friday feast: chatting with barbara etlin about antique piano & other sour notes

Extremely cool cover art by Kevin Slattery

I’m just sitting here tickling the ivories, tickled pink that author, poet, fellow blogger and online friend Barbara Etlin has just published her very first book of poetry! Hoo Hoo!

In between tending her tulips, perfecting owl calls and waiting on HRH Echo (genius good-looking-poetry-writing dog), Barb has managed to cook up 33 mostly humorous, tickle-your-fancy poems exploring “the crescendos and diminuendos of life.”

Call Antique Piano & Other Sour Notes a quirky smorgasbord, a recital of finely-tuned off key musings and amusings about everything from “broken hearts to broken appliances.” It’s fitting that she’s chosen a musical theme for this collection, since she loves to play with lyrics by parodying popular songs and referencing favorite artists like Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles.

Barb’s fave art deco vase.

Writers, especially, will appreciate the ode to an electric typewriter and the memo to Lewis Carroll from the Seven Maids’ Union. For minimalists, Barb has included four haiku; for mind-benders, a conversation between refrigerator magnets; for pet lovers, two barks and a meow; and if you’re feeling spacier than normal, check out the “Etiquette for Astronauts.” For the first time ever, we get to hear the Moon’s side of things (and it’s a little dark)!

I asked Barb to share some tips about humor writing and self publishing, and I was curious about the antique piano. Of course I also asked for a favorite recipe (yes, it’s chocolate!). And, as a special added treat especially for you animal lovers, we’re serving up a sample poem from the book by Echo himself (it’s a good thing Barb takes good dictation). Ruff!

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Humor is hard to write successfully because it’s so subjective. Are you a naturally funny person, and do you have any tips for those wanting to write humorous poetry?

Yes. The symptoms showed up early.

When I was five and playing with my vegetables at the dinner table, my father told me, “Eat the brown stuff first.” I knew he intended me to eat the roast beef before the vegetables. But for fun, I decided to take him literally, and reached for a slice of chocolate cake. I think that was the last time either of my parents patronized me.

When I was seven, without warning, my teacher asked another girl and me to entertain a Grade One class. Using my hand puppets, we improvised a funny play and were a huge success.

I’ve never met a pun I could resist. On my application letter for the position of retail copywriter, I wrote, “I enjoy playing with words.” My future boss, Tom, was another punster. He later said that was the reason he hired me.

Bored with describing a tent in fewer than 50 characters, I decided to test whether Tom was checking my work before sending it upstairs to the buyers. I signed my pages, “E. Hemingway” or “F.S. Fitzgerald.” I got away with it until the day a buyer phoned Tom and demanded, “Let me speak to E. Hemingway!” I heard a loud, “What?! Who?!” coming from Tom’s cubicle. “Barb! Get in here!” After he bawled me out, we had a good laugh.

Humour Tips:

–      Keep a notebook handy. When you see or hear something funny, write it down before you forget it.

–      Don’t try to be funny in the first draft. You can rework it later.

–      Humour involves surprising the reader.

–      One way a poet can create surprise is choosing unusual line breaks.

–      The last word, whether in a line or an entire poem, is the strongest. Save the punch line, best image, or surprise twist for the end.

–      Another way to add humour is through repetition.

Echo, who learned his poetry technique from me, does this in his poem, “Believe You’re a Puppy and Other Advice from Echo.” (No, Echo; you can’t share my royalties. Trust me; you don’t want to have to explain why you need an Employer Identification Number from the IRS.)

HRH Echo

Tell us about “Antique Piano.” Why did you decide to name your book after this particular poem?

The short answer: My critique group, The Feathered Pens, insisted.

The longer version: Revenge. That piano caused me so much aggravation, both entering the house and leaving it, that I knew I had to get back at it by writing a poem.

My mother gave her art deco baby grand piano to Michael and me as a wedding gift. We asked the piano mover whether he could get it up our angled staircase, to place it in our second-floor living room. He measured and assured us that it would fit.

On moving day, he discovered it didn’t fit. We had to put it in storage for a week until he could try again–this time with a crane, through the 6’x5’ picture window.

