Born in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, and raised in the Village, Tina Cane serves as the Poet Laureate of Rhode Island where she is the founder/director of Writers-in-the-Schools, RI. Her poems
and translations have appeared in numerous publications, including The Literary Review, Spinning Jenny, Tupelo Quarterly, Jubliat, and The Common. In her capacity as poet laureate, Cane has established her state’s first youth poetry ambassador program in partnership with Rhode Island Center for the Book, and has brought the Poetry-in-Motion program from the New York City Transit System to Rhode Island’s state-wide busses.
Cane is the author of The Fifth Thought, Dear Elena: Letters for Elena Ferrante, poems with art by Esther Solondz, Once More With Feeling, and Body of Work. In 2016, Tina received the Fellowship Merit Award in Poetry, from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. She was also a 2020 Poet Laureate Fellow with the Academy of American Poets and is the creator/curator of the distance reading series, Poetry is Bread. Her debut novel-in-verse for young adults, Alma Presses Play (Penguin/Random House) was released in September 2021 and her new poetry collection, Year of the Murder Hornet, came out with Veliz Books in May 2022. Cane is also the editor of the forthcoming, Poetry is Bread: The Anthology, which will be published in early 2023 with Nirala Press.
We interviewed Tina for the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast. The complete interview and Tina reciting selections from Year of the Murder Hornet is available on the podcast; excerpts are included below.
James Morehead: In this collection you are very effective in tackling current events and tragedy in ways that are timeless and subtle, without requiring an overload of context. A beautiful example is in “Rice” (pg 92) where you write:
"Tamir meaning He who walks tall ancient purveyor of dates sweet fruit of palm Tamir the rustle of his winter coat against his labored breath Tamir"
What is your approach to conveying a message while creating timeless poetry?
Tina Cane: “I don’t know if I have a conscious approach. My concern is that I address the things that are pressing to me, emotionally, socially, politically, philosophically, existentially, and I write from that. My understanding of poetry that endures for me, and poetry that I return to, has an immediacy, but it’s an immediacy that doesn’t expire. What I hope to achieve in my poems is capturing the immediacy of my thinking, but understanding that the nature of that thinking is universal and never ends.
“The original incarnation of this collection was called Dog Whistle and it had a lot of poems that incorporated political speech that I took from transcripts, from the impeachment hearings, from CIA briefings, and all sorts of official documents. I was using that speech in a personal context which was a really interesting project as a person and as a poet. I think that the political and the personal are really deeply fused. I think that we see that especially in this particular climate that we’re living in in the United States. That speaks to human nature and the particulars of this time. I realized as time went on that those particular poems in Dog Whistle became stale as time went on because they moved farther away from the particular political detail or moment that I was referencing. Some of those poems did stay. For example, Treatise On My Mouth stayed, which is a poem where I borrowed phrases from Fiona Hill’s testimony at the impeachment hearings because I thought that the message was a bit broader. I put the for Fiona Hill dedication in the back of the book instead of with the title of the poem because I thought it situated it too much in a particular political circumstance.
“I don’t know that I always achieve that, but that is what I’m striving for. Dog Whistle did not become the title of the book, not because that phenomenon has receded, because we’re living it, but because it became less important. As we moved into the pandemic I started realizing that the nature of time became a much more pressing concern — poetically, personally, and politically for the globe. When I wrote the title poem Year of the Murder Hornet, I thought of the framework of time of a year, but also the weird fleetingness of a thing like murder hornets which were all the rage on YouTube but then never talked about again. I wanted that juxtaposition, so that became the operating framework of how I selected the poems.”
James: “Year of the Murder Hornet” has a distinct voice. Many of the poems employ tight, short phrases that both stand on their own and flow together. You’ve incorporated white space between the phrases, intentionally stretching the rhythm of the poetry. An example from “Essay on Movement”:
"the way she and her friends hurried to empty their lockers into borrowed paper bags before rushing to the bus their arms loaded up with books how she was the only one who didn't seem sad or cry she said all she felt was freedom and she didn't know why"
How has your style evolved as you’ve grown as a poet and what influences contributed to creating this form of poetry?
Tina: “I think that from my book Once More With Feeling to Body of Work and now to Year of the Murder Hornet, there has been a deeper engagement with politics. I’m kind of a political junkie. My dad was a cab driver, but he did his college degree in political science. Politics was always the main discussion in our house, and so I think about those issues all the time. I think that Once More With Feeling was a really emotional book in many ways and kind of a love letter to a past New York, and a eulogy for my father. Body of Work moved more into my digestion of the concept of motherhood, of being a poet, of the larger world, and even mythology.
