The poet Jacqueline Suskin is back in town. You may know her from a few years ago when she was a regular part of the Arcata Farmers’ Market selling poems from her makeshift “Poem Store,” sitting on a folding chair with a typewriter in her lap. She’s been away — her poems have taken her all over the world — but she’ll be in Humboldt for the rest of May.
First, Friday, May 25 @ 7 p.m., she’ll read from (and sign) her brand new book of poems, The Edge of the Continent, at Northtown Books.
Then the next day (May 26, 9 a.m. until 2 p.m.), she has a Poem Store session at the Arcata Farmers’ Market. (Note: it’s not on the Plaza, since Saturday the Kinetic Grand Champion launches at noon.)
Later May 26 @ 6 p.m. she’s @fancyland.queerland. Last but not least, Wednesday, May 30, 5-7 p.m. she’ll teach a writing workshop at The Sanctuary.
portrait by Shelby Duncan
My first experience with the Poem Store was in the summer of ’09. The proprietor, Jacqueline, was sitting on a chair in the shade of some trees in a grassy area just outside the main Portland Farmers’ Market. Wearing a vintage dress that seemed to suit her, she was typing away on a vintage typewriter — clickity click. A handmade sign announced, “Poem Store, Your Subject, Your Price!”
Intrigued, I bought a custom typed poem, an improvised bit of free verse dedicated to my son and his (then) girlfriend. She read it aloud, I gave her a few bucks and took my gift away. I liked it, they liked it. Successful sale.
A couple of months later, to my surprise, I ran across her again, this time clickity clicking on the Arcata Plaza. She’d moved to Humboldt and she’d set up shop at our own Farmers’ Market.
When I bought my next poem, I asked some questions. Jacqueline told me about how she got in the Poem Store business. “My friend in Oakland, Zach Houston, does it for a living,” she explained. “He told me I should try. I went with him one day and it was amazing. I’ve been doing it ever since.”
She traveled with her Poem Store rig — everything fits on a bicycle — “all the way up the coast to Seattle,” typing verses on all sorts of subjects for all sorts of people. When she wasn’t busy writing custom poems, she typed letters to friends to keep the clickity clicking going (and attract customers).
After calling Humboldt home for a few years, in 2013, she packed up the Store, pulled up stakes and headed for the bright lights of Hollywood (and the general vicinity). She published a couple of books, The Collected, which she describes as “a compendium of narrative poems describing found photographs,” and Go Ahead & Like It, “about the power of making lists of things you like.”
Along the way, she was invited to the White House by Michelle Obama, flew to Abu Dhabi for some sort of Culture Summit. Of course the poetry never stopped.
“As I poet, I am always writing, and so about two years ago I started to pull from my hoards of verse and I saw a theme: California. This got me really excited: a three volume book about California!”
The Edge of the Continent, Volume One: The Forest is “a book that has been in the making ever since I lived in Humboldt. It’s a collection of poems about my time up there, how important that place is for me.
“The next book will be about ‘The City’ — my time here in Los Angeles — and the third is ‘The Desert’ about living in Joshua Tree.”
These are not a bunch of poems written for her store. “I wrote all of the poems over a long period of time,” she explained, “the period of time I’ve lived in CA, since 2009.” As she noted, she’s always writing, but she mostly says good-bye to the work she writes for “your subject, your price.”
“Sometimes I take a photo, but there are thousands of Poem Store poems out there that I’ll never see again. I like that about this practice, the writing doesn’t have to be about me or what I will do with a poem someday, it’s for the customer.”
This weekend’s farmers’ market session is something of a return for her. Lately she’s held off on doing poetry at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market.
“I’ve been typing poems at private events in L.A. and doing residencies at bookstores and shops there. After 8 years of typing at the market, it’s been a good thing for me to have a break. I don’t always feel safe in public markets, such crazy energy surrounding me, no one to hold space for me, and I’m a sitting duck.
“It’s been an interesting transition and I’ve taken to creating large poetry installations, speaking at colleges, and traveling to perform.
“Last month I was selected as one of 50 artists from around the world to go to Abu Dhabi for a Culture Summit: a big think tank of artists and culture makers in conversation for a week. It was incredible.”
“When I performed, I wrote a poem about the always-changing cultural voice of humanity and it felt good to translate a week’s worth of musing. When the panel discussions were happening, the folks who held their ground the most, who dug the deepest, spoke the most poetically.
“I learned that the function of art as a cultural guide is endlessly expansive, it reaches every part of society, it gives us purpose and can shift political power. Poetry is at the root of everything.”
It is indeed. And at the root of culture…