Interview With Performance Poet Jacqueline Suskin

Performance Poet Jacqueline Suskin
Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Suskin

Strolling through the Hollywood Farmers Market one day, I spotted something one doesn't ordinarily see at farmers markets--an attractive young woman seated at a card table, a manual typewriter in front of her, with a sign in front of it reading, "Poem Store: Your Subject, Your Price." People were in line waiting to pay her to write them a custom-made poem on a subject of their choosing. I had to find out who this unique person was and what motivated her to do this. I was fortunate to be granted this interview with a working poet who has created her own fascinating niche in an art form not known for being a lucrative source of employment.

Jacqueline Suskin is a writer, performance poet and artist based in Los Angeles. She is the author of two books, the latest entitled Go Ahead & Like It, from Ten Speed Press of Penguin Random House. Known for her ongoing work with a project she calls Poem Store, Suskin composes on-demand poetry for customers who choose both a topic and a price in exchange for a unique verse. Poem Store has been her main occupation since 2009 and has taken her around the country with her typewriter in tow. Suskin has been featured in New York Times, T Magazine, LA Times, The Atlantic, and various other publications. She has performed at events for a range of organizations including Art Basel, Los Angeles Contemporary, Art of Elysium and SF MOMA. Recently she collaborated with fashion brands Alice + Olivia and Nasty Gal, finding endless ways to bring poetry into the mainstream.

Jacqueline, where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?

I was born in Royal Oak, Michigan, just outside of Detroit, but we moved around a lot. My parents divorced when I was eight and my mom packed us up into a big brown Ford pick-up truck with a trailer attached and we moved to The Florida Keys. I always say that I grew up in The Keys because that's where I experienced my most formative years. I hardly wore shoes, always in a bathing suit, always underwater and always eating fresh fish. I was the best at catching lobster--free diving and poking them out of their holes with a tickle stick. We lived in a house for a while, but mostly in trailers and we were pretty poor. It was a dreamy life in a lot of ways, but my mom was tough. She had a temper and was emotionally, sometimes physically abusive, and my dad had a new life in Ohio. My mom's boyfriend was a real redneck and an alcoholic party-boy. I had to become an adult by the age of 9.

How and when did the idea for becoming a poet occur to you?

Before I even knew how to write, I was filling up notebooks with this strange cryptic language, telling stories and making drawings to go along with them. I wrote my first poem when I was maybe six and it was about a fox. I didn't know I was writing a poem, but it just came out. I filled up diaries and journals every year and in 6th grade, we did a poetry project that consisted of showing examples of each type of poem. Instead of researching and providing samples of traditional poetry like the other students, I wrote my own and I guess that was technically my first book. My teacher thought it was too ambitious.

What did your parents do for a living?

My dad is a fundraiser for non-profit organizations. My mom is a waitress and owned a few small businesses while I was growing up.

What is the Poem Store and how did the idea for it originate?

Poem Store is a performance poetry project and it's also a business. I sit with my manual typewriter and compose one-of-a-kind poems for people who state a subject and then pay me whatever donation they choose in exchange for their unique verse. The idea for Poem Store came from artist Zachary Houston. I met Zachary in Oakland, CA in 2009 while traveling around the country on a self-guided permaculture tour. We became fast friends and he'd been typing poems on the street for years in the Bay Area. He asked me to join him one day at a festival in downtown Oakland. I had just purchased my first typewriter a few days before at The Rose Bowl flea market in Pasadena. It seemed like fate and I was giddy to try my hand at spontaneous poetry. We sat side-by-side typing poems and I knew immediately that this experiment would change my life.

What other jobs have you had?

I had my first job at age 11 bussing tables at the bar/restaurant where my mom and her boyfriend drank. The owners sold cocaine through the back of the kitchen. Through high school I worked as a waitress. I was a nanny for my cousins in Seattle every summer for 10 years. I've done quite a lot of farm work and gardening. I've hauled hay, shoveled horse manure, harvested bull rush seeds for wetland restoration, worked the night desk at a dormitory, tutored students, managed an after-school literacy program, and of course I've done my fair share of babysitting. I've always been a hard worker. My favorite job of all time, besides Poem Store, was at The Paperback Rack in Tallahassee, FL. This was a small, independent bookstore and whenever I worked there, I would be alone in the shop, shelving books, listening to whatever music I wanted to listen to, and conversing with interesting book lovers...that job was incredible.

Can you make a living as a poet, or do you need a "day job," too, and if so, what is yours?

Poem Store has been my only source of income since 2009. I live a modest life, but not a shabby one, and I have a nice little apartment and nearly all of my needs are met. So it isn't so bad being a professional performance poet. I work a lot and many of these jobs are private events in LA and those make all the difference.

Why do you use a manual typewriter for your Poem Store work?

