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

Petition By Joyce Peseroff



By Joyce Peseroff

Carnegie Mellon University Press

Pittsburgh, MA

ISBN: 978-0-88748-661-6

74 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Petitions are like prayers, only they are addressed with more certitude. Humanity seems no more capable of reforming itself in the name of itself or its favorite deity than a distracted Almighty, who has clearly moved on to newer and more interesting subjects. Nevertheless, the very act of petition engenders sympathetic audiences of listeners and possibilities.

Joyce Peseroff, in her new poetry collection entitled Petition, makes her idealistic position clear and leads her readers through the daunting and changeable present-day suburban wilderness into her extraordinary alternative world of imagination and hope.

Using an even, never-gritty, tone, Peseroff moves through her diverse themes seamlessly seeking moments of insight, irony, and lyrical profundity. She is a master of her craft.

In her poem Not Far Peseroff locates herself geographically and pleasantly, noting, in widening and closing circles, the unpleasantness of human reality. Without tapping into the emotional cliché of self-guilt, she makes her point with disquieting, efficacious juxtapositions. Consider this one effective example early in the book,

And further, far from the hum of my new furnace, is a furnace

lit and relit by a warplane’s vector, the pilot burning to powder

city blocks, houses wall to wall, the mother and father inside

churned like concrete, or blasted with shrapnel if they leave,

or by a smoothed-cheeked soldier with an assault rifle.

Light-headed with hunger, they fall under the treads of as tank.

My favorite Peseroff poem in this collection, The Astronauts, charts a parent’s fear of her child’s independence in celestial terms. The needs of imparting wisdom and protecting one’s own contends against the child’s driving desire to discover herself. The poet’s cosmic language works wonderfully. She opens the poem this way,

If I’m the sun, then people I love

whirl past me in elliptical orbits

like comets, once in a hundred years.

And if I’m a planet, each is a moon

with a dark side. Crooked in the arm

of a galaxy, I spiral at light speed,

but since all matter’s in motion I

appear to be sitting still

in an armchair, reading …

Once one locates society’s imbalances and comprehends the brutishness of nature, which may inspire an ongoing stream of petitions, the question becomes, how must one deal with them? Concomitantly, is understanding necessary and, if so, how must one then empathize? And, finally, what about suffering? Does suffering open the door to perception? In Peseroff’s poem, Missing Hiker Kept Journal of her Ordeal, terror devolves into pedestrian concerns. And the mind focuses, not on suffering, but on practicality. The poet explains in detail,

“When you find my body, please call”—discovered on a Navy

Training base.

Sun dropped below the clouds. A silver arrow glinted from a blue

Marker—lower on the oak than I expected, three feet of snow

girding its trunk.

A moment of terror. Ten minutes. Nothing, but something

Nothing. Something.

--“my husband George and my daughter Kerry”—notebook

removed two years later, two miles west of the trail, inside her blue


La Casa Bellina, Peseroff’s poem of friendship, illness, and the healing properties of a devil-may-care attitude, begins with concern, eases into compassion, then onto the horror of a good friend’s bi-polar obsessions. This poet, unlike many others dealing with this same subject matter, finds an answer, a way out through humor and life-affirming giddiness. The poem concludes with a broad word-smile,

…Let’s walk

past the river. Don’t look down—

at the marble step, push open

the door to La Casa Bellina.

We’ll swipe bread from the tables, sip

nectar distilled from honey and fog

and stiff the old libation bearers—

naked under black tuxedoes—

throwing silver as we go.

Cemeteries, always the grist for poetry and those inclined to poetry, often delivers mixed messages to practitioners (Very near to petitioners, isn’t it?) of grieving. Time spent with the departed nearly always becomes an issue, a corresponding weight to counter guilt. Peseroff’s poem Visiting My Parents’ Grave follows this schematic in spades. The poet’s addition of a comedic character, Aunt Rita, is ingenious. One can argue the logic or illogic, but Rita’s take on the cemetery makes a lot of sense to me. She tempts death-threatening dangers in order to exit that place. Here is the heart of the poem, lines that set up Rita’s view, projecting near neatness and near contentment,

…Pink marble

lies flush with spikes

of Bermuda grass so the mower

will find no impediment,

and there’s no leaving

the traditional pebble

beside the epitaph my mother

inscribed for them both:

Forever in Our Hearts.

Another mourner’s tree

has leapt from the ground

to shade her words…

Another poem I like especially much Peseroff entitles Thirst. This piece amounts to an imagistic essay on desire and imagination. In this poem, at least, humankind occupies

the center of the universe. Matter or the tangible exists simply, without pizazz, until touched by someone’s consciousness. On the other hand, the fancies and aspirations of our species are nothing until they settle upon the solidity of an object. The poet nails her point of ardor here,

The soul needs a soul-

making vale, the lion a grass-

fed lamb. Dear thirst,

dear life, dear lack—before

desire, the planet was no

gorgeous world, Eden

no poem, the tale no Troy,

Helen a girl herding goats.

And, like the blind poet, who alchemized that simple girlish goatherd into Helen, Peseroff, in this new collection, offers her readers singular poetic compositions, the subjects of which she wonderfully imbues with her deeply delightful, transformative passion. Lovely.

Thursday, June 03, 2021

Somerville, Massachusetts Poet Laureate Lloyd Schwartz wins The Academy of American Poets Fellowship

For some years I was advocating for a Somerville Poet Laureate. Finally Harris Gardner, Greg Jenkins  (Somerville Arts Council), and myself came to an agreement at the Sherman Cafe in Union Square. Soon, with the approval of Mayor Curatone,  a poet laureate committee was formed.  Presently our chairwoman is Linda Haviland Conte. Also on board is Hillary Sallick. We are pleased to have selected great poet laureates, including Nicole Terez Dutton, and Gloria Mindock. Now Lloyd Schwartz has brought this honor to Somerville--which will only enrich our arts community...

New York, NY (June 3, 2021)— The Academy of American Poets is pleased to announce its 2021 Poets Laureate Fellows. These 23 individuals serve as Poets Laureate of states and cities across the U. S. and will be leading public poetry programs in their respective communities in the year ahead. The Fellows will each receive $50,000 (or $25,000 each in the case of the shared Poet Laureate position in Montana) for a combined total of $1.1 million. In addition, the Academy will provide $100,000+ total to 14 local 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations that have agreed to support the Fellows’ proposed projects.

Here is an interview I conducted with Lloyd several years ago...