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October 30, 2017

AN INTERVIEW WITH TINA CANE

by Bridget Kiley

 

 

Tina Cane is a New York City native whose latest book of poetry, One More With Feeling (Veliz Books, 2017), is a reflection of her life growing up in Hell's Kitchen and the East and West Villages "without being sentimental", she observes. She meditates on motherhood, aging, and identity in her latest book, which recounts almost the entire lifetime of the speaker – from growing up in an under-privileged, bi-racial family, to becoming a mother, and witnessing the death of her father, a former taxi driver.

Cane has an affinity for combining sound and images that pull us into the inner narrative of the speaker. In the poem for which the book was named after, "Nocturne: Once More With Feeling" she writes, "Call it mezzo this place where I do not sleep rather take shape / of what a Milanese matriarch sheathed in cashmere".

Reading Cane's book is a journey through vibrant portrayals of urbanity; its characters and emotions are colorfully illustrated as the speaker carves out her understanding of the city and herself in it. Cane has a way of sustaining single lines that are packed with imagery and music, but others poems are made whole by the space she gives between the words and phrases: "the breaths", as she describes it. Cane's poems delve into the many facets of childhood and womanhood, and she sets these experiences apart from each other by playing with the way they appear on the page.

One of the most interesting aspects of Cane as a poet is her involvement in the community and her efforts to educate young writers. She has a strong voice in the Rhode Island literary community, where she lives now. She founded the Writers-in-the-Schools, RI program and serves as Poet Laureate of the state. Cane described in more detail how she started her education program and her road to being nominated Poet Laureate of RI in our interview, as well as taking me through her childhood in some of New York Cities roughest neighborhoods in the seventies and eighties that shaped much of what she writes about in Once More With Feeling.

INTERVIEWER

What is your history as a writer? How did you become poet laureate of Rhode Island?

TINA CANE

I was appointed poet laureate in November of 2016. It was a very long process. I think that I found out that I had been nominated January 4th. So it's an eleven-month process, which was unusually long for them to pick someone, but I think there were about twenty-five people and then they finally brought me in in August and said it was down to five people and then I found out in November that I had been appointed.

It's interesting because I think that … I'm not an academic, and in the past, many of the poets laureates in RI had been at Brown University, like Michael Harper and C.D. Write. And I think that one of the main reasons why I was thought of was because I have a small program called Writers-in-the-Schools, RI, which I modeled after Teachers & Writers Collaborative, New York City. I had taught with Teachers and Writers for probably about four years. I had been a full-time teacher at a private school in New York and then I took a leave of absence in order to write more, and this is before I had children and then it all changed. But I took a leave of absence and started working with Teachers and Writers as a kind of poet in the public school system and thought "Okay, this is the work I love." And so I worked there for four years and then I had my first child and then we moved from Brooklyn to Rhode Island, to Providence, a couple of years later. When he was about five I had a daughter also. I started thinking, "I want to go back to this type of work", and nothing like that existed in Rohde Island, in quite the same form, so I kind of created my own program based on Teachers and Writers. But it's a very small program – it's like the small machine, small engine that could – we've been chugging along for over ten years. So I bring poets into public schools and we publish little books and we do field trips and readings. So I think that that was one of the major reasons: my involvement in the community through education.

I didn't do an MFA, I have a master's degree in French literature. I attended the Sorbonne through the University of Vermont and I did my graduate school through the University of Middlebury at the University of Paris Nanterre. So I didn't do an MFA. I studied poetry but as literature not from the creative writing point of view. I did one workshop at UVM but it was short story writing. I took a contemporary poetry class but it was a literature course. So really I'm not trained in the way that poets tend to be trained nowadays, through this fairly expansive MFA phenomena that's happening. And as a result, I've always felt somehow on the outside, which I was. I think at certain points I would think "Oh if I had done an MFA I would have an instant community and instant in." But I kind of like the old school way too, like I'm just doing my thing. What I will say is anything that comes my way publishing wise I'm always kind of like surprised and delighted because I'm so outside of it or I have been so outside of things. And, you know, I don't really have readers to workshop things.

