An interview with Jaqueline Suskin, author, poet, and healer.
Jacqueline Suskin bangs out poems on a manual typewriter for anyone who asks. She also writes books of poems and writes about poetry. Along the way she has also constructed a life as a healer. She spoke to Stephen Kiesling from her retreat in Humboldt County about her latest book, Everyday Is a Poem, and how to “find clarity, feel relief, and see beauty in every moment.”
This is our holiday issue, about celebrating whatever life brings as a gift. And that recognition seems like your life story.
Well, I have always been a poet. When I was a kid, I wrote poetry. It’s just the way my brain naturally works. I was a deeply feeling child, this kid who was always collecting bugs and feathers and every little detail mattered to me. And I had all these little notebooks that I would fill up all the time. [Laughs] I’m still that person.
I got a degree in poetry and typically the trajectory is to get your masters, your PhD, and then you teach. But I didn’t want to do that. Instead, I traveled around because I wanted to have experiences to write about, and I ended up buying a typewriter. It’s a strange thing for a traveler to buy, because you’re lugging this heavy thing around, but I just knew I needed one. And then shortly after that, I started doing Poem Store, where I would set up in the street and use the typewriter to create spontaneous poems. You pay whatever you want for a poem.
Who bought your poems?
So many different people from all walks of life. Every demo- graphic asked for poems. And through that, I saw that the accessibility of poetry is really important. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me, “Oh, I’m not really a poetry person,” or “I don’t understand poetry.” My goal is not only to create accessible work, but to remind people that everything around them is full of poetry—all the time. After 11 years and over 40,000 poems I could see the impact. It became my purpose: not just to write poetry for the sake of writing poetry, but also as a healing tool for people.
I didn’t think about poetry in that way when I was in school. I wasn’t taught that poetry is a healing tool or a spiritual tool. Yet out of the academic lens and out of the esoteric lens comes this beautiful sort of boundaryless offering that allows us to explore the huge universal experience and also get down into the most simple day-to-day detail. Being able to access that has changed how I interact with everyday life.
I’ve written one poem seriously in my life, which I gave to a girl in high school, and it bombed so spectacularly that my poetry career ended even faster than my singing career. I think a lot of people have that experience. How do you turn that around?
When I was younger, my mom would read something that I would write and say, “I don’t understand this. I don’t get poetry.” Then one day I found the right words to respond: “Okay, well, when you read it, did you see anything? Did you have a memory? Was there a line that moved you, and why?” And then she started talking about it, and I said, “That’s what it is. That’s all the poem is. There are no tricks. There’s nothing that you have to understand beyond that. Whatever your experience is of it is for you.” And I started putting that into my work.
Later, I came to love skeptics. They’re my favorite customers. I tell them to give me a subject and then they wait until I read them the poem. And they get this look as if I read their soul. It’s happened time and time again, and in the repetition, I realized, “Oh, this is a tool to open people up.”
A poem is a translation of something huge condensed down into small, hopefully accessible, imagistic writing that you then get to feel, taste, experience, and understand. Giant concepts like love, fear, death, hate, loss—all of the largest human experiences—condensed down into this refined vision of what that is for that writer. The best poetry becomes a reflection that people can tap into and then understand themselves more deeply. That’s the approach to poetry that I’m interested in. And once someone hears that or sees that, they read poetry differently for the rest of their life.
You mentioned love and fear, but in your new book, you suggest never using those words. Why not?
Those words are so huge. So abstract. When you’re talking about your love or your fear, it may be completely different than mine. The way to actually create a relationship with your audience—for them to see themselves in your work—is not to use a huge word that could mean something completely different to them. Instead, it is to be as specific as possible about your awakening to your fear or your relation- ship to love. The specificity of poetry is what allows this deeper understanding to happen.
You write that your favorite poets when you first started to write were old white guys who died too soon.
