JACQUELINE SUSKIN IS A CALIFORNIA-BASED POET AND EDUCATOR WHO HAS BEEN TEACHING WORKSHOPS, WRITING BOOKS, AND CREATING SPONTANEOUS POETRY AROUND THE WORLD SINCE 2009.
I interviewed Jacqueline amidst a stressful quarantine and I’m so excited to share it with the withitgirl community. A friend from my hometown showed me her poetry on Instagram a few months back (@jsuskin), and I’ve kept up with her writing ever since. Her poetry is full of humanity, moments of healing, and succinct yet beautiful descriptions. I loved talking and learning about not only her career as a poet but her optimistic perspective on life. ~Finn O'Neil
Where did you grow up/where are you from? What started your journey to being a writer?
Jacqueline: I've always written, even when I was a little child. I was born just outside of Detroit and I grew up in the Florida Keys. I was always filling up notebooks -- my response to the world was basically just in poetry. I didn't know what poetry was at that point in my life, but when I look back on all that stuff (and I have a lot of those journals still), it's clear that I was a writer. So I followed that through, and when I went to college, I got a degree in poetry. Basically, that path typically looks like you get a degree, then you get another degree, then you get your Ph.D., and then you teach. But I wanted to go live my life, get more subject matter to write about, and just be a poet in the world. So that was my starting place as a writer.
Who was your biggest supporter/role model with your writing?
Jacqueline: My parents were really supportive of me as a reader, and they always bought me diaries and things like that. They always got me books. We were always reading in my house because my dad was a big reader. So that was a huge part of my childhood: just growing up with books and having access to books.
Also, I had a teacher in high school who was supportive of my writing. She was a consistent presence in my journey as an artist. For a long time, I would think back to her -- and it wasn't that I talked to her or connected with her about it after I left school. It was the way she showed me not just the highlights of my practice and my talents, but also my faults. She made me a better writer.
So I had my parents, and I had her, but also in middle school we did a project that was based on poetry. We were meant to look up all these different examples of all the different poetic methods. Instead of doing that, I asked if I could write my own. I have that book that I made still -- it was all of these little poems that I wrote to show 'Here's what a sonnet is, here's what a metaphor is, here's what a cliche is.' I remember my teacher saying, 'That's a lot of work,' and I said, 'I think it will be easier for me to write these than it will be to look them up.' This is funny because it's so true. I'm not the best researcher; it's more natural for me to just write.
What have you learned from The Poem Store? What gave you the idea and started the process for it? What are your favorite and least favorite parts of the Poem Store and that experience?
Jacqueline: When I left college, I traveled for a while. On that trip, I mainly studied permaculture and I was going to different places to see how people were living in sustainable ways in rural and urban areas. I was also taking classes and working in gardens. Eventually, I ended up going up to Oakland to visit some of my friends who had a little warehouse community. They were like, 'You need to meet our friend. He's a poet,' and this moment totally changed my life. It was their friend, Zach Houston who introduced me to the weird job he had started. He had been doing it for almost four years at that point, making his living off of typing poems at street fairs and on street corners in the city. And then he invited me to do it with him. I had just purchased a typewriter in LA, right before that for some reason, so I went and
ended up continuing that project.
In my mind, it was just an experiment -- it was just something fun to do. Then it became my job. I lived in Arcata and would type at the farmers market, and I ended up thinking, 'You know, this is a healing offering for people. I should probably do it for more people.' Due to that sense of responsibility, I moved to LA to see what I could do with the project and how I could branch out to reach more people. So I did that, and honestly, after 11 years of that being my only job, I would say that the most incredible aspect was the honest connections I had with people, how vulnerable people were with me and how clear it was that any type of person needed a poem. It didn't matter who they were or where they were from, or what kind of demographic they were a part of. There were just countless people who needed to interact in that deep and fulfilling way. But after doing that for so long, I felt totally tapped out. I think the hardest part was being in the public eye so consistently and not having any protection from that. It was just psychically draining. So it's nice to have a break from that at this point in life and reflect on how amazed I am that I was able to do that for that long and write over 40,000 poems for people in that way. It was just super tiring, and that was the hardest part.
What was your biggest fear when you were starting off as a writer?
Jacqueline: Not living up to my potential. I think that was my biggest fear for a long time, although I don't resonate with that anymore because I've pushed past it. But in the beginning, I wanted to make sure that I lived a life that I respected, balanced with a life that allowed people as much access as possible to the gifts that I had to offer them. I was just afraid I wouldn't be able to give enough or do a good enough job in that way. Now I don't feel that, but I used to feel that sense of being afraid of not living up to my potential. Also, of being afraid of making decisions that would take away from this divine offering that was clearly moving through me.
Has there been any monumental experience that shaped your writing or who you are as a person?
Jacqueline: My childhood trauma informs a lot of my writing experience. My family experience allows me to have a lot of deep compassion and connect with people about pain and suffering. Because although I've lived this blessed, wonderful life, I've also known a lot of hardship and a lot of suffering. That has enabled me to be a much better candidate for this type of writing practice that connects with people.
Through Poem Store, oh my goodness, the connections and experiences are endless. Someday I'll probably write a book about all of it. There was one particular experience that I've written a lot about, and there have been some articles published about it. It’s about how I often connect with people who are very unlikely friends for me, who I wouldn’t necessarily make friends with- in general life. But in this realm of writing intensely emotional poetry for people, I have ended up bonding with folks who I normally would not. That has taught me so much about what it is to be human, what it is to connect with other humans, and how much our preconceived notions of one another get in the way of actual connection. Anywhere from a logger to a cop to all these people I might’ve normally shunned or nullified or dehumanized with my radical left politics. But then in person, when they're getting a poem, that stuff kind of fades away and you're able to see to the center of their grief or to the center of their celebration or whatever joy or sorrow that they're experiencing. A lot of other categories get wiped away when you're there in that space with people. That's been transformative for me and helped me expand my concept of how to be in the world in general.
