Philadelphia writer and local native, Maryan Captan talks about poetry seeping out of the concrete.
“The main reason I love performing is because I’m endlessly fascinating with the elasticity of our voices: the sounds we can make, the way a tonal shift can change the entire mood of a conversation, how pacing leads to great storytelling, and how to properly use silence and negative space to keep the listeners engaged.”
Maryan Captan has been writing her whole life and it shows (don’t take our word for it—check out her recent piece in Apiary Magazine). The fact that she studied play-writing at Penn State and Temple may be less surprising when you listen to her poetry (again, don’t take our word for it—check out her Soundcloud page). Her family emigrated from Cairo in 1993, she grew up outside of York, PA, and she later settled in Philly where she claims poetry pervades the streets. At Poetry Aloud this Friday Maryan will be reading as a featured poet alongside York’s Barbara Decesare, Lancaster’s poet laureate Chris Longenecker, and Boulder Colorado’s spoken word star, Andrea Gibson. Each of these poets are performers who care as much about the way words sound aloud as how they look on the page.
We conducted a email interview with Maryan last week to find out more about her history as a writer, as a reader, as a performer, and as a member of Philadelphia’s vast writing community.
1. How long have you been writing? What do you write? Has your stuff been published anywhere that our readers could find it?
“I’ve always been a writer. My family emigrated from Cairo in 1993 and we were quite poor for most of my adolescence. Paper and pencils came cheap. I wrote constantly, scribbled portraits of the characters I saw in my head, and whispered made-up stories to myself until I fell asleep every night. In my senior year of high school, I took a poetry appreciation and a creative writing class in the same semester. Barbara Lomenzo and Cassi Ney introduced me to poetic boundaries. I immediately found the challenge of fitting everything you want to say within a very small framework extremely rewarding.
I consider myself a very visual writer. That said, structure has taught me that concise and focused language can lead to a near filmic experience for the reader. At Penn State and Temple I focused mostly on playwriting and screenwriting and a lot of the techniques learned carried into my poetry when I decided to commit to it fully. There’s always dialogue from the subject directed at the listener/reader, each piece centers around a flawed character, and though the language is highly poetic (I’m obsessed with assonence and alliteration), the pieces are always set in a physical space. I’m really interested in exploring psychological disorders so oftentimes my pieces will have all the ingredients of short story, but the plot is sacrificed for a deeper exploration of the human condition. In terms of being published, I’ve been published in Hyphen, CRED Magazine and Apiary Magazine as well as the blog The White Market.”
2. You seem very interested in the way writing is read aloud. Do you write every piece with reading in mind? Or are some pieces more for performance and others are meant more to be read on the page?
“I’ve always been fascinated with the sound of language. My parents strictly spoke Arabic at home and I spoke nothing but English back. There’s this translator in your brain that turns on and off when you’re living in a bilingual world. I never realized that translator was always on until I took a linguistics class with Muffy Seigal at Temple and realize that I’d never really listened to Arabic and compared it with American English. The sounds, the rhythm, the patterns, the intonation, everything is so vastly different, yet somehow I carried the DNA of both languages in my mind.
I’m always working on my diction and I’m always training my voice. Though I write free verse, my poems are also highly rhythmic so I often read the poems aloud as I write to make sure they’re properly metered. I’m a big fan of hip hop music so there is a lot of internal and slant rhyme in my work as well as a near mechanical beat structure.
The main reason I love performing is because I’m endlessly fascinating with the elasticity of our voices: the sounds we can make, the way a tonal shift can change the entire mood of a conversation, how pacing leads to great storytelling, and how to properly use silence and negative space to keep the listeners engaged.”
3. What do you look for in a poetry performance? For you, what are some important characteristics of a good reading?
“I think performance is far more aligned with theatre than it is with public speaking. That said, I’ve always felt torn between academic poetry readings and slam poetry because I love spoken word but struggle with formal poetry readings.
I love the energy, I love the anger and the tears, I love the humanity in slam poetry. A good slam poet will leave the audience floored. I’ve seen audiences jump up and cheer like they’re watching their favorite football team win the superbowl. That’s where it’s at for me. Engaging the audience fully to a point where it’s just you and that person and that person is so overwhelmed that they can’t sit still or stay quit.
