Buck Off Magazine had the pleasure in speaking with Shari Caplan, Director of The Theatre of Words & Music at The Salem Athenaeum and poet. Though her list of accomplishments hardly stop there! In another addition of BOM interview series, we were honored to have Shari take the time to speak with us.
BOM: As both an SSU and Lesley College alumnae, tell us about how you began your passion in not just writing, but in acting.
SHARI: My passion for the arts began with theater. I “caught the bug” when I was two years old, watching a tape of the Broadway musical “Into the Woods” with Bernadette Peters as the witch. There was something about being able to see and feel the audience in that version that sparked a fire in me. Even before I had gone onstage myself, I could sense the spontaneous flight of live theater.
In terms of writing, I began writing fiction and poetry as a teenager. I think at that age, many people find writing to be a way to explore their changing inner life. Writing can be a way to create a space that’s entirely your own. I was very lucky to have incredible English teachers in high school, who guided me to Pablo Neruda, and later to Angela Carter. Both writers, while very different, showed me that writing can be imaginative, provocative, sensual, and political. I think of them as my Writing Grandparents.
BOM: To continue with the acting question, how does acting influence your writing?
SHARI: I could chew your ear off about this for days! I will narrow my answer by touching on a couple points. The main influence it has on my writing and on my view of writing is that I strongly believe literature must be enjoyable and performative in some way. When I read a poem aloud or when a reader looks at it on the page, I want them to have an experience. So many people are intimidated by poetry or have bad memories of scanning lines in high school; it is our job as writers to show them how much fun it can be. I don’t by any means think a poem should be able to be completely understood in one reading (in fact, I think puzzling out poems is one of the great joys of life), but there should be some entertainment value.
I frequently write persona poems, and being an actress of course informs my love of characters. When I give readings, I can choose how much to inhabit that character. In fact, I have taught a seminar at Lelsey on how to present your work to an audience. The way to give a good reading is by bringing the ability to be in the present and the drive of a character who is not yourself to the poem you have edited and read a thousand times.
When I play a character, my number one goal is to be present in their story for each moment, letting it be new despite having rehearsed it for weeks. This allows me to make new choices every time. Of course, not all choices will work. Other writers have expressed struggles with their inner editor, saying that they sometimes can’t write or won’t submit their work because of crippling self-doubt. I think being used to making choices onstage and trying whatever comes makes it easier for me to always write freely. If I can do it in front of an audience, I can certainly do it by myself! I am constantly seeing parallels and intersections between acting and writing – the need for tension, presence, freedom of expression, specific character choices, symbolism. I think all artists are working with the same elements, but they manifest in different ways.
BOM: As Director of The Theater of Words & Music, how did you fall into such a successful gig that has brought more creativity to the Salem area? What was your first event being involved in TWM?
SHARI: I have to thank Jennifer Jean, because without her, I don’t know if I ever would have run a series. She started TWM back when Cornerstone Books was in Salem. When the store closed, she struggled to find a venue. At Salem Writers Group, she asked if anyone would like to take over the series. Casey Roland and I (who had met a few times but didn’t really know each other) decided to take it up together. Luckily, we happen to share a brain and both envisioned a multi-disciplinary series, which would strive for inclusion. We put our heads together and put on our first event in September of 2012 at The Vault.
BOM: What has been your favorite TWM event so far and why?
SHARI: All of them! Each time, something is different and wonderful. The June reading was our most global, with Cate Marvin reading about China, Saraswathi Jones playing songs in Hindi, open mic readers discussing the Charleston shootings. The Fairy Tale Walking Tour was exactly what we had hoped it would be and felt magical. The Poetry Carnival was incredibly fun. Combining poetry with improv, and poetry with bellydance, all of it has been a wild ride.
BOM: The creative scene in Salem is steadily growing with the annual Mass Poetry Festival and TWM events. What would you like to see improve or new events occur?
SHARI: I would like to see an arts center in Salem similar to The Hive in Gloucester, where artists of different disciplines can come to create, perform, and learn. I’d like to see more inclusion of minority populations in the Salem arts community and in the MA arts community at large. I also want opportunities for students. So many talented young artists come to this area for college, and then they leave once they’ve graduated because the area does not have enough opportunity or affordable housing for them. I don’t want us to lose our new artists!
TWM is merging with The Salem Literary Festival (and its larger organization, Reader & Writers, run by Brunonia Barry) to create new events throughout the year. We have lots of exciting projects in the works!
