an email from me (might be within a few days or a few weeks) with a link to someone else's artwork to inspire you to create something which will then be sent on to inspire another artist in another modality. 

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

2 a.m. with Keats, by Eileen Cleary

2 a.m. with Keats, by Eileen Cleary

Nixes Mate Books, 48 pages, $15.00

Review by Denise Provost

US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo has said that “grief is a lifelong lesson.” Poet Eileen Cleary, in her arresting collection 2 a.m. with Keats, writes of her own lessons in grief to notable effect. With lush imagery and restrained but powerful incantation, Cleary pays tribute to her friend and teacher, the late Lucie Brock-Broido, to whom this volume is dedicated, as well as to John Keats, who is explicitly invoked.

In the poem “Moon Goddess Takes Leave of the Sky,” Cleary declaims:

“Before legends, before

Luna became Lucia. Lucia winds her grandfather clock.

Speaks Come hither in time with the fire.

Kindling thoughts,

She implores

Tell me.”

Cleary proceeds to tell us a great deal, in the entire central chapter, about her “2 a.m. Keats Visitations” in that “[h]our of winged and spectral images….”

It not unheard of for readers to form intense identifications with the poets they most often read and admire; Keats did so himself. Poets are perhaps especially susceptible to experiencing the writings of another poet as a kind of communion, and to finding affinities with them. It is, however, remarkable to find a written record of such intimate musings as these.

This holistic collation of poetry constitutes more than an homage to Keats. In it, Cleary speaks directly to him. She addresses Keats as a fellow orphan (“Your mother left you? /If you were mine, I’d name you/star and I’d be astrophile”), fellow mender of those in broken health (“Caring for the dying/is holy, John/a gift they can’t return”) and as soul mate (“I’m not your first/platonic lover/You’re not mine.”)

Poet Patrick Donnelly is among those who praises 2 a.m. with Keats, describing its “startlingly fresh and tender” lines as being “strange in the most necessary way.” Donnelly goes on to say that “strange” is “the highest compliment I could give any work of art.” These aesthetics of the “strange” bring to mind Charles Simic’s description of a successful poem as one which possesses “originality,” which he explains as a creation which is “without precedent, it doesn’t fit preconceived notions” – by that measure, this book is one which is clearly original.

2 a.m. with Keats deserves thoughtful appreciation of its singular features. A careful reader will find within its pages sly rhymes; odd echoes of some of the more off-kilter rhythms of, say, Keats’ “Endymion.” It also harbors allusions aplenty: “My condolences on your silver dove….” “Don’t say the father died; say night falls/as if a father off a horse….” “You’ve become allusion.”

Beyond all else, this is a book which deserves credit for its emotional courage - how many of us would dare to go so far in exposing our attachments? This volume pushes literary - and personal - boundaries in a way that challenges our consideration. It will be much talked about; prepare to join the discussion.