If you live in Vermont and happen to receive a mysterious letter or postcard with no return address, don't just throw it away. It could be a bit of verse sent to you randomly from Vermont's own poet laureate, Mary Ruefle.
VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke to Mary Ruefle, author and Vermont's poet laureate, about her anonymous poetry project. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Ruefle: My project is mailing — anonymously, no return address — 1,000 poems to 1,000 Vermont residents, chosen randomly from the Vermont phone books. Some of them are on postcards. If I send a haiku, anything that's six lines or less would go on a postcard. But for the most part, the majority are full-length poems sent in envelopes.
Mitch Wertlieb: Are these your poems, or are the poems by others?
No, the rule is no poems of my own are included. These are poems written in all centuries from all over the world. Some are contemporary American. Some are ancient Chinese. Some are Spanish poems that have been translated, or French poems or Norwegian [poems]. You know, it's everything.
I have in my possession a phone book for every county in Vermont, and I choose them randomly. There is no way for me to know the reaction. But that's part of it. It's sort of a random act of poetry, an act of surprise, anonymity, and I'm quite sure that half of them end up in the trash and are met with confusion. But I'm also confident that some of them hit the right person at the right time.
How did this idea come to you? Why did you want to do this?
Because I am absolutely devoted to the U.S. Postal Service, and letters and mail and I'm very reclusive. Most of the projects involve community workshops and readings, and I wanted something different. I believe every poem is a letter. A quote from Emily Dickinson would be, “This is my letter to the world.”
I also have tried to choose poems that were appropriate to either the season and the weather, or what's going on in our state or nation. An example would be poems that might make one think of COVID-19. During the Black Lives Matter protests, I exclusively sent poems by African-Americans, that kind of thing. So sometimes they are consciously chosen, and other times they're not.
I know this is meant to be anonymous, and nobody knows you're sending them, you don't know the reactions, but are you curious at all about some of the reactions you might get, somebody that may be moved by something that you said?
Oh, yes. Well, I would love to see a video of all these people opening the envelopes. I would get a kick out of that.
What do you think poetry can do for people, especially now? You mentioned COVID. This has been such a difficult year for so many people. And I'm not saying that poetry can take the place of a vaccine or a lost loved one. But can poetry help during these times? And if so, how?
You're right, it certainly does not take the place of any of the things you mentioned. I think to make one be still for a moment and pay attention -- to anything -- is a good thing: moment of attention in a day which otherwise might be lost to ceaseless activity.
When did you start doing this, and how long will this project continue?
I believe that to send 1,000 poems will take me two-to-three years. I began in the fall [of 2020], and I've sent a little less than 400. I send them every week. The poems I Xeroxed from books, but if it's on a postcard, I type it on a typewriter. And I always put the author's name below the poem. And I do plan on handwriting some.
I just imagine so many great reactions. There could be somebody who's never read that particular poem that you've sent out before, they might be moved by it, [or] there might be somebody who receives a poem [where] it happens to just coincidentally be one of their favorites. And they might be thinking, "Who sent this to me? I love this poem!"
I think you're far more optimistic than I am. I think that many people that have never read a poem before are receiving these. I've never thought about if it's a poem they would recognize.
You know, I've sent some short Dickinson on postcards, I sent a Robert Frost [poem], but I tend not to pick poems that are extremely well-known. They're free to do whatever they want with it, or think whatever they want. I'm not trying to convert anyone. I'm just trying to surprise people with something that is interesting.
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