Our renovator and an assistant removed the window. The crane hoisted the piano safely through the space and the movers placed it against the wall.

But when they replaced the window, it cracked! We had to board up the window and hire a glazier to replace it. Total cost: $1,300.

We enjoyed our piano for 18 years, until we moved to a condo, where there was no room for a baby grand piano.

I had so much trouble finding a new home for it—on a deadline–that I developed hives.

I figure that piano owes me.

Using Antique Piano & Other Sour Notes as the title conveniently inspired me to develop a musical theme.

I love Kevin Slattery’s cover art! Can you tell us how the two of you worked together to create a design that perfectly captures the quirky humor of this collection?

Photo of graphic artist Kevin Slattery by Trish Crapo/The Recorder

I became friends with Kevin through our blogs. Not only did I admire his fun celebrity caricatures, I soon discovered his quick wit. When I needed a book cover, I knew that he would be the perfect designer. Also, he had experience in the self-publication process. So far, he’s written and illustrated four highly imaginative graphic novels.

A potential problem with the title was that people who were casually browsing online might mistake it for a text about antiques or pianos. The cover needed to show, even in a thumbnail size, that its genre was humour.

But beyond knowing that I wanted a piano—the piano–in the design, I was thinking too realistically. One early idea was a piano dangling precariously from a crane in front of my former house. That wouldn’t have used Kevin’s portraiture skill. We needed a person in the design, but who?

We brainstormed by email. I listed a bunch of off-the-wall ideas. On the list was the concept of placing either Neil Armstrong or an anonymous astronaut on the moon, playing the piano. We decided to make him a generic astronaut instead of a realistic portrait. I especially like the flipped face on the back cover, which looks as if the astronaut is peeking mischievously over his shoulder.

I asked him for art deco typefaces to complement the 1927 piano and the text display typeface. Kevin offered several possibilities and placements and I chose my favourites.

At each stage Kevin showed me a variety of options. Being an art director was like being let loose in a gourmet chocolate store, only with fewer calories. A good cover designer, like a shrink or an editor, elicits the hidden treasures in your subconscious. It was a blast working with him.

Click to find out more about Kevin’s graphic novel magazines.

Who or what do you find funny?

Incongruity. Things going wrong: “Misdialled.” Exaggeration to the point of absurdity. Finding the ridiculous in the ordinary: “Something Is Rotten.”

How long have you been writing poetry?

Although I wrote “Ode to Elmer” at my copywriting job in 1977, I began writing poetry seriously in 1997. I belonged to an online poetry workshop with weekly challenges. We learned about different poetic forms, critiqued each other, and voted for a winner, who would choose the next challenge. I wrote “Heartbreak Kid” for a ghazal challenge. “Stevie Wonder’s Sunshine” won second place (out of 42) in a challenge to write about a celebrity. Although that was a serious tribute, I discovered that my best poems were usually humorous.

Who are some of your favorite poets and how have they influenced your work?

Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” for the rhythm, the nonsense, and the owl. (There can never be enough owl poetry!) Ogden Nash for his wit. Dorothy Parker for her snarky cynicism.

Lewis Carroll’s surrealism and invented words delight me. I parodied his “The Walrus and the Carpenter” in my poem, “The Seven Maids Form a Union,” using the same meter and his ABAB rhyme scheme.

Do you have any tips to share with aspiring poets considering the self-publishing route?

Print-on-Demand or E-Publication?

Poetry, especially by a debut author, has a limited market. Because of that, and because my agent doesn’t handle poetry collections, I decided to self-publish Antique Piano & Other Sour Notes.

It was important to me to publish in paperback form. I really did lose some poems when I moved. Websites featuring my poems disappeared or had technical difficulties resulting in lost data. I had to recreate some poems from memory. For me, a paperback is more permanent.

Also I wanted the book to be beautifully packaged. I was willing to buy a custom book cover design, a template with interesting but legible typefaces, and a logo.