Tell us about your new book, Every Day is a Poem. What are you most excited about publishing and releasing?
Jacqueline: It's been an incredible and challenging moment to release a book in general. I think for anyone who's going about that right now, amid a pandemic, social uprisings, and a lot of important conversations about racism and systemic oppression, you have to realize we're just in this giant uproar. I think releasing a book about writing poetry and the importance of connecting with poetry might seem frivolous to some people. But when I sat with myself before the release and got myself ready before bringing this work to the world, I was like ‘Honestly there is no better time for me to do this'.
I think if we're all going to be challenging these huge ideas right now, and we're all going to be looking into ourselves to try to create the world that we want to see, we better know ourselves.
For me, this book, Every Day is a Poem, is an invitation for people to give themselves the deepest permission to connect with who they are and what they think and what they feel. There are all these exercises in the book that guides the reader through the mindset of being a poet and seeing the world in that way. I think it generated this sense of an even deeper belief for me, in my own work. I can see the things I have always known. The importance of my work has been clear to me because I've been blessed enough to have this position where I watched over 40,000 people respond personally to these poems that I've created with them on the spot.
That has been proof for me that this is an important practice: that this way of engaging with the world and highlighting how meaningful it is to be alive, how much awe there is available to all of us, and how much depth there is inside of each person. We have this free access to it, and there are all these tools that we can use to access these parts of ourselves. To highlight that and bring that to the surface feels important to me. It's been a very interesting balance of a struggle energetically to do all this self-promotion at this moment, but also I believe in the project. I believe in what it offers, so in the same light, it's been really affirming.
What are your dreams and goals as a writer/as a person?
Jacqueline: I'd say that those two things go hand in hand. For me, being a writer is just being myself. So I think my largest goal at the moment is to make sure that I continue to put myself in the healthiest position to receive all of these messages and translate all of these things that are being offered up. Moving forward, I've spent the last eleven years, focusing deeply on the human condition and the human voice. I think Every Day is a Poem is kind of this pinnacle moment of me saying, 'Here's a clear gift for humanity.’ But I'm going to go now and listen to voices that perhaps are not human. Voices that are often unheard and that we don't give a lot of time and space for. So my goal is to continue to put myself in a position where I can be healthy and clear-headed enough to receive those messages and offer them back to anyone who needs them.
What's your biggest advice to give to young writers, especially women?
Jacqueline: My advice is to gather up your toolset. Figure out all of the ins and outs of the craft. Even if you are already open to language or open to receiving messages or open to expressing deep emotion, it's still a craft. It requires work. It requires study, practice, and finesse. I always try to say, ‘Let yourself lean into the practice, find the tools that work best for you, and refine your work. Let it slowly build, and don't grasp at things or think your discipline will look one way for too long because it always shifts and changes’.
Just be gentle with yourself as you're building it, but build it and dedicate yourself to it. It's an essential offering, and it's also just beneficial for every person who leans into it, not only for the greater good but for the personal good. It can be healing to write poems for yourself -- you don't have to share them with anyone in order to be a poet. I always love to remind people of that -- you can fill up a journal full of poetry, and that has its merit and worth even if no one ever sees it.
What books or authors are you reading right now? Anything to recommend?
Jacqueline: One thing I got excited about with Every day is a Poem is there is a whole chapter in the back of the book that's a recommended reading list. I try to make a list that is from the past up until this moment-- all the books that have really affected me. But besides that, I just finished reading Marlee Grace's new book Getting to Center, which is a really beautiful self-help book that is directed towards artists and makers. I'm also reading some Anne Sexton poems; she's always been a consistent presence in my life. Recently a friend asked if I had ever read The Awful Rowing Toward God, and I hadn't read that, so I'm just getting into that book (which is beautiful). I always try to read one book of poetry, and I'm always reading another type of book, whether it be fiction, non-fiction, self-help, or something like that.
What's your advice for exploring spirituality and connecting it to your writing?
Jacqueline: I think the spiritual world goes hand in hand with what I do as a poet. Not every poet is like that, but the thing I was talking about when I was saying that my goal is to make sure that I'm in a position to receive these messages is mostly me asking myself ‘How can I be a better medium? How can I put myself in the position that I need to in order to be in that space?' For me, what that looks like is one hundred percent solitude. I have to go and be alone. I can't have any distractions. It's funny because you might not think that about me because, for years, I wrote in public places that are overwhelmed with energy. So it's not that I can't do it in a place where there are other people, it's just that I know that I can get even deeper when I'm all alone.
So I make these times for myself to go on retreat every year. I just went and found a cabin up in Humboldt where I can be by myself and slip into that place. It feels like that is a crucial part of my work. I don't adhere to any single type of practice, but I would say it's like a deep meditative state. There's a lot of communing with guides and other beings who are unheard and unseen. I don't know where people think this language comes from. It doesn't come from me, it doesn't come from my ego, and if I'm in a poem, that means I'm just reflecting on this thing that's passing through me. I don't know how people become these channels, but I've just always been that. But I also think that we can all heighten those parts of ourselves. For me, that looks like going on a retreat and making sure I have time and space to be all alone.
Podcast Interview: Sounds True
Retreats with Jacqueline: Folk Life Farm
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