Friday, October 29, 2021

The Red Letter Poem Project The Red Letters 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 #82




Before I say anything else, let me first offer a warning: today’s Red Letter poem is about violence – and the response to violence by even the most innocent among us.  Yet to my mind this poem, matter-of-fact in its cruelty, still conjures a shadow of hope (oh, the spirit of that little boy!)  But the primary reason I’m offering it for your consideration: I think it’s very nearly a perfect poem – and by that, I simply mean that not a word seems extraneous, no gesture wasted nor phrase that could better be positioned elsewhere.  It moves with utter necessity and carries us to places we likely won’t expect.  Authenticity in art is capable of transforming even the most painful situations into moments of human discovery.


John Pijewski has labored for years on a book-length sequence of poems entitled Collected Father They depict, with nightmarish intensity, the household he and his brother grew up in, its emotional climate was always dominated by their father’s propensity for violence and abuse of alcohol.  But, long before, the father’s own heart had been transformed when, as a young man, he was forced into a Nazi labor camp during World War II – a brutal and dehumanizing experience from which he never recovered.  If it is a truism that violence begets violence, then the real question is: how may that cycle be broken?  It’s a problem John has wrestled with all his life.  His first book, Dinner With Uncle Jozef (Wesleyan University Press), tackled this material, often with a surrealistic approach – but this manuscript presents an even more anguished reckoning.  I’m struck by what economical technique he employs here.  The title alone not only portrays the dramatic (quasi-religious?) intensity of the circumstance, but also it’s normalization within the household.  How, I wonder, will you react to the many twists and reversals, even in so brief a poem?  And what in your own life will the poet’s memory provoke?  I first read this poem in manuscript quite some time ago and found the imagery has never left me.  


Once, during a heated conversation, I said this to my wife: “I know exactly what your problem is” – but don’t worry, gentle reader, it was not criticism I was offering (as she might have thought) but acceptance.  “You were raised by imperfect humans.  Who had been raised by imperfect humans.  And so on down the generations – as were we all.”  Our parents’ trauma and confusion can’t help but be visited upon us in turn.  But now I’m thinking: weren’t my mother and father able to offer me more attention, more emotional acceptance than their immigrant parents, caught up in their struggles to simply survive?  And haven’t my wife and I found ways to be more embracing of our son and his life?  And he and his wife, more loving and engaged with their own son?  Might we be slowly unbending the warped beam of long human suffering?  After spending hours with this poem, it still seems a possibility.  I’m hoping you too may find yourself considering what sort of effect you’ve had – or may yet have – on the young people in your life.






My father would enter my bedroom

swinging his black leather belt.


When he was finished with me

I hugged him until he stopped crying.


Then I guided him, holding his hand,

back to his room down the darkened hallway,


tucked him into his bed

of broken glass.



                             –– John Pijewski

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Somerville's Ian Judge: The Man Behind the Somerville Theatre


Interview with Doug Holder

I spoke to Ian Judge recently about the Somerville Theatre, where he presides as chief of operations. The Somerville Theatre is an independent movie theater and concert venue in the Davis Square neighborhood of Somerville, Massachusetts. Founded in 1914, the Somerville Theatre started off as a vaudeville house and movie theater.

You grew up in Somerville. Would you say the Somerville Theatre was a factor in you becoming a film buff?

It was, in the sense that I appreciated the somewhat magical experience of seeing a movie in that classic setting - how it elevated and enhanced the movie. And it had some great programs too. The communal fun of seeing a movie with an enthusiastic crowd is made more meaningful in community- based theaters.

I know that the Somerville Theatre was built in 1914. It was used to host vaudevillian shows at its start. Have you hosted any contemporary vaudeville-style productions at the theatre? Tell us what you present besides movies?

We did host vaudeville as part of our centennial in 2014 - movies with vaudeville is literally what the space was built for originally - so that was fun! Aside from first-run movies, we show classic films as much as possible, especially in 35mm and 70mm, and host around 30-40 live events - mostly concerts- per (non-pandemic) years. We also host the annual Slutcracker burlesque, which is in some ways a throwback to the vaudeville days, but with a feminist inclusionary twist, plus it’s a ton of fun.

The climate for movie-going has been greatly disrupted by the pandemic. What changes have come to the theatre? Do you see audience levels coming back up?

Well certainly the actual business of movie-making and distribution has been disrupted, and continues to evolve. Naturally the studios turned to streaming during the worst of the pandemic, and that is still prevalent for some releases, but not all. But they’ve also discovered that they lose out on billions collectively when they don’t play theaters exclusively for even a few weeks, so now they’re pulling back from instant streaming quite a bit. They’ve also discovered that streamed movies are instantly pirated. For us on a local level, I do think our market is more cautious (or paranoid, some might say) than most areas when it comes to Covid, so there are other parts of the country where movie attendance is stronger than here, but really what it takes is a good movie for people to come out. When we opened Dune this month we had more than 400 people in the opening Friday night show, which is definitely a return to normal for us. But we do know that there are likely to be less movies in release and that they will stay in cinemas for less time than they used to, so we’ve hedged our bets and shifted a bit more towards events and live shows by removing two of our five cinemas in the building and renovating the ballroom they were built in 25 years ago. That just opened this month too.

I do think attendance will not return to old levels till spring, till Covid becomes an endemic and not a pandemic.

What are your favorite Boston-based films? I think my fav is "The Friends of Eddie Coyle."