You have much less creative control over the way an e-book looks. An e-reader allows the reader to change the type size, messing up the formatting. For some poems, for example, concrete poetry, the look is essential. It is feasible (but difficult) to do this with print-on-demand. It would be impossible with e-publishing.

If these factors aren’t important to you, e-publishing is a less expensive option. Because it doesn’t cost you much, you can sell your book for less and attract more readers. It still requires a lot of work because you need a different format for each distribution channel (Kindle, etc.)

Self-publishing tips:

–      It sounds intimidating but it’s easier than you think.

–      Proofreading is essential. Hire a professional if possible. He or she can also fix formatting mistakes, and you will have them!

–      Think about how you are going to promote the book and establish a web presence before you need it.

–      Useful book: APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur—How to Publish a Book by Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch

–      Useful websites:

–       The Other Side of the Desk (Linda M. Au,  my proofreader):

–      Streetlight Graphics (covers, formatting, etc. They did my logo.)

–      Kevin Slattery Art (artist, my cover designer)

–      Book Design Templates (useful information about book construction as well as templates)

How do you plan to promote your book?

Despite my copywriting background, I’m not a hard-sell kind of person. One advantage of self-publishing is that you have time to build online relationships and network gradually.

Kevin will design bookmarks that I can keep in my purse to hand to people who ask where they can buy my book.

I have most of the usual social media hangouts.

–      website:

–      blog:

–      website for Deco Owl Press:

–      Google Plus:  Barb Etlin

–      Pinterest:

–      Twitter:

Many of my online friends and acquaintances are writers. I joined Pinterest and Twitter to reach out to new people who may not be writers but may appreciate humour or poetry. (Or a kids’ novel.)

I participate in a few writing forums. They usually allow you to put a link in your signature.

I’m a moderator on the SCBWI/Verla Kay Blueboard.

There I use my book’s cover as an avatar. I think that is a subtle but effective way of reminding people about it.

I’ve added the appropriate links to my email signature.

Is there anything else you want readers to know about your book?

Thanks for interviewing me, Jama. You asked some thought-provoking questions!

Antique Piano & Other Sour Notes is available from Amazon:

Oh, and here’s some astronaut humour:

Q: If athletes get athlete’s foot, what do astronauts get?

A: Missile toe.

Please share a favorite recipe and provide a little backstory about it.

Writers with impossible deadlines don’t have time to fuss in the kitchen. But we still need our chocolate! Here’s a quick way to get your chocolate fix and get back to your work-in-progress.

The recipe comes from Foods Flavored for Friends by Anne Byrd, Pace Publications, 1977, p. 33.


  • 1 (6-oz.) package Semi-Sweet Chocolate Bits
  • 2 tablespoons sugar (optional)*
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon Grand Marnier
  • 3/4 cup whole milk (or half-and-half or cream)

*Add the sugar if a sweet rather than semi-sweet flavor is desired.

Put all the ingredients except milk in a food processor or blender. Blend for one minute.

Meanwhile, heat the milk to just below the boiling point. While still hot, pour milk into the blender. Blend one minute. Pour into pots. Cover and chill one hour.

(Serves 6)

I find it perfect without the sugar.

I find whole milk is perfect. Someone I gave the recipe to substituted skim milk, but it didn’t set.

I’ve brought this to my friend’s New Year’s Eve party for many years. When we didn’t show up one year, apparently several people asked, “Does this mean there are no pots de crème?!”

When transporting this, it’s tricky to carry 12 little pots on a tray. Yes, I make a double serving for a party. I’ve successfully made a double portion and poured it into a big bowl, making the second blending immediately after. You do have to wash out the blender between blendings.

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Today’s guest poet


Accept compliments graciously. (They’re all true, anyway.)

Keep nudging for treats.

Rules for effective nudging:
1. Gently touch your human with your nose.
2. Observe every time human puts food on her fork. Watch the trajectory carefully. If it falls on the floor, it’s yours!
3. If your human eats too neatly, put your head on her thigh and gaze adoringly at her. Works every time.

Eat each meal as if someone were going to take it away from you.

Keep nudging for treats.

Life is an eat-all-you-can buffet table.

