The Flapper Press Poetry Café: The Poetry of Abby Caplin
Updated: Sep 2
By Annie Newcomer:
The Flapper Press Café features the work of poets from around the world. This week, we highlight the work of Abby Caplin.
Abby Caplin is a Pushcart (Ponder Review 2021) and Best New Poets (The MacGuffin 2021) nominee, second-prize winner in the Flapper Press Valentine Blackout Poetry contest (thank you!), second-prize winner with two honorable mentions in the 2020 Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition, finalist for the 2018 Rash Award in Poetry, semi-finalist for the 2018 Willow Run Poetry Book Award, 2018 Sundress Best of the Net Award nominee, honorable mention for 2017 Quercus Fall Poetry Book Award, award recipient of the San Francisco Poets Eleven 2016, and finalist for the 2015 Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Award. She has participated in workshops taught by Billy Collins, Kevin Young, Dorianne Laux, Naomi Shihab Nye, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Ellen Bass, and Gregory Pardlo.
Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming in several journals and anthologies, including Adanna, AGNI, Alyss, apt, Avatar Review, Big Muddy, Birdland Journal, The Binnacle, Burningword, Canary, The Cape Rock, Catamaran, Common Ground Review, Crack the Spine, DASH Literary, Delmarva Review, Flights Journal, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Dunes Review, Forge, The Fourth River, Good Works Review, HitchLit Review, The Healing Muse, I-70 Review, The Ignatian, Louisiana Literature, Love’s Executive Order, The MacGuffin, McNeese, The Midwest Quarterly, Moon City Review, Mudlark, OxMag, Pennsylvania English, Perceptions Literary Magazine, Permafrost, Plainsongs, Poetica, Poetry Quarterly, Ponder Review, Pulp Poets Press, Rising Phoenix Press, The Round, Salt Hill Journal, San Francisco Public Library, Sierra Nevada Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, TSR: The Southampton Review, These Fragile Lilacs, Third Wednesday, Tikkun, Voices de la Luna, and Willow Review, among others. She is a physician and practices mind-body medicine in San Francisco. To read more, visit abbycaplin.com
AN: What is your thought process for selecting subjects for your poetry? Is there a subject that you find yourself revisiting often?
AC: I usually write my best poems from prompts, so my process involves thinking about the prompt and what intrigues me, what has “juice” for me. Sometimes it can take me several days to discover and craft the poem, but like all people, I have my obsessions. I often return to the environment, and what we are doing to it. Even as I explore different topics in these poems, you’ll see that I’m still thinking about climate change.
AN: Do you ever abandon a poem, or do you stay with the process until you “make it work”? I know that poets view this decision in a variety of ways. I think the various answers are fun to explore.
AC: I usually give every poem that’s not immediately working “time off” to marinate. I always have a few poems that I can’t get right. When this happens, I assure myself that I haven’t wasted my time, figuring it’s what I needed to write to get to my next poem. I also try to remember that it’s just a poem.
AN: We met in Key West in a Billy Collins poetry workshop. Why do you think it is important for writers and poets to make time to study under accomplished poets?
AC: Oh, my. Studying with accomplished, seasoned poets, famous or not, is crucial to developing one’s own poetry. I have been taking workshops continuously for twelve years, both in person and online. I’m grateful to all of my poetry teachers, and in particular to Matthew Lippman, Brian Tierney, and Kathleen McClung. Each of these teachers has shared with me their knowledge and editorial feedback and has created an environment of unconditional support. I have also done my best to attend workshops of poets whose work I admire. The Key West Literary Seminar and Workshops have been a great educational experience, where I participated in four-day workshops not only with teachers Billy Collins, Kevin Young, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, and Gregory Pardlo but also with poets from all over the world with different backgrounds, styles, and life experience.
AN: Was there a particular event that brought you to poetry, or did you just “always know" that you wanted to write?
AC: As I think about it, I experienced certain touchstone events through the years, like a stone skipping across the water. I remember a college class I took in Native American literature and reading James Welch’s poetry book Riding the Earthboy 40, which stunned me. I still have my signed copy and recently wrote a cento poem with lines taken from his book. After I became a physician in the 1980s, I attended an allergy convention and spontaneously wrote a poem about what I was witnessing, all the ways the drug companies were spending money on the attendees. I submitted that poem to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), but of course it wasn’t accepted for publication. Later, while teaching internal-medicine residents at a local county hospital, I found Taking the History, a collection of poems by David Watts, a gastroenterologist, and used it as a teaching tool to invite the residents to write their own poems. A few years later, I started taking online classes: first memoir, then humor writing, and finally poetry, which felt like coming home.
About the poem:
Early in the pandemic, I learned about Italian Renaissance art history professor Elaine Ruffolo, who was giving weekly online lectures. I became a fan and looked forward to her “live” online tours.
