Writer Mother Monster: Interviews with Authoresses, hosted by Lara Ehrlich
Guest: Tzynya Pinchback
Interview: November 12, 2020
Tzynya Pinchback writes poetry shaped like prose and essays that would rather be poems. She’s the author of How to Make Pink Confetti (Dancing Girl Press 2012) and her work appears in American Poetry Journal, Mom Egg Review, WOMR’s Poets Corner, and others. Tzynya is a finalist for 2020 Poet Laureate of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and mother to a 23-year-old daughter. She describes writer-motherhood in 3 words as: PRIMAL. THEATER. SANCTUARY.
Welcome to Writer Mother Monster. I’m your host, Lara Ehrlich, and our guest tonight is poet and mother Tzynya Pinchback. Before I introduce Tzynya, I want to thank all of you for tuning in and let you know that you can now listen to Writer Mother Monster as a podcast on all major audio platforms or read the interview transcripts at your leisure, all on writermothermonster.com. If you enjoyed this episode, please also consider becoming a Writer Mother Monster patron or patroness on Patreon. Your support helps make this series possible, and you can access that link on the website.
Now, I am excited to introduce to Tzynya. Tzynya Pinchbeck writes poetry shaped like prose and essays that would rather be poems. She’s the author of the poetry book How to Make Pink Confetti and has been published in American Poetry Journal, Mom Egg Review, Naugatuck River Review, Raising Mothers, and the Poets in Pajamas Reading Series. She’s also been broadcasted on WOMR’s Poet’s Corner. She often writes about nature, the Black woman body, and motherhood. A finalist for the 2020 Poet Laureate of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and writer-in-residence for The Cordial Eye Gallery and Artist Space, Tzynya is a first reader for the Lily Poetry Review. She also has one daughter, who is 23, and she describes writer motherhood in three words as “primal, theater, and sanctuary.” So welcome, Tzynya.
Hello. As you know, I had a great background with my Christmas tree. There are technology issues on my end, so I apologize for the delay, and for the bland background, but I’m literally sitting on top of my router. And there you have it.
That’s okay! So, you have a daughter who is 23.
Yes, she just finished college last year, and she should be in grad school in Rhode Island, but the pandemic kind of flipped that all upside down. She was going to either work part-time there or do an internship for a year and then go return to school for grad school, but with the pandemic, and because her job would put her in close proximity with the public, and I have a compromised immune system, she had to step away from that. Right now, we’re just kind of loafing around in the pandemic, in this house, probably driving one another crazy. So that’s my home life right now.
That sounds a little crazy. Tell us about the writing side, about your poetry, and then we’ll talk about writing motherhood.
Well, I have wanted to do essays for a long time. I’ve just been really intimidated by the process. I just started this year working on a collection of memoir essays that cover a period of about 10 years, up to the point that my father died. I’m still working on poetry—I mainly write poetry—and I’ve kind of shifted over the years. I wrote differently when my daughter was young. It’s almost like it was a completely different time or a different life.
I am also two years into remission from cancer. So starting in about 2017, my writing changed, my poetry changed, my voice became a lot more subtle, I think. In some weird way, getting cancer made me a better writer. It made me trust my voice more. It freed me up to write about whatever I wanted. The first piece that I published, I actually wrote during my first appointment with my oncologist to find out what my treatment was going to be for cancer. So much of what I write is about what scares me. I’m an easily frightened person. I’ve struggled with anxiety all my life. So there’s always been an entire catalogue of things I wouldn’t write about. I just wouldn’t approach them. I wouldn’t talk about them.
I guess when you get something like cancer, and you’ve got that looming over you, it kind of wipes out all of those reservations. So I feel like everything up to 2017 is a completely different voice, a completely different landscape. Since then, I’ve written a lot about death, obviously. And I’ve written about motherhood a lot more, and my daughter’s an adult now. In the work that I’m doing right now, the essays, I’m exploring the connection between my mother and me, and me and my daughter—a lot of exploring ways that I have failed as a mother or not lived up to my expectations or desires as a mother and just kind of interrogating myself. So there’s a lot of me, my mom, and my daughter in these essays. It’s very fun, it’s laughable, it’s sad. It’s a lot of everything.