I use a manual typewriter because I can take it anywhere and create a beautiful and readable product that someone can walk away with, that a customer can hold, touch, feel and covet. This is such a rare thing, a tangible treasure, ink and paper that will last or get lost, that will sit as if a holy thing in a frame, and that is undeniably special. The typewriter is also my hawker. Just the sound of the keys clacking draws people in and they want to know what I'm up to. The typewriter is a charmer, a beautiful antiquated charmer, and people notice it first before realizing I'm in service. Without the typewriter, Poem Store would be lacking a certain nostalgia. The machine allows for a formal sense of the poetic tradition to present itself, the craft of poetry is easily remembered as an ancient thing, and it adds to the awe-inspiring nature of the experience. Also, so many young people have never seen a typewriter and I'm one for keeping the past alive.

I understand you have a typewriter collection. Can you describe it?

I own twelve typewriters. Most of them were gifts. They are from various years, come in colors ranging from turquoise to purple, and I love each one very very much.

One of Suskin's 12 manual typewriters.
Photo: Courtesy of Jacqueline Suskin.

Your first book, The Collected, is a compendium of narrative poems describing found photographs. What's the appeal for you in found photographs?

I started collecting found photographs back in college in Tallahassee, FL. The appeal for me is in the discarded story. An image says so much and when it's left for dead in the trash, I'm inspired to revive it and give it life. That's what The Collected is: my attempt at resuscitation.

Your second book, Go Ahead & Like It, is about the power of making lists of things you like. What is the appeal in doing that?

I've been making lists of likes since college as well. A friend gave me a note one day and in it I read a beautiful list of things that he liked at the time. It inspired me. I felt like I knew more about him than I ever had before, just by reading a simple note listing the things he fancied. Before I knew it, my notebooks were filling up with my own likes and after eight years of list-making I decided that such a beneficial practice might be one that I needed to share. Writing down the things I like changes my mood, it inspires positivity, it changes my mindset, and it enables me to remember that I am indeed surrounded by an abundance of things that I enjoy, infinite details that add meaning to life, and that in every moment I can tap into these delightful particulars and feel better, happier and grateful.

You are the Poet-in-Residence at The Standard Hotel, in Los Angeles. How did that come about and what does it entail?

I've always wanted to live in a hotel, hole up with my work, order room service and write a book. I heard that The Standard did a collaboration with The Paris Review at their New York location and they brought an author in for a week of writing. My friend Nicole Disson introduced me to the folks at The Standard, Hollywood and I pitched the idea of a residency that would allow me to work on my new book, as well as bring Poem Store to their guests. We made postcards that folks would fill out at the front desk noting their subject choice on the back and I typed their poems on the front. I love the thought of people getting poems in the mail from their hotel where they stayed on vacation. It was a great way to offer up Poem Store in a new format.

You're writing a new book about California. Could you elaborate a bit about it?

Yes, this is a book of poems that focuses on my personal experiences in the great state of California. I never thought I'd live here, wasn't called to this place, and yet I ended here and now know there is no other place for me. I've written so many poems here and I want to pay tribute to this wild landscape that's given me so much. The book is called The Edge of The Continent and I imagine I'll finish it in 2016. It takes a long time for me to write a book. The process is so different than Poem Store because I edit like a madman.

What do you talk about in your college speeches? And what kinds of questions do the students ask you?

This year I've done a TedX Talk and was the visiting artist at Ball State University. Whenever I give a lecture, I feel the whole room spark. I usually talk about my experience as someone who has created her own profession and I love to see this concept light up the eyes of young people. They see me and think "well if this woman can take her typewriter on the street and make a job out of it, I can do anything I want to do." I always support this excitement. I tell them that Poem Store is just a balance of my two strongest talents, one being writing and the other being my ability to connect deeply one on one with people. One day I hope to do an extensive college tour, because the impact that my lectures seem to have on the audience is astounding and I feel very called to give myself in that forum. It's clearly effective and Poem Store is the same way. What a gift it is to watch my words immediately touch people.

How do you know when a poem you write is good?

I always like to read my poems aloud to my customers before they walk away with it. This gives them the chance to take part in the oral tradition of poetry, and it also allows me to know that I didn't write nonsense. I have a degree in poetry and I've read so many books of poems. I think being in touch with the classics and the power of seeing the smiling face of my satisfied customer allows me to feel confidant about my writing. Most writers don't get to see their audience digest what they wrote. My confidence builds each time I watch someone weep in response to a poem, or open their eyes wide with wonder, or stand their with their mouth agape and speechless.

What percentage of people for whom you write the poems like them? Has anyone requested a do-over?

No one has requested a do-over. No one has ever expressed dislike. I don't think that the people who are willing to stop and get a poem are the nit-picky type.

What makes a good poem?

I believe a good poem is one that evokes emotion, conjures up memory, and makes the reader think and question, blends words in unique and beautiful combinations, all in a concise and accessible form. A good poem fights the mundane uses of language and creates lyric that feels immense in its smallness.

Who are your favorite poets and why?

My favorite poet is Wendell Berry. I also love Mary Oliver. I'm an ecstatic earth worshiper and these poets write about the earth in a way that touches my heart with an overwhelming relatability. I feel so connected to them, like we are from the same circle of kin.

