This week’s feature is Shari Caplan, a dynamo of a human I met while in grad school at Lesley University. In addition to being an activist, she’s a brilliantly talented actor and poet who darkens the doorstep of a variety of organizations and arts groups in the Boston area. On a poetic level, her work has always unflinchingly looked and (and subverted) ideas of sexuality and pleasure, demanding the right to take up space on the page– and there isn’t a more necessary time for that type of poetic than right now.
Where can we find your work?
My chapbook, “Advice from a Siren,” is available through Dancing Girl Press. Individual poems can be found at Gulf Coast, Deluge, Timber, Drunk Monkeys, and Zoetic Press. My writing on theater can be found at www.HowlRound.com. You can keep up with new publications and performances at www.sharicaplan.com.
What themes or ideas do you feel your work engages with?
I am interested in exposing the ways women are mistreated, individually, societally, and historically, while protecting them from re-traumatization. This is something I must speak about, but I believe it is important to write in a way that shines light without blinding and which adds beauty to the world.
The great pleasure of beauty and its horrific importance hold constant court in my work. Sexuality and its positive and negative expressions will always be ripe subjects for me. I have recently embraced my bisexuality and am exploring themes of duality, non-monogamy, and how sisterhood and sexual attraction conflict and intermingle within me. I’m interested in how women gaze, at men, at themselves, and at other women.
As an actress, I am drawn to the performative aspects of text – how can a poem enact rather than tell a story? How can multiple voices work in a poem? Can I write a highly personal poem that is a persona poem and vice versa? I am interested in the mythologizing of the self as a way to universal truth and as proof of the imagination’s ability to empower us – you will see this enacted in my work and as a repeated subject of it.
Paul Eluard wrote, “There is another world, and it is in this one.”
What were you like as a child?
Wednesday Addams meets Tom Sawyer – unabashedly strange and a touch macabre, wildly imaginative, a leader of games, japes, schemes, and adventures. Romantic, living in a peeling Victorian house with an eclectic, loving family. Put this buttercup under your chin – if it’s yellow, you love butter!
My imagination a scrim. Stories tumbling in front of my eyes. Playing witch or warrior princess. Tumbling with boys. Winning at arm wrestling. Singing to the mirror. Crying to the mirror, auditioning for myself. Climbing trees at the Arboretum. Drawing pictures of Pocahontas for all of my friends. Looking inside the roses for fairies.
Bellowing from the top of the wooden play-structure to my Amazon followers below that we must jump now – onto the ground – thud – before the evil ones catch us! Watch the show, it’s about to start! I have a present for you – unwrap this scarf – it’s a hug! Splashing in the Copley fountain in all of my clothes. Singing to my true love somewhere out that window. Climbing a tree. Bossing my friends. Chasing my imagination.
Can you remember the first piece of art– performance, literary, fine, street–you saw/read that wowed
I am very lucky to have grown up around art of all kinds. My Dad’s parents were both visual artists, my mom paints, and they started taking me to plays, dance performances, concerts, and art museums as soon as they started taking me anywhere!
A couple memories stick out, though:
The first formative piece of art for me was a videotape of “Into the Woods” on Broadway in the 1980s with Bernadette Peters as the Witch. I remember being no more than two years old, watching that and seeing her performance – her energy comes right through, and her power, her humor, her emotion soaring out to the audience was palpable. I saw the heads of the audience, I saw a little boy in a box laughing while Bernadette Peters delivered a line from beside him, and I was in love. Day after day, I put on a show as the Witch from Next Door with Bernadette as my model.
I loved fairy tales from the very beginning as well, although I didn’t think of them as art at the time. Rapunzel was one of my favorite stories
The first poem that remains a “touch stone” for me is Pablo Neruda’s “Poetry.” I had been writing poems for a few years, as many teenagers do, when I encountered it in an English class. Neruda expressed what I felt about writing but had not known how to articulate; he describes poetry coming to him as “fever, or forgotten wings.” That seemed so right to me and so jewel-like, that the transcendent was within all along and only needed to be recalled.
What work do you do in the world that you feel proud of?