Flowerbed fences provide a high-jumping challenge.

Guard the door from invasions by mail, newspapers and advertising flyers.

Chinese Food Delivery requires your utmost vigilance. Stay near the front door, in High Alert mode. The food could come at any time. Bark at any sound that might be a delivery car in the driveway. (You don’t want it to get cold, do you?)

Keep nudging for treats.

Greet new dogs with a polite sniff, circle, leash tangle, and play invitation.

A well-timed burp is an excellent way to participate in human conversation.

Human “garbage” is often the tastiest of treats.

“Birthday” is a ridiculous human concept. Accept the praise and the extra treats, but otherwise, ignore it.

You’re a puppy as long as you believe you’re a puppy.

Always believe you’re a puppy.

Dance with your leash.

~ from Antique Piano & Other Sour Notes, posted by permission of the author, copyright © 2014 Barbara Etlin. All rights reserved.

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Join me now in slurping your congratulations to Barb on a job well done!

Today’s Special: Piano Potage (seasoned with sweet and sour notes and a dash of élan)
Whoooooo is she, anyway?

Although Barbara Etlin claims to have been an owl in a previous life, there is no evidence to substantiate this. She attended the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop twice, so she must be twice as funny. As she used to be. Or something. Besides poetry and journalism, she writes novels for children. She lives in a nest in Toronto, where she lives with one patient husband, one genius dog, two electronic cats, and about 300 owls. Antique Piano & Other Sour Notes, her first book, is a collection of mostly humorous poems. Maybe by putting them into a book she won’t lose them again.

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poetryfriday180The lovely and talented Margaret Simon is hosting today’s Roundup at Reflections on the Teche. Zoom over and check out the full menu of delectable poetic goodies being shared in the blogosphere today.


*Owl sandwich prepared by Mr. Cornelius and later eaten by Len (who’s been hooting ever since).

Copyright © 2014 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

56 thoughts on “friday feast: chatting with barbara etlin about antique piano & other sour notes

  1. What’s not to love about this post? That Art Deco vase! The piano (gorgeous even if a royal pain)! Cornelius’s cookie keyboard–so cool! A chance to see Slats’ work–it’s been a while since we were all on Yellow Board. Fun–and funny–from start to finish. And with more yucky stuff falling from the sky this morning, a visit at Jama’s place is a real treat.


    1. This new book is just the thing to shake us out of our winter doldrums. We need fun! We need to laugh!! We need to eat cookie and Kit Kat piano keyboards and owl sandwiches🙂.


  2. What a treat! Those are good writing tips, and it was great to hear more about that piano behind the poem. And I loved hearing about the cover design process with Slatts. It’s like an LJ reunion. Congratulations, Barb!


    1. Sigh, yes, the old LJ neighborhood! So wonderful to see two friends collaborating like this. I’d never thought of writing a poem to get piano revenge — truly a hoot🙂.


  3. Brilliant post, Jama. Thanks for introducing Barbara. That chocolate story is hilarious! And the book sounds great


  4. Hurray for beautiful pianos, never really left behind, and for lovely poems, lost and recovered. This is such a joyful post for those of us who met Barb back in the LJ neighborhood, and who’ve managed to stay connected, even when the moving trucks rolled up to the curb, again and again, taking with them our over-the-back-fence conversations.

    I’m knelling for you, Barb. And I’m so enjoying this online party! Thanks for hosting us, Jama. xo


    1. So true, Melodye — I’m grateful for those lasting LJ connections, and celebrating Barb’s book feels like the good old days again🙂. Love that Slatts did the cover too.


  5. Yah! Thanks for this delightful chat, Jama! I think I’ll make some chocolate pots de crème to celebrate!

    Echo barks his approval, too, and wants those yummy dog biscuits!


    1. Hooray for you and Echo and Slatts! Had fun putting this post together. Thanks again for your good answers, writing advice, and for publishing this book.🙂


  6. THANKS, Jama, for the great interview with Barb and the serious nod to “that cover designer” (didn’t expect THAT—you know, you’re not suppose to judge a book by its cover!)

