Friday, August 06, 2021

The Red Letter Poem Project 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 #71

I’m thinking now of those often-quoted lines from William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” But when I was a young writer just coming of age, the war in Vietnam was raging and all manner of social protest drew attention to the diverse challenges facing society. Our work seemed to contradict the first part of the great poet’s premise. Many of us were producing verse that boldly confronted the news of the day and helped spread the word to readers hungry for more authentic perspectives than what they were finding in mainstream media. Later, and for successive decades, such timely broadsides fell out of fashion and poetry became a much more interior practice. But young poets today have revived this poetry of engagement – and that is clearly the case with Alexandra Huynh who was recently appointed as the new United States Youth Poet Laureate. Her poetry is fierce, lyrically innovative, and not at all shy about broadcasting her startling takes on the issues of the day. Amanda Gorman – Alex’s predecessor in this position – has dramatically raised the profile of this generation of poets; they feel it is their responsibility to express, not only their more personal visions, but the pent-up energies of their contemporaries who fear their voices may never be heard.

And so I’m pleased to share Alex’s bracing long poem “It Does Not Matter…” (which first appeared in the Washington Post.) Timely? Just yesterday, watching a strange burnt-orange sunset – and feeling how hard it was to simply draw a deep breath – I learned that our atmosphere in Boston was congested by the smoke from the wildfires raging on the other side of the continent. But those headlines were already being trumpeted in Ms. Huynh’s poem. Raised in Sacramento in a Vietnamese-American family, Alex began writing song lyrics at an early age. Now, an incoming freshman at Stanford University, Alex still thinks of herself as a soft-spoken introvert – but all that changes when she is on-stage performing her poems. Then she is powered by a pure passion and a sense of the utter necessity involved in shaping thought into language.

It’s clear to me that such art-making does indeed affirm the second part of Mr. Williams’ proposition: that men and women suffer greatly when such revelatory expressions – of joy as well as righteous anger and grief – are not readily available to all sorts of readers. When we feel so exhausted by work, or numbed by the roar of partisan media, that we can hardly hear our own self thinking, we each desperately require a sort of clearing amid the dense woods. Often a poem can provide just such a mind-space. And comforted, fortified, perhaps spurred to action, we are heartened by the reminder that we’re not alone in this morass – no matter where on the planet we might live.




from news reports on the fires in California and the floods in Vietnam.






from my living room

i watch as tiny yellow men

march into the worst darkness


& pretend not to hear

when they have names


witness an unprecedented use

of the word unprecedented


—the state of California

has swallowed Connecticut

like fever


leaving behind

a scorched footprint

the shape of neglect—


there are streetlights in the forest now;

the forest is a city

with wildfire for veins

& a steady churn of smog


vehicles spill onto highways

to escape the color of death, but


even the lucky ones

wake up to smudged sun

& sepia


classic Western:

villainize nature

defend your honor

reduce the brown people to



this is the work

of a century’s suppression


of a creature that feeds

on its own dead


when there is nothing

left to breathe, you produce

the opposite of oxygen


don’t need a crystal ball


return the trees

to their cradles


burn the land

clean of history



seethe warning

blaze insurrection

do not slow, do not slow


let them see

the inferno they created.






in the country my mother loves

in its naked heart


coastlines unravel

into starving hands


drawing anything with mass

into wet embrace


include the slippers:
whose tattered pockets
kept our feet from catching wind


& the plastic:

collected to prove

we exist


include the caution tape,
the bamboo, the dining tables,

the books, the altars, the rice,

the fields they grow in,
the ao dai, the photos


& the children:
who have now found mothers

in this soft earth.


they say it sounds like a bomb

when the mountain
that is not actually a mountain



& it weeps burials
for the willowed bodies


who watch water rise

to fool their conscience


who recite Buddha’s name until

synonymous with mosquito hum


who hold real hands
in the dark of electricity


while millions of hummingbirds

crash into sheet-metal roof
& herds of baby elephant

swarm at the ankles


which, of course,

the meteorologists

will call rainfall


& the parents
will call temporary,

will call home.






the structures are empty now

either because            the people fled

or endured baptism by flame/flood


an elderly couple is found

in the charcoal of their farm


a boy recognized

under comic shop sludge


the men on the news

say climate change isahoax


i talk back:

hold the objects they inhabit

break them



                        ­­ — Alexandra Huynh