Tania Pryputniewicz is a wife, mother, poet, artist, teacher, and muse. Her latest book is The Fool in the Corn, a memoir in poems (Saddle Road Press, 2022). This stunning collection follows Tania’s life from her childhood years in a commune in rural Illinois, to a move to California, Tania’s parents’ divorce, poetry studies at Iowa Writers’ workshop, motherhood, care for a dying mother, and grief. Tania observes human emotion with striking precision, bringing the reader along as she makes the long journey to trusting her heart.
Tania completed her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1994. She is the author of November Butterfly (Saddle Road Press, 2014), a collection of poetry that braided empathy, imagination, and lyricism, and Heart’s Compass Tarot (Two Fine Crows Books, 2021), a guided tarot journey that inspires creativity and enhances self-knowledge. She currently teaches a tarot-inspired writing course for Antioch University and poetry for San Diego Writers, Ink.
In this era of online interactions, I cherished the opportunity to meet Tania in person for this conversation. She arrived at my house carrying a bag overflowing with poetry books, artwork, and tarot cards. Her physical presence exuded kindness, so being with her to sip tea and talk poetry on a sunny afternoon felt so comforting. We connected over the shared experience of the complicated mix of help-them versus leave-them-be that vexes mothers raising adolescents. While my two daughters are slightly younger than her three children, we are both in the trenches of parenting teens. But in her pink crocs and colorful clothes, Tania exuded a buoyancy and contentment that could dissolve all motherly woes. This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Rebecca Jane: The Fool in the Corn recounts stories from your vast life experience. While writing from these memories, did you confront psychological or emotional experiences that surprised, scared, or healed you?
Tania Pryputniewicz: Beautiful question. Each poem had its experience I was trying to make peace with—sometimes that peace was just giving myself permission to write it down. The process of revising the poems was profoundly healing, and I leaned on the support I needed to work through each layer (therapist, writing groups, teachers). The poem “Field Trip,” considers a time when I was young, and a group of us children were taken on a field trip to a slaughterhouse. As I was revising that poem, my daughter walked into my room with a handful of corn seeds. That collision of past and present, that proof I survived, that she was here in my house, was an affirmation of great growth for me.
RJ: My favorite poem in your collection is “Letter to the Queen of Swords.” I love the way this poem does it all: asks questions, transcends, grounds, and contemplates. I loved the line “Which pyramids will appear / in the pupils of my daughter’s eyes?” How did you write this poem?
TP: [Reaches in her bag, pulls out a handmade artifact]. This poem grew out of this collage book I made with a friend I’ve known since fifth grade. When we both lived on the Russian River, we worked jointly to create our collages. When I moved away to the heartland for graduate school, we shifted to this new type of small book collaboration. We’d come up with a title, create our own storyline, put our own collages and text phrases on each page, and mail the finished books back and forth. Because of the depth of our friendship, I didn’t hold back, naming my desire to become a mother someday, and my fear about it, questioning ideas I got about ancestry on the commune [where I lived as a child] and wondering what I’d pass on to a daughter. With a little revision, the text of that book became “Letter to the Queen of Swords.” Addressing the tarot deck’s Queen of Swords here was a plea to make a break with that confusing past: one foot in the past, one foot in the present, the Queen of Geometry is asking me to choose. I had to learn how to choose the present.
RJ: Choosing the present brings up the idea that it takes a considerable amount of attention to listen deeply to sound. Your poetry attends to sound and contains lots of satisfying sounds, “the sound of shifting continents,” “the aqueous trills of unseen sparrows.” I especially love this stanza: “In my future, I’ll enter the deck alone, trust / the voice—familiar, quiet—and hear with peripheral ear the canticle of the heart.” Such a beautiful stanza that resonates with your unique wisdom! Can you talk more about sound and voice and hearing “the canticle of the heart?”
TP: Thank you so much . . . “the canticle of the heart” is a line from the poem, “Plainsong: After the Divorce,” which is about that state of grieving a loss and taking comfort where I could. The setting of this poem is one of many houses we lived in with my father after the divorce, and piano lessons; listening to a piece of music played by my father, and my piano teacher, and the way that both music and imagery haunt in similar ways: we fall in love with the sound, the melody, for the feelings it elicits from us. I admit in the poem that I had my own secret definition for the word “Canticle,” hearkening back to the earlier poem in the commune section, “Recital: Canticle,” which was the name our dance teacher gave our performance. So I associated the word with the physical movements our dance made to express the “heart of a flower.”
But here at the piano with my teacher, I learned a song called Canticle, and discovered the word meant hymn, which by then was equally beautiful; as a child raised out of church, but taken there occasionally by my grandmothers (one Catholic, one Christian), I associated hymns with communal singing and the organ in church—melodious and grand.
