Tania Pryputniewicz: In your poem, “You Belong,” you begin with the following lines: “She gave me a gift / her disclosure / her addiction.” Can you tell us about how addiction has been a gift?
Tina Pocha: Well, I was referring more so to disclosure being a gift, but I think it applies equally to addiction. You, see in India, where I was born and raised, we have a tradition where we mark a little black dot (with an eyebrow pencil or kohl stick) on the cheek of little children to “ward off evil.” Children, cute and innocent as they are, are thought to be “perfect” and thus the target of evil spirits and negative energy. So we put this little mark on them as if to say to the spirits, “Look, not perfect, go away, find another target!” Addiction, any kind of suffering really, can be like that–a little spot to remind us that we are not perfect, that we have work to do in this life. What work, you might ask. Well, for some it might be to find focus, for others it might be to learn self-containment. For me, it has been to learn compassion and to dissolve the ego. You see, I came up in a time and place (pre-feminist India) where I felt like I had a lot to prove. I had to be smarter than, better than, faster than everyone else. And this served me well in many ways–especially in the achievement-driven culture we live in today. But it also disconnected me from others, even those closest to me, my husband, my children, my friends. I found myself constantly in a hurry, impatient–why can’t you do twelve things at once? I do! I separated myself, held myself aloft. Suffering was incredibly grounding. It brought everything into perspective — what was important, what was painful, what was undoing. It returned me to love. This is why I use the word “belong” in the title.
Tania P: When you say, “suffering was incredibly grounding,” do you mean the process of recovery? Or reaching rock bottom?
Tina P: I think what I mean is that suffering can bring you back to reality (the earth—grounding) in a very direct and maybe even embodied way (we fall to the ground—cold tile floor). You can wander through life thinking you have it together, and then wham! That moment when you go, oh shit, this is a problem—it makes you realize that we all have something to work on. I’m thinking of Oprah, for example. Here is this woman, she is arguably one of the most successful and respected and beloved women in the world, yet she suffers with her weight, her addiction to food (okay, maybe I shouldn’t assume that she is a food addict—although she has spoken at length about her struggle to use food “normally”). It’s like this thing that we all have weighing on us—addiction, rape, all manner of suffering—it situates us in our lives in a way that is real and eye-opening and we can’t escape it. No matter all the material and intellectual busy-ness of our environments, no matter how great our lives are, there is always a shadow walking with us, this one thing that makes us (I think helps us) to do the work we are here to do. Robert Holden says, “There is a gift in everything.” When I first heard this I used to think what he meant was, “Even though this terrible thing is happening to me . . .” or “in spite of blah blah blah, something good will come of it.” Now I think the “terrible thing” is the gift. I don’t think I could have evolved into a compassionate human being (or one who is on her way to being a compassionate human being) without the suffering. I would not be able to understand (really understand in a visceral way) somebody else’s pain—I haven’t been able to understand someone else’s pain until I acknowledged my own. So in that sense, yes, it is suffering that has grounded me, not recovery
Tania P: Are there parallels between the process of arriving at a final draft of a poem and realizations that come up in the process of recovery?
Tina P: Yes, there are definitely parallels between arriving at a final draft of a poem and recovery. It is that dipping back and back and back, the recursiveness of writing and creating that makes the poem rich and full, just as circling back to a memory or a pain propels you forward, each time you pick up a little more momentum, a little more energy. And sometimes the poem, the recovery, continues to grow and develop long after it is “finished.” The words on the page may be fixed, but the meaning, the message continues to live and generate and resonate with each pass. So it is with recovery. Each day, each surrender, brings with it a deepening, an understanding that is new. Even with this interview, it has provoked me to think about the poem anew—what did I mean, what do I mean? And I imagine with each reading the answer will change, evolve.
Tania P: I’m thinking of the way the poem lets us see the gift between two people as the “disclosure” –the honesty, the bridge or way it connects and allows the speaker to not feel so alone at poem’s end. How is poetry similar to or different from “disclosure?”
Tina P: All my poems are, in essence, “disclosure.” I know, I know, the confessional poets went out with shag carpets and avocado green appliances, but for me, at least, writing has always been about expression and testimony. It’s about saying this is what I think/feel/ believe. It’s about exposure, about vulnerability. In fact, that’s how I see relationships as well. They are, as you say, built on “disclosure” and the trust that results from it. I think that is what moved me to write this poem. I was so touched by this person’s disclosure because I knew it was offered purely as a gift, as a way to include and surround and uplift. I know that seems counter-intuitive—how can someone’s disclosure about addiction be uplifting? But because the intent was or seemed to be to say, “Hey, you are not alone, welcome!” and because the “confession” was so matter of fact (here warm your feet on this), I felt uplifted—even on that “cold tile floor.” Poetry, too, has that way of including and building relationships—between not only the poet and the reader but between/amongst all the readers as well. Think of how we gather around words—whether in the physical presence of each other or not—and how those words pull us together into community.
