As part of the 2021 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Tina Cane in response to a video of her reading her poem “Year of the Murder Hornet” aloud. Tina Cane wrote a letter back to one of these students; the letter and her reply are included below.
Tina Cane also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Thank you reading my poem, "Year of the Murder Hornet," and for writing to me. It's difficult to overstate how moved and galvanized I was to receive your letter. Writing is a mostly solitary occupation. One writes, revises, writes some more, and hopes that the work makes it out into the world someday. More often than not, a poet doesn't know if her poems have reached anyone--let alone touched them, as your letter makes clear how my poem touched you. I write to understand my experience and place in the world. That desire to create connection is a driving force behind my impulse to write poetry. So, to read such a personal and sensitive response is a solace that makes my work feel more meaningful.
All of us are grappling with the effects of widespread coronavirus. "Unprecedented" is one word we've often used to describe the conditions of this past year and a half. The current global pandemic has inflicted pain, deep loss, on-going fear, and inconvenience for so many. Yet, when we look across history, we see that people have endured and continue to endure all manner of difficulty and adversity--as individuals, as entire nations. While no extent of historical context will bring back the dead--or recapture missed moments and milestones for young people like you--perspective helps. One way to gain perspective is through art--whether one is making it or partaking of it. That's another reason why I write.
Writers grapple, too, with their work--with words, thoughts, emotions, images, form, intention. Writing a poem, to me, often feels like fumbling my way through a darkened house--a familiar enough place with discernible shapes, but out of focus and with unexpected obstacles in my way. I wouldn't say finishing a poem feels exactly like flipping a light switch, but there is sometimes a bit of clarity and relief. And like any house, my poetry is enlivened by readers, like you, who visit and stay a while to chat.
Having said that, I also grapple (I'm a grappler ;) with the limits of language and of poetry in the face of so much global suffering and upheaval. What good can a poem do? I sometimes ask myself. What can a poem really change? I am not always certain, but I know that writing changes me, by challenging me to examine life and to synthesize my findings. Reading also changes me by bringing me into the fold of another person's creative mind. I find myself more curious, compassionate, and connected for that, with a renewed desire to share with others.
A few weeks ago, I was clearing out a pile of magazines and journals that had been collecting dust in my home for way too long. Within the towering stack, I found an old interview from The Universal Penman--a publication put out by The Providence Athenaeum--in which I assert that Poetry is powerful, that, a fierce poem can often dismantle indefinitely. A cudgel cannot. I didn't remember having said that--a problem you won't have for many years to come!--but reading it, I certainly believe it.
I don't know what--if anything--my poems can dismantle, but your letter let me know that they can sometimes reach people and affect them deeply. Perhaps, this little bridge of correspondence we've made through our exchange is a form we can all replicate in everyday life--a kind of creative call and response, in which fortify each other by sharing more of our feelings and thoughts--a kind of cradling each other, if you will, by which I mean taking care. One doesn't have to be a poet to do this, but there might be more poets in the world, if we did. Whatever you grow up to be, your letter has shown me that you that you'll likely make a difference.
Sending gratitude and good wishes,