You said that your writing has changed a lot, through all of these various shifts and milestones in your life. Can you tell us about how your writing changed before motherhood and then after you became a mother?
Before motherhood, I was very eager. I wrote all the time, every day. It was urgent, like an action item. It didn’t matter if I didn’t sleep, if I didn’t eat. It was something that I had to do all the time. And I remember when my daughter was born, I looked up one day, and I hadn’t written in about a year. And I didn’t notice it, which sounds really odd, because I have a lot of friends who are artists or writers, and for most of them, the idea of stepping away from your practice would almost be a betrayal.
I had my daughter young—I was 25—and I’d only been married for about four or five years, and all my friends were right at that point where they were finishing grad school, and they were publishing, and they were writing, and I was doing exactly the opposite. I was being a mom and having playgroups in a daze. I was so consumed with motherhood and wifehood, and I was so blissfully happy.
I remember trying to force myself over a year, when my daughter was about 2, to make myself write, the way I used to. “Let’s sit down every night at 10 o’clock.” And I would have outlines, and I would have topics and folders half started, and nothing came. I just didn’t have the desire. It just went away. I remember telling someone at the time that I was thinking of applying to a writing program, a close friend who was teaching at the program, and how I couldn’t find the words to capture how big this mothering was. I felt like it replaced the desire to write. So I just kind of let it. I just let it go. I didn’t apply to the writing program. And that was very difficult, very hard. I was very hard on myself about it, because I kept thinking that, you know, I’m acting like a 1950s housewife, baking bread and tending a garden and raising a toddler, when I should be documenting this and writing about it. It was very odd.
Then I got divorced, and I had a terrible divorce. My divorce itself lasted about a year, but all of it lasted 10 years. And then like clockwork, like overnight, I just woke up and I wanted to write something, and I didn’t have the time or the space. So I was still writing, but there was just so much going on. I just had maybe four or five years where I just said, “You know what? I’ll get back to it. I’ll just kind of write and put it aside and leave it in a drawer.”
And in 2007, I made the decision—my daughter was a little older, I had time away for her because she would go spend the summers and different holiday breaks with her dad—and I decided I’m going to do it. I’m going to go to grad school and work on my MFA. I had been writing for a couple of years. And I took that summer while she was away, and I went to a couple of workshops: I went to a workshop in Southern Georgia, I did a masterclass in Florida, and I worked all summer. I worked on my admission manuscript, and I workshopped it. I wrote, I revised, I got all my letters of recommendation, and I knew exactly where I was applying, I had interviews set up.
My daughter came back from summer visitation, and about three months later, she told me she’d been assaulted, and it had been going on for years. And everything just stopped. There was there was no writing, there was no—I mean, everything just stopped. It was like we just hit a brick wall. With all the fallout of that, I made a decision that I couldn’t work and be the kind of mother that I would have to be to get her through that and get her through to early adulthood. So I divorced writing, and just said, “You know what? Someday I’ll get back to it. When she graduates from high school, I’ll get back to it.” And that’s exactly what happened. I had the manuscript that I was going to use to apply to the MFA program, I submitted it to Dancing Girl Press, and it was published. And that was kind of my swan song, I guess.
That is such an awful and powerful story. I have a daughter who’s 4, so of course much younger, but I can imagine that if something traumatic were to happen to my daughter that it would take precedence over everything else in my life. And it doesn’t sound like that was a question for you. It sounded like, “This is the type of mother I need to be right now.” Could you talk a little bit about that and about how the type of mother that you expected to be and that you needed to be at different points during your life and your daughter’s life might have changed?
I thought I would be teaching while my daughter was in school—or my children, because I actually wanted four kids. I literally had my daughter and said, “Let’s do this again—like four more times, right away.” So, in my mind, I would have one child walking beside me, one in a sling on my chest, and a double stroller. This was my fantasy. And I would write at night when they were asleep. And I would teach writing workshops, part-time, on the weekend. Everything was going to be perfect. You know, I’d be cooking from scratch and baking and sewing and just doing everything perfect. I had a very unrealistic idea of motherhood.