I did engage and editor about five years ago, a paid editor, because I had this one manuscript that has been published a lot in expert but hasn't been fully published. I had this one manuscript before my son was born that really was getting close, but I knew something was wrong with it. And actually I recounted this anecdote in another interview, but I had kind of brushed elbows with Robert Creeley at the Columbia on a project for the Academy of American Poets. And I really love his work so I just really ridiculously sent him the manuscript up at his office at SUNY Buffalo, just like "Oh we met at Columbia," and of course I sent it at Christmas break, so I was like "Oh no it's winter break up there, what was I thinking?" And miraculously, ten days later, he wrote me back. And he basically summed up in about ten words very clearly what was wrong with the manuscript. It was so insightful. I felt so grateful that he even wrote me back. And then I had my first child and that kind of went up on the shelf and I never looked at it again because I felt really daunted by trying to go back into it and address this really elusive thing I had to fix. And then I had this real hiatus from writing where I was completely overwhelmed and disoriented by parenthood that I kind of did a little translating and I couldn't write. And then eventually I started trying to write again … I published a chapbook or something.

About five years ago, I engaged a paid editor to look at that manuscript as an exercise to get myself back into writing. I didn't want a friend. I'm really not in the habit of having other people read my work before it's published. I operate in a complete vacuum. And I don't know if this is workshop culture because I'm not … I know now because I've taught many workshops, but I actually really don't teach them the way that they're normally taught. But I find my friends just tend to be like completely supportive and validating. And I actually want someone to be like, no, get rid of that. That doesn't work at all. And so I felt like a paid editor who didn't know me would do that. And so I started submitting that manuscript. And interestingly he told to cut all the parts that had been previously published and those were my favorite parts. And at first, I was like, that's crazy! And then I said, as an exercise, let's just do everything he says and see what I'm left with and if I don't like it I'll just go back to what I have. But when I did follow his recommendations the whole thing came together and made sense.

It was a very interesting exercise and that helped me to get back into writing. And so this poet laureate position came out of – you know I feel like I'm kind of an unconventional candidate, simply because I'm not the most nationally known poet, it's not a lifetime achievement award, but I'm really into it. You know I'm bringing the poetry in motion that they have on the MTA, I'm bringing that to Rhode Island. I have a podcast, I inherited a newspaper column.

INTERVIEWER

What's the Podcast Called?

TINA CANE

Poetry Dose. It's on SoundCloud and iTunes.

INTERVIEWER

What's the Column Called?

TINA CANE

It's in the providence journal once a month. Every second Sunday. Between you and me, when I got the post, I was like, "Oh I have to write a column every month?" And writing a newspaper column, you're writing for a newspaper readership, so it's a very different tone. So I said, "I'm gonna farm it out. I'm gonna outsource this." But I also really believe in the mission. I wrote the introductory column and then I got ten other RI poets to write guest columns about poetry. And then I'll write the year-end column. And then next year I'll ask people in education to write about the value of bringing poetry into classrooms.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think Once More With Feeling acts in part as memoir?

TINA CANE

I don't only because – I mean it is the most personal work that I've published and it's most directly relating to my life, but I don't see it as memoir. A lot of the autobiographic details are true, but they are kind of shot through the prism of poetry, so I wouldn't want it to be read as memoir. And probably also because it feels almost too personal to me. I like the distance of still thinking it's a poetry collection.

INTERVIEWER

What's your approach to poetry in terms of fictional aspect and nonfictional aspects? How do you approach true, not true? Does it matter?

