A few minutes, a few lines, and poet for the people Jacqueline Suskin can offer her customers hope, confidence or a vision of who they are. And it has changed her life.
Jacqueline Suskin sits like an old-fashioned secretary between a lemonade stand and two guys selling hummus at the Hollywood Farmers Market. A sea-green typewriter rests on the tiny wooden table in front of her. Scotch-taped to the table is a letter-pressed sign that reads:
Your Subject Your Price.
Kreigh Hampel, a regular Poem Store customer, stops by, weighed down with half a dozen canvas bags filled with vegetables and stone fruits. Sweating beneath his slate gray glasses on this warm Sunday, he disentangles himself from his produce and requests a poem titled "Since Wednesday."
Suskin repeats the words and loads her typewriter — a vintage Hermes — with a sheet of stenograph paper no wider than a receipt. She bends her head and, without pausing to think, begins to type.
Time has moved along
slowly, inching with heat
and asking us to understand
what can happen in a single
day, in the rise of a week....
Less than three minutes and six lines later, the poem is complete. Suskin pulls it out of the typewriter and reads it out loud. She hands Hampel the paper and he gives it another read. Then he looks up with reddened eyes.
"So, Marta started chemo on Wednesday," he says.
It is not the first time one of her poems has made someone cry that day.
Suskin always asks if she can read her poems out loud because poetry is an oral art. Most of her customers agree, although sometimes they ask her to read very quietly. They lean in close to hear their poem above the din of the market. They almost always smile faintly.
When the reading is over, she hands over the poem and never sees it again.
"The thing I like about Poem Store is that it is not about me," she says. "I'm not thinking about myself, I'm writing about my interaction with a person, and I want to give them something that is just theirs."
Over the course of this morning, Suskin will write about "Seizures as Spiritual Portals" for a 50-year-old fashion designer. She'll write a poem on "Wedding Planners" for a soon-to-be bride and a poem on "Back Pain" for the fiance. And for a lithe young woman in short jean shorts and an embroidered top, she'll compose verse on "New Beginnings," just a few weeks after she wrote her a poem on "New Love."
Eric Jewett, who works as a television producer, will notice Suskin's "Poem Store" sign and think, "That's silly" and then, "Hey, I have $5" and get a poem on "Long Time Love" to give to his wife. The parents of 3-year-old Lucas Kaplan of Bel-Air will smile widely when their son receives a particularly good poem about fire trucks. It reads, in part:
Everyone is always asking for love poems. We are all obsessed with love."
— Jacqueline Suskin
roars with ease to come
quickly with protection
in mind, wheels speed
toward the scene to make
everything over with water
and courage alike.
Suskin lets her customers determine how much to pay her for a poem, because even if you only have 50 cents in your pocket, she believes, you should get a poem too.
Most people pay around $5, but plenty of people slip twenties into the pretty tin box that sits in front of her typewriter, and sometimes they even pay her more.
Her poems are generally short — just a few lines of verse — and each one is dated and signed. She writes fast, because people are busy and impatient, and because usually when they encounter her, they're just trying to buy their vegetables and get home.
"Part of the exercise is to get down immediately whatever comes to me," she says. "They are like little mantras, little prayers that get handed out."
Suskin, 28, started writing poems as a child and studied creative writing with an emphasis on poetry in college. Instead of going to grad school, she traveled for a while, and then settled down in a small cabin in Humboldt County where she paid rent by working as a vegetable gardener.
The cabin had no electricity, but it was cheap, and she was able to spend enough time on her own poetry to publish a small book of poems based on found photographs titled "The Collected" in 2010.
Her first experience with Poem Store was in 2009, when the Bay Area artist and poet Zach Houston invited her to do Poem Store with him at a street fair in Oakland. Houston, who started writing poetry on the spot in 2005, had invited other poets to come write poetry with him before, but Suskin was the first one who ever showed up.
Her first customer asked for a poem about "Heartbreak," but not the standard type of heartbreak. She wanted a poem about the heartbreak of looking back at your life and thinking of all the places you didn't go, all the people you didn't know, all the experiences you didn't have.
When Suskin read the poem, the customer started to weep.
"She said, 'That is exactly what I meant,'" Suskin says. "And I knew then that Poem Store was going to be something important. I knew it was going to change my life."
Suskin has been doing Poem Store at least once a week ever since. First at a farmers market in Humboldt County, then making the drive from Humboldt to write poems at the Hollywood Farmers Market.
A few months ago, she decided to take a break from small-town living and moved to a small apartment in Silver Lake. A friend suggested she sign with the L.A.-based artist management company Dilettante, and now she gets Poem Store gigs at weddings, parties, gallery openings, street festivals and bookstores.
"It's such a unique thing that she does, and we're like — how much further can we take this and what can it lead to?" said George Augusto, founder of Dilettante. "What she's doing is basically writing poetry on demand. It is both analogue and yet completely appropriate to our instantaneous culture."
It's 11:30 a.m. at the Hollywood Farmers Market, and Suskin is navigating a series of increasingly bizarre poem requests.
Sean Virnig, the superintendent of the California School for the Deaf, uses a special app on his iPhone to type out his poem topic: "Riding Bicycles Across Raw Land." Ryan Sandler and Ethan Winchell, both 21 and in town for the summer from Boston, rack their brains to come up with the strangest topic they can think of: "A muppet that lost all his friends."
But Hugo Castillo and his partner, Daniel Medina, top that. They ask for a love poem about an otter and a bear that will commemorate their own relationship.
Suskin is unfazed.
Found riverside shore
calling each to connect.
Bear comes searching
below surface to see
otter in the depths.
"Everyone always asks me if I've ever been stumped," she says, "and I've never been stumped."
Suskin has taken Poem Store across the country and everywhere she goes, the same themes come up again and again.
The most common topic? Love.
"Everyone is always asking for love poems," she says. "We are all obsessed with love."
But love, as a topic, is deeply unspecific. When someone asks her to write a poem about love, she responds by asking what kind of love. That usually leads to a story about a girlfriend living far
away, or a person new to Los Angeles desperately missing her family, or the love a mother has for her new baby.
She thinks people ask for poems that help them understand their path or direction in life.
"They want hope, or confidence, or they just need someone to see who they are," she says. "Half the time I feel like I am a therapist or a psychic."
Suskin has tried to figure out what goes through her head when she speed-writes a poem, but she can't figure it out. "There is just this blurry area there," she says. "There is no answer to how I can do it so quickly, so I don't question it."
When she's not writing poetry, Suskin is excitable and high energy — words tumble out of her mouth. But composing poems for strangers is draining work. When she's seated behind her typewriter at the Farmers Market, at a wedding, at a music festival, she is available and open, but quiet and focused. She smiles, but she doesn't say much.
By 12:20, Suskin is exhausted and can't wait to put her typewriter away.
"This is the most physically draining thing I've ever done in my life," she says. "When I'm done writing poems for four hours for people I don't know, I'm like a zombie. My brain is mush."
She takes a quick bathroom break and returns to find Samar Lachini, a regular customer, grinning broadly, marching up to the little table. For the past few weeks Lachini has requested a series of poems about different friends and family members, expecting Suskin to intuit their personalities just from looking at them, or sometimes just hearing their name.
Today, she presents Fernando Garcia — a freshly scrubbed young man in a blue baseball cap and short-sleeved white button-down shirt.
Suskin smiles, loads up the typewriter and begins.