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Poetry, Politics, and Public Spaces: An Interview with Tina Cane

Image Credit: Cormac Crump

Tina Cane is the current Poet Laureate of Rhode Island. As state poet, she has established Rhode Island’s Youth Poetry Ambassador program and brought Poetry-in-Motion to the public transportation system. Cane is also the founder and director of Writers-in-the-Schools as well as the recipient of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts’ Fellowship Merit Award. In 2020, Cane was named a poet laureate fellow with the Academy of American Poets. Cane has also authored several books of poetry, including Body of Work and the young adult novel in verse Alma Presses Play. She contributes regularly to The Providence Journal and has worked with publications such as The Boston Globe and groups such as the ACLU of Rhode Island. 

Lulu Cavicchi: When you first became Poet Laureate of Rhode Island, how did you view the position’s responsibilities to civics as well as to literature? 

Tina Cane: I got the call from the governor’s office the day before the 2016 election telling me I had been named as State Poet. I was very nervous but also elated. At that time my son was in the first grade, and I remember how, in his journal, he drew a picture of me standing at a lectern and wrote, “My mom is a State Poet.” The next day, he drew a picture captioned, “Donald Trump is president.” 

So when I became State Poet, I experienced this real, professional high as a writer but then simultaneously this crushing, catastrophic low as a citizen. That dual feeling crystallized what my approach as Poet Laureate was going to be, because I went through a crisis of, “Well, this is a horrendous moment in history for our democracy and the state of our culture. Like, what? We’re gonna get up there and read poems now?” That strategy seemed ridiculous and ineffectual. 

After a few days, I decided, “Okay, you have to work with what you have. This is my post. I believe in poetry as a cultural and intellectual force. I’m going to approach my job as Poet Laureate like a public service position.” 

LC: What are the prescribed duties, if any, of a State Poet Laureate? 

TC: It is a government-appointed title but it doesn’t have a lot of description. I actually don’t have to do anything; as Poet Laureate, I could take the title and my $1,000 salary for the year, and I could go about my life. I don’t have to commit to a specific number of public engagements. 

However, I wanted to be logistical and practical about the role. I established the Youth Poetry Ambassadorship and the Poetry-in-Motion program, the latter of which I am trying to seek long-term funding for, for when I pass on my tenure.

I did anticipate having to write an inaugural poem if I were invited to do so, which I was. I wrote one for the inauguration of Dan McKee when he became governor, and I also wrote one when Gina Raimondo was re-elected. The Laureate is not obliged to write inaugural poems, but, obviously, it was my pleasure and my honor to do that. 

As poet laureate, I also receive monthly column space in The Providence Journal. Since 2017, I have invited lots of different people, from all walks of life, to talk about their experiences with poetry in that space. Sharing that platform was in part a practical decision, as I am a mother of three children who struggles to find time to write poetry, let alone contribute regularly to a newspaper. I’m also a slow writer. In addition, I recognize that The Providence Journal is not a literary publication, it is a newspaper. I care deeply about the opportunity to have a readership that is different from a readership of poetry. Curating a variety of voices for the column space is an important—and really fun—job for me. 

LC: Was there anything you sought to change about the position of Poet Laureate? 

TC: I looked into changing the salary from $1,000 to anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000 per year. The stipend is honorary, but, even as an incentive, it is too low. Before becoming Poet Laureate, I was already active in education and community work. I also work part-time, I have a very flexible schedule, and I enjoy a certain degree of financial security because my husband works as well. I have the ability to be active in the role. But if I had to show up to engagements as Poet Laureate while also working full time, the $1,000 a year is not enough financial compensation to offset the time it would take to do so.

In my line of work, people ask you to do things and then say, “Oh, you want to get paid. Right.” Related to that, part of my goal with my Youth Poetry Ambassador Program has been teaching the Youth Ambassadors to advocate for an honorarium. I tell them, “Okay, I’m going to send you this woman’s email. She’s going to ask you to go to so-and-so school to read poems and talk to the kids. Here’s how you ask to get paid. I know you’re only sixteen, but you have a title and you should get compensated. It’s okay to consider working for free if you’re told, ‘Actually we don’t have any money.’ You make that call. But first, you need to put out the message that your time is of value and your skills as a poet are marketable.” 

However, in the case of Poet Laureate, when Rhode Island created the position, the legislature wrote the $1,000 stipend into the law. It requires legislation to change the amount. When I learned this, I thought, “Well, that’s never gonna happen during my time. There are way too many employment and political issues right now to introduce the topic.” But it is a legitimate point down the line: you’ve got to give the Laureate a little more, even if the stipend is only honorary. 

LC: How do politics or current events inform the poetry you write? 

