Jacqueline Suskin

Hi Jac, what are you up to lately? 

Mainly, I’m working on my new book. It’s a collection of poems about my time living in California called The Edge Of The Continent. It’s broken up into three sections: Forest, City and Desert. I’m really excited about it but it’s such a slow process. This is my third book and from my other two experiences I understand that writing and editing takes so much time. I’m invested! But I also have to balance my Poem Store business as well, so it’s a day-to-day practice of acceptance and focus. Working on a book is so different than writing poems in public with my typewriter. I require a lot of solitude and work directly with my editor. Book making is an effort that makes me feel legitimate as a writer, properly tending the craft of poetry, building a volume of words that come from a very personal place. It’s a satisfying place for me to be. 

What is moving you at this moment?

The political climate of this country is moving me. I feel an even deeper need to write poetry in a time like this. Poetry has always been political. When I spread beauty or hope with my words I’m participating, I’m fighting, I’m in action. 

 What is your relationship to poetry? 

Poetry is holy, it’s ancient, it’s worthy work, it’s beyond my own ego, it’s a service, and it’s something I channel from a source other than myself alone. Each time I sit down to write I feel a sense of gratitude. What an ability, to tap into the core of existence and pull words out one by one! On top of that I get to hand them over to anyone who needs them. Poetry is a sacred mystery and I have such a respect for it.


Can you remember the first words you fell in love with?

How about the first poem that truly changed my life? Elizabeth Bishop’s In The Waiting Room. When I was trying to figure out where to go to college, I visited Florida State University. I had a scholarship to go to a few different Florida schools and none of them really stood out to me. I knew I wanted to study poetry and when I sat in on a class at FSU the professor read In The Waiting Room to us. I’d never heard of Elizabeth Bishop and this poem blew my mind. I made my choice in that moment. Little did I know that at the time FSU had one of the top ten poetry programs in the country! I still love that poem so much and the fact that it altered the course of my life makes me really happy.

What is your earliest memory of writing?

I was filling up notebooks before I knew how to write letters properly. I always reference this weird cryptic language that I would use as a child because I’m in awe of the fact that writing was clearly a form of inherent expression. I wrote poems before I even knew what a poem was. There is something so special about that kind of childhood passion, like I couldn’t help but write, as if it were something I was born to do. That feels dramatic, but also true. 

Can you tell us about your poem store, how did it get started?

Poem Store is a performance poetry project that I started back in 2009. I compose improvisational poetry on my manual typewriter for patrons who choose both a topic and a price in exchange for a unique verse. Poem Store began as an experiment. My friend Zach Houston was typing on the streets of Oakland and he suggested I try my hand at on-the-spot writing, too. So I sat beside him at a street fair one day and after I wrote my first poem I knew this was a very special thing to do in the world. I didn’t know it would become my career! Since 2009, Poem Store has been my main source of income. I love the connective quality of this work, performing in public, and working one on one with people to create verse that is truly one of a kind. 

Can you describe your current writing process?

When I’m writing on my typewriter for people it’s very fast, no time to edit, and no looking back. When I work on my book it’s methodical, I read each poem aloud many times, I edit as I write, and I go back and tweak draft after draft. Poem Store writing is very trancelike. Book writing is much more personal. When I write in my journal it’s very loose, emotional, and formless. 

How would you describe the relationship between poetry and performance?

Some poets are simply the age-old hermit. They hole up and translate the world for us from afar. Others prefer the stage, they sing their words, they craft expression to fully embody and enact. I’d say I’m a balance of both. I love to be the bear and hide away. I’m easily distracted by people and when I’m alone I get so much done. Yet, I understand that I’m a performer at heart. I always have been. I can get up in front of a crowd and tell them my deepest desires, share my personality freely, answer questions and genuinely connect. I’m suited for public exposure. I see the effect this has on people and I’m moved to be in service this way. To me poetry and performance is a type of service and I love that I’m inspired to give both. 


Where do your poems come from?

From a mysterious and unknown source. From my own experience and memories. From some ancient and magical reservoir. From my unlimited observations. 

How does poetry connect us as human beings?

A poem has the power to help us understand even the most difficult experience in a succinct way. As humans we need to be seen, we thrive on feeling known, and we grow wiser when we can relate to one another. When I read poetry I feel connected to something larger than myself. A single verse can expose me to a sense of shared comprehension. If I can feel the same things as a masterful poet, I can feel less alone. With my poetry I aim to offer up this kind of inspiration and an awareness of a shared reality.

What do you think is the most important thing about a poem?

Images. I don’t want a poet to just tell me something, I want them to show it to me. How incredible to paint with words, to construct a definition or explanation by taking the reader somewhere specific, by crafting so carefully the details of an experience that it now belongs to the reader as well. 

What is your biggest question for the world? If you have one..

Why are we not taking better care of the earth? 

 What is your dream for the world?

That we change our ways and treat the earth with the respect that it deserves.

Who would you like to see interviewed on We The Tender Hearted?

My favorite poet in Los Angeles, Mandy Kahn.