TINA CANE

I don't think it matters. I think when I teach I'm always encouraging students to lie if it's going to make the poem better. I had a friend read one of the poems in the book and say, "Hey, was Interview [Magazine] really a stack of Xeroxes? Weren't the binding it?" And I'm like, "I don't know, whatever!" For the purpose of the poem, I wanted a stack of Xeroxes. That's what I saw when I wrote the poem and that's what I wanted it to be. Maybe factually it wasn't that way; they'd already moved on to binding and stapling. So I think sometimes you're lying about the details to get closer to the truth of the poem. I'm not a stickler for facts. It's true, I grew up in New York and I grew up in the East Village. There are a lot of details in the book that are true, but I don't want them to be read as facts. I don't mean to be in the post-fact world. I don't mean them as alternative facts. Because it's creative work I feel like some of the details, I know they're not as accurate, but I have little regard for that.

INTERVIEWER

What kind of conversation is this book trying to initiate with regards to inter-racial families and cultures?

TINA CANE

There is a reference in "A Minor History of Police Work." My father's white, my mother's Chinese and I'm referencing Philando Castile's girlfriend's daughter in that poem. And then I'm referencing myself. That poem's a tricky poem for me because I didn't want to be asserting anything other than my own experience and my seeing someone else have a traumatic experience and know from a child's perspective how that would be, how that might play out. Now there's certainly a racial element to that because of the nature of that particular crime and then there's certainly an interracial element to the anecdote in which I'm describing my family situation because I live in a bi-racial family and the police officers who came were white. And, you know, it's not lost on me that had we been an African American family or even a Chinese family that the whole scenario would have played out differently. Because my parents were basically just fighting really loudly and someone called the cops. So there was no abuse or anything like that going on, so that's why I'm safe – I don't need to go anywhere, but had it been a different set of parents that might not have been the case. Now we're also dealing with like 1977, so the policing was really different back then too. I think that that awareness … it's kind of like when I was pulled over for speeding like three months ago in Rohde Island. The cop gave me a warning. I didn't get killed. So I think that the poem is drawing that connection of personal experience and empathy, or sympathy, or compassion, or identifying with. But also acknowledging the chasm between experiences.

INTERVIEWER

Does it relate at all to "passing" as white?

TINA CANE

Well, I don't pass as white. But my father, and he's not even my biological father, but my father was white. And I think that if my father was black with a Chinese wife, maybe it would have been a different scenario in terms of how they're [the police] are going to respond to a domestic dispute. Outside of this book, there's a whole other racial dispute about being half white, half Chinese and being a girl. I didn't meet my grandparents until I was seven. They were not very happy that my mother married a white man. The Chinese side of my family has always been far more intolerant and racist than the Caucasian side of my family. My father was referred to by the Chinese side of my family as White Devil. And he had a great sense of humor so he was kind of like, "I feel honored that they would insult me in that way."

So all that stuff is buried. I don't know how much of that is really in the book because I feel like my identity, interestingly enough, because I've had a kind of fractured family, really was what the focus was about in many ways. I think there's a line in one of the poems, "the streets that raised me up." New York was in some sense one of my parents. After my father passed away I was like (and I moved away from New York) I'm really an orphan. So now you wanna go back to New York, it's not the same city to me as it was and certainly not the city I grew up in. So I almost feel like I'm visiting a familiar relative, but boy, you know, she's changed a lot.

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk a little bit about Hell's Kitchen and the East and West Villages where you grew up and what it meant to you back then and how you relate to it now?

TINA CANE

Hell's Kitchen was where I spent the first three years of my life and that I have memories of being a little kid and now it's kind of like a film industry hot spot, but it always held this kind of lore for me after we moved because it was such a dangerous place at that time. Then we moved down to the village and we moved to Christopher Street in 1973 and we lived like four doors down from Stonewall. We lived above the West Village Leather Shop. That block was probably the only place in the country, except for maybe a certain portion of San Francisco, where you could be totally, flagrantly, openly gay. And wearing leather … doing your thing. And I didn't realize until much later how living on that street and seeing men holding hands and wearing leather chaps and living down the street from Stonewall, that was a few years after the uprising so it was a real kind of electricity and a sexuality, but it never occurred to me that those people were gay. There was no other context because they were all men – those couples are men and then other couples are men and women or women and women – I didn't realize until years later how broadly it primed my mind for accepting all types of situations without even thinking about it.