I still love those writers. But at a certain age, around 16 or so, I started to become really radicalized and politicized and I realized that the standard patriarchal studies meant miss- ing out on a huge swath of poets. I began digging deeper to find more work in the world that related to wider experience.
The poets I love the most now are all naturalists. They write about the earth. That’s what I like to read about the most, and that’s what I like to write about the most. But if
I’m pushing myself to try to think about things in a different way, then I’ll lean into those realms where I don’t know. It’s like studying anything, but I do it through the lens of poetry.
You’re a radical environmentalist living in Humboldt County, California, and one of your good friends is an old white guy running a timber company.
[Laughs] That’s true. Through the Poem Store I made deep connections and friendships with the most unlikely people. And he was—and is—one of them. His specific story that he needed a poem about was about losing his wife, so I got to see his humanity long before I knew that he was in charge of cutting down the forest. That was at the beginning of my
career and it was a huge lesson for me: Don’t judge people for where they’re at in the world, because that doesn’t mean that they’re not connected to something really beautiful. Don’t dehumanize anyone. And it’s amazing how much my job has allowed me to have those experiences with all different types of people from all walks of life.
Is everyone tapped into the same stories?
Every once in a while, some really creative person will show up with some subject matter that I haven’t witnessed before. But typically, humans are all processing the same things all the time. We’re sad about the same things, wishing for the same things, celebrating the same things. And part of that is that we’re taught the same things and we’re living in a society where we’re all functioning in a very similar cycle. And I use the vessel of the poem to pay homage to the truth in that.
But I also like to shake that up a bit, to offer something radical or healing or transformative. It’s been fascinating to see how powerful that is: to create something that’s accessible to folks, and also to offer up newness for them. It’s a gentle offering. I use compassion as a tactic. If you see that someone needs to learn something, or is asking to grow in a certain way, or is stuck in a certain way, compassion is your tactic to get in there and work on something with this person through the poem. I definitely did this with my friend the timber baron and in turn watched him open up and grow immensely.
So your poems are therapeutic?
Oh yeah. That’s definitely the root of most of my work. And that was born through practice. It came from having interactions in public with so many people and seeing how deeply people need to be witnessed. They need to have their inner world seen and translated. That need is so strong. And the
response when that actually happens is so powerful. Not once during my entire career with Poem Store did I sit down without at least one person weeping. That says a lot to me about people’s needs—and how poetry responds to that need.
A passage in your book that I underlined is “I struggled deeply with believing that I’m lovable.” Is that a universal?
The way it shows up for everyone is different, and the way it plays out in your life is different. But yes. I think it’s difficult for most people to believe in being loveable. But poetry helps. Through seeing myself in this poetic way, by witnessing myself through my poetic eyes, I’m able to see all the things that are lovable about me.
Poetry is the tool that I use to see myself more clearly.
And that’s why I think the healing practice of poetry is such a crucial thing to emphasize. It’s been huge for me to see how that works for myself, but also to watch person after person tap into this other place in themselves, to open up to their pain or their joy and let it be worthy of some form of tribute. Paying tribute to your experience—bad or good— transforms the way you see yourself.
Even reading a book of poems in that way is transformative. You can read a book of poems by an amazing writer and see yourself in it. That is just the greatest feeling. You’re connected to this amazing writer, this creative visionary. There you are on their page and in their words. And if they’ve done a good job, they’re definitely holding that kind of space for you.
MAKE A RITUAL OF JOY
Be in service of your joy by noticing it. Let this observation be a routine, a ceremonial practice of tending your exuberance. The more joy we feel, the better chance we have of extending such delights to others. Hallelujah! You woke up and saw the brilliant sun again! This thought is the day’s first poem. Oh joy! The wilderness is large and secretive! Write about it. Wow! ... Let the work of words reveal joy in your thoughts, on the page, in any way that pays tribute to the pleasure of being alive so that you feel it fully on each occasion.
How do you turn awe into a poem?
