Cheetos and Rimbaud: An Interview with Tina Cane

MATT MILLER interviews TINA CANE

image of tina cane and matt miller

Tina Cane’s Year of the Murder Hornet was published in spring of 2022 by Veliz Books. In this interview, Tina discusses her new collection with Matt Miller. Threaded through by grit and lyrical beauty, the book weaves survival, strength, and hope out of this pitched moment of American politics, the Coronavirus pandemic, and popular culture.  

Matt W. Miller: I was struck by the title of the book, Year of the Murder Hornet, which is also the title of the first poem in the book. I’d almost forgotten about the news about the murder hornets, those giant wasps arriving in the US, because just as that was breaking I think we were all going into COVID lockdown. The book is so much circling in and around the pandemics of COVID and American politics and how we lived then, how we live now. Was the title trying to point out how the things we thought were important suddenly became less so as we huddled together trying to keep each other alive?

Tina Cane: Yes, everything you said. Plus, the original title of the collection was Dog Whistle. That was before the pandemic, when many of the poems were more explicitly political in their use of political speech and terminology in personal contexts. The arrival of the murder hornet to our shores reminded me of the “killer bees” that were reportedly coming to New York City when I was a kid in the 70s. I don’t know if they actually made it, but that story made the rounds back then—much in the way a meme does today. It was my kids who clued me in to the murder hornet news. If it weren’t for them and my interest in politics, I’d probably be stuck in 1986 with Sugar Hill Gang and The Clash. But yes, the murder hornet was a flash in the pan, as we braced for and endured the endless shattering developments that followed. Nothing gold can stay—especially in the rapid-fire-end-of-days news cycle of today, information: the gift that keeps on giving.

MWM: This book is remarkable for the way it is written about a moment while still in the moment. How was it to write in the midst of the pandemic? Of social upheaval? I know I struggled to write at all in those anxious days and writing about that moment seemed impossible. How are you able to write in the moment with such emotional intensity and yet step out of the moment, see it objectively, and write about it with such craft?

TC: If that’s what I’ve managed to do, great! But truthfully, I have no idea. My primary motivation as a poet is to better understand—myself, life, the internal and external forces. We’ve been living—all of us—in extraordinary circumstances for some time now, so if I’m writing in the moment, it’s mostly because the moment doesn’t have an end. Having to shed several poems from the Dog Whistle incarnation of the book was an interesting development for me—the letting go of a significant number of poems, the killing of one’s darlings. They didn’t speak to me (or probably anyone) anymore. Their urgency was real but momentary, predicated on the political, the temporal. Culling those poems helped me more clearly understand what I want my poems to do, which is to be contemporaneous and yet to exist outside of time.  I suppose enduring is the word—not in the grand sense of the term—but from an operational perspective. Which makes a poem sound like a system. Which it is.

MWM: Place is such a looming presence in this book, especially New York City, and how it shaped you and continues to shape you. I think of the lines from “Year of the Murder Hornet”:

“year during / which you understood      how the neighborhood / you grew up in      shaped the way you said friend      how the word childhood      is the start of a sentence / that has no end.” 

I wonder if you’d say a little bit about place, how it makes this book, how it makes you as a poet, woman, mother, citizen of this world?

TC: I joke that I am a New Yorker on a molecular level—born and bred, with so much of my consciousness formed by its pathos, chaos, and breathtaking capacity for (in)humanity. In one poem “Designated New Yorker,” I refer to the city as the “third leg of my proverbial stool,” the other two being “weed” and the “street.” All true, since I count New York City as having raised me up— a parent, in that I learned just as much from my endless traipsing as I did from any adult in my midst. I came to understand this even more when I became a parent myself.

And yet, for all its worldliness, New York is balkanized block by block, neighborhood by enclave. That’s where the line

“year during which you understood      how the neighborhood / you grew up in      shaped the way you say friend

comes in. It’s about the enduring influences we carry within us—no matter where we’re from. I credit the New York I grew up in—downtown in the 70s and 80s—with offering me a wild tapestry of mythologies, homegrown and imagined. Much of my feeling for that place, these days, is a bit of a lament. It was such a shitshow so much of the time, but it was also fully alive and electrifying.

MWM: I was very compelled by the formal arrangements of the poem. There is this wonderful syntactical fragmentation with the use of caesura and the layering of thoughts and images. There’s something Dickinson about the move of the poems, but as a reader, I felt like I was running down a steep hill, and at any moment I could miss a step and crash into the concrete road. It was thrilling and harrowing. Could you talk about the form of the poems and your use of the caesura and layerings that help to make beats, sounds, and images pop? Do you think of this as a kind of palimpsest where your words are layered over lines and words from other sources? How did you come to settle on that style for so much of the book?

