A Conversation with Tina Cane & an Excerpt from The Year of the Murder Hornet — curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Tina Cane was born in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC in 1969 and grew up in the city’s East and West Village. She attended the University of Vermont, the Sorbonne and completed her master’s degree in French Literature at ​the University of Paris X-Nanterre and Middlebury College. She is the founder and director of Writers-in-the Schools, RI, for which she works as a visiting poet. Over the past twenty-five years, Tina has taught French, English, and creative writing in public and private schools throughout New York City and Rhode Island. Her poems and translations have appeared ​in numerous publications, including Spinning Jenny, The Literary  Review, Tupelo Quarterly, The Common, Poem-a-Day. Her work The Fifth Thought, was the 2008 Other Painters Press chapbook winner. Her books include The Fifth Thought, Dear Elena: Letters for Elena FerranteOnce More With Feeling, and Body of Work. Tina was the 2016 recipient for the Fellowship Merit Award in Poetry from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. She currently serves as the Poet Laureate of Rhode Island where she lives with her husband and their three children. In 2020, Cane was named a poet laureate fellow with the Academy of American Poets. Tina is also the creator/curator of the distance reading series, ​Poetry is Bread. Alma Presses Play, Tina’s debut novel-in-verse for young adults readers was released in September 2021 with Penguin/ Random House Books.

Kristina Marie Darling:  I’d love to hear more about the striking and innovative choice of form.  Why did this particular project merit such a gorgeously fractured approach to narrative, musicality, and the poetic line?  

Tina Cane: I didn’t consciously write this collection with a “fractured approach,” but certain aspects of that fracturing came to the fore as I made poems in what felt like an increasingly fractured world.

Year of the Murder Hornet took shape over the last half of the Trump administration and the first, most intense period of the pandemic. Initially, there were many more poems using political speech in personal contexts–ones akin to “Treatise on My Mouth,” and “Stable Genius of Love” which remain in the book–but the apprehension and isolation of that time caused me to think differently about immediacy. Several of those other poems receded as time went on, because time itself took on a distorted quality. I felt a constant sense of urgency, but also a torpor-like inertia, as the world sheltered in and braced for the unknown. In some ways, these poems work like many poems in my previous books, but perhaps under a more palpable pressure of reflection. At least, that’s how I felt writing them. I am glad that some “musicality” comes through, in spite of what can feel like strain. Music, like humor, is a saving grace.

The long poem at the center of the collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Paths: A Narrative in Captions,” is composed of nearly a year’s worth of Instagram captions. That’s probably the most surprising stylistic leap for me–especially since I am not an “influencer,” and can be skeptical and cynical about Instagram and other social media. I do like to take photos, however, and at a certain point I realized that I cared about my captions–as a poet might–that I was interested in juxtaposition, dailiness, absurdity, etc. As the posts accumulated, it was shaping up like a commonplace book of sorts and, like all lists, contains an inherent narrative.

KMD:  You have a gift for creating titles for individual poems that are as urgent as they are intriguing.  And not to mention the title of the book as a whole.  What advice do you have for poets who struggle to choose titles for their work?  

TC: I have no advice. I used to be really into film and find that I like a tightly composed, compressed camera shot, or a languid or very long pan. Perhaps, my titles rise from that impulse–like it’s probably got to be as short as “Blue,” or as drawn out as “What We Talk About When We Talk About Paths: A Narrative in Captions”–in which the poem itself is composed of very long lines. The title makes its own statement, sets forth the poem’s agenda. I think it should be decisive.

KMD:  In addition to your achievements as a poet, you are also a noted YA author, with a novel newly launched from Penguin Random House. What can poets learn from prose writers about craft, storytelling, and artistic risk?  

TC: I am a huge reader of prose. I love short stories and novels, essays, and the like. That’s probably why I love dialogue in poems. It’s also probably why I tend towards anecdote in my own, why I am more afraid of writing boring poems than I am of writing bad ones. Prose writers and poets can take as much artistic risk as they like, but I do think prose writers are more scrutinized and prized for keeping the reader’s interest. That’s probably because prose tends to be longer than most poems or even books of poems. Poets could learn from that expectation of sustained engagement. I love to read a poetry collection that I can’t put down. It doesn’t happen very often though–even when I think a book of poems is fantastic. Although taking one’s time is a beautiful thing, collections that I am compelled to finish in one sitting distinguish themselves. They are not musing; they’re declarative–like the best kind of prose.

KMD:  I’m a longtime admirer of your writing, as well as your literary citizenship. In particular, I’ve been following Poetry Is Bread, a virtual reading series that you generously and courageously launched in the pandemic. What has curation opened up within your writing?  

TC: That’s an interesting question. It opened up a sense of kinship and community for me. Although, as a poet laureate, I am a public figure, I have spent most of my writing life in a bit of a vacuum–writing and publishing with relatively little input or contact with peers. At times, it was lonely and strange–like why do I insist on doing this? I would comfort myself by thinking of poets from previous generations who didn’t have MFA networks and the like, convince myself that my situation or approach was “old school.” But it was actually just kind of isolating. So, when National Poetry Month 2020 was shut down, I started Poetry is Bread as a way to cultivate contact with the outside world of poets I had become more connected to. The creation and curation of the series probably opened up something within my writing, but I am not certain yet what it is. I do know, however, that the project opened me up emotionally to all the generosity, vulnerability, and brilliance out there. It was and remains meaningful for me to help share people’s poetry. During the earliest days of the pandemic, especially, it was moving to witness fellow poets in their homes, reading from their bedrooms or kitchens–linens hanging in the background or footsteps sounding overhead, to see the exhaustion or suppressed bewilderment in their eyes. Poetry is Bread features so many different types of poets, from so many places, writing so many different kinds of poems. It made me understand in the most concrete way that life insists on poetry.

KMD:  What are you currently working on?  What else can readers look forward to?

TC: Right now, I am in the throes of editing Poetry is Bread: The Anthology, which will be released by Nirala Press in 2023. I am thrilled about that, because it’s a wonderful complement to the project, and because I am a paper person. Like if I can’t hold it, it didn’t happen.

I am writing another YA novel-in-verse for the wonderful imprint, Make Me a World, at Random House. I’ve also just begun to write poems for a new collection which will begin with the poem, “Of All Things,” from Year of the Murder Hornet, but which will go in a completely different direction. But again, until it’s printed and in my hands, it hasn’t happened:)