TC: I definitely respond to the language of politics. When I drive my kids, I listen to the news radio and take note of interesting words and phrases I hear. Earlier today, I noted “crimes of survival” and “the regrets of billionaires.” Those phrases captured, for me, our culture’s obsession with money and wealth. I came from a background as a kid where grown-ups were always talking about politics; that constant awareness became part of how I view the world.

The Trump presidency was also a remarkably intense moment for me and my writing. It caused me to ask, “What is America?” Trump didn’t come out of nowhere. He is the embodiment of a lot of what is wrong with our culture and the capitalist structure in which commerce gets conflated with people’s worth as human beings. These topics are always on my mind as a poet. 

LC: Does any of your work stand out to you as being particularly politically-informed?

TC: In my book Body of Work, I wrote a long form poem called, “(My) American Journal.” It was the first time that I explicitly wrote about the Chinese side of my family. The impulse to write that poem came out of my grief over the resurgence of public animus towards immigrants that took place alongside Trump’s election. 

“(My) American Journal” was a declaration about identity and politics and what those mean to me. The election showed that hatred towards immigrants hadn’t been resolved. It was just that prior to the election, the cultural constraints of the present day had caused the majority of people to tailor their speech to bow to the parameters of polite conversation. But Trump’s win showed that if you scratch the surface, animus comes up for many people. 

I have a book coming out next year called Year of The Murder Hornet. Writing that book, I took political speech from the impeachment hearings, CIA briefings, and newspapers and used them in the context of personal poems. They are not confessional poems, but they come from a first person speaker. They address the idea that the personal and the political are separate, but they also go in tandem. 

LC: You were instrumental in bringing “Poetry-in-Motion” to Rhode Island. Could you explain how you first learned about the program, which organizes the display of poetry in place of advertisements on public transportation, and why you decided to bring it to the state? 

TC: The Poetry-in-Motion program has been in the New York City Transit System for over twenty-five years. The program developed before people were constantly staring at their phones; instead they spent time on transit looking up at the ambulance-chasing-lawyer ads and so forth. I’m from New York, and seeing the poems on the public transit was fantastic. Having poems in the space where people usually see advertisements is a novel and surprising way of getting art into their head. 

Years ago, I was moderating a panel in Washington DC on poetry and public art, during which I talked about and reflected on the Poetry-in-Motion program. After that panel, I decided to try to bring the program to Rhode Island. I approached RIPTA, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority. Barbara Polichetti, who is the director of RIPTA Public Affairs, studied poetry in college. After I sent an email suggesting we bring the program to Rhode Island, she called me on the phone and agreed right away. 

The program has been a seamless approach to putting poetry in public spaces. Since Rhode Island is small, we actually have the only statewide transit system where Poetry-In-Motion is up and running. It has gone great. I love the symbolism of mass transit being a democratic vehicle. The people are not self-selecting on public transit; instead, poetry pops up where people are found.

LC: Another one of your community programs, Writers-in-the-Schools, focuses on bringing poetry and creative writing to young people in the Rhode Island school system. Why do you believe it is important for students to have a relationship with poetry? 

TC: The writing, reading, and performing of poetry gives children an opportunity for self-expression. Much of the time, once they’ve learned to read and write, children’s skills are a matter of assessment to demonstrate comprehension or mastery in school, rather than a matter of joy. Those assessment benchmarks are valid, but I find that America affords children fewer opportunities for self-expression as they grow older. 

For years, I’ve been bringing Writers-in-the-Schools to classrooms to enable students to express themselves through poetry. During a session, teachers often find out things about students that they didn’t know before. Teachers will say to me, “I didn’t know his father was in jail. I didn’t know his mom died in February.” These are important, personal subjects. Being connected to the self—and being connected to others in the classroom community through the sharing of work—cultivates empathy and self-awareness.

LC: Do you think poetry can act as a means for young people to become engaged with civics or politics?

TC: If anything, what Trump’s election and our current societal moment shows us is that there is a deep deficit of empathy and self-awareness in our culture. Things like vaccine hesitation based on a political point of view have to do with a deficit of connectedness to and responsibility towards fellow citizens. A lot of political divisions, in my view, actually derive from emotions. A person’s politics are shot through the prism of their personal lens. When people—no matter their walk of life, color, creed, or economic bracket—feel disenfranchised and alienated for whatever reason, there exists fertile ground for divisive politics. Whether it’s on a liberal side or a very conservative side, disconnectedness from fellow human beings is a death note for democracy. 

Poetry can be an answer to that disconnectedness. The emotional education of young people through poetry is about developing an awareness of self, knowing one’s story, and being able to articulate that story while also hearing and taking in other people’s work. Those are skills that translate into civics and into life.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.