many arts, one big top: joining the poetry circus

by Joey Gould, a.k.a. Joey ToShines, the Poetry Barker

What was that hullabaloo in Armory Park? From the stream of consciousness of Ringmaster Shari Caplan: “Red feathers sunshine faces Salem family present TA-DA! Welcome! … Cycle one. Cycle two. Children watch. Hula hoops, hoops, hoops. Hooray!” Alternately, Salem resident Joe Sherry called it “a visual embodiment of the whimsy and joy that I find in the language of poems.” It was The Poetry Circus.

Let me rewind: during the frenetic apex of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, a troupe of performers gathered in a tent to apply makeup, trading hair-ties and makeup compacts. Caplan drew a sprawling rainbow on my face as The Butterfly Woman (Jessica Furtado) put on her wings.

When Caplan finished painting me, I wandered out of the tent into the warm sun to juggle, calming my jitters. A toddler walking by shouted, “He’s juggling!” Yes, my first fan! I was immediately at ease, nerves soothed by the crowd gathering to see—what? Even I did not know exactly what to expect.

At 11:20 we convened in the “backstage tent,” then proceeded to the stage area, shaking tambourines and cooing kazoos. The Poetry Circus! Welcome! Sarah Deckro played a solo flute piece, luring in festival attendees, passersby, and tourists waiting for the trolley. The circus had begun.

What followed was five hours of rotating musical, sideshow, and poetry performances alongside all-day booths: hula hoops flew through the air, courtesy of Ashley May. Poems carried on the wind. Belinda performed her magical “Happily” fortune telling as GennaRose Nethercott created poems-to-order for anyone walking by.

The “anyone walking by” part of that sentence matters. Furtado, who modeled her Butterfly Woman off of a vintage LIFE Magazine cover, enjoyed exposing non-poets to the form & hopes “that people left feeling energized by the idea that poetry doesn’t have to remain on the page…or podium; it can be sought out in unexpected and interesting places.” Salem might be the perfect venue for such to happen. In previous years, places like The Omen, purveyor of the occult and the witchy, have gladly served as festival venues in the spooky town.

The oddball, artist-friendly nature of Salem enabled the strangeness of the circus; moreover, the openness of the town allowed for a partner like the Peabody Essex Museum to give up its outdoor demesne to poetic gypsies for a non-standard event that might have been unwelcome in a stodgier community. (It helps that we promised not to use tent stakes unless absolutely necessary.)

PEM gave us the place to fill with a mix of arts that I had never seen before, and we certainly pushed ourselves to create a unique, even unquantifiable experience. Spectator J.D. Scrimgeour said: "Whatever the hell that was, I liked it!"

I’m not sure exactly what the whole of the circus was either; I lived it in character, mostly. My flamboyant barker costume and poem were both full of color and bravado, while the aptly last-named Kolleen Carney’s Pierette was a sad clown, jilted, remembering her springtime love. All together we were the circus, in all its moods.

As the day unfolded, it became clear for me that I was part of a tremendously talented cast. Imagine the stamina and brilliance needed to type poems on a typewriter for four hours, with only a short interview to guide the poem’s conceit! One recipient later said her poem was “exactly what [she] asked for.” Imagine also the practice and skill needed to hula hoop while riding a unicycle, as James Boniakowski did. Get out of town!

Beyond Pierette’s lament by Carney, themed poems explored the circus as colorful antidote to a drab, postmodern life as mine did and feminist responses to constriction of female freedom as Caplan and Furtado’s poems did. Our poems found solace in the circus life. That is to say, in the strange, offbeat world we created.

I say we created the world, but only through Caplan’s direction. Her effortless style and quirky exploration of the unexpected belie fierce and studied practice. A poet whose chapbook Advice from a Siren is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press, she has also appeared onstage as the ebullient assistant in the monthly Old School Game Show and as the matriarchal Olga in Chekhov’s classic The Three Sisters as performed by the Footlight Club. She pulls inspiration from the vaudevillians of the past, crowd-sources performers, and curates everything into a definitively styled whole.

It would have been impossible to construct an alternate Poetry Circus dimension without Caplan’s leadership. Her stylistic guidance helped a fashion flail—me—come up with a look that turned heads. More importantly, her belief in us, her performers, to create and perform our own improvisations off of her theme gave us motivation without hindering our art.

Art can create a space in which one can entertain while bringing real social issues to an irrational but poignant illumination, but only if the artists connect with the audience. Every poet involved joyously recounted stories of children, teenagers, and adults listening to them, which was my favorite part, too.

In addition, the circus included a space in which to create one’s own poem in a tent. Caplan writes, “Some [participants] even left their poems in the notebook, so I got to keep some as treasures, including ‘Letter Poems by a Three Year Old’ and a few heartfelt expressions of the need for joy in the world today.”

All my Massachusetts Poetry Festival memories contain joy, art, poems and people. When we all bowed at the end of the circus, I was exhausted—I do run around a lot during the festival weekend—but I knew I had been part of an amazing, unique artwork.

Since this year’s festival has passed and the circus has disbanded for now, I asked Caplan if the circus would ever come back to town. Her winky-faced reply was “Never say never.” Always looking for a matchless event, Caplan expressed interest in running a different, late-night event at next year’s festival. In an e-mail interview, she wrote: “In terms of details, you’ll have to be surprised, but I guarantee it will be fun, original, and sexy enough for night time.”

I can’t wait! Until then, as it was heard across Armory Park and Essex street, so it is now: gentlefolk of Salem! We are, yours truly, The Poetry Circus.

A repeat contributor to Mass Poetry's efforts at and coverage of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, Joey Gould otherwise tutors and stacks apples in between poems & juggling acts. His poetry has appeared in Paper NautilusGolden Walkman, and's poem of the moment.