BOM: On your website, you can relive some of the events through pictures. Will there be some videos of the events in the future?
SHARI: We tend not to video because our emphasis is on the live experience. I will say that we have some exciting new ideas about online content in the works, however.
BOM: What are some exciting upcoming events with TWM?
SHARI: The Salem Literary Festival is November 12-14, which will feature poets, fiction writers, panels, performances, and a party! We’ll be bringing back the Poetry Carnival to the Massachusetts Poetry Festival this May and are working on some exciting new events to occur in between, including a burlesque event and a mermaid-themed event.
BOM: Take us through your own creative process, whether writing scripts or poetry. Do you have any writing habits? Inspirations? What is the best setting to sit down and write until your fingers hurt? When do you know your creative work is done?
SHARI: I have so many passions I am interested in pursuing. If I do not have a routine, I become overwhelmed with ideas and can’t get anything done. The best kind of day for me is when I can do an hour of drafting, an hour of acting practice (yes, I practice when I’m not in shows!), a couple hours of revision, an hour of reading, and still have time to do some work as an arts organizer.
I like to write in the morning when my mind is fresh. Laurie Foos, an incredible writer and teacher at Lesley’s MFA program, told us to write before we read, watch TV, look at our phones, or turn on the radio, so we won’t get words or ideas shoved into our heads before the remnants of dreams get to have their say. Sometimes I find I need to read some poems to write a poem, though. Poetry is its own language; when you speak to me in poetry, I respond in kind.
If I can write three poems a day, I’ll get at least one I want to work on. You have to write through the junk. I like space while I write. I can work at cafes, public parks, the library, and my apartment. I like to change locations because I find that my surroundings get into my poems. Having movement and sound around me is helpful sometimes and intrusive others. If someone I know is near me, I can’t focus because I want to interact with them. When I write with friends, we always spend more time chatting than writing. If people can argue about my poem and they can both be right, I’ve done enough. If the form, the sound, the images are all working towards a goal, and the poem can be entered into, I can call it a day. But I have poems from my thesis which I put into a chapbook submission this year and I must have revised them eighty-five times by now, and still, some of them aren’t finished.
With scripts, I have a better sense of when they’re done because there are less pieces to the equation, and because so much of what the work will be is added after the writing is done. If the pacing feels right for the scene, if the dialogue and characters are believable, and if I have sent the message I want to, I know it’s ready for the stage or screen.
BOM: Who are some of your favorite poets?
SHARI: Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton inspired my love of stark imagery, passionate exclamation, and mythologizing the personal. Pablo Neruda will always be a touchstone for me (I have an excerpt from “Poetry” tattooed on my right wrist). Wallace Stevens teaches me about sound, vocabulary and how the strange can be tangible. I envy Tomas Transtromer his ability to make the surreal ordinary and the ordinary surreal. Wislawa Szymborska: I love for her wit and precision.
Cate Marvin is my poetry mom. I was incredibly blessed to work with her for two semesters at Lesley. She says what she means and what we all need to hear. She can take an image or object and turn it into so many layers of meaning. You go with her through a tumble of mental leaps, but you never get lost. I love Baudelaire in spite of myself. I also love Cynthia Cruz, Amy Gerstler, Maurice Manning, Stephen Crane, and my poet friends Stephen Krauska, July Westhale, Stephen de Jesus Frias, Teisha Twomey, Heather Hughes, Kurt Klopmeier, Krysten Hill, J.D. Scrimgeour, and Mary Benson. It’s the best when your talented friends send you poems!
BOM: As always, BOM is interested in what books fans, friends and interviewees are reading. So what books are you currently reading?
SHARI: Currently, I’m reading Houdini!!!, a biography by Kenneth Silverman, as research for a new play, At Night, wonderfully witchy poems by Lisa Ciccarello, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz comic book series, and Oracle, Cate Marvin’s latest book.
BOM: Anything else you want to tell us? And any links you would like to share?
SHARI: I perform in the monthly variety show, Old School Game Show, as an assistant. We’ll be at A.R.T.’s Oberon on October 18. I’ll also be reading in The Encylopedia Show at the Davis Square Theater on September 10.
Here’s a link to the Old School Game Show site: http://www.oldschoolgameshow.com/
You can get tickets to the Salem Literary Festival here: http://salemlitfest.org/wp/
TWM had their final event on September 12th with Janaka Stucky headlining and their favorite band, As the Sparrow, closing.