Interview with Writer, Painter & Musician, Paul Nebenzahl

Photo: Paul Nebenzahl

Photo: Paul Nebenzahl


Paul Nebenzahl is a writer, painter and musician who lives in Evanston, Illinois. Paul’s collection of 50 poems, Black Shroud With Rainbow Fringes, was published by Silver Birch Press in May, 2014. Paul’s poem, Gusen Station was published in English, Italian and German in 2012 by the International Committee for Mauthausen and Gusen. As a performing multi-instrumentalist and composer, Paul has created Emmy-nominated works for film and television, and has performed extensively in theater, stage and club settings, most recently as Karen Finley’s musical director. Nebenzahl and Finley have recently performed at the Barbican Centre in London, the Museum of Modern Art and The Laurie Beechman Theater in New York City, the Richard and Karen Carpenter Theater in Long Beach, California, and the Kelly Writer’s House at U. Penn in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you manage your time as a writer, musician and painter?

Paul Nebenzahl: My art life usually revolves around projects and I play, write and draw/paint when I have an assignment – a concert, a poetry reading, an art exhibition. The three disciplines are extremely different. As a musician, I have put in the 10,000 hours and more required to have a voice on my instrument – in my case, on my three instruments (flute, harmonica, piano). Music, the playing of it, is physical and muscle memory as much as it is creativity, inspiration, and passion.

Geosi Gyasi: Is there any real difference between a writer and musician? 

Paul Nebenzahl: Writing requires daily attention, kind of a brain muscle memory, but if I neglect it for a day or a week or a month, it is right there waiting for me when I return like a jeweled box. Music, if neglected, requires serious practice and attention to get back to your “level” of accomplishment. Drawing and painting for me are both enjoyable escapes, a way to leave the day-to-day world and get lost in the work of creating, emoting art. Visual art is the most mysterious art practice to me. I am not trained in art as I am in music, and I’ve invested more time in writing, but drawing and painting speak to a more elemental place in my psyche, a primal unschooled realm where my imagination and decision-making allow me to create worlds that I can escape into; when someone else likes my work, or buys my work, it validates that this world that I inhabit speaks to others as well.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you first realize yourself as a writer?

Paul Nebenzahl: I wrote a haiku poem in third grade – I still have it and could quote it to you. Poetry for me when I was a boy was Robert Frost. I wrote poems at my hippie summer camp in 1968, inspired by my counselors who were the members of the avant-garde jazz ensemble Art Ensemble of Chicago. I have those seminal 13-year-old poems as well. From 13-55 years of age I wrote a handful of poems, saved them, and took them out late at night to read and cry over. I was a successful non-profit executive and poetry, music and painting were on hold or even worse were frowned upon and not valued. The poems were in a drawer – the music was more trouble than art, and the art I was making lived in the garage of our home. In 2010 I experienced an art awakening inspired by life events and nurtured by a close artist friend. I came alive and so did my art on all levels. As a writer, I found my voice, and I found a publisher who “got” my work and gave me the platform to express myself as a writer without hesitation.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you continue to live in Evanston, IIIinois. Could you tell us a bit about the place in which you live?

Paul Nebenzahl: Evanston, Illinois is my hometown. I am a townie and my kids and I went to the local high school. Evanston is the home of Northwestern University, the nearest suburb to Chicago north on Lake Michigan. We are a diverse community with a rainbow coalition of races, a wide range of housing options, and miles of Lake Michigan beaches. What’s not to like? I’ve been here, on and off, since 1960 when we moved from Chicago as my parents wanted us to be part of the integration of Evanston’s schools that year.

Geosi Gyasi: Who is an instrumentalist, if I may ask?

Paul Nebenzahl: Instrumentalists are specialists on their instruments. The good ones can play anything on their instruments. Most great instrumentalists, especially in jazz, have the capacity to play in any style on their instrument. This is different from being a great soloist, or a great improviser.   A handful are all three, but the term “instrumentalist” describes a player instead of a writer, an arranger, a conductor or a patron – all important in the world of music.

Geosi Gyasi: How different is the work of an instrumentalist from that of a composer?

Paul Nebenzahl: The composer is the novelist, the screenwriter. The composer is at 30,000 feet over the project, working the plot, or the action, the players, the conductor, the money people. The instrumentalist is a “realizer” – one of many – who brings to life the composer’s vision. Some instrumentalists have great freedom in finding and expressing their unique skills, which are based on jazz expression, and improvisational skill. Others specialize in hitting the composer’s marks, but wouldn’t have a clue what to play on their own.

Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your poem, “Gusen Station”?

