David Caplan, associate professor of English at OWU, has been awarded the prestigious Emily Clark Balch Prize for Poetry by the Virginia Quarterly Review for spring 2012. One of the country’s most distinguished literary journals, the Virginia Quarterly Review honors writers with this award who contribute the very best work to their publication each year. Caplan’s winning sequence of poems, “Observances,” explores the portrayal of traditionally observant Jews in a way that is innovative and unique within American literature today.
Central to “Observances” is a visit Caplan made to Tiferes Bachurim, a yeshiva (residential institution devoted to Jewish learning) in Morristown, New Jersey. “This project began with my interest in the way that contemporary American literature depicts traditionally observant Jews,” explains Caplan. “They’re sometimes depicted, but they often don’t seem quite as real as other characters—they are treated more as caricatures. I wanted to present these people living real lives and capture the fullness of their character.”
After Caplan had written a few poems with this inspiration, the Virginia Quarterly Review sent him to Tiferes Bachurim, accompanied by a photographer, Noah Rabinowitz. “The journal often likes to do spreads of poems alongside photographs,” says Caplan. “It turned out to be an educational and inspirational experience to work with a photographer and see things from the perspective of a visual artist.”
At Tiferes Bachurim, Caplan immersed himself in the culture of Jewish learning, finding poetic inspiration from a variety of places as he did so. “I paid attention to things that might strike people as contradictory. For example, there’s a poem where I described students studying the Talmud, an important Jewish text written in Aramaic, and looking up words on a smart phone. In the journal, it was published with a picture of someone looking at their phone. It may seem contradictory to someone outside the group, but the students use phones for the same purpose of understanding the text. It was a moment ready for poetry.”
Throughout “Observances,” Caplan uses different kinds of verse lines to capture elements of his experience. From lively energy to the strain of physical endurance, he focuses on treating his characters as profoundly real, expressing their very human frustrations and accomplishments. In doing so, he creates a provocative, powerful series of poems that reflects a sensitivity to his subjects as well as a deep interest in their ways of life.
Caplan is currently working on poems that he plans to add to “Observances,” a welcome addition to his powerful and award-winning sequence. His forthcoming book, “Rhyme’s Challenge,” is under contract with Oxford University Press for publication in the coming year.