Despite the precarious relationship I have with my mother at times, my mother was very good at juggling. My mother made it to every PTA meeting, she always cooked from scratch, and we always looked perfect going to school. Everyone loved her, she was very charming, and she was always volunteering. So, I just figured that’s what would happen for me. And somehow, I would also be this very prolific writer, cranking out content all the time. I don’t know where I came up with this. But when I first became a single mom, I let go of some of that.
To some extent, I think I kind of held that expectation. But when I decided in 2007 that I was going to let writing go for a while, I didn’t have it as an outlet—and writing has always been something that I use. I journal for myself. It’s a way for me to understand things that are going on. So when I let go of that, all I did was sit with my own guilt. The first thing I thought, when my daughter started flying out of state to spend summers and holidays with her dad, was, “Now I can write. Now I can work on going to grad school. Now I can get this manuscript together.”
So the first thing I thought was, “Was I too focused on my art to notice that my daughter was being abused when she was away from me?”
Then I started to think of the nights before I put her on a plane or the days leading up to her leaving. As much as I would miss her, and I was preparing to miss her, I was so excited about writing, because my two greatest loves in life have been motherhood and writing. I spent years after that stricken with guilt: How much time was I putting into that? All those nights she called, and I was busy because I was up late writing—because I had to go to my day job—and I just rushed her off the phone and said goodbye and goodnight, was she trying to tell me something? Was I missing something because I was worried about the perfect enjambment in a poem?
So, it took me a long time. And I would say, it’s also what kept me from returning to writing, even after she graduated from high school and went to college. My daughter would call me once a week, every Friday after class, and say, “Are you writing? Are you working on your novella?” And I would say, “I am. I’m going to do it.” But it took that point, from around 2007 until 2017, for me to get sick and to realize that I just got to let some of this shit go. I think that’s why my writing changed a lot. I couldn’t carry everything. So I was forced to let some things go. So it’s probably made me a much better writer, because I can focus on other things.
Previous guests have talked about loss of control and how that changed their writing, whether it was a divorce or an illness. It sounds like you’re saying that you had to lose the control that you’d been trying to have over your writing, over your daughter’s recovery, over all of these things—and that might be when the writing could actually come, when you gave into that loss of control. I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit, but also about the word “guilt,” which you’ve used a couple of times. And, of course, the situation that you’re describing is a traumatic one, but I’ve heard other mothers—I think almost every other mother who’s also a writer—use the word “guilt” in relation to their writing, because it’s taking them away from something else that is also important to them. So can you talk a little bit about the loss of control and that guilt?
I am a control freak. I’m not a perfectionist. I don’t want to control other people, but anything in relation to me, I really need it to move a certain way. And motherhood tears that up it. There are so many ways that so many things are out of control when you become a mother. Even being pregnant, the way you may think you’re going to be pregnant. When I was pregnant, I had my birthing plan spelled out to the T. I knew how I was going to give birth, how I was going to deliver, I wasn’t going to use any drugs, what I was going to wear—all the way down to my socks. None of that came to pass, except my labor was really fast and hard, so I didn’t even get a chance to use drugs, even if I’d wanted to.
But you would think with motherhood that I would have learned to give up some control. My daughter was a fairly easy child. She didn’t push back that much and was very self-maintained, so it was very easy to put these parameters around things. But everything else in my life was out of control. Everything. My day job—I moved across three states because of my job. Just everything. And writing is something that I can control, to an extent, or I guess I thought I could. When I had to make a choice to step away from it, that was that was really it. I needed to control something. I had control over whether or not I would write. So I chose not to. Because if I were writing, I couldn’t write up to my expectations, I couldn’t write as often as I wanted to, I couldn’t enter grad school when I wanted to, if I wanted to. So I made the choice out of my need to have control or maintain some agency in my life. I decided to divorce writing. That can be a feeling of power and authority, in some way, and that kind of took over me missing it as much as I did.
You mentioned that you started writing again when you were diagnosed with cancer and lost that sense of control. Tell us about how your writing then changed with that diagnosis. You said you started writing about different subjects and that death became more prevalent in your poetry.