Tania P: In a broader sense, what drew you to writing poems? How has poetry served you?
Tina P: The first poem I ever wrote was in response to a moment of crisis—someone else’s crisis. My professor’s wife was losing her battle with cancer, and he was dying with her, just melting away. And I felt helpless. And I wanted to do something. We had set up a rotation where we each took turns bringing them food, and shopping for them, and driving them places, but we couldn’t stop the grief. He was disappearing before our very eyes. So one day I just picked up a pen and wrote a poem. I needed some release. Ever since, poetry—writing in general—has been a way for me to release and get some relief. Poetry has also been a way for me to immerse myself in language and make something. I tend to be a left-brain-dominant person—rational, practical, linear—and have always envied the creatives in my life (my husband, my daughter) and their ability to make something beautiful. Poetry has been a way for me to harness some of my left-brain function (language) to cultivate and integrate my right-brain-function—intuition, emotion, and creativity. In fact, my goal, my intention for this stage of my life is integration—bringing together the polarities of left and right, masculine and feminine, logic and intuition. In Indian tradition, the marriage of Shiva and Parvati is thought to be symbolic of the ultimate integration of the soul, the achieving of enlightenment where we bring together all the (seemingly) disparate parts of our selves into one whole. I’m tired of living divided—head from heart, strength from tenderness—and poetry helps me to bring it all together.
Tania P: What role do you think labels, such as addict, or poet, play in one’s life?
Tina P: We use labels to make sense of the world—so and so is such and such. It’s a way for us to orient ourselves—North/South/East/West or Good/Bad or Happy/Sad—so I get why we are attached to our labels. Labels are also important in some developmental stages, adolescence for example, where we are trying to situate ourselves in the world and in relation to one another. In my own life, some labels (scholar, for example) have helped me to achieve great success; others (mother) have helped me to stay and persevere, even when I have felt incompetent and out of my element. But labels can also bring us great pain because they derive from ego—the same source of joy (getting an article published, for example) can also be a source of pain (failing to make tenure). The labels are not real. The real you doesn’t change from moment to moment. It’s just the ego. So another personal challenge for me the last three years has been to dissolve the ego, to rid myself of labels—even the ones that bring me joy. I can now nurture without being a “Mother;” I can write without being a “Scholar.” And yes, the highs are not as high, but neither are the lows as low. I recently wrote a blog post, “On Why I Am Not a Poet,” which received mixed responses. I think I may have offended some working poets who live the poet’s life with great passion and integrity. I think my rejection of the label “Poet” came off as a rejection of them, of all poets, and that was not my intention. I was trying to say that I want to reject all labels. I could equally have written a blog post titled, “On Why I Am Not a Mother” or “On Why I Am Not a Scholar” – both would have been true. I think what I am trying to say is that labels have been useful in my life, but ultimately they have been a way to separate myself.
Tania P: Finally, what does “recovery” mean to you?
Tina P: Recovery means starting anew. The tower has come tumbling down. You are sitting, cross-legged, rubble all around, with nothing and no one on the horizon. It reminds me of one of my favorite lines from the poet Masahide, “My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon.” It is that hopeful place from which all things are possible. For me, it began with a period of isolation, of being okay alone, of taking stock, being still, and then slowly putting the pieces back together, one at a time. I had to separate in order to regroup. It was a slow, gradual process. Recovery means you can circle back–to your original self, to the people you left behind–but also move forward, kind of like the gravitational slingshot maneuver used to propel Voyager into space. Recovery means healing–from the inside out. The old triggers, the old provocations find no ingress. The wound has scabbed over.
Tina Pocha was born and raised in Bombay, India. She is a scientist by training and a writer by avocation. She currently works as an academic in the field of language and literacy, and is a new and emerging poet with publications in Cadence Collective and Eunoia Review and more publications forthcoming in Hyacinth Press and East Jasmine Review. You can find more of her writing at www.tinapocha.com
A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Tania Pryputniewicz is a co-founding blogger for Tarot for Two and Mother Writer Mentor. Saddle Road Press published her debut poetry collection, November Butterfly, in 2014. Recent poems appeared or are forthcoming at Extract(s), NonBinary Review, One, Patria Letteratura, and TAB: The Journal of Poetry and Poetics. She lives in San Diego, California with her husband, three children, blue-eyed Husky, and two portly housecats. She can be found online at www.taniapryputniewicz.com.