I work on the Development Team at AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, planning fundraising events to ensure that clients can get care. I believe deeply in the work we are doing to help those with HIV/AIDS live the healthiest, happiest lives they can. AIDS Action also provides outreach to populations at risk for HIV infection and combats stigma around HIV, AIDS, gender expression, and sexual expression. I feel so blessed to be the lead on ARTcetera, Boston’s top art gala, which raises a significant portion of our funds at AIDS Action. I believe that art and entertainment must unite with change-making.
I am also proud of the work I have done and will continue to do with the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. People are so often intimidated by poetry and that isn’t right. Poetry is meant for the masses, which is not to say it must be easily consumable or simplistic, but that it is an essential part of humanity (many people who do not read poetry look to it during moments of great import).
The events I have produced for the festival dress poetry up in sparkles and ignite the audience’s imagination before they hear a word. They sometimes literally invite the audience in, whether they are festival attendees or the general public walking by. Children wrote poems in our circus prompt tent and teenagers on a field trip stopped to listen to The Butterfly Girl recount her transformation. The Poetry Bordello brought in record numbers to the late night event in 2017 and created a fun, safe non-binary space (also there was burlesque so that was exciting!). I love creating zany new ways to show people that poetry can be their friend.
What’s keeping you embodied right now?
Being connected to what matters to me – the people I love, my creative practice, daily change making – keep me grounded and purposeful. I went on a writing retreat in Gloucester recently, which helped me come back to these essentials.
The idea of being attracted to women used to be a floating haze at the crown of my head. Recently, it has migrated down into my body, where it is beginning to find places to live. Exploring this part of myself with my husband’s unwavering love and support has helped me feel whole and unified.
I also love to exercise and use my body. While physicality is important to acting, I think it is also important to writing – sensation is so much of observation. When I am not active, it is easy to become overly involved in my thoughts, so exercise is part of my mental health routine as well. I’ve been getting into YouTube workouts (there are so many great free workouts!), especially pilates, HIIT, and ballet (there’s a very refined and very 90s New York City Ballet workout introduced by Sarah Jessica Parker available on YouTube!).
Tell us a story.
I wrote this after reading a tweet about how it’s illegal to bare breasts in public but at 7/11, you can buy magazines with pictures of nude breasts.
Lined up according to chestnut, butter blonde, black kink,
breasts stare over Time, tabloids, less tawdry prints, trying
to see who might buy. But for the plastic dressing pages
of skin-spank-lips, hair is all the models wear. A woman has to
wonder under which bed she’ll await his liquid. Any man enters
and I want to purchase the whole row of obtuse poses.
When the sweet boy came cupping, I unveiled
the shut-up eyes of my chest, measured his delight like sun
against the wall. How to count
the coinage of my body only he can tell.
I too have a man’s foot on my spine, pressing me
pretty as a question mark.
And anything else you want to add! Mostly, I want to get a sense of how you function as a person and how that intersects with your work. Personally & globally, etc.
I am a believer in multidudinousness and cross-pollination. I seek out and am attracted to the strange and the mysterious. I feel the need to balance the rootedness of routine and the regenerative properties of surprise both in art and in life. I want to make the world happier, fairer, more in love, and full of the joy of imaginative play.
Shari Caplan is the siren behind “Advice from a Siren” published by Dancing Girl Press in 2016. Her poems have swum into Gulf Coast, Blue Lyra Review, Deluge, Drunk Monkeys, Non-binary Review, and elsewhere. Shari’s work has earned her a scholarship to The Home School in Hudson, a fellowship to The Vermont Studio Center, and nominations for a Rhylsing Award, a Bettering American Poetry Award, and a Pushcart Prize. A wearer of many tophats, she has produced and performed in “The Poetry Circus,” “The Fairy Tale Poetry Walking Tour,” and other cross-pollinations for the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. You may encounter Shari as “Betty BOOM, America’s Sweet-tart” giving intimate readings across the nation as part of The Poetry Society of New York’s “The Poetry Brothel.” Shari has worked on The VIDA Count and as a reader for Sugar House Review. She received her MFA in Poetry from Lesley University. She also acts passionately and works on the Development Team at AIDS Action Committee.
Photo credit: JJ Lynne Photography