Poetry readings tend to bore me. I can appreciate the work itself, but often feel like the readings lack passion; like the poet is simply presenting their work but lack the connection between their voice and presence as the words itself.
I’m more apt to identify myself as a performance poet, because I feel strongly about memorizing the pieces and really committing to the acting and voice work. In a way, it’s a double edged sword because I tend to produce much less content. Many of the pieces I perform have been around for several years, constantly evolving and changing as I learn more and more about performance.”
4. Who is your favorite poet (currently working/performing/writing)? Why?
“I love the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement and the poets that come out of that program. Kai Davis has flipped my entire view of poetry upside down and shaped me in more ways than one. I love PYPM’s fire, their tenacity, and their no fear attitude.
I’m also a huge fan of Christian Bok because he’s so uninhibited, wonderful and weird. I always feel abuzz after I watch him perform. Shane Koyczan because he tells a damn good story and George Watsky for his rhythm and beat structure.
But deep down, I’m old school. I don’t read much of anything that came out after 1970 and I tend to read the same few books over and over. T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid are my go-to’s. There’s something really intriguing about a work that forces you to read it again and again before comprehending it’s intention. But it makes sense when you read or hear my poems. I’m influenced by Slam and sound poets in technique and delivery, but my content is heavily, heavily influenced by the modernists.”
5. Tell us about the writing community in Philadelphia. You can also talk about how it compares to the writing community where you went to school/grad school or even where you grew up.
“Poetry is EVERYWHERE. It seeps out of the concrete, it’s in West Philly, South Philly, Fishtown, every corner imaginable. We have readings every nigh of the week, festivals, several self-published zines, independent presses, poetry collectives; we’ve Apiary Magazine, Cred Magazine, The Pigeon Presents…, and the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement (PYPM). The Spoken Word crowd does really, really well and the academics are always reading or publishing or updating their blogs. I love Philly because poetry is a real thing here, people take it seriously and there’s a strong commitment to keep pushing boundaries.
For me, I try really hard to perform in front of multiple types of crowds. The last big show I did, I was the only poet in a line-up of 3 rock bands. I’ve competed in slams, performed for music audiences, and done poetry readings in front of a room full of English students. It’s all there, any audience you can imagine is willing to listen to you read. I started reading in front of crowds when I was still in high school in Dover, PA but there was literally one venue in York (Sparky and Clark’s which is now New Grounds Roasting Company), and only one guy who organized all the readings. I started organizing my own readings when I was 18 and did several open mics at coffee shops in York until I moved to Philly in 2008. What York lacked back in 2006 and 2007 was the space for it. People like poetry in York but there just isn’t a driving force pushing it to expand.”
7. What are some necessary elements/aspects of a solid and supportive writing community?
“Workshopping! I can’t speak enough of how important it is to share your work and critique other people’s work, especially in a group setting. It’s often impossible to see your own personal growth until someone you’ve been working with for a week, a year, a lifetime, tells you how you’re improving or how you can improve. We learn best from each other. I’m a big believer in doing writing exercises in group settings, studying and experimenting with different writing mediums like screenwriting or flash fiction and sharing everything with people you trust before performing it in front of strangers.”
8. What might you like to see improved or expanded upon in your writing community?
“I learned timing from stand up, I learned intonation from theatre and voice acting, and I learned beat structure from hip hop. All of these mediums are so closely woven together that it seems absurd to not explore them thoroughly. I’m a big believer in a writing communities being all-encompassing and experimenting with all written mediums. It’s easy for a writing community to get tunnel vision and forget about the many types of writing and performance and how we can learn from them so the best advice I can give is to learn all you can from all the mediums and study everything. Read one non-fiction book for every novel, watch a lot of good and well written TV and pay close attention to why makes your favorite movie so special.”
9. Tell us something interesting about yourself unrelated to poetry or writing communities.
“I’m not that interesting but I do have an awesome job. I coordinate the Teen Lounge Program at Fleisher Art Memorial and it’s been the most incredible experience to be surrounded by passionate and exceptional artists, all under the age of 18. Philly does art well and for me, Fleisher is the epicenter. They offer really low-cost classes in just about anything art-related and it’s amazing working with so many great and creative visual artists.”