I try to break down that concept in my book. You find the thing that you’re in awe of—which isn’t that easy for people. It’s a thing you have to practice. It is a form of observation, but it’s also a feeling that requires repetition and engagement. And when you get to know that feeling, then you can find things with a method that inspires you the most. Then you break that down. Why do you want to write about this particular thing? What are you trying to illuminate with your awe? What specific details show how you are reacting to the world? And if that’s awe, you’re giving this awestruck experience to your reader.
Keep in mind that this can be a poem just for yourself. You don’t ever have to show your poetry to anyone. Writing for yourself can be a mindfulness practice that is poetic in every way.
One line—“The city doesn’t require me to have a purpose”— really struck me. What’s that about?
That poem comes from my time in Los Angeles. I’m not a city person. I moved to the city to see if I could make a career as a poet with my typewriter. It was an experiment. I didn’t have any strings attached to it. So, I got to witness the city, and that poem illuminates the fact that the city itself doesn’t require you to have a purpose. You can just be there and
consume and use and engage. You don’t have to be in service to be a part of the metropolis. Yet I knew why I was there: to be a poet for as many people as possible. I felt like I had this extra charge, and the second I got to Los Angeles, the whole city opened up to me. So that poem is about this contrast: You don’t have to have a purpose, but if you do, it’s going to take you places that you wouldn’t normally get to.
We Find Joy
And joy will be the forever key to our acceptance and knowing the self fully. So if joy leaves, we know we have to dig in again to discover the next phase of truth.
Now you’re back in your regular environment.
Yes, my preferred environment. Living on a farm up in Humboldt. This is definitely the place that I love to be. I love to be in the woods and I love to grow food and be outside all the time.
You live in a retreat center. What does it mean to be at a retreat with you?
The concept is to have this therapeutic setting, which is this quiet, gorgeous place where you get to be with your own work.
It’s for artists of all types, thinkers of all types, anyone who just wants to get away for a little while. And then there’s a little component of getting to work with me. Someone came recently and I edited their work. Someone else wanted to talk about an outline for a book. And then another person just wanted to come talk about the trajectory of their music. The two talents that have taken me through my career are that I love to write, but also I really love to connect deeply with people. I’m able to tap into really deep conversations with people I don’t know, and kind of get to the bottom of things in a way that feels like a gift. I try to pay tribute to that by doing it in different ways, without exhausting myself, and the retreat here at the farm is just another attempt to provide this service.
How do you make every day a poem?
It’s a mindfulness practice. I’m always thinking in poetry. I woke up this morning looking at the sky and thinking in this really specific way about the beauty of being alive. And then I kind of spread this feeling throughout the day so every moment can be full of meaning and have depth to it. It’s an ongoing practice. It’s what inspired me to write the book. I actually believe that every person can look at the world in this way and feel better about being alive.
I think it’s hard to be alive. Especially now with difficulty coming from every angle. And my thought is if we can train ourselves to mine the wonder of it all, we’re that much more inclined to do our best and to make the world a better place.
I have to ask about the pencil tattooed on your arm.
It’s a pencil, plus a hummingbird. The hummingbird is a bee hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world. To show how small they are, an ornithologist got one to land on the eraser of a #2 pencil. When I saw the photo in college, it seemed like a poem to me: a beautiful contrast of this utilitarian human creation with this perfect natural creation. It’s just something to be in awe of.
I never really thought I would have tattoos. They’re all little examples of my personal mythology: sacred, meaningful symbols that help keep me grounded in the place where I am or to remember what I care about most. I also like paying tribute, so my tattoos are not just reminders. They’re another form of gratitude for having the ability to create meaning in this way.
I think creating meaning is the most incredible human tool. Not only are we able to create meaning, we know that we’re making it up.
You have the choice to believe that a thing is sacred and to know that you yourself are assigning that sacredness. There’s such a specific human power in that. I love to think that there’s this nothingness below it, and that we just pull from that and make whatever we want. And that’s our magic as humans.