TC: Any reference to Dickinson, and I’ll take it! Now that you ask: I think, perhaps, palimpsest is a good description of my brain. So, yes, I do welcome layering and I attempt to use caesurae to that effect—each instance, oftentimes, doing a different job. I didn’t settle on that style so much as the forms revealed themselves to me over time. It’s all such a mystery, frankly. I would like to assert more deliberate control over the work but, really, it’s like I went into a dark cave in my brain and came out with these poems. I know that I like a long line, which is alternately about languor or momentum.

MWM: Many of the poems are called Essays as in “Essay on Mercy” in which you write

“I am always attaching      meaning to sound      perhaps instead of listening.”

Were you thinking about the word “essay” as in its French origin “to try or attempt” and as a way to dig into a topic or feeling without having to come to some conclusion? How did it let you access some of these topics better?

TC: Mais oui, nothing describes my poetry more than essais—attempts. I almost never feel a poem is finished— my work is a perpetual draft. The “essay” poems in Year of the Murder Hornet stemmed from my own stint writing opinion essays for The Providence Journal, in my capacity as poet laureate, and from my love of Lydia Davis’s essays and Anne Carson’s work.  The form—or the premise of the form—gave me license to build the poems differently. They tend to contain a turn, almost like a volta—for example, where “Essay on Mercy,” shifts from Antigone to the speaker kissing a boy “on a mattress off tenth avenue.” And you’re correct: they contain no conclusion per se, but wish to draw seemingly disparate connections, which offers a conclusion in itself, I suppose.

MWM: As a follow-up question, the section “What We Talk About When We Talk About Paths: A Narrative in Captions” is a single poem made up of a series of linked parts that are deliciously associative. Are these captions you wrote for photos you took?

TC: That poem is composed of nearly a year’s worth of captions from my Instagram posts. I came relatively late to social media and remain wary of its effects, but I found myself enjoying posting photos with words that captured my train of thought. As the posts piled up, I began to view the sequence as a narrative—the dailiness, the shifts. I only understood the whole as a poem much later. I didn’t set out with that intention but see that I approached the project—if you could call it that—the way I approach a poem. The gathering. The ruminating. I edited out some lines that felt redundant or random within the context of the system of the poem, but, otherwise, it’s a transcription.

MWM: I also loved the weave of pop culture in that section, from Bowie to Saturday Night Fever to Jay Z and so much more. Did you think about what you were trying to do with those references and how they play off what some may call “high culture” references as well personal references to people in your life?

TC: I like Cheetos and Rimbaud. And if Rimbaud were around, I think he would like Cheetos, too. How can one resist? But yes, I like the high and the low. I believe in their sharing of space, probably because I believe in democracy. Seriously. I cherish a mash-up. While I think this affinity has to do with dualities within me—racial, cultural, educational, aesthetic—it’s also somewhat of a deliberate, political decision. There’s nothing I revere more than art. I don’t have a religion, so poetry is my scripture. I would rather hear a sermon from an artist than a preacher. Still, I want to maintain a healthy irreverence with regard to art, as well as any other system. Access and accidents are always on my mind, with regard to art and life. I like the overlap of disparate elements, the slight disruption. My Instagram post the other day was a close-up of a piece of wood, with the caption: Irreverence: All in:

MWM: There is an image that haunts me in the poem “Disposable Mask” of a blue medical mask being caught in a tree that is mistaken for a patch of clear blue sky. For me it so captured the feeling I think we all had and have still of hope mixed with despair and the haunting of nostalgia, the desire go back “toward simpler things.” How did you come to do so much with that image or any of the many images that resonated so much with feelings we maybe couldn’t even name?

TC: I walked in the woods near my house nearly every day for the first year of the pandemic. Or maybe longer. I can’t remember. One day, during a period in which my youngest son was suffering from the isolation, from me being his only playmate, I saw a blue surgical mask snagged on a high tree branch, backlit by sunshine. I was mesmerized, because it was beautiful. I mistook it, at first, for something from the natural world. Then I thought, This is our natural world. And already, we were defiling it with the garbage of our pandemic. At that moment, I wanted to set the woods on fire, so we could all start over. Instead, I wrote a poem about wanting a measure of peace for my son.

MWM: As universal as so much of the book is to our shared human experience, it’s also specific to the author as a woman and as a mother. Was this something you were more aware of because you were writing out of this time of pandemic, sexual and racial politics, and environmental collapse?