I started writing about nature. I’d never written about nature before. I had a teacher in third grade, Mrs. Grace Williams—great English teacher—and all we read for a year was Robert Frost. Extra credit if we would write about Robert Frost. Extra credit if we would read his biography. And I remember thinking, “I’m never, ever going to write about snow or trees ever in my life. Like ever.” And when I got sick, pain is a very interesting thing. It’s so violent. And it’s like a bull in a china shop. That’s a terrible cliché. I apologize for that. But it’s just—it’s there. It’s loud. It’s obnoxious. So I felt like my writing had to shrink. It’s like I was writing to find peace of mind, writing to get away from all that. I would sit up at night sometimes. I don’t know why pain seems to find you at night. I don’t know what that is about. I would be in so much pain, between doses of pain medication. And I would have nothing to do. I would just read and write.
I was writing about trees a lot, surprisingly. I was writing about seabirds. At the time, we lived right across the street from the harbor, so you could hear the birds every evening. These were the things that comforted me. And there also was some comfort in writing about death—not necessarily my death, but just in general. Not as this looming monster or someone showing up at the doorstep with a black robe. More like, “I’m an inevitable thing, like the sunrise.” It brought me peace of mind, which is what I really, really wanted it at the time, being someone who really has a need for control.
Getting sick just threw all that out the window. I couldn’t rely on my own body. I had no control over my body. Things that didn’t bother me before, bothered me. Things that never hurt before, hurt. And I was in the hands of a whole care team. I had two separate oncologists, a gynecologist, a chemo teacher. I had five or six different people that I was having to see and talk to when reading reports, and it was so overwhelming, that when I was to sit down to write, or when I would think to write, or even things that I would notice—like, I would be in the chair in the treatment room, about to hook up the port for chemo, and I would be watching this person inject a syringe full of chemo cocktail—mine was purple—into my port, and I’m thinking the whole time about the hem on his shirt and just how intricate the stitching is. I’d asked him about it, and he said that he’d gotten the shirt when he was on vacation years ago. A woman had made it by hand. And I start thinking about what her hands must be like if she’s been doing this for four or five years. Were her fingertips raw or calloused? Were her hands like my mother’s hands? And I started thinking about what she does when she’s done stitching. Does she cook? Does someone else cook for her? Things like that. And that’s what I wanted to write about.
I wanted to write about small bits of beauty. That’s all I wanted to write about. I wrote about my aunt’s death. She died years before, and I had never written about it. It was really devastating for me, because I was the closest child. I wrote about her, when I was going through cancer. She died from cancer, as well. I wrote specifically about how my mother and her sisters took care of her. Even though she was dying, they were would play music, and they’d all eat ice cream and sing and laugh.
The sicker I got, the more I just wanted to find and write about beautiful things. I think it really infused my writing. It also made me stop and think and look at different things. I noticed things I’d never noticed before, small things. When you’re really sick, you start to notice little things. Like, you notice, when you’re driving back from the cancer center, someone that’s skipping down the street, like a little 7-year-old, skipping, and you just instantly remember that unbridled joy of skipping through a hopscotch pattern. Then I’d go home, and I write about that memory, drawing hopscotch in front of my house when I was a little girl.
My writing has changed a little bit since then, but I really think that’s where I am now. I’m always trying to find some beauty. Regardless of what I’m writing about, I really want to start with beauty or end with beauty. It doesn’t matter what it is. That’s my dream, my motivation. At this point, it doesn’t matter if it’s an essay, poetry, fiction—it doesn’t matter what it is. I just really want there to be a starting point of something beautiful, even if the only beauty in the work is the language.
How do you define beauty? Can you find beauty through language when writing about something that one might not immediately think of as beautiful?
I think that’s where you find it. I have a work in progress, a small collection of poems, a chapbook manuscript that I’m finalizing, if I ever get around to it. Now that we have the pandemic, I’ve kind of used it as an excuse to just leave it to the side and work on other stuff. But a lot of the pieces in there are about illness.
