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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Jacqueline Suskin. Jacqueline Suskin has composed over 40,000 poems with her ongoing improvisational writing project—also the way she’s supported herself for the last 10 years—Poem Store. And you’re going to hear more about that in our conversation. She’s the author of six books, including Help in the Dark Season. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and Yes! magazine. With Sounds True, Jacqueline Suskin has written a beautiful new book called Every Day Is a Poem: Find Clarity, Feel Relief, and See Beauty in Every Moment. Now you’re in for a special treat, meeting Jacqueline Suskin. Not only is she gifted at helping us awaken to the awe that’s available in every moment right around us, not only is she gifted at helping us find way to find words, poetic words, for our experience, but I think the thing that moves me the most is her true heart of service. Here’s my conversation with Jacqueline Suskin.
To begin, Jacqueline, I want to say I’m touched, honored, and inspired to have this conversation with you. In preparation, reading Every Day Is a Poem and learning more about you, my heart just felt so moved. Moved by who you are, your sincerity, what you’ve dedicated your life to, and it’s just a great honor to have you here as a guest on Insights at the Edge, thank you.
Jacqueline Suskin: Thank you.
TS: To begin, I’d love our listeners to appreciate a bit about the Poem Store. The origin story of the Poem Store. It’s become a bit of a legend, but tell our listeners how it came into being.
JS: Well, I got a degree in poetry, and typically when you do that that means you’re on a trajectory to then become an academic and get your PhD and teach. That’s what most professional poets do, but I wanted to travel and have experiences and learn the world, so I would have something to write about. And in doing so, I ended up realizing that I had no interest in going the academic route. And this amazing thing happened. I purchased a typewriter randomly at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, and suddenly my whole life changed. I started writing poems in the street for people, just on a whim as an experiment, and I found this whole new life open up to me. And 11 years later, that’s been my main source of income, writing poems for people on my typewriter in public places. They name a subject, I write the poem, and it’s this incredible connection that I have with strangers through poetry. It’s given me so much in my life, so I’m just always amazed that that’s not only been my career, but just the way I get to engage with people around the world.
TS: I’d love to put under a magnifying glass, for a moment, if it’s OK, what’s happening for you internally after the person gives you the subject matter, shares a little bit. You go inside, and somehow a poem appears. What happens in between you going inside and the poem appearing? Do you see a series of visual images, or what’s going on inside?
JS: I love how this … Most insightful and creative people are really interested in the mental process of what goes on when I hear the subject and then create the poem. And I’ve even done, actually, some brain mapping exercises with folks who practice those studies. And honestly, to me, what I feel happens is I go into some sort of trance. I blank out a bit, I don’t even know what I’ve written until after the fact, when I read it aloud to the customer. So one thing I do is, I will hear the beginning of the poem. I will access a few words, and then I don’t know if it’s because it’s such muscle memory at this point, or it’s because I’ve practiced. I’ve written over 40,000 poems in this method. But I slip into this space of whatever creative flow, however you want to describe it.
And sure, I’ll maybe surface in the midst of it and throw in an image to ground myself, or something like that. But it is this trance-like quality of creation, which is really, it’s always fascinated me. Whenever I finish and read the poem, I’m amazed every time, even though I’ve been doing it for so many years.
TS: You mentioned the role that the purchase of the typewriter had in your process, and I read that you actually are a collector of typewriters. And I thought, that’s interesting, I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone who’s collected typewriters. People collect all kinds of things: watches, stamps, coins. Typewriters? And that you also have a pencil tattooed on your body, and I thought, huh, this is a woman who has a devotional relationship with the objects that support her craft, or the instruments of her craft. And I wanted to hear about that devotion to the manual typewriter and the pencil.
JS: I love the concept of … I’m a collector of all sorts. I even have a huge pencil collection. But the concept of just being in awe and honoring these tools that allow us to create so proficiently, that humans have come up with these ways of making language more accessible. And for me, the typewriter is—it’s not just the clarity of the typewritten word on the page, which makes it more legible but it’s also the sound of it that calls people to me, and the romanticized nostalgia that surrounds the typewriter as an object. And it’s just a beautiful object, and I think I assign that same feeling to books—these beautiful objects that then we hold and the language gets transferred to us from them. And the pencil is just this perfect, utilitarian tool that someone crafted and created, and used a thin piece of earth in the middle of that. And now we can exchange language amongst ourselves.