Then we did a stint in the Hotel Chelsea for a couple of years.

INTERVIEWER

Really? How was that?

TINA CANE

That was really crazy. We were there when Sid Vicious killed Nancy. I was just talking to someone else the other day about this and I said, "You know when I lived there, when my bus was picking me up to go to day camp, I was really embarrassed." I remember at my camp there was this one British kid, who was an exchange student, who was really into Ska and Punk and he knew that they [Sid Vicious and Nancy] lived there and he thought it was really cool. He knew about the Chelsea, but all the other kids were like, "Are you homeless?" And I'd be like, "It's a residential hotel! Arthur Miller lives here!"

I remember there was a very big fire at the Chelsea and I remember being down in the lobby, and all of the people were evacuated from their rooms at four o'clock in the morning. So there we all are. I'm in my little pink bathrobe and I was really worried about my hamster upstairs. But it was like wow, the panorama of characters, who I would see on the elevator and on the stairs, but to see everyone downstairs at once was a trip. But I loved living there because I had my own room, which I didn't always have depending on where we lived. It was a really tumultuous time in my childhood but I have really good memories of living there.

But then we moved to the East Village and that was a very raw situation. There were a lot of streetwalkers. Crack. There was a lot of bad stuff going on.

INTERVIEWER

When you go back to these neighborhoods, do they feel sterile to you?

TINA CANE

I'm amazed at what's still there. I was on 1st Avenue near 9th Street and there's this little notion shop, like zippers and buttons, called Gizmo. I walked around the block and I came back and I saw the older man sitting outside on the bench and I said, "Oh my gosh I can't believe you're still here." I'm assuming he owns the building and that he doesn't need to sell a lot of buttons to make the rent. And then you look next door and like how many of these hair salons can survive?

So there are pockets of stuff, but a lot of it's really different. I was living on 12th Street between 2nd and 3rd in the seventies and early eighties and Heebie Jeebies, punk, everything was happening; St. Mark's Place … Blondie was coming up...they were all down the street, you know? But I was a kid so I didn't know and I look back and I'm like, "Oh, that was happening while I was there."

I didn't even go into Thompson Square Park until I was in college – just because it was so dangerous. In "A Minor History of the East Village" there's a line about a kid going into Thompson Square Park and coming out without his bike and no shoes.

But I don't miss it for what it is now, I miss it for a certain era that I think has to do with … everything has to change. I think all cities all over the world are going through this gentrification and homogenization and overload of density of people.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel like it's the same speaker in all of the poems? Does that speaker change throughout the book?

TINA CANE

I think it's the same speaker and that the speaker changes. It's about trying to look back without being sentimental and trying to press forward without letting the past keep you in snares. On some level, it's a universal bond for most people. It was really hard for me to leave New York because it exerted this almost parental presence on me. In the sense that you grew up without a lot of supervision and educated largely by the environment. There are some people who don't have that attachment to their place and they're spending their young years shedding its influence and then they leave it. So for me, it was really almost like an umbilical cord.

INTERVIEWER

Is shame operating on some level for the speaker? For instance in "A Minor History of Police Work"?

TINA CANE

Here's something. I'm writing now all about the notion of work. I've been reading this book by Studs Terkel that was published in the seventies called Working. So I've been writing all about that and this stuff is coming out about my father who was a cab driver. He hated it. He spent his whole life hating it; his whole life trying to get out of it, eventually, he somewhat resigned to it, but always kind of feeling like "I'm gonna do something different," and never doing it. He felt a lot of shame because he was from Brooklyn, Jewish, college-educated, middle-class kid, and grew up in the 1950s. He was a bohemian; he spent the bulk of his life traveling before he settled down with my mother, waiting on tables, being a bartender, and then traveling. Saving his money so he could go and travel. He was an actor for a while, he wanted to be a writer, and he felt a tremendous amount of shame about being a cab driver. And it was self-imposed, but I will also say it was cultural at that time. He didn't want me to let people know what he did and we would fight about it because I didn't have that shame. I never took on the shame, I always felt ashamed of his shame. I felt that it was a weakness in his character that he couldn't stand up and own it. He felt trapped. And so that idea around work, I've been wrestling with that: "What does it mean to do something with your life?"