Paul Nebenzahl: “Gusen Station” came from hearing of the atrocities and genocide perpetrated at this notorious slave labor in Austria’s Danube valley. My partner at the time, the multifaceted artist Karen Finely had been engaged in a holocaust memorial project at Gusen, “Open Heart,” involving ceramic hearts installed made by survivors, school children and teachers. Karen had learned of two days in February 1945, when Nazi doctors killed nearly 500 Jewish children with lethal injection to the heart at Gusen. I joined the project and played flute for four hours at a ceremony for survivors from 40 countries. After getting involved in Gusen, I learned that a relative of mine, Adolph Nebenzahl, was exterminated at Gusen in January 1945. The poem was in direct response to learning of the horrors my family faced. I have learned that of the several dozen transports from Mechelen, Belgium, to Auschwitz, that 14 transports had my close blood relatives on them. I also found out that life expectancy of a Jew at this camp was two weeks – Adolph survived almost a year, at Mechelen, Auschwitz and finally Gusen – the “hell of hells” – a remarkable feat.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “Black Shroud with Rainbow Fringes”?

Paul Nebenzahl: “Black Shroud” was the culmination of my personal family holocaust odyssey. When my mother died in 2000 I found a letter from distant relative of my father’s, from 1946 from London. I spent the next nine years trying to find my relatives – I was raised to believe that I had none – and by 2009 knew of 50 Nebenzahl relatives all over the globe. Black Shroud deals with my issues – my divorce, my faith, my children, my writing, my age, world events, race relations, and the environment – all things I process every day. Family trumps all.

Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever been rejected by a publisher for your work?

Paul Nebenzahl: I have not submitted a lot of work to a lot of publishers. So I don’t have the stack of reject levels that many writers have.

Geosi Gyasi: Are there times you feel like not writing?

Paul Nebenzahl: I often shrink from writing, but I have a good clock that reminds me every day what Ray Bradbury told my little sister when she aspiring to write at the age of ten – write 1000 words every day. You’ll be a writer. That still is very good advice.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the best time to write?

Paul Nebenzahl: I’m a night writer and have been known to write until the sun comes up, at which point I usually lie down and pass out.   I write a lot in the wee hours just before dawn. I write when I can’t stand NOT WRITING anymore. I write well under prompts and even between shifts depending on where I am working.

Geosi Gyasi: Who are your literary forebears?

Paul Nebenzahl: In poetry, my first influence was Kenneth Patchen. I devoured the beats – and read HOWL and Ginsburg at 13. The book that really opened up my eyes was a Gordon Parks book I was given in the early 1970’s – he could write poetry, shoot pictures, and make films – like my multi-interests and endeavors – all at once, the likes of which I have been juggling ever since. I met Ferlinghetti when I was 26, but I tucked the messages away instead of acting on them. I didn’t start writing with any seriousness until I was 55.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you define your voice as a writer?

Paul Nebenzahl: I observe, I chronicle. I worship research and you can see the results in my work. I started writing thinking that the words that first appeared in my mind were sacred and untouchable. Over the years, I have edited my work more and more intensely so that now when I write that is only the barest of beginnings. My voice is very personal, as is my language.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that it is easy to write poems?

Paul Nebenzahl: Poems are hard to finish and hard to start. Rarely do I have a stream of words that flow from mind to fingers to age unmolested or uncontemplated, but it does happen. I use “prompts” when I write – an object, an event, a person. I also have begun to revisit older poems, the unpublished ones, and “fix” them. This is analogous to a composer revisiting a score or a film director changing a film – only much less expensive!

Geosi Gyasi: What’s the inspiration behind your poem, “Here’s to the Singer of Songs”?

Paul Nebenzahl: “Here’s To The Singer Of Songs” started with such a prompt – a thunderstorm – but developed to encompass love, life, loss, history, and place – all of the good stuff. After writing and publishing the poem – in both my own book and in the Silver Birch Press collection “Summer” – my dog, Sonny, protagonist of the poem – passed away. So the writing has other meanings for me now.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you engage in poetry readings?

Paul Nebenzahl: I would like to do more readings. It’s a different thing to share your work with others, and get the feedback that musicians thrive on, or dread…feedback that writers rarely experience. I have read the work of other poets in public readings, notably Adrienne Rich.

Geosi Gyasi: Who edits your manuscripts?

Paul Nebenzahl: I have shared my work continually with Karen Finley who has been actively encouraging my writing over the past five years, and who has acted as foil or editor as well. My publisher, Melanie Villines, at Silver Birch Press has been a patient and careful editor of my work.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a specific reason why you write?

Paul Nebenzahl: I write for the same reason that I play music – I can’t NOT WRITE!

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write on a computer or in a notebook?

Paul Nebenzahl: I do write most of my work on a computer now – but started as a journal poet and sometimes I’ll buy a new notebook to fill with writing. But I am very comfortable with the computer.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the most boring part of writing?

Paul Nebenzahl: Boring is not in my lexicon. If I’m bored, I’m dead.


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