Eddie Coyle is a classic on any level, and certainly for a Boston picture. The original Thomas Crown Affair is another amazing one, Charly, and The Verdict of course. I love to see the Boston that no longer exists in a film - the gritty, blue-collar town it was, not the plastic tourist trap filled with rich kids it is now. Even goofy stuff like Brinks Job or the Burt Reynolds movie Fuzz have lots of little Boston gens in them.

Do you think that Somerville is a cinematic city?

There are a lot of interesting stories that could be told about here, that’s for sure. The stuff my dad has told me about growing up here in the 50’s and 60’s alone would make for an incredible film. And walking home from work as the sun sets over Clarendon hill can be downright cinematic. But right now Somerville seems more like that TV show “Portlandia” - a satire of a hip coastal city!

Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee

The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee. Penguin. 2021. 395 pages. $20.90.

Review by Ed Meek

Heather McGhee makes the argument that racism has hurt all of us and continues to harm the country as a whole. In doing so, she updates and expands on positions taken by Martin Luther King among others—that the way the wealthy and powerful maintain their status is by dividing the poor, the working class and the middle class into camps at war with each other often on the basis of race. McGhee claims racism is a weapon the Republican party has used to divide us, lower taxes on the rich, and transfer wealth upward.

McGhee does great research tracing the closing of public swimming pools in the US once Blacks were allowed. She travels to sites and speaks with people who were there when it happened. This movement serves as an emblem of the loss of support for community programs during the years following the 1960s when civil rights legislation was passed by Lyndon Johnson. Robert Putnam covers some of this territory in Bowling Alone.

Nonetheless, reading The Sum of Us can be frustrating since McGhee often reduces complex issues to racism. According to McGhee, whites support Republicans solely due to racism. Like the argument that Trump was elected because of racism, this is only partly true. Were Blacks who voted for Trump racist? Trump attacked Hispanics, Muslims as well as Blacks. Republicans promote libertarianism and equate the belief in it with what it means to be “real” Americans. This has been so effective during the pandemic it has resulted in millions of Americans reacting to vaccines and masks as an assault on their freedom. Republicans would rather risk sickness and death for themselves and the rest of us rather than go along with what Democrats recommend.

Do whites who consider themselves victims, those who think that Blacks getting Food Stamps (SNAP) are “takers and moochers” as Romney put it, think that way because they are racist or because they are ignorant of the facts or because they are libertarians who don’t believe in government “handouts”? The Republican Party seems to operate in large part by playing on the fears of the uninformed. Of course, some of those elected to office (Marjorie Taylor Greene for example) seem to know as little as their constituents. On the other hand, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Mitch McConnell and Ron DeSantis know better but will apparently do whatever it takes to maintain power.

In The Sum of Us, all issues are viewed through the prism of race. McGhee says, “When college meant ‘white’ public colleges thrived.” Government invested in college, covering much of the cost. When Blacks began attending public universities and community colleges, McGhee points out that state and federal resources dried up. Yet, contrary to what McGhee claims, it wasn’t racism that was responsible for that. In the 1990s studies began coming out with evidence that college grads earned much more than high school grads. Why should we fund college if those who go will make a lot more money than those who don’t? Congress asked. Instead of funding, the government would provide low interest loans to students.

As a result, colleges raised tuition to cover costs. In addition, public colleges began competing for students by building beautiful gyms and stadiums and cafeterias. New technology added more costs. Colleges with strong sports programs drew alumnae who contributed to endowments. So, colleges recruited athletes and great students who would contribute in the future. At the same time, lawsuits and a growing awareness of mental health and disabilities prompted colleges to provide support services. Finally, there’s an argument that allowing students access to open-ended loans provides colleges with the opportunity to keep raising prices. All of these factors drove up the cost of college. Oh wait, did I forget about paying stars like Elizabeth Warren 400K to teach a class?

The college arms race ties into some of the advantages and drawbacks of our meritocracy. Once professional and upper middle-class parents realized the financial benefits of a college education, particularly a degree from a select institution, they began investing in their children’s future by sending them to private schools and public schools in tony suburbs with schools financed by property taxes. Private SAT tutors helped win admission and scholarships to the best colleges. When that wasn’t enough, Hollywood stars and business tycoons bought admission. Under the aegis of equal opportunity, all Americans have an equal chance, but is that really fair to those without the means to compete—those whites, Hispanics and Blacks who are less well off? In addition, those kids whose parents haven’t attended college don’t necessarily know the ropes. As McGhee points out, these are problems that cross racial lines.

McGhee goes on to consider housing, the economy, our unrepresentative democracy, climate change and community. In each of these cases she does laudatory research combining facts and heartbreaking stories of the role of racism that hurts minorities primarily but working class and poor whites as well. In each case she emphasizes the role of racism often ignoring other factors. Nonetheless, she makes a strong case for the outsize role racism plays in each of these areas, especially when it comes to voting rights—a compelling issue given the current attempts by Republicans to disenfranchise Black voters.

Despite my criticism, The Sum of Us is one of a number of must-read recent books about race including The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. McGhee’s take is unique because she has a law degree and she is an activist and a scholar. Her research in The Sum of Us brings together the role of economics and politics to use race to divide Americans into tribes caught up in a zero-sum game fighting over what’s left after the top 1% take 40% of the wealth. All that money gives that elite group a lot of power to fund and influence politicians and to employ media to sway the public. Fortunately for us, there are excellent writers like Heather McGhee writing and acting in the best interests of the country.