    It was a BLAST (pun intended) working with Barb. The astronaut playing piano on the moon (in an art deco style) was a slight departure from my usual but so much fun once we landed on the design and look she wanted.

    I was very pleased how it came it out. I like having my “almost first” book cover (I did a surreal cover for a collection of writers with an Emily Dickinson theme many years ago) be for a witty and funny poet (and a cool friend) like Barbara Etlin!

    Again, thanks!


    1. While you can’t judge a book by its cover, we all know how crucial it is to have a good cover to garner attention and sell a book. Fabulous job all around. Seriously, if I just happened to see this cover online or in a bookstore, I would totally pick up the book to see more. It’s so unique, especially for a book of contemporary poetry — breath of fresh air.


  7. Three hoots says it all! Yay for Barb’s venture out, and true, we don’t judge a book by its cover, but we get to love both, right? Happy to join everyone for soup here!


    1. It’s fun to hoot both for the cover and the contents of this cool new book. Feeling proud to know both Kevin and Barb (of the LJ Bob Dylan/Beatles fan club).🙂


  8. I tend not to be so funny in my writing, so loved hearing all the tips Barbara shared, and to see her first book, looking delightful. How can we not be entertained when thinking of an astronaut “playing away”! Echo is an added surprise! Thanks for every bit, Jama, pots de creme too! I’ve never made it, & now know that I can!


    1. I’m anxious to try the recipe, too — sounds so easy.🙂 True, we don’t often get to see cool astronauts playing the piano in space. And how about that Echo — he should write his own book now.


    2. Linda and Jama, this is one of the easiest recipes ever. Prep time is five minutes, plus one hour of waiting for it to chill.

      Thanks, Linda! I’m glad you joined the party!


  9. Loved those humor tips, and Echo’s advice. And of course I’ll need to try those chocolates pots de creme!
    I hope Cornelius is enjoying practicing on his delicious piano!


  10. Fascinating interview, Jama! Barbara’s tips are practical and accessible – perfect for every writer. It is interesting the hear the whole self publishing aspect of it all. I’m envious of Cornelius’ piano – I love those wafer cookies! Yum! = )


    1. Cornelius reports that the piano was delicious.

      I liked Barbara’s tips too. Self publishing is an entirely different ball game these days, so this information is relevant and valuable.


  11. Oh wow, Jama, this is a terrific interview indeed. Thank you for introducing me to Barbara’s poetry. Lots of things to love here from old pianos to learnings about self-publication, quirky humor, and signing oneself off as E. Hemingway. I should try that sometime.🙂


    1. It was fun to hear about Barb’s mischievous side — don’t know whether I would have had the guts to do something like that🙂.


  12. Sounds like a really fun read– thanks for introducing us to Barbara’s and this quirky poetry book! The humor and self-publishing tips were welcome as well. You always put such love and care into your posts, Jama, but this one… wow. I can’t imagine how long it must have taken you just to set up your piano potage!


    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, Michelle. I’ve gotten better (hopefully) over the years making these alphabet soups. I now know to undercook the pasta letters so they don’t break as easily when handling them. My new tulip and musical note cheese cutters also made things easier.🙂


  13. What Michelle said I repeat to you, Jama. And to Barbara, thanks for all of the practical advice on self-publishing. I’ll bookmark this post for a possible future!


  14. I don’t know how I missed this–great interview/post with a little of everything–humor, poetry, pictures, and even a recipe! I especially liked reading about the ‘real’ piano and seeing the candy/cookie piano.🙂 Best of luck with your book, Barbara!


    1. Thanks for stopping by, Marcia. That real piano is really something, isn’t it? It must be feeling smug right about now — though Barb wrote about it to get revenge, she’s made it famous.


    2. Thanks for joining the party, Marcia, and thanks for your lucky wishes!

      Now that I think about it, I had a white-icinged chocolate piano-shaped cake at my brother’s bar mitzvah. (He had the main cake, but my parents got a small special cake for me so I wouldn’t feel too left out.) Pianos follow me around, it seems.🙂


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