Vermont Arts Council

Poetry in the Mail, From Mary Ruefle

Unless you subscribe to literary magazines or pen pal with writers, the last thing you might expect to receive in the mail is a poem—let alone one chosen and hand-mailed by such a nationally beloved writer as Mary Ruefle, Pulitzer Prize finalist and current Vermont Poet Laureate. Over the past few months, over 130 Vermonters and counting have found this very surprise in their mailboxes. A little something by Louise Glück, an oldie by Robert Frost. By the time Mary is done, 1,000 of us will have received these mail poems.

The project is driven by serendipity. Conceived well before the pandemic and quarantines, Mary began mailing poems in the winter and later received support for the project through a Poets Laureate Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets. For Mary, a notorious homebody, mailing poems to strangers seemed like another good way to stay in. For recipients, who may be quarantined begrudgingly, Mary hopes a poem in the mailbox may be a welcome surprise.

It starts with opening up a phone book, and from there Mary’s process is a series of chance and meaningful connections. “Sometimes a name catches my eye,” said Mary. “Often I’m led to a personal connection. My sister’s name is Cathy, so I’ll see someone’s name is Cathy and send it to them. I sent some to the same street, thinking ‘Who knows, maybe they know each other. Maybe they socialize.’ I sent two or three to Inspiration Lane. And now I think I’ve sent two to Bliss Lane or Bliss Street.”

By now Mary has sent poems to every county in Vermont, and her pool of poets is comprehensive. From the classic to the contemporary, from Vermont poets like Jody Gladding to ancient Chinese poets like Li Shangyin, to a song from the Pawnee people. During the weeks of protests following George Floyd’s murder, she mailed poems by Black poets like Anne Spencer and Etheridge Knight; the Etheridge Knight poems she sent only to people with the last name, “Knight.”

Once she has mailed someone a poem, Mary marks their name in the phone book with an X—but she has no intention of contacting anyone further. “The bottom line is,” said Mary, “there’s no guarantee that this is going to people who are open to it.”

At the height of the first Covid-19 lockdowns, Mary tried to send poems that were particularly relevant to quarantine. Two by the Japanese haiku master Issa (1763-1826) are in the public domain for anyone to reprint:

As if nothing had happened—

the crow,

and the willow.


Napped half the day;

no one

punished me!

Have you received a poem in the mail from Mary Ruefle? If you have and would like to share your reaction, please contact us.