To me, everything that I collect is rooted in this honor. I’m honoring this thing by looking at it consistently. By taking out all of my typewriters, using them for different purposes. And similarly, with all my pencils, and having “this pencil came from my grandfather,” “these pencils came from my friends in Los Angeles,” and assigning this meaning to those things.
TS: Now, Jacqueline, I’m going to be a confessional here for a moment. In reading your new book, Every Day Is a Poem, and learning more about you, what I noticed was that I started feeling this kind of … I think the way I would describe it is soulful melancholy, something like that. A soulful melancholy quality. And I think even as I’m hearing you talk about the sound of the manual typewriter and the lead from the Earth, I think it’s because so much of contemporary life doesn’t have that soulful quality. I’m not quite sure what other word to use for it. I mean, I work on my laptop, I carry it all around, I work with disposable pens that I throw away and don’t think about. And I was just curious if you could comment on that. If there’s some consciousness you have about leading with soulfulness and welcoming, maybe, this feeling. I’m describing it as melancholia, I’m not quite sure what other word to use.
JS: I actually like that word for it. It’s not necessarily the word I would think of at first, but it makes a lot of sense to me, because I feel very connected to the ache of being alive, and our shared suffering, and how hard it is to be alive. Where at the same time, it’s incredible, and I can hold so much appreciation and consistent honor, but also feel the pain of it consistently as well. So I think there is a connection in all of that, where there’s this reverence and this consistent celebration, and I’m overjoyed to be alive, and I’m amazed by every small detail. And honestly these things are just the details that are making up my experience that I’m so excited by.
But then at the same time, I’m not removed from the understanding of the greater picture. And that, I think, is really at the root of what it is to be a devoted poet, is to be devoted to holding both of those things at once. Holding my deep, deep reverence and then also at the same time holding all of our pain, and that those two things together make up my actual experience as a poet.
TS: Now, you write in the book Every Day Is a Poem about your purpose. Your personal life purpose, and your purpose as a poet. And I wonder if you can speak some to that, here in this conversation. What’s your purpose?
JS: I feel very devoted to the Earth. I serve the planet. And in the act of not separating humans from nature, which we so often see happen, I think my role as a poet and my purpose for writing is very clear to me, in the sense where if I can help humans feel better, be more connected, find clarity and feel some sense of belonging. Or when I read a poem, I often have this feeling of reflection, where I’m reading something that is telling me it’s OK to feel how I feel, I’m not alone, and I’m engaged with this author or this poet on the page who also feels like me. And then I’m elevated, my self becomes more available. I think that that’s really healing, and my root of purpose is, if people can be healed, if people can feel better, then they’ll probably treat the Earth better.
So that’s, it seems almost a roundabout way of being this Earth-worshiping warrior, but for me, I realized long ago that’s my tool. And my gift is to connect with people in this deep way, and I’ve seen it in person, over and over and over again, writing these poems, how transformative it can be. And I think even a single moment like that, for someone, can be an opening to shifting their whole life story, honestly. And how better to serve the Earth than to attend to the humans who are destroying it.
TS: Now, sometimes when I read some poetry, the feeling I get is that the person’s just in love with their own creative mind. I don’t get that they’re serving anything, except enjoying their own creative mind. And there’s nothing wrong with that, I mean it’s totally innocent activity, but it doesn’t get my attention as a reader. I’m not getting anything from it as a reader. However, reading your poetry and reading Every Day Is a Poem and your description of having a poetic mindset, I felt really inspired. I felt inspired because it was about this notion of being in awe and having gratitude and appreciating things. You know what I mean? Not just being like, oh, I’m in love with how my mind makes associations. So I wonder how you see that.
JS: I really love that thread, because to me that’s the difference between creating something that’s accessible, and something that’s esoteric and ego serving. So, a lot of poetry is extremely esoteric. It shuts a huge swathe of the world out, and I can find enjoyment in that. I can revel in the genius of others, but I’m not interested in serving that. I’m interested in serving the accessible, egoless side that is less about me. And even when it is about my experience, it’s about reflecting. Like I said, this example of here’s something you can