Monday, October 23, 2023

TBR: Piano in the Dark by Nancy Naomi Carlson

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe. 


We don’t expect an elevator pitch from a poet, but can you tell us about your work in 2-3 sentences?


I’m so glad you mentioned that poets don’t really do elevator pitches, as the answer to “what’s this book about” is often nebulous. To borrow verbiage from the jacket copy, this book “fixes upon one of the few defenses we have to confront the body’s betrayals—our words…though in the end, even the world’s last word ‘forgets its name…has no word for this forgetting…” In a world scarred by pandemics, wars, and violent tribalism, the givens are gone—'talismans we clung to, believing/ we might be spared in some way/ by marking our doors/ with our own sacrificial blood.’”


What boundaries did you break in the writing of this book? Where does that sort of courage come from?


I’ve never before been asked this question, but YES, boundaries were broken on many fronts in the making of this book. Perhaps the biggest one was my decision to include a subtle theme of abortion in a poem, and a not-so-subtle poem about abortion itself. I hoped my story of making the decision to abort a pregnancy with a known inherited birth defect, not compatible with life, might help others understand why a woman might choose this option. With my day job training clinical mental health graduate students, we talk about how trust is key to any counseling relationship, and I felt that by including this topic near the end of the book I may have banked up enough trust from the reader to be willing to consider what I had to say about the topic.


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


I am very fortunate to have developed a close and meaningful relationship with Naveen Kishore, the founder and publisher of Seagull Books, located in Kolkata, and distributed by the University of Chicago Press, who not only has published the majority of my nine translations, but also my second full-length collection of poems, An Infusion of Violets (Seagull, 2019). We consider one another “family,” and when I approached him with this third full-length poetry volume, he enthusiastically agreed to publish it. Honestly, I can’t think of any lows here, and I never considered any other press.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


There are so many mantras running through my head. “The more you write the more you write” gets me through any writer’s block I may experience. Regarding managing expectations, I embrace the “don’t expect it” approach. For example, if you expect you’ll get something published/win a prize or a grant/ be invited to speak somewhere and it doesn’t come to pass, you can end up crushed, and sometimes to the point of never “putting yourself out there” again. If you expect something and it happens, you’re delighted, but since you expected it, the pleasure is somehow muted. If you don’t expect something and it doesn’t happen, you’re disappointed, but the disappointment is also muted, since you expected it wouldn’t happen. The greatest “high” for me is not expecting something that actually materializes!


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


Yes, this piece of advice also resonates with me. If you don’t discover something by the end of a poem, neither will the reader, and they might suspect you knew the ending before you’d even gotten into the poem. Similarly, they say the last poem of any book is the orchestration of the poems—how they unfurl over the course of the book. I’ve always considered myself a poet who explores dark themes, so the fact that I wrote several upbeat poems during the pandemic really surprised and pleased me. There’s even a poem about joy!


How did you find the title of your book?


Titles are one of the most difficult things for me to write. They need to be “in the same key” with everything that follows. I believe it was Ellen Bryant Voigt who said a title for a poem must be like a hat that fits every line. I originally was drawn to “Warden Heart” as a title, as it appeared in one of my poems and I remember Stanley Plumly particularly liking it for that poem, but in the end, I landed on “Playing Piano in the Dark” which turned into “Piano in the Dark.” The title comes from the poems, where I mention how my mother would play Chopin nocturnes for me as lullabies, and how Chopin himself preferred to play piano in the dark, even with an  audience present. (I could never do this, as I am never able to memorize any piano pieces I play, nor even poems I’ve written.) Since Piano in the Dark is dedicated to my mother, who died during the pandemic, I felt the title worked on a variety of levels.


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book?


Hmmm….well, there’s “My Goyishe Ex-Husband,” with “For eighteen years he was the chosen/ one to knead the challah dough:/ yeast and sugar dissolved in a tepid bath,/ oil mixed with eggs, flour sifted on top./ Flour dusted his hands like pollen…”
















DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.