March 20–26, 2017
Tina Cane was born in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC in 1969 and grew up in the city’s East and West Villages. She is the founder and director of Writers-in-the-Schools, RI, and an instructor with the writing community Frequency Providence. She is the author of The Fifth Thought (Other Painters Press), Dear Elena: Letters for Elena Ferrante, poems with art by Esther Solondz (Skillman Avenue Press), and Once More with Feeling (just out from Veliz Books). Her poems and translations have appeared in numerous publications, including the Literary Review, Two Serious Ladies, Tupelo Quarterly and jubilat. In 2016, she received the Fellowship Merit Award in Poetry from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts and she currently serves as the poet laureate of Rhode Island, where she lives with her husband and their three children. Tina will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series on Thursday, April 13, with Ocean Vuong and Catherine Pierce. “Sirens” is forthcoming in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology.
I’ve been meaning to tell you that the skin around her eyes was thin
with blue veins fanning out like ferns that she was pale for a Puerto Rican
and that she spit and threw change at my feet as I waited to cross the street
to tell you that I wouldn’t let her man take me for hot dogs at the Second Avenue Deli
or to Jade Mountain for pork fried rice that I knew what a hat like that meant
to say his diamond crucifix the way he swayed his coat flicked sunflower seeds
from between his teeth strutting behind the line of parked cars I’ve been meaning
to tell you that the parking lot on the corner was not always a dorm that once I saw her
bloodied and on her back beside a car that two kids laughed pulling rings off her fingers
as she squinted in the sun that I put my backpack on both shoulders readied my key
that I ran from the sound of the sirens
To tell you my dad drove a cab for forty years kept a red bean he got
from an Ethiopian guy in the back pocket of his Levi’s to ward off hemorrhoids
that he wrote me notes throughout the night on the margins of his fare sheet stuff
like “eat yogurt for osteoporosis” that he listened to Tosca for another life in which
he didn’t have his foot on any pedal didn’t ever have to chase a punkass kid to get his
money back then end up buying the kid a sandwich to tell you that he was a Jewish guy
from Brooklyn what the fuck he’d pound the wheel cut off cut short another Brooklyn
fare not going back there with no return trip over the bridge to tell you that he drove
like a pro back when the medallion itself was a thing of beauty deco-like clicking
its nickel intervals with approximate precision the weight of it enough to crush
just about anything
I’ve been meaning to tell you that my mother and father once fought
for fifty hours straight in our basement apartment off Second Avenue
that the table fan was set to oscillate as they worked their way through
recriminations cups of coffee a carton of Marlboros that my mother
tossed a day’s worth of meals into her flashing wok at hasty intervals
as my father paced the room been meaning to tell you that the girls
on the block scraped pavement in their platform shoes like weights just outside
our one gated window that we often heard Peaches the transvestite weeping
about a Hasid john from Delancey Street or a guy from Staten Island who liked
to rip out her hair meaning to tell you that they made the movie Taxi Driver
right around the corner the year before that I thought my dad might have been in it
since he drove a cab had also been an actor was once a bartender down on Bleecker St.
that he said I was too young to see such a film and about Saturday Night Fever
my mother said definitely not
That there was a NordicTrack bought in 1996 still in its box
blocking the way to the coat rack on which my dad hung his London Fog
$3,000 in its pocket for me to collect as he had requested from his hospital
bed plus stacks of cash
from the safe deposit box from under his mattress and the Polly-O
Ricotta container in the freezer
beside the Edy’s Light Ice Cream and empty ice tray been meaning to
tell you there was $30,000
in my purse by the end of the day to tell you that I tried to buy a giant
stuffed peacock from a shop
on Christopher St. the day he died but ended up lugging a duffel bag of
twenties to Greenwood
Cemetery instead to purchase a plot for him on the hill I’ve been
meaning to tell you that cash
is how a cabbie’s daughter pays her father’s bills to tell you there was a
wall of books by his bed
a broken shutter on a split hinge piles of newspaper clippings to be filed
per a system that didn’t exist
that he left his hack license on the bed-stand with the pocket knife we gave
him the carnelian ring
the paper birthday crown my children made and made him wear buried
in plush animals on the carpet
in their room that there was a rucksack of photos and mementos from
his old friend Wallach
when my dad cleared out his place but never had the wake to tell you
that he never
even opened the bag after humping it up the stairs just talked to Wallach
in his head
every day till the end about the girl in those photos about articles he
should have read
Tell us about the making of this poem.
