You’ve probably seen artist Jacqueline Suskin at the Hollywood Farmers' Market, perched in front of a small table with a (gorgeous vintage Hermes) typewriter and a sign: “Poem Store: Your Subject, Your Price.” Part the people’s poet laureate, part medicine woman, Suskin brings her remarkable talent for finding what’s poetic in life to those in need. Whether her customers want a poem about new love or lasting loss, whether they have ten dollars or ten pennies, she can tap out verse within minutes to put words to their feelings. This past summer, Suskin moved to LA from the small town of Humboldt so she could practice her art on a grander scale. She recently welcomed us into her Silver Lake home to get a better look at her typewriter collection and a better understanding of what Poem Store really means, both to her and her clientele.
Time Out Los Angeles: So, how would you describe what it is exactly that you do?
Jacqueline Suskin: It’s funny, people will see me at the market with my sign and still not get it. I have to say my spiel: “You give me a subject, I write you a poem, you give me what you want for it.” But it’s more than that. I feel like I was given this talent to help people. It’s so incredibly strange and amazing that no matter where I am or what the demographic is, people always ask for the same things. They’re going through the same sadness, or excitement… it says a lot about the human spirit, us all being connected in this way that maybe we forget. We long to feel individual and separate, but we’re all actually struggling with the same issues.
Time Out Los Angeles: What made you decide to bring Poem Store to Los Angeles?
Jacqueline Suskin: Up in Humboldt I was like the town poet. I’d be walking through the grocery store and hear “Hi poem lady!” It was awesome, but it was never going to take me anywhere. I have so much more access to connect with people here. I could have lived my whole life in Humboldt, happily, but would only have touched so many people. This thing that happens when I do [Poem Store], it calls for a grand scale. To get that kind of exchange with another person—there aren’t many things like that in the world. It’s special, and it should be available to everybody. That’s also why I’m donation-based.
Time Out Los Angeles: Yeah, that’s very cool.
Jacqueline Suskin: A couple weeks ago this guy came up to me, he looked like he spent a lot of time on the streets—he was really sweet, and gave me 50 cents in pennies for a poem. He was like, “Do you even want this?” And I said, “If you want to give it to me!”
Time Out Los Angeles: Wow. What subject did he ask for?
Jacqueline Suskin: The Universe.
Time Out Los Angeles: That’s great. What are some other memorable requests you’ve had?
Jacqueline Suskin: People always want the same things. Love is a big one, of course. I get a lot of requests for dog poems, which I don’t really get—but I still do them. I got “fried chicken” once, that was really funny. The only thing I’ll ever say no to is sonnets or limericks—I just write whatever comes out, it’s always free verse.
Time Out Los Angeles: So you’ve never been stumped? Are there any other challenges you’ve come across?
Jacqueline Suskin: No, I don’t really get stumped. It just kind of comes. But it’s so exhausting! I’m totally wiped of energy after, it’s crazy, my mind feels like mush. I end up using all my brain power, and my emotional power too. People aren’t just asking for dog poems or poems about the market, they’re often going through a really intense thing. People cry—I see these extreme emotional reactions to having someone put words to whatever it is they’re going through.
Time Out Los Angeles: It’s like you’re a poet slash shrink. Do you keep in touch with any of your customers?
Jacqueline Suskin: I do. I have repeat customers, which I really like. And people write me emails, they send me things. I have a lot of friendships that have happened through Poem Store. Although now that I’m living in LA it’s harder—there are just too many people, and not enough time to rest.
Time Out Los Angeles: One thing you do is read your poems out loud to your customers, yes?
Jacqueline Suskin: Yes, I made the decision to do that. Historically, poetry is an oral art. Listening to someone read a poem aloud is so much more impactful. I mean, I can sit and read Mary Oliver’s poetry in my house, but I can’t hear her voice or look her in the eye. I’m a writer who has actual, personal, in-the-moment experiences with each one of my readers. Which again, is part of what makes it so draining.
Time Out Los Angeles: I bet. So what do you do to recharge between gigs?
Jacqueline Suskin: I’m such a forest person—recently a friend has been taking me to Angeles [National] Forest. I love it up there. I go to Griffith Park, I like walking everywhere. I love living in Silver Lake because I can walk up to Sunset Boulevard and find a great place to eat on a whim.
Time Out Los Angeles: Like where?
Jacqueline Suskin: I love Silver Lake Ramen! I wish I could go there right now. And Guisados, that taco place—I go there like once a week. I love the food in LA. I lived on the side of a mountain in Humboldt for two years, I grew gardens of food and cooked all the time, but now I just go out to eat constantly.
Time Out Los Angeles: I hear you. Aside from all the amazing food, what’s your favorite part about living here?
Jacqueline Suskin: Well, I’d been to LA a few times and wasn’t that into it—I’m just not a city person. But I think it has a lot to do with who you come to visit here. Whose version of LA are you getting? The artists’ LA, the city that belongs to contemporary and experimental artists who are invested in each other’s work—it’s so incredible. I can collaborate with so many people here, I’m always finding new art that inspires me. People devote their entire lives to their art here, and Poem Store is my whole life right now—that kind of community and understanding is really special.
Time Out Los Angeles: Anything else about LA that inspires you?
Jacqueline Suskin: I’ll tell you what, one of the biggest things that keeps me going here is the flora. I’ll go on a walk and be astounded by all the different, crazy, exotic, beautiful plant life that’s covering this city. I’m totally transfixed. I came from a town where I knew almost every plant in the forest, but here I’m just like—what the heck is all this stuff? Whenever I’m feeling down on being city-bound, I know I can get inspired just by someone’s backyard. Although after about 30 minutes of that I start to think about where all the water comes from….
Time Out Los Angeles: Now that would make for a good poem.
Commission a poem of your own at the Hollywood Farmers' Market, where Suskin sets up Poem Store (almost) every Sunday. You can also book her for private events through her website.
Follow Kate Wertheimer on Twitter: @kate_em_up