What's the most money you've ever been paid to write a poem? The least? The average amount?

The most: $500
The least: A single penny.
The average: $5-$20

What made you decide to set up the Poem Store at farmers markets?

Oh farmers markets are the best for Poem Store! So many different kinds of people, all demographics, all open and excited, all ready to buy things and experience things! It's a great stage for such an intimate public performance.

What skills do you employ to create a poem instantaneously as the purchaser stands before you?

Well I fall into some sort of trance honestly. I know I read the person, I feel them, my intuition takes over and as I begin to write, I'm nearly blank. The words hum in my brain like a quiet song and it all spills out onto the keys. The moment I read the poem aloud is when I actually understand what I wrote. So it's my skill as a writer for certain, but more than that it's my ability to intuit and receive whatever the customer is telling me, even beyond their words.

What do you have to know about the person in order to craft the poem?

Nothing. They can say one word if they want to. Their subject can be "travel" and I don't need to know anything else. The more they give me, the more specific the poem becomes, but often I will still be able to include something personal in the poem even if they don't provide that information. Many people say "how did you know this about me?!" after I recite their poem.

Have you considered franchising the Poem Store?

No. I'm not a business woman and I like the smallness, the singularity of this project. I am trade marking the name, and there are other folks who do on-demand poetry with typewriters, but no one does it the way I do it and so a franchise doesn't make sense. It's too specific, too much of a niche, and I think that would take the magic away from it.

Why do you type your name in all lower-case letters?

I try to be as egoless as possible with Poem Store. I never use "I" in my poems, I always try to use "we," and I never see the poems again so this practice isn't about me. This is a very important part of the connection that I have with my customers. It's a gift for them and them alone. The poem will never be written again, I will never use it for my own needs, and they can own it. My name in lower case is a part of this ego removal. I'm still the creator of the poem, but I want my part to be an offering and not an ownership.

You've made efforts to bring poetry into the mainstream. Could you describe some of those efforts?

I've worked with companies such as Alice & Olivia and Nasty Gal, bringing poetry to a different crowd through fashion. I've also worked with PayPal on their Poemgrams project for Valentines Day. I would work with almost anyone, because I never have to compromise my vision when writing for these companies, I just have to type poems the way I always do, and I get to access demographics that I normally wouldn't. My artistic practice is all about accessibility and service. I want to reach as many people as possible, inspire them with poetry, heal them with words, and as they become better, the world becomes better. It's a major goal, but in each poem is the possibility for change. I see it happen every time I write. Someone hears their poem and experiences a catharsis, a release, and this is healing. Everyone deserves that and I think everyone needs that.

How has doing the Poem Store changed your life?

Poem Store is an undeniable outlet. It allows me to have a job that I love and at the same time I am able to deeply affect people, sooth them, tend to their needs, create for them and offer them a treasure all their own at an affordable price. I realize the rare nature of my work and I'm beyond grateful for the opportunity to be a working poet and an analog creator in this technological age.

Suskin is grateful for the opportunity to be a working poet.
Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Suskin.

What do you miss about living in your previous residence, the small town of Humboldt?

Nearly everything. I am not a city person. But the city is where the people are and I have a job to do in this world that involves being present for as many people as possible. So I left behind my perfect cabin in Redwood Valley, all of those glorious trees, the booming coast, my luscious vegetable gardens, my goats and mountain tops. It was a sacrifice. I was the town poet. I loved my life. Yet, my conscience told me that I better get myself and my typewriters to the city as soon as possible. I felt the indisputable need to infiltrate the mainstream and remind everyone how beautiful this earth is, how worthy it is of our care, and poetry is the way I bring this reminder.

What's the strangest request for a poem you've ever received?


What part does religion play in your poetry?

As I said above, I'm an ecstatic earth worshiper. I serve the earth. I love this planet that we live on. I'm intrigued by every aspect of the natural world and I want to help keep it safe. I am a steward in awe of this place and everything I create is an attempt to nurture the human spirit because humans are the ones disrupting the natural world. This is my form of reverence and so it's very religion-like. The earth gives us everything we need and yet we find ways to ask for more, make more, and in this making we are destroying this perfect system already here for us. If I can write poetry and touch people's hearts, if I can steer them toward conservation and self-worth, it all adds up to in turn help mend what a mess we've made here.

Does diet and/or exercise have any impact on your creativity?

Oh yes. So much of my time is spent with self-care. Poem Store is incredibly exhausting, physically and psychically, so I have to do a lot to maintain my energy. I've done yoga for years, I ride my bicycle to the market with my typewriter, table, chair and umbrella packed on the back trailer, and I eat like a maniac. As someone who has worked on farms and in gardens, quality organic food is very important to me. I spend most of my money on food and self-care.

What do you do for fun?

I love to dance. I also love to travel and visit my friends. I hike, I draw, I read, and I tend my giant houseplant/porch garden.

Check in with Jacqueline Suskin's Poem Store online for poems, photos, events, and contact information.

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