“Sirens” took a while to write in that many of the images had been floating around in notes for a long time before they settled into the same poem. Once I understood that certain scenes wanted to share space, the poem unfurled somewhat like a Super 8 movie. That’s the only way I can describe how it was made. Frankly, I barely remember writing this poem—one of the rare poems which wrote itself. A poem about grief.
What are you working on right now?
I have a pile of “minor history” poems, a few of which are in my new book, Once More With Feeling, and a lot of poems that I have been working on which may be part of a manuscript I am trying to pull together. Still, I think there are new—as yet unwritten—poems that are out there. Mostly, I am working on finding time and space for the work to find me and take shape.
What’s a good day for you?
A typical day is a good day—which entails getting my three children off to school, and doing some housework before swimming laps at the Y and then going to teach a class, prepare for a class, or do some poetry work (my own or for my program, Writers-in-the-Schools, RI, or as Poet Laureate). When I am not meeting with people about projects and such, much of my day revolves around taking care of my kids. Once I pick up my children, it’s all about playing and homework, cooking and home life.
Another kind of day—which is good but atypical—involves sleeping really late, having coffee in total silence, reading and writing until I feel like stopping, going to the beach with my husband and kids, having wine at lunch and dinner outside.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I was born in Hell’s Kitchen. We moved downtown to the West Village when I was three and moved around downtown, with a two-year stint in the Chelsea Hotel, before settling in the East Village. My father was born and raised in Brooklyn, so I spent my childhood taking the D train to visit my grandparents and going to Brighton Beach.
When I returned from graduate school in Paris to my dad’s apartment in the West Village, I found I couldn’t afford to live there anymore, so I moved to the South Slope. I lived in Park Slope for years, finally moving to Williamsburg with my husband in the ’90s. We lived there for nine years and had our first child there. Our oldest son is very proud to have been born in NYC. For a while, he wore one of those onesies that said “Made in Brooklyn.”
Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
My husband and I lived for nine years in a very low-rent floor-through in Williamsburg, on the border of Greenpoint—flanked by a pork store and a pierogi factory. It was predominantly Italian and we were among the first young transplants. We loved the proximity to Manhattan and the good food and the neighborhood feeling.
When our son began to walk, my husband and I needed a larger apartment. As we began our search for a new home, we were stunned to find how high the rents had become. We thought about buying, but the properties were being snatched up by developers and landlords had grown quite aware of how much they could command. At a certain point, I became disillusioned and disgusted by the economic vulturism of gentrification and wanted out. That moment came when, as I visited a small house with a rental unit, the realtor told me that we could easily get $1,800 for the basement “studio.” It was a 200 sq. ft. hovel with seven-foot ceilings and no windows. I was sure we could get whatever we asked, but didn’t want to be the person who took that kind of money for that kind of space. I didn’t want to be part of the cycle that was pushing people out. I had already been pushed out of the neighborhood I had grown up in.
We’ve been back to our old neighborhood over the years. Some of the same stores are there, but there are also “luxury condos” popping up all along that sooty strip bordering the BQE. I am happy that the older people who grew up there have been able to cash in by selling their properties, but I am pretty cynical about the transient quality this type of transformation can engender.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
It’s around 1978 and I am around nine years old. I’m in my cousin Jeffrey’s car with my elbow propped up on the passenger window. We are driving through King’s Plaza at dusk with the radio on. Jeffrey is seventeen, a blue-eyed quarterback with John Travolta hair and cream-colored flares. I adore Jeffrey, because he plays frisbee with me in the field across from my grandma’s house on Avenue M and holds me up above his head when I ask to touch the ceiling. I love him especially for taking me along tonight, as he cruises Flatbush Avenue, stopping here and there to talk to girls with feathered hair and Jordache jeans who come to hang on the driver-side door. It’s summer and it’s humid and all the girls have big combs in their back pockets—like the kind I want to get—that say “Hot Stuff” and “Curves Ahead!” Everything is electric and everyone is friendly. A brief scene, that even when you’re in it—even when you’re nine—you savor for the sense that time won’t keep it, unless you do.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
So much of my time as a working poet has meant writing in relative solitude and obscurity. I’ve always had a few poet friends, but have mostly been on the periphery of the poetry community—until recently. One of the perks of doing an MFA in poetry is instant community and I didn’t reap that benefit. There are other ways to create community, but I was always very busy teaching, and then raising my children. What time I had left, I mostly put towards writing and reading, rather than reaching out.