I have a piece about pain. The longest piece in there is a prose poem, and it’s about blood. It’s about the first time I had my menstrual cycle—the very first experience—and the very last time, which was during chemo, because of chemo. It kind of navigates through all these different times that blood showed up in my life. I’m seeing someone attacked on a bus and they have blood smeared on their face. I’m being present when a relative had a miscarriage, and there was no one there and I was 12, so I had to help her. It’s very difficult to write about. The only way to really get into it and get through it is to have the language, the timing of it, the language has to be beautiful.
And there is some beauty in blood, too. Blood is not always terrible. When you give birth, there’s blood. That would be an example. And I’m pretty sure there have been times when we were late, and, you know, seeing blood is actually a relief.
I didn’t know if I wanted to put that in the collection. It’s the last piece that I wrote for it, because I kept going back and forth. And I decided, we’re adults, right? We can read about blood. We can talk about blood. So that is an example. When I wrote that, I knew I was going to have to write it in a way that the language was where you’d find the beauty. Because I wanted to really, really capture the stark, the rage, the first blush of it, the ending of it, the remorse when you lose it and don’t have it anymore—I wanted to be able to capture all of those different emotions, but I didn’t want the language to be weighted down with emotion and pathos. I just wanted the language to be beautiful, when it needs to be, and easily accessible all throughout. I think you always have to fall back on the language.
That was so beautifully said. I wonder if your daughter has read your work. And if she has read your work, have you talked about it with her? Do you know what she thinks?
You know, Elizabeth used to read my work a lot. And I have one piece that I wrote specifically for her. You would think that I would write a lot about her. I don’t. These essays that I’m working on now are probably the most that I’ve written about her, but they’re really about me and she’s there.
Elizabeth reads amazingly. She’s a well-read girl. She’s very bookish. She’s an amazing editor. Shameless plug: if someone is looking for a young person to edit or proofread their work, she’s great. I’ll go to her when I’m kind of iffy on something and say, “What does this sound like?” But if I am writing something that is about her … that’s something I’ve had to navigate for a while now, maybe 8 to 10 years.
My story as her mother diverges from her story, and there’s a line there. I can’t tell her story. But sometimes there’s a really, really thin thread between my story and my experience, and she’s a part of it. So if I’m ever writing anything that I think may start to intrude on her space or her narrative, then I will take it to her, and I’ll ask her before I even start, and then I’ll show her the final work. I never want to, in telling my story, intrude on her story. I’m really careful. And that’s hard, because I’m the mom and I’m the writer. I don’t want to be accountable, I don’t want to be edited, I don’t want to be censored, but at the same time, I don’t want to do harm.
So we’ll go over different pieces and different work. One of these essays I’m working on is about a time when I had a few lovers. It’s really weird, because she was probably around 6 or 7. I had three lovers at the time—at the same time—just casual lovers that were interchangeable, because that’s all I really had space for, and that’s all I wanted. I was in a workshop, and we were talking about specificity and details and description, and I couldn’t remember what they looked like. I couldn’t remember their hair color. They just became kind of like shadow puppets. I talked to Elizabeth about it, because she’ll notice when I’m kind of aggravated with something I’m writing. I told her, and I thought, do I want to have this conversation with a 23-year-old? But you know, she’s 23, not 13, and she was like, “Yeah, Mom, I knew you had your stuff going on.”
When I’m being really, really open, I’m still her mom, so I still want her to see me kind of the way she did when she was 13. It’s a little overwhelming sometimes to think that she’s going to see me kind of splayed out and writing about my flawed decisions. But at the same time, maybe her reading that and knowing that will help her when she’s got to make a decision in the future. I would rather her think or understand just how flawed and how many mistakes I made, and how I went to bed every night doubting if I’d made the right decision or made the wrong choice. I think it’s great for her to understand that. There’s no perfect way to be a mom or a woman or a human.
Lara Ehrlich 48:06
You talked a little bit about the expectations that you had for motherhood, because your own mother seemed perfect to you. It sounds like a learning process there. And I’m constantly battling that myself. My mother was the same: she seemed like the perfect mom. And then when you become a mother yourself, it’s this constant doubt of whether you’re living up to that example. And you told me, before the interview started, that you had some thoughts you wanted to share about what you hope for your daughter, as far as her prioritizing career and family and how all of these things can balance out. So can you talk a little bit about what you would hope for Elizabeth?
