Talking with Tina Cane about “The Poet as Witness to History”

The Poet as Witness to History is a six week workshop starting February 16, and is open to all writing levels and backgrounds. We’ve interviewed instructor and Rhode Island Poet Laureate Tina Cane about what to expect in class and what it means to be a witness to history.

To view complete course information, and to register, click here.

“History is within us, is a mechanism of how we operate, is inescapable and belongs to everyone.” — Tina Cane

Who might be interested in joining The Poet as Witness to History writing class?

Anyone interested in writing. One doesn’t need to have a particular interest or
background in history to take part. I am not an historian, but I am fascinated by the intersection of literature and history.

tina-caneWhat most excites you about the class?

I am always excited to lead a workshop. It galvanizes me to have to collect my thoughts and think about how to share them. I have spent many years teaching as a visiting poet in middle and high school history classes. I enjoy encouraging students to see the connections between history and the literature produced during a particular era.

What does it mean to be a witness to history as a writer? Is one’s history in the past or is it happening now?

We are all witnesses to history—whether or not we write. A writer’s work can be considered an historical document by virtue of the fact that it is produced during a particular moment in time. Even if a piece of writing does not explicitly refer to events, or uses another period as its setting, there are often allusions, approaches or markers that characterize the era in which it was created.

It’s interesting to explore what a writer is revealing about his/her time through writing that is distinct from facts. One’s history is always unfolding, even as each hour passes.

The way we see the past is also always in flux— much in the way that when one returns to a book years later, there is something new to be found. The reader has changed, not the book. Add time to anything and it becomes history. The past is always being revised— sometimes even factually, but certainly always in how we view it. Context and perspective are everything. We can look to personal history for the clearest, most compelling examples of that. Ask several members of the same family about an experience they shared—each personal, account of that history will be different. History, like memory, can be quite subjective and unreliable. Since history is usually written by the victors, it is worth reading what the poets were up to.

In the course description, you begin with a quote by poet Charles Olson: “History is the function of any one of us.” Can you explain how this quote is a peek into what this course might be like and the themes that students will read and write about?

History is within us, is a mechanism of how we operate, is inescapable and belongs to everyone. We will read and write about personal and world histories as expressed in poetry. We will think about the factors that come to bear on our how we understand and approach the past.

What led you to choose the particular poets that this course will explore? 

I am most interested in exploring how poets of an era may choose or choose not to address history in their work and how, regardless, historical insights may be inherently present in their writings.

As recently appointed Rhode Island’s poet laureate, how has being a witness to history influenced your own writing and poetics?

Long before I was appointed Poet Laureate, I began writing a series of “minor history” poems which are largely autobiographical but also wish to capture particular places and times. These poems grew out my work as a visiting poet to history classes at Central Falls High School. I was working with recent immigrant students, encouraging them to write short personal histories and to connect those stories with events they were studying. I wanted to help them understand how past events in this new and foreign country could still be relevant to them by virtue of shared humanity.

You’ve helped to establish a full scholarship for veterans of the military, to cover the full cost of any 2017 Winter/Spring Frequency Writers course. What prompted you to do so, and why might The Poet as Witness to History be a writing class well suited for veterans?

I established this scholarship—which I will fund continuously during my five-year term—because I think there are people in the veteran community who want to write but who may not have the opportunity or impetus to take a writing workshop otherwise. I also think that the larger community of writers and readers benefits from the widest possible spectrum of voices.

This workshop would be a wonderful place for veterans, in particular, to explore poetry and history. Veterans have perspectives on past and unfolding world events that most civilians do not—and each veteran’s experience is as unique as the individual. Their writings—whatever the content—is an important contribution to literature.

As Poet Laureate, I am a public servant. Veterans serve our country and this scholarship is a chance to serve them. I am working on bringing more workshops for veterans to the state through federal funds. That will take some time though. Stay tuned.

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