Moving to Providence made it easier for me to connect to a poetry community. The smallness of the city affords an intimacy and connectedness that eluded me in New York. Starting my program, Writers-in-the-Schools, RI, also gave me a mechanism to create those connections. Working with the writing cooperative Frequency Providence—both teaching and taking workshops—has also fostered a sense of community for me. As the newly appointed poet laureate of Rhode Island, part of my job is to help create and maintain such connections. This post is, in some ways, a gift I didn’t even know to wish for. While I can be a bit of a loner, I am grateful for the company I am keeping these days.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Walt Whitman is one of my favorite poets. My father loved Whitman and used to talk about him all the time when I was a kid. It was strange, when I was twelve, to realize that Whitman was actually dead. The way my dad spoke of Whitman gave him such presence—a radical, exuberant spirit—in our midst. Which is still what he is.
I also love Lisa Jarnot’s work. She was in Brooklyn for a while—although I didn’t really know her then. I return to her work often—so quirky and searching and vulnerable. There’s a freneticism about how she uses sound that is also quite calming—mystical somehow. I love sharing her work with kids.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I didn’t really have any poetry mentors, because I never really studied writing. I have a master’s degree in French Literature, but didn’t do an MFA. My study of French poetry informed my sensibility in some ways and the novelist and playwright Marguerite Duras was a big influence early on. I started reading her work when I was fourteen and she put me on the path for future French. If I know anything about writing poetry, I learned it from reading poetry. Everything influences me, and in many ways I am in a perpetual state of formation.
One of my English professors in college, Margaret Edwards, with whom I am still friends, was an important influence in that she encouraged me. I took a course in contemporary poetry with her. She was so strict and such a straight-shooter that I decided to give her some of my poems to read. I didn’t know her well, but thought, If anyone is going to tell me the deal, she will. And she did. And so, I kept writing. Years after graduating, while visiting her, I was complaining—as any young poet is wont to do—about the difficulties of writing. Margaret said in her slight southern drawl, “Shut up and write.” Simple good advice.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I asked for Night Sky with Exit Wounds for Christmas and it has stayed with me for its powerful imagery and sensual grief. I am re-reading House of Deer by Sasha Steensen, which is a marvel to me in every way. It takes me back to my childhood fantasies of Little House on the Prairie life and then shakes me awake to the dark thread running through what being a family really entails. I am also reading this great chapbook by Jennifer Firestone called Swimming Pool. It captures so well the twin acts of swimming and writing poetry. It’s a book I wish I had written. I feel like she and I should go swimming together. At a public pool. In Poland.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I’ve just started reading Working by Studs Terkel. I used to see it on a bookshelf in my house growing up. It popped into my head a few months ago and I purchased a used copy. It’s a big book that one can dip into and return to—a panorama, a panoply of voices from all over America.
I’ve always meant to read Don Quixote and Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned. And also Pushkin’s Onegin, which I love—but in Russian, which would require that I learn Russian, so …
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
Parenthood has greatly altered my reading and writing habits. I mostly read at night in bed, when everyone is asleep. The huge stack of books by my bed stand attests to my ambition and random interests. The half dozen volumes splayed like fans across the floor sum up my style. There’s a method to the mess, but it’s somewhat subconscious. I often feel like I am reading to write and that the reason for picking up a particular book at a particular moment will reveal itself later through my poems.
No: to digital books.
Yes: to notes.
On tiny slips of paper.
Piled on my desk.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’d like to try writing more gestural poems, mood poems. I love Rothko and I look at his work when I want to think and I think it’s time I made some space for the power of color.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
The subway was always the best place to read for me, but there is no subway in Providence. Next to bed. I love to read on the train to and from NYC. I love to write while I walk or swim. I often revise poems in my head while I swim laps and then scribble notes on receipts in my wallet when I get to my locker. Sometimes, I compose poems as I drift off to sleep and then jump up and run to my office to jot down lines. Every couple of weeks I sit down and type up all the scraps to see what I’ve got. My writing habits are somewhat erratic. I am always trying to fit reading and writing into corners and pockets of time. I am writing this on an Amtrak train, while taking breaks to read House of Deer.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The Promenade in Brooklyn Heights. So quiet. So elegant.
Junior’s Cheesecake. Giant cheesecake and grease.
The Watch Tower—Jehovah’s Witness Headquarters—for its hill that I spent hours running up and rolling down with Tanya, my friend from seventh grade.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Cherry blossoms and butterflies.
Bamonte’s. Old school Italian. And you can see the cooks in the kitchen.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate it all,
And what I know you know too,
For every I know me as good as you know you.
Top of the food chain.