Poets Laureate Across Massachusetts
A note from the interviewer, Alice Kociemba
Rather than answer individual questions, Steven Ratiner described his overall plans and initiatives as Arlington’s third poet laureate. While reading about Steven’s Red Letter Poem project, I was reminded of Ted Kooser’s Valentine postcard poems, and the Academy of American Poets’ National Poetry Month “Poem-in-Your-Pocket” projects. They are all founded on a simple, kind gesture of giving a poem to stranger. Such gestures are now more complicated with the social distancing required by Covid-19. But Steven found a way to use our technology to extend a poetic hand in friendship.
Each of Arlington’s poets laureate serves a one-year term, which can be renewed twice. Steven is in his second term. He says, “I had planned to stop at the end of my second term, but if they’ll have me for another year, I’d love the chance to offer some actual in-person programs once life returns to ‘normal,’ though I use the word advisedly.”
Steven describes Arlington’s selection process: “There is a standing Laureate committee with each member representing a different cultural constituency in town (library, art center, schools, etc.) There aren’t set requirements but each applicant submits a resume to demonstrate qualifications and a proposal for what they’d want to do with the position if appointed. The applicants are narrowed down to three finalists who then come in for an in-person interview. The committee then selects the person for the position.” Here is Steven’s approach the challenges and pleasures of his selection as Arlington’s current poet laureate.
Meet Steven Ratiner, Arlingtons’s Poet Laureate
I designed a three-part focus for my time as Laureate which I summed up as: education, collaboration, and delight.
My plan for schools was to conduct two model poetry residencies to demonstrate to the school department that this was a way of not only deepening the arts education in their schools, but also reaching students with diverse learning styles, all the while supporting the literary and arts community of the town. My hope was to generate as much publicity about these programs as possible.
Arlington has under-utilized the Mass Cultural Center’s STARS grants, which have supported so much of my educational work around the state over the past 40 years. I would then hold meetings for writers and artists of all genres so I could show them how they could also use this state program within their own art forms, while also becoming more integrated into the cultural life of the town.
This is (so far) my least successful initiative. The town felt it was too close to the upcoming MCC grant deadline to apply, and planned on doing it this year. Then Covid struck. I don’t know when in-person education programs will resume. I’ve been part of the MCC’s monthly panels with artists who teach. Many have already converted their programs to a virtual workshop experience. I’ve only conducted one workshop in this manner. While it was quite successful, I miss the more intimate contact that an in-person workshop provides, so I have not pursued it in Arlington. I have, though, made a series of mini-poetry reading videos for several schools to be used in their writing programs. My hope is to have a chance to finally offer some model residencies, if a third year of my tenure is approved.
I’ve partnered with two different local jazz musicians to create collaborative pieces. The first collaboration was a fund-raising event at a local coffee house to benefit our local food banks. The second project was intended to be ongoing. It had to be postponed until we can rehearse together in one space. Twice, I was asked to create occasional poems for the Arlington International Film Festival; one was also performed at their opening, and the second for an online event.
I was also invited to do a presentation for ArtLinks, an area arts organization encompassing many genres. I spoke about ekphrastic art and showed slides of several collaborative works I’ve created in my career. They proposed we undertake an ekphrastic experiment of our own. I selected 6 of my poems, which have been recorded and distributed to all their arts members. They are being invited to create new works of art that are inspired by these poems. The plan is to hold an exhibit at a later date and that the sale of some of the art pieces could go toward supporting their organization.
Delight – in making or experiencing poetry – is, to my mind, essential. The goal of all my projects is to inject poetry into the communal life in unexpected ways. People who might never browse the poetry aisle in a local bookstore, nor attend a poetry reading might stumble on these experiences and discover there is real delight in contemporary poems that could be truly savored.
I was about to launch two different poetry programs when Covid closed everything down. One of the projects, the Red Letter Poems, was intended to be a one-off mailing of poems to 1000 randomly-selected Arlington households, hand-addressed on red envelopes.
The art of letter writing is nearly lost in contemporary society. I miss the excitement that ‘checking for the mail’ once brought. I can’t imagine anyone who received a hand-addressed envelope not at least opening it. When the person found that two of their own local poets were sending poems to read, alone, at their own kitchen table, I imagined the intimacy of this sort of literary experience would be delightful. I’d put out a call to local adult and student poets. I envisioned having a poem from both an adult and a student poet in every envelope. I received a number of fine submissions. I recruited a dozen people to address and stuff envelopes. I was in the process of raising money to cover supplies and postage when – you guessed it! – the pandemic put a stop to all that.
But it only took a week of quarantine, compounded by uncertainty and fear, to realize that what was essential and beautiful in our lives would be absolutely necessary if we were to survive this ordeal. So I converted the Red Letters to an online project. I invited (begged, cajoled, enticed) seven arts/cultural/educational organizations to partner with me, using their mailing lists and/or blogs and newsletters to create the potential for an audience in the tens of thousands – and sent out the first Red Letter. The reception was overwhelmingly positive. A new poem went out ever Friday – a little Sabbath candle after a stressful week – featuring poems that had already submitted.
I encouraged readers to share and re-post the Red Letter installments, and soon I began receiving requests to subscribe – not only from across Massachusetts but across the country. (I just received my first subscriber from Turkey today.)
The Boston Globe wrote a very flattering story about the project and it became an invitation for many poets to offer their work. Early on, the majority of poets were from our town; then from neighboring towns; and now there are no geographical boundaries whatsoever. Each weekly mailing goes out with the subject line: “RED LETTER POEM #____ “A Community of Voices.” Indeed we have become a community of readers and writers for whom the experience of authentic imagery and the music of carefully-shaped language provides a calm oasis, reminding us all that we’re in it together – the it being this crisis, this planet, this lifetime. To my mind, this is one of poetry’s most essential tasks.
I am currently planning new projects that can take place in-person and outdoors when spring finally returns and (hopefully!) this pandemic is a bit more under control than it is now.
Steven Ratiner—the author of three poetry chapbooks and the current Poet Laureate of Arlington, Massachusetts—has published work in numerous journals in America and abroad, including Parnassus, Agni, Blackbird, Hanging Loose, Poet Lore, Salamander, QRLS (Singapore) and Poetry Australia. Giving Their Word, a collection of poetry interviews, was re-issued in a paperback edition from University of Massachusetts Press and includes conversations with some of poetry’s most vital contemporary voices, such as Seamus Heaney, Charles Simic, Rita Dove, Bei Dao, and the last full-length interview with Bill Stafford before he died. Steven is still looking for new poets and readers for the Red Letter Project. Please contact him at [email protected].
Alice Kociemba is the Founding Director of Calliope Poetry for Community. She is co-editor of From the Farther Shore: Discovering Cape Cod and the Islands Through Poetry, which will be published by Bass River Press (an imprint of the Cultural Center of Cape Cod) in 2021. In 2015 and 2016, Alice guest edited Common Threads, the poetry discussion project of Mass Poetry. She is the author of the poetry collection, Bourne Bridge (Turning Point, 2016).