Venetian Sotopòrtego Where the Plague Stopped
The Renaissance professor escorts us
into the street-level public passageway below
someone’s living room, its walls of saints,
flowers, and Giovanna’s painting
of the Virgin Mary an offering for surviving
the pandemic of 1630. I’m chasing the teacher
through Venice’s backstreets from my laptop
on a real-time Adriatic day—
trattorias, churches, schools, a fórcola workshop—
she gives us the Castello district as we lean
into computer screens from American kitchens
and European dining rooms. She’s dressed
in cool linen, and we drink in flashes of canal
at the ends of alleyways. Carry a flashlight
at night, or you’ll be swimming in sewage.
We hear a dog barking, the chatter of Italian
women passing on our left with bags,
a many-chinned accordionist from Torcello
wearing an embroidered vest. She helps us fall
in love with this picture-book city of civilization’s
slo-mo demise, buildings brought to their knees
on sinking bones of oak and pine, famed casualties
of humanity’s voracity. Still, I long to sip coffee
at a bar under a gray and white marble palazzo,
dine on risotto, hire the lone female gondolier.
The scholar steps onto the famous red floor tile,
old plague’s marble doorstop, telling us,
For Venetians, standing on it brings bad luck.
But I, I am from Florence.
About the poem:
I am astounded at how the super wealthy will further pollute the planet, just for the thrill of going into space, and how others deny that climate change is even happening.
Some Thoughts After Watching the News About Space Tourism
Have you noticed?
We exhausted our planet: water
from both ends of the earth
slammed together. In our lives we’ve seen
many turns of peculiarity—atmospheric
rivers, biomass burning—testaments
to the god of speed we’ve not
yet restrained. Year after year
the other America made sure
we heard its worshippers setting
their chins against the smiles
of our children,
driving flagpoles into the belly
of the ballot like a bull’s-eye
under the sun that melts mountains.
Not like they care, rushing their exit,
over and over the false messiah’s lies.
Nothing we do can stop weather
physics. We saw many turns of peculiarity.
Both ends, water slammed together.
About the poem:
When a mentor of mine learned she was dying, she chose to have her body placed into a compost pod and, through natural organic reduction, to become soil. I thought about The Hypogeum on Malta, in the Mediterranean, the mystical burial site of a Neolithic matriarchal culture, where bodies were placed into egg-shaped pods that were dug from limestone.
So Many Ways To Return To the Mother
With thoughts on cement liners, I am
in a cabin on a forest ridge,
ocean’s chevron four miles west,
dreaming downward into uterine
limestone, ancestors curled like fetuses—
ancient hypogeum, newest eggs
deepest found, free from fiberglass and steel.
I chant with coastal redwoods, tipped
with browning stress, their family turning
to ash in the Sierras. A small bird knocks
at the window, wing of my hair
waving back. Fully decomposed, I nod,
wishing myself someday slid as well into
a pod, modern ovum—egg-shaped
door, leaves and twigs heaped, gentle heat—
Or lifted into a basket and placed
high in branches, a gift to the birds.
About the poem:
One of the loveliest places on Earth is Big Sur, California, with a full moon rising over the water.
Goddess at Big Sur
The moon a white pearl trembling
on the breast of the sea, mirrored
in curved brimming backs
of whales, pulses of silver
threading the tide with your grace.
Belly of bonito, starlit parasols
of jellyfish, otters cosseted
in the swells of your skirts—
You adorn me in bright evening
gloves, anoint me with cypress.
Kelp glitters your beach-bare shoulders,
your breath soft as a blowhole.
About the poem:
I wrote this poem after viewing a René Magritte retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I was taken with many of the paintings, but “The Invisible World” in particular caught my eye. As I looked at it, I felt sorry for the rock, and I decided to write a poem in “his” voice, talking to a museum visitor.
Poem after René Magritte’s “The Invisible World,” 1954
See that water out there? I want to sail
into it, live in what lies beyond these red
floorboards and orange French doors—
but I’m without arms or feet. I’m bald
and pockmarked, a mammoth stone
in a museum diorama. Sometimes I want
to jump, end myself, but I’m rooted
by my own inertia, my lumped tonnage
in a house of portrait lighting.
Hey, do you see on the left how the storm
makes love to the sea? Can you imagine
This situation is not my doing. That dog Magritte
left me in this pretty cage with only you,
my spectacular friend, to keep me company,
though I know you’ll move on in a few moments
to the next oily world he created, admire the rain
of men in bowler hats, kitsch he liked to paint.
But while we are together, let us fancy my jailer
will soon join us, descending through that break
in the clouds, with his wide umbrella.
Annie Newcomer teaches poetry classes at the University of Kansas Medical Center's Turning Point—a place for hope and healing for people suffering with chronic health problems. Her North Stars series shares interviews with poets and writers and Annie's own experiences through writing.
Annie is also helms the Flapper Press Poetry Café—dedicated to celebrating poets from around the world and to encouraging everyone to write poetry!
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