And so Studs Terkel's book is a panorama of American voices. They're transcripts of interviews he did with Americans all over the country. So you're reading these first-person accounts of a black longshoreman, a white sex worker in the 1950s, a housewife, a banker. And you can sense the despair or their elation, and all their emotions that they may have about their lives, and their status, and their position through talking about their work. What I've really come to realize is that I don't have any shame about my dad doing what he did. Now I only feel sadness that he couldn't have reconciled with himself. And that line in "A Minor History of Police Work" – "We worked with what we had" – I actually feel like that's the vulnerability in the book. After it finally went to press I was terrified. I felt very exposed. But I also feel like there's a little bit of a release.

INTERVIEWER

Where did the line "something I wanted to happen" come from? What do you get out of repeating it?

TINA CANE

"Something I wanted to happen" is a way of exerting intention into a situation. Even in a not so optimal situation. That may be, on some level, a survival mechanism: to insert your own intention in order to make a mark or have more control over a situation. And certainly, repetition is a form of emphasis. And then also I think it's really is coupled with desire.

INTERVIEWER

The line comes up for the first time in "The Fifth Thought." Quote: "Boys taking off my clothes with their teeth / every bit of it something wanting to happen." I interpreted this as wanting the next phase of life to begin even if it's uncomfortable. And going through the motions because you're scared of it but you want some aspect of newness.

TINA CANE

Sure. And also, I think that every bit of it, "Something I wanted to happen", the it of the situation having its own momentum. As opposed to the individual.

INTERVIEWER

What is your relationship to white space? Is it a vehicle for you to move through time?

TINA CANE

I think that with "The Fifth Thought" and "Trip to Now", pulling them across the page became important because I wanted to create not momentum in a fast way but trajectory. I put usually five spaces between phrases or units within the lines of a lot of the other poems because I almost never use punctuation. Because in my work I find it's a cluttering effect. So I really just like the words and then sometimes the spaces between the units, or in the phrases, or in the line to isolate words so that they become a unit of meaning on their own, or an image, or create a rupture between the phrase that came before it, or for the breath. Sometimes it's being used because that's a good place to pause and take a breath.

INTERVIEWER

In "Nocturne: Once More With Feeling", there's so much music right in the beginning. There's also this sense of limbo and being in-between space. What was your inspiration for that poem?

TINA CANE

Mezzo means in the middle. Really it's a poem about aging. It's a poem about identity and aging. So mezzo is this middle place and I was going through this period of not sleeping. It had to do with my body going through all these changes. So breaking down the references: Milanese matriarch, there's this film with Tilda Swinson called I Am Love. She plays a Milanese matriarch of a very wealthy family who experiences a tragedy, and she has an affair with a very young chef and she runs away with him. So there's this illusion, this buried reference. But this film is an incredible film and I love it because it has so much to do with... she runs away and kind of lives in the forest with him and she kind of returns to these Russian roots that she has.

So I think that poem is a poem of yearning and grappling with a shifting sense of self. Self-definition. You know this idea of a shape eating sandwiches alone in a motel is really a very lonely image. You know I'm only forty-eight so it's not like I'm at death's door, but recently I was talking to a woman who is in her late sixties and she was very upset about something entirely different but she said, "And you know it just doesn't help to be invisible." And here's this vibrant, wonderful woman. How could you be invisible? And yet I heard her saying as compared to being a younger woman... the invisibility that kind of encroaches as a woman and probably a man too to a certain degree, but certainly not at all in the way it is with women. We do not walk in the world in the same way. So I think that that poem has all those undertones in it.