In the world of the poem, I like that I can explore multiple definitions by telling the reader what I thought “canticle” meant—heart of the flower—as well as what it really means—hymn. So, I listened to the sounds in each line to see if I could make the sounds and the other images in the poem echo that sense of love for what powers the unseen emotions, the soft radiance and fine blue sheen of moonlight, the yearning felt when listening to beautiful music.
RJ: Beautiful! This reminds me of a question related to teaching our children about varieties of spiritual traditions. My daughter asked me to bring her to a church service because she was curious. How do you approach guiding your children spiritually?
TP: I have raised my children, like my parents did, encouraging them to find their own way to spirituality (my mom had an aversion to what she experienced growing up in Irish Catholic High School with punitive nuns, and my father didn’t mind the Christian values his mother loved, scripture quoting, etc., but neither parent wanted to be part of a church). My parents chose to live on a commune because they wanted a new place to grow and prosper in a community. We lived in the leader’s field of universal spirituality/reincarnation. But after he was voted out, with my distrust of authority figures, I turned to form my own compass (over many years).
Both of my parents always encouraged my creativity and writing. Like my parents, I surround the kids with music, literature, art, and my husband brings a deep grounding in the physical world as an athlete and swimmer (we are hikers and ocean lovers; that is really our sacred time as a family). We improvise as a family with many art forms (clay, block prints, photographs, dance, music). I use those expressions to grow and connect to creativity and meaning. The tarot for me is a spiritual tool and a fertile springboard to create writing and art. Our kitchen table is often covered in whichever card I’m teaching; I’ll show whoever is wandering through the kitchen . . . look at these 15 versions of the King of Wands!
Long answer short: we’ve exposed the kids to a house full of literature, art, yoga, dance, music, and conversation. They’ve gone to church services here or there with my mother-in-law, at Christmas time, but those walks at the ocean are our form of sacred time these days. If my children approach me to learn more about tarot, I’ll share my knowledge. I feel a kinship with creativity as a path to loving the self.
RJ: Speaking of creativity, the poem, “Poetry Rules in the Heartland” discusses how you handled feeling out of place in a prestigious writers’ workshop. What about “rules?” Are there rules when it comes to poetry?
TP: I originally titled the poem, “Panic Attack in the Heartland,” placing the focus on the experience of being triggered by being back in the cornfields, being overwhelmed with imposter syndrome, and feeling like an outsider. But I realized in revising this poem, that I wanted to look at what was happening outside of me in the classroom. I had to look at the arc of being mentored or taught by an amazing, articulate teacher when I was still learning how to understand I was separate from my work—that it wasn’t my soul on the page. [The teacher] was trying to get me to hone my craft in order to describe this world before I began to try to articulate hidden worlds. (I think you can do both at the same time.) Though I felt lost and overwhelmed trying to navigate graduate school, I also had a beautiful dream about this teacher laying a cape down over a low stone wall. Some part of me understood I was going through something I couldn’t yet understand, but she was an important guide. I think some of what I experienced in the workshop was that I hadn’t grown the distance yet between me, the person, and the poem on the page, so I had some growing up to do. My poetry teachers were playing that role of mentor, guiding me to separate myself from the poem. Sometimes you come up against a personality bigger than your own. The gift in that is that it challenges you to grow.
RJ: What advice do you have for young mothers who also feel a strong pull to create art or poetry, yet are sometimes exhausted by the mundane day-to-day?
TP: Not long after I came home from the hospital with my firstborn, I was given a box that held a dozen or so blank books—2 ½ inch by 3 inches, 25 pages in each little book. I found one in my desk drawer today from 2005, when I had a 4-year-old, 2-year-old, and was pregnant with my third. The page I opened to had three tiny entries: Transfer “red velvet dress” and “women without heads” onto laptop. Call Renee. Get Remains of the Day, The Unconsoled. That’s as far as I got. But it was enough to anchor my poet self on the page, knowing the rest of me would be consumed until bedtime, in that high-alert five-sense vigilance caring for my children required.
Another wise friend, her children in their twenties at the time, said to me, “Be where you are. I know it is hard to believe—but raising your children is really the most important job there is, for all of us, for them, for the world. And everything you were doing before you had children—your writing, all of it—will be there for you when they grow up.” I wish I had worried less, believed her more. I wrote my way as I could through motherhood, and in proportion to my children’s growing independence.
Be kind to yourself and trust that you are always writing. Even all the hours your pencil never touches the page while you care for your children. Those hours form an amazing sensory bedrock from which to write when you are no longer nursing a child or gripping the handle of the car door as your teenager drives you to get milk for the first time.