When Memoir and Poetry Meet

February 9, 2023 § 8 Comments


By Lisa Rizzo

Poet and tarot teacher, Tania Pryputniewicz’smemoir in poems, The Fool in the Corn (Saddle Road Press, 2022), travels through pivotal periods in her life beginning in early childhood on an Illinois commune and ending with the death of her mother. Poet and memoirist, Lisa Rizzo met with Tania over Zoom to discuss the writer’s decision to meld poetry and memoir together in her new book.

Lisa Rizzo: Why did you decide on using poetry in your memoir?

Tania Pryputniewicz: Poetry was my first love, but I’ve always written prose. When I went to the Iowa Workshop, I found myself back in the same landscape as the Illinois commune where I lived with my family from five to eleven years old. Surrounded by fields of corn, I spent months writing prose chapters about that time. I showed it to an agent, but she wasn’t interested. I let that writing lie for twenty years but never stopped writing poetry.

I began writing prose again in 2017 because the pull to make sense of my time on the commune was strong. I took a memoir workshop for the deadlines to produce work and to receive feedback. But the material was too painful for me to directly confront or name what had happened in my family. As I wrote prose, I realized I had poems that dealt with the same subjects. I decided that the poetry made it easier for me to deal with the difficult feelings that arose.

LR: How did you write your memoir in poems?

TP: Each poem deals with a significant incident from my life. But since poetry has an associative arc that’s more intuitive than prose, it requires the reader to do a little more work. Because of that, I felt the poems needed to move in a straight line, like beads on a string. The memoir unfolds chronologically from living in the commune, leaving the commune, and re-engaging with society, then on to graduate school, marriage, motherhood and losing my mom to cancer. At the end, I loop back to the years in Illinois with my last conversations with my mother about why we were on the commune.

I also wanted to make sure my readers understand that while these poems are very imagistic, they all deal with real events, so I included a preface that gives background information about the commune. That’s not something I would normally do in a poetry collection.

LR: Do you see advantages to poetry and/or prose?

TP: For me, poetry has always been that magical language where I can witness and dream about possibility. Poetry is image driven, and I love that an image can carry layers of meaning through its associative power. For instance, in “Sanctuary,” one of the poems about my mother’s illness and death, the line “the auroras of sorrow” recalls the aurora borealis, the beauty of the vast night sky and those dancing colors, but here it is also linked to my grief.

You could say that I’m hiding behind poetry and its fairytale nature instead of writing directly about difficult situations. Instead of going into the everyday details like why at the commune we had no food in the house or were controlled by an unstable leader. I believe poetry gave me the language to deal with that pain. 

LR: How are memoir craft elements like narrative arc or transcendence presented in poems?

TP: Just as you structure a memoir by listening to what each chapter does to the one next to it, you pay attention to the order of the poems within a section and how they resonate with each other to find your story.

Memoir is very anchored and rooted, dealing with themes that arise within the narrative arc. I would argue that sometimes you can even find that whole arc within the world of one poem. It’s just more distilled and compact. Then the narrative arc develops poem by poem. When you meld poetry and memoir, there’s this beautiful crossover. The poetry invites you, the writer, to find images significant to your life, while memoir gives you the power to reflect about the interior growth you experienced once you find those images.

I hope that through the accretion of poems you do get that arc of change. The reader can see that an image that appears in the beginning has shifted in some way by the end. For instance, there is the central image of corn that first appears in the title poem, “The Fool in the Corn,” in which, as a young girl, I used corn kernels, the only thing I had, to make my brother a birthday present. This image will return, especially in the last poem, “Letter to the 8-Year-Old Living in the Corn,” in which I address my child self on the commune, reassuring her that the corn of the commune gave her the strength she needed.

LR: Any final words?

TP: As a writer, you only write what you can withstand. Poetry freed me to write this book. It was the only way I could tell this story at this point in my life. If I decide to go back into it in a different way, I’ve given myself a springboard from which to do that. To me what’s important is getting your story out there in whatever form you are called to write.


Tania Pryputniewicz is the author of the full-length poetry collection November Butterfly (Saddle Road Press, 2014), Heart’s Compass Tarot: Discover Tarot Journaling and Create Your Own Cards (Two Fine Crows Books, 2021), and a memoir-in-poems, The Fool in the Corn (Saddle Road Press, 2022). A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Tania teaches poetry and tarot-inspired writing classes for San Diego Writers, Ink and Antioch University’s Continuing Education program, including a course on poetry and memoir. She lives in Coronado, CA with her husband, three children, Siberian Husky and formerly feral feline cat named Luna.

Lisa Rizzo is the author of Always a Blue House (Saddle Road Press, 2016), a finalist in the 2016 National Federation of Press Women Awards, and In the Poem an Ocean (Big Table Publishing, 2011). Her work appears in journals including Longridge Review, The MacGuffin, Rain Taxi and Brevity Blog. She was a 2022 writer-in-residence at Craigardan Collective. Visit her in Portland, OR where she is busy at work on a memoir or at www.lisarizzowriter.com.

§ 8 Responses to When Memoir and Poetry Meet

  • jabuddha651 says:

    Great insight. “Just get it out there “!

  • Judy Reeves says:

    This is a beautiful accounting of the how and the why of your book, Tania, which I am reading now. In your poetry you have created images and used language that allows me to experience the emotion of your story, as well as the very physicality of those icy cold Illinois winters. (I’m only a short way into the book). I appreciate that poetry can sometimes tell a truth that we aren’t able to reach in prose–for both writer and reader. Thank you for expressing it so well here.

    • taniapoet says:

      Thank you so much for the close reading of the poems. It was my dream to bring readers to experience vicariously, to not overstate, to find the images that lead to the feelings. I’m of course driven to write the rest of the truth in prose, the truths I couldn’t articulate in poetry. It’s a beautiful problem (Gordian knot?) to untangle.

  • lgrizzo says:

    Judy, I’m glad you enjoyed reading Tania’s words.

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