I always tell her to really indulge her professional desires. My daughter loves school, loves academics. She cannot wait to return to school next year. I tell her to just go for it. Do all of it that you want to do before you make the decision to start a family. Not that you need to do a certain amount of time in school or working on your career before you start having relationships and planning a family, just that when you become a mother, it’s a whole thing. You never know when you might have to make a decision to step away from something else. You might have to give up what you love doing, because you now have this obligation—you have this human that you have to nurture and prepare to be a bit citizen of the world. I didn’t do that.
And it’s really weird, because I don’t regret that I didn’t do it. I don’t even regret getting married, because I really feel that if I had married anyone else, or if I had a child with anyone else, then I would not have had my daughter. I feel like I never could have had Elizabeth with anyone else at any other time. She had to have been born in ’97. And I had to have had gotten pregnant with her father. I always tell her that if I could go back in time, then six weeks after I had her, I would have bundled her up to go to the pharmacy or the pediatrician, and we just would have gotten on a plane and left the country and never turned back. But I would have gone through all that to get her again, as a baby.
It’s not that I don’t think motherhood is important, or parenthood, for that matter. But I’m 48, and I can honestly say, I have the writing career today that I wanted to have at 28—that I thought I would have at 28. That’s fine for me. I’m almost 50 and an emerging writer. I’m really happy with that. But I know there are some things that I probably will not accomplish. There are some goals that I probably won’t be able to reach, just by virtue of age, time, financial obligations.
As a mother, I think you always want your children to be really fulfilled. So if my daughter’s dream was to, you know, work in a bakery and decorate cupcakes all day, then I would say, “Indulge that, and do that, and don’t give up on that, and don’t trade that for anything.” My daughter wants to be a professor of linguistics. Do that. Don’t put it off and think that you can come back to it. I really thought that she would graduate high school, I’d send her to college, and then I would enter into an MFA program, take off work for two years, I’d set aside funds to do it—and then I got cancer. All of those funds went to getting through cancer treatment. Literally, it just jack-knifed, just like that.
So I think, in my Pollyanna, rose-colored glasses, I just want her to have everything she wants. Realistically, that never happens. We know that. We understand that. So just follow your heart. Don’t give up on it. Don’t settle. You will have to compromise, because that’s life, but don’t settle. I probably could have done a little more. I was very enamored with being in love when I was in college, pursuing my undergraduate studies. I could have devoted a little more time to academics, and I didn’t. I was doing other things.
But that’s really what I tell her: Pursue what you want. If you decide, after entering grad school, that you don’t like it, then leave. If you decide you want to study something else, study something else. If you want to get married, and you’re fine, you’re happy, and this is what you really feel and you’re not running away from something, you’re not running toward something … because that’s what I did: I got married at 21 because I was running away from home, I was running away from my mother, I was running away from expectation, I was running away from disappointment. And that’s never going to end well. It’s just not.
It seems like it when you’re 25, when you think, “Oh, I’ll pick it up in 10 years.” A lot can happen in 10 years. So I always tell her, follow your heart, and follow it all the way through. If you just saw that you need to change something up, change it. Just do what’s going to bring you joy and make you happy and make you solid and fulfilled at the end of the day, no matter how many times you have to change it. But I am glad that she’s not married at 23, like I was.
I think that’s great advice for young people—for young women, particularly—but also just for any listeners out there. It’s great advice for me, as an almost-40-year-old person, that it’s not too late to commit to something that you are passionate about and move forward. And you might not have the career that you envisioned for yourself at 15 or 16, but it still has the potential to be fulfilling. Thank you so much for your honesty and for your thoughtfulness. And thank you, to your daughter, for allowing us to touch on some of these subjects that I know must have been difficult. We really appreciate your time and your showing up this evening.
Sorry that I had to come in and build a little fort right around my router, but that’s what happens, right?
We made it work. And I can’t wait to read the next book that you’re working on. It sounds beautiful.
I need to get off of it and finish it. I just let it sit for three months. It’s time.
We’ll all be waiting for it. You have a readership ready and waiting.