TC: There’s a line in “No Regrets,”

“(no) regrets / that every child became my child      once I became a mother,”

which captures how I feel about my body in relation to motherhood. Really, it’s about shared humanity. I don’t think one has to have given birth to a child to feel this, but having three children crystallized that sense of connection for me. In terms of politics and environmental collapse, I believe if we called our planet Father Earth, we probably wouldn’t be neglecting and destroying it. To me, that’s a simple example of how language sets forth and perpetuates an agenda. As a woman, I have always felt, and continue to feel, that my body is a battleground—as the artist, Barbara Kruger, put it. Women live in a perpetual state of tyranny—subtle or extreme, depending on where we are born—which men do not fully understand.

In America, capitalism makes these forms appear more palatable through consumerism—just look at how advertisers subvert the language of empowerment to persuade us. It’s the oldest story in the book. And now look at the reversal of Roe V. Wade—a decision which means I will never be at peace with living in this country as a woman. Not because I am a proponent of abortion, but because the law does not treat me as equal, does not trust me enough to govern my own body, to control my own life. There’s a physical violence there—but also an inherent mental violence—that I find intolerable.

MWM: There is so much grit, critique, and even anger in this book, and yet so much love and sensuality and hope. In the poem “(Wo)Mansplaining,” you write,

“having babies / is also how I learned      that the moment before anger      is a moment / of need      I carry life with me wherever I go / and whenever I speak      I am talking about death” 

How did you navigate all of that and with so much so lyrical grace? I guess I’m asking how you sustain the poetic energy even as you dive deep into the philosophical, political, and deeply personal?

TC: Cheetos.

No, but seriously, I don’t know how I sustain the poetic energy or even if I do. I am just writing what feels important to me. In this poem, I am interested in intimacy and violence, the visceral and the intellectual, forms of knowledge and power.

MWM: The last poem in the book, “Breakfast of Champions,” is an amazing bringing together of all the elements, mods, and tones of the book, from pop culture to sexuality, to gender politics to the poet and mother as maker. These final lines are wonderful:

“whatever                 forgiveness

goes both ways                       let’s just say    I’ve discovered how to hold a grudge

call me brittle     call me nuts even     but wouldn’t you rather               call me honey

or sweetness in the morning   the giving the giving   the words the words

what if my one and only love is language itself         lonely prospect                         but O

affirmation      sweet breakfast of champions grab a spoon and eat me up”

There’s a sort of resignation here but not of dissolution or giving up. Rather, there is a famine power (should I modify it like that?) and confidence in the act of giving the self over to the world, as if to say consume me and I will transform you. Did you know when you wrote it that it was the poem to end the book? How did you hope it would lead the reader out of the book as a whole?

TC: My friend, Sean Singer, helped me map the order of this book. He placed “Breakfast of Champions” at the end, and it immediately made sense. That the book ends on an imperative feels to me like a call to action. If for no one, but the speaker—yet clearly, meant for the reader to reflect upon (because why write it, then?).

I am gratified that you see power and confidence in that act, because that is the inherent desire and tension in… me, I guess. I like to believe I am not alone in this (why I write?). It occurs to me, too, that the final phrase grab a spoon and eat me up echoes the breaking and partaking in “Essay on Beauty,” which is concerned with language and heartbreak, perception and (ir)reverence.

There’s also a shade of coy defiance in that imperative—like I want to be taken seriously, but I don’t want to take myself too seriously. All Rimbaud + No Cheetos = Death of Poetry 4 Me:)

 

 

Tina Cane serves as the Poet Laureate of Rhode Island where she is the founder and director of Writers-in-the-Schools, RI. 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, Cane received the Poetry Merit Fellowship Award from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts and, in 2020, was a Poet Laureate Fellow with the Academy of American Poets. Tina is also the creator/curator of the distance reading series, Poetry is Bread. Her most recent poetry collection, Year of the Murder Hornet, was released from Veliz Books in May 2022, and her debut novel-in-verse for young adults, Alma Presses Play (Penguin/Random House) was released in September 2021.

Matt W Miller is the author of Tender the River, shortlisted for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, the Eric Hoofer Provocateur Award, and a finalist for the Jacar Press Julie Suk Award. Other books include The Wounded for the Water, Club Icarus, selected by Major Jackson as the 2012 Vassar Miller Poetry Prize winner, and Cameo Diner, winner of Nimrod International’s Pablo Neruda Prize, the Poetry by The Sea Sonnet Sequence Contest, the River Styx Micro-fiction Prize, and Iron Horse Review’s Trifecta Poetry Prize. He teaches and lives in coastal New Hampshire.

Cheetos and Rimbaud: An Interview with Tina Cane

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