“One of the things that happened when I became Poet Laureate was that I was called from the governor’s office the day before the 2016 election. I was really elated and nervous because it was this wonderful gift that was also terrifying. Then the next day was the election and Trump was elected president, which was such a crushing blow to me as a citizen. I had a real crisis in terms of being a poet, and now a public service poet, because I really approached my post as Poet Laureate like a public service project. This was an emergency on a national level, so going around and reading my poems seemed fruitless and useless to me. And then after about a week of crying and driving around in my car, I realized what I had. I created some public initiatives as a Poet Laureate. In my poetry, what happened was I made more space for political engagement within myself, my personal perspectives, and my ways of thinking as a poet. That’s why I started feeling like political speech needed a place in my poetry, but that I would use it in my own ways. I think that evolution happened over time.
“Then I’ve always been interested in white space. I never did an MFA, but I did a master’s in French literature at the University of Paris and I studied Mallarmé. I’m trying to figure out how to give a talk about this. He had a very groundbreaking poem early on in the 19th century called A Roll of the Dice in which he really experimented with space. I’ve always been interested in the spacing and the interplay in poems. I don’t use punctuation very often in my own poems and I like to use space and caesura as punctuation. Even sometimes within the same poem, the caesura is doing something different in one line than it is in another line. Sometimes it’s sonic or sometimes it’s creating or isolating a unit of meaning or an image unit with a phrase. I really like to write long lines. I always write landscape on the page so that I don’t feel encumbered. I think with the poem, What We Talk About When We Talk About Paths, the center of Year of the Murder Hornet, I feel like I’m trying to go with momentum so the white space is sometimes grammatical punctuation or have to do with the movement of the word.”
James: I learned a little bit of French growing up and going to school in Canada, and have occasionally snuck in a bit of French in my poetry as a result. How has fluency in another language, and your experience studying abroad in another language, provided additional poetic tools?
Tina: “French is renowned for its musicality and beauty. It was actually studying French literature that made me truly appreciate the English language. English vocabulary is much more vast than French. English is also a much more flexible language, especially in the way that it’s taught. French literature and French writing are taught with a lot of propriety and there’s a lot of unspoken rules, like certain verbs that you use with certain nouns. If you use that verb with a different type of noun, it just doesn’t sound right. I feel that it creates a little bit of a barrier to the language being truly elastic and English is free of a lot of that. I really like internal rhymes and I think that that comes from French. Oftentimes, French is rhyming even when it doesn’t mean to. There are three different types of verbs and their past participles are all the same, but they’re musical, so you end up rhyming without even meaning to. Because I’m not a poet who writes verse in rhyme, I really love the internal rhyme and to weave that into my poetry because of the French.”
James: The pandemic was – and still is – a cathartic trigger for many writers and creators, the stress, isolation, additional time available for creating because we’re homebound and not scurrying around. Pandemic themes are woven into “Year of the Murder Hornet”. In “Designated New Yorker”, one of several examples, you write:
"for molecules that might kill me in the subway of my mind or from across the six-foot divide at the check-out line"
How did the pandemic change your writing routine?
Tina: “I have three kids and they were all home during the pandemic, and they were all in three different school districts and three different schools. Their experiences with digital distance learning were really different. The foundation of the day was that we were all in the house. I used to work at a table at the local supermarket and write there with headphones on because it wasn’t a particularly exciting place. I felt in the past that I couldn’t write at home because I was surrounded by so many other things, like laundry, bills, and caretaking. The pandemic planted me right in the house with all my kids upstairs alternatively needing things. It was really different. I had to figure out psychologically how to be in my house and not be distracted. That was tough, but at the end of it, I realized I can be at home and not be distracted by the millions of other things I need to be doing.
“One of the things that I did early on in the pandemic was start a distance reading series called Poetry Is Bread on Facebook and Instagram as a way to celebrate National Poetry Month, since we couldn’t do anything in person. I kept it going beyond April because I put out a request and I was inundated with video readings that people sent me. Every morning for the first 80 to 90 days of the pandemic, when we were sheltering in and still in shock, I would make coffee and get my kids settled with their virtual learning, and then host the Poetry Is Bread reading. That was very helpful psychologically because it made me feel like I was still doing something concrete around poetry. I was sharing other people’s work and feeling connected to someone, and then enjoying the fact that other people were enjoying it. It helped me to feel a little bit less disconnected from the community and gave me something concrete to do, even if for the rest of the day I couldn’t focus or find any time to write.”
James: New York City is such a vibrant, diverse, and culturally rich place to visit – one of my favorite cities in the world to explore – so many distinct communities. You’ve written about growing up in Hell’s Kitchen, an earlier poem “Sirens” is a powerful example. How has growing up in New York, and your connection to the city, influenced your poetry?
