Friday, July 16, 2021

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

 NOW ONLINE!  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 #68



How much will it take? After enduring a year-and-a-half of isolation. After being reminded, almost daily, how fragile our mortal beings really are. After learning (the hard way) how much we depend on others in our community – and not just those medical and safety professionals whose work we customarily regard as heroic; but the stocker replenishing supermarket shelves, the cab driver bringing an elderly neighbor to the clinic, the teacher leaving a long division practice sheet on your doorstep, knowing your child was struggling with the Zoom lessons – all those who chose to make their own comfort and safety a secondary concern in order to do what was needed for the rest of us. After all this, will we somehow find the resolve to bend old patterns, to resist those forces trying to turn every decision into a wedge issue, setting neighbor against neighbor? Will we make our own hard choices about what sort of new normal we’ll be establishing in our country?

How much – or how little – will it take? One of the most potent shifts we can make involves simply paying a bit more attention to those other people who live right down the street from us – but whose lives before this moment had remained alien, a mystery. A proffered smile while walking the dog, or the offer of assistance with those heavy groceries, or even the most radical of community-building exercises: Hi, I’m Steven. I’m sorry, but I don’t know your name. . . Poet Bonnie Bishop is a keen observer of the daily, rendering into words the ordinary beauty we too often overlook. That skill is at the heart of her recent collection River Jazz (Every Other Thursday Press), born from her yearly visits to New Orleans. But she practices this art even in the everyday circumstances of her home town in Nahant where she and her husband are in the habit of taking daily walks around their neighborhood. Often poems erupt (from each of them), triggered by the simplest circumstances. Such is the case here where commonality shows itself through the admiration of a neighbor’s garden, and the discovery of how much others too are hungry for such connection. A poem is a marker – of a moment more fully experienced, of a path back to what matters to us on a foundational level. Maybe that’s all it takes: to so desire a calmness, a fullness in our days, we will be willing to overturn old habits of thought and extend ourselves in the direction of others. Might a peony do it? A gentle bowing of the head? An unexpected bit of poetry?


Meeting an Old Neighbor for the First Time



I’ll start with the peony blossom,

a ruffled fist, bridal-white,

tinged with magenta,

that she gave us

as we were leaving


after she showed us her kale, chives,

Chinese garlic, peppers, eggplant,


after she tore off a leaf

of lovage, tangy and tender,


after snapping off a last spear

of asparagus to share,


after the reports of Asian women

beaten and kicked at a bus stop –


her bow, her little hand

spread out across her heart


“I come from Taiwan,” she said,

tilting her head back

under the conical straw hat,

puffy smile wrinkles nearly

closing her watery eyes –


after learning that we were poets

(“I love Blake!”) and spreading

her arms wide as she quoted:


            He who binds himself to joy

            Does the winged life destroy

            But he who kisses joy as it flies

           Lives in eternity’s sunrise.



                              –– Bonnie Bishop

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Wind's Tale by Paul Steven Stone


“The Wind’s Tale,” by Paul Steven Stone, illustrated by Carla Carey, transports the reader to a magical place as seen through the eyes of Bobby, a young boy confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak. Through Bobby’s eyes we see gorgeous sunsets and, as the shadows of night approach, an imaginary world of bandits, wild horses and jungles. All of these images come alive in Stone’s story and in the gorgeous watercolor illustrations of Carey.

Bobby sees the world as a vibrant and enchanted place and yet only his older brother, as he looks deeply into Bobby’s eyes, seems to truly understand the richness of his disabled brother’s world.

A story that conveys the magic of the natural and imaginary world, as well as the deep bond between two brothers, “The Wind’s Tale” is a book children and adults will be sure to treasure.

Bio: Lee Varon

Co-editor of “Spare Change News Poems: An Anthology by Homeless People and those Touched by Homelessness,” and the forthcoming children’s book: “My Brother is not a Monster: A Story of Addiction and Recovery.”