Friday, August 13, 2021

The Red Letter Poem Project

 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 #72

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” The aphorism comes from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Maxims and Arrows and strikes me as being particularly appropriate for the grand societal experiment we’ve all been (rather unwillingly) engaged in these past 18 months. Stripped of some freedom and mobility, distanced from loved ones, often estranged from work (or, in the worst cases, lacking work altogether) – and with the emotional valence magnified by a sense of constant but invisible threat – through what purpose do we carry on our lives? Spurred on by what sense of necessity, or joy?

Some of us have spent the time exhausting the Netflix catalog or devouring every mystery book we could order. Others learned to bake bread or play the ukulele. Thousands of miles were walked through country lanes or city streets strangely thinned of traffic. And many people, who had been living what they once thought were formidable lives, found themselves waking each day to despair. When the sweet habitual of our daily lives is suddenly interrupted, we begin an investigation into what truly keeps us going. For poets – who, through writer’s block, may be forced into such emptiness and doubt for extended periods of time – the expectancy of the next poem is an almost palpable force. And that’s where we find the protagonist of bg Thurston’s poem “Gratitude”: returning home from a yoga class, attending to the household chores, waiting for the first musical sensation that will signal the arrival of a poem’s opening line. After a career in computers and finance, the poet now lives on a sheep farm in Warwick, MA. But poetry was always the spark that lit the lamp that lighted the way forward. Her first collection, Saving the Lamb (Finishing Line Press) received special recommendation by the Massachusetts Book Awards. Her forthcoming book, Cathouse Farm, is centered on the 18th century farmhouse she now calls home. Certainly every writer longs for publication, but it’s those quiet hours working inside the notebook, watching the page fill up with our own glorious scribble – that sustains us and reconfirms the reason for it all.

As a result of this virus, over six hundred thousand families in America alone have suffered the incalculable pain of loss. So how are we survivors to feel as we wait for our cherished why to flourish again in our lives? For the chance to embrace distant relatives or friends? Or to splurge on a return visit to that canal-side campiello in Venice? Or to make that familiar commute to school or office, seeing how much has changed in our absence? Or to invite those much-loved faces to join us around our dining room table? On the morning when the joy returns, the phone rings, the project is completed, the poem arrives: gratitude. And on those darker days when nightmares linger, the headlines are awful, loneliness overflows, and the skies feel barren: gratitude.


After an hour of down dog

and forward fold, we drive

the narrow road home, sun

sinking in a molten sky

where strips of clouds stretch

and wrap around the horizon.

You wonder about squirrels

digging acorns under road salt.

I wonder whether poetry

will ever come back to me.

After the barn chores, feeding

the crew of cats and dogs

I sit waiting, a zazen of hope,

legs crossed and mind open

watching each breath rise

then fall back into the world

which is dark now, but I hear

the muses, quiet, then question

their single syllable that calls

out into the still and cold night.

­­–– bg Thurston

(from: Smoky Quartz – fall, 2019)


Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The Mystic River Festival-- A Showcase for Artists of All Stripes.

Condon Shell

I caught up recently with Laura Brereton, the new director of the Mystic River Celebration that is to be held Sept.25, 2021. This celebration, by the waters of the Mystic River, will be open to Medford and Somerville artists, as well as regional artists. Its main focus is to bring the arts to Medford. From talking with Brereton there seems to be quite an eclectic mix of participants.  For more info about the festival go to:

What is your connection to Somerville? 

We are neighbors! And we share some things like the Mystic River and Tufts University, so we feel a special kinship with Somerville.

Can you give me a brief history of the event, and its mission statement?

 The Mystic River Celebration began 11 years ago as the brain child of Allie Fiske who used to be the Director of the festival as well as the Program Director for CACHE, a non-profits arts organization in Medford. She recently stepped down in her role, and I am the new Director for the festival. Allie and the CACHE board members wanted to bring more arts to Medford and also make good use of the Condon Shell, which is a huge asset to our community. The goals for the festival are to highlight local bands and musicians by featuring live music, and to showcase other types of performers like dance troops, poets, and circus performers. We have also included interactive art installations. Additionally, there are many artisan vendors and local organizations who have booths at the event. We also have activities for children and food vendors.

Any Somerville artists of note who participated over the years?

 We have artists from all over the region participating, and I am sure there have been some from Somerville but I don't know specific names.

Why is the Mystic River such an inspiration--in your opinion? 

To me, the river is not only a wonderful natural resource but it also represents life, movement, flow, change, and beauty- all qualities that are equally present in art and community.

This is an outdoor exhibition, as well as a juried event. What criteria will the judges use to judge a painting?

 This is not actually a juried event. Only the application process for artists is juried so that we have diversity and variety in the type of art at the event.

You are a music teacher--any music included?

 I am a musician and teacher. Music is a key part of the festival as it not only makes for a fun and lively vibe, but it also allows us to highlight some musicians from our incredible Boston-area music scene. And, as an added bonus, the Condon Shell has just been updated with a gorgeous new mural by local artist Meagan O'Brien so the stage area looks phenomenal!

If someone asked you, "Why should I attend?"--What would be your answer?

 Now more than ever, we need the arts and a sense of community to bridge divides and help people heal. The Mystic River Celebration strives to do just that. Through music and art we bring a fun, safe, and community-minded celebration of the arts to the banks of the beautiful Mystic River.