Tina: “I grew up in Hell’s Kitchen and I moved down to the West Village when I was three. Then we popped around between the West Village and the East Village for my whole life. New York was a very dangerous, dirty city in the 70s and 80s. Where I was living for a good portion of that time was not so great. We were also ‘free range kids’ where you left your house when you woke up and came back after dark when you’re 10 or 11 years old. On a molecular level, I’m from New York. I’m half Chinese and I’m half a bunch of other things, but when people ask me where I’m from I say New York. Then they ask where I’m really from, because people do that kind of thing when you’re Asian, I say I’m really from New York.
“There is a poem in my collection called Designated New Yorker which I call the third leg of my proverbial stool. Parenting was different back then and my family was pretty fractured. My dad worked nights when I was living with him as a teenager, so I was just out doing whatever. I do feel that New York raised me almost like a parent. I learned just as much from the streets as I did from any grown-up. My connection is molecular indeed. I mourn some of the changes that have happened. It’s just like every major city — it’s become less of a place where artists can make a life and more of a place that’s inhabited by corporate chains or box stores. All things being relative, the rest of the country is that way too. These are global capitalist forces that maybe we will reckon with and figure out how to contend with. All that to say, I’m pretty much still a New Yorker in my head.”
James: Midway through “Year of the Murder Hornets” you include a striking, distinct piece: “WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT PATHS: A Narrative in Captions” I read this long poem several times, once out loud. It’s so many things – stream of consciousness, a string of associations, a narrative in time lapse. In one sequence you write:
"I Heart NY: Some Sneakers: Youngest Son: Back at It: Lunchbox: The Terrible Mall or Path to Consumption:"
How did this poem evolve from the earliest spark of an idea, through the revision and editing process, to the point where you decided you were done? And I’m particularly interested in the last point because I’ve written several long poems and knowing when to stop can be hard.
Tina: “I don’t consider myself a photographer, but I like to take photographs. On Instagram, I was taking photographs and I was playing with the notion of paths — life paths, physical paths and mental pathways. I was taking photographs and making captions, and because I’m a poet, I thought about the caption and its relationship to the image and punctuation. I think about how that would work in a really brief format like Instagram. I’m not a huge social media person, but to me it became almost like a collage project and I was doing it every day for a while. It got me thinking in a brief, deliberate way about my day and after a while I started realizing that I was trying to say something.
“Part of what I was doing was talking to myself about my life and I was capturing it in brief moments that I thought were emblematic of where I was at the time. Then one day, I decided to transcribe all of the captions and started playing with form. I decided how long each line should be and that it should be stretched out much like a path across the page landscape-wise. The first incarnation of it was literally a transcription of every single caption. I wanted to be pure that way, even if it’s clunky or it sucks — this is how it came out. Then, through the editing process with my editor, we shaped it and brought it down to a scale that felt right for the book.
“The title is a riff on the Raymond Carver story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. That notion also connects to the Anne Carson epigraph at the beginning of the book, which says something to the effect of ‘sometimes what we’re talking about is not what we’re talking about’, and that connects to the prior incarnation of the book with the title Dog Whistle. A dog whistle is when you’re saying something, but what you’re actually saying is right underneath what you’re saying. What We Talk About When We Talk About Paths are the captions, but right beneath the surface of this veneer of Instagram photos and captions is a narrative, and the narrative is about my life.”
James: I loved in particular, and re-read multiple times, “(No) Regerts” which, based on the subtitle, was inspired by a misspelled tattoo that was supposed to be “No Regrets”. An excerpt:
"for the chocolate milk I drank the chips I ate for breakfast every day for a year in the dark car on the D train (no) regerts"
This strikes me, possibly, as a poem that may have started with a single strong idea that just screamed out for a poem to be written. I’ve had that happen a few times, where a single idea just has to turn into a poem. What was the spark of this poem and how did it evolve?
Tina: My son has this mug that says “no regerts” and I borrow the mug to make coffee. We always make a joke about “no regerts” because it’s from a movie where someone wanted a tattoo that said “no regrets”, but the tattoo artist wrote “no regerts” by accident. That’s what that mug is referencing and I’m referencing that joke. I was thinking of the nature of regret. There’s a moment in the poem where I allude to my mother-in-law and how she had professed to having no regrets. I was thinking about the notion in general of people not having regrets, paths, and what kind of choices people make. I pondered whether it is possible to have no regrets. I thought about how regrets could not be a bad thing and whether the kind of consciousness and reckoning of one’s own choices can never be bad. To have regret is to almost recognize that you were the agent in your own life. It’s almost a form of taking responsibility for choices as well. I also became interested in the idea of it as a chant. There’s a tongue-in-cheek aspect to it, but there’s a solemnity there for me as well.”
The full interview with Tina, including Tina reading selections from Year of the Murder Hornet, is available here on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.