An Interview with State Poet Laureate Tina Cane

Christopher Johnson (Motif): How long you have been in Rhode Island and what are some of your past projects you have worked on? 

Tina Cane: I moved to Rhode Island 13 years ago, after having worked for many years in NYC as a teacher and visiting writer. My first project in Rhode Island came through the library system for which I was invited to teach poetry workshops for youth in various branches. By the time the NEA funding came through, I had had my second child, and so decided to coordinate the program rather than teach it. So, I engaged other teaching poets and also gathered poetry for a public art component of the project, in which youth poems appeared on the backs of the city buses, alongside poems of well-known Rhode Island poets like C.D. Wright and Mairead Byne. That was pretty wonderful. One boy went down to the bus depot with his mom and had his photo taken with his poem writ large. I’ve always wanted to recreate that project.

CJ: Why is engaging Rhode Island communities with poetry important?


TC: William Carlos Williams famously said, “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” It would be great if we thought about poetry the way we think about getting the news. Sure, there are people who don’t follow the news, but very few question its value or think it’s a waste of time. Most of us consider it a

Tina Cane. Photo credit: Mary Beth Meehan
Tina Cane. Photo credit: Mary Beth Meehan

responsibility to at least have some idea of what’s happening in the world. Poetry is a wellspring of other kinds of information that are just as important — if not more — to understanding our experiences in the world. There are so many kinds of poetry out there that everyone can find something to love and feel enriched by. I often suggest that people sign up for poem-a-day at The great Kaveh Akbar has been selecting the poems this month. I discover great work all the time this way, first thing in the morning.

CJ: Can you elaborate on past accomplishments, books, published poems, and which achievement (outside of becoming state poet laureate) excited you the most? 

TC: Last year I had two books come out: one — a collaboration with Providence artist, Esther Solondz, called Dear Elena: Letters for Elena Ferrante and another — Once More With Feeling (Veliz Books). I have been publishing steadily over the years, but it was gratifying to have these collections appear. My project with Esther was especially wonderful, because it came together through admiration for Elena Ferrante’s writing and for each other’s work.

CJ: What projects are you excited about now? 

TC: In September I launched — in collaboration with RIPTA and the Poetry Society of America — Poetry in Motion, RI, which brings poetry to digital screens on our state-wide bus system. So far, we have featured Walt Whitman and Joy Harjo. We have Pablo Neruda and Fernando Pessoa boards in the works. The rest of 2018 will focus on RI poets, starting with C.D. Wright. My Providence Journal column space will feature a broad range of Rhode Islanders — mostly non-poets — guest-writing about their experiences with poetry and education. This spectrum of voices should be interesting and valuable to the larger public.

CJ: Why is a youth poet laureate important and what is the process in choosing one?

TC: I can’t think of anything more galvanizing than an inspired teenager who feels strongly about their passion. Young people learn by example and a youthful counterpart can reach his/her peers in ways that I may not. High schools students across our state can apply through the RI Center for the Book until February 1. I will choose with guest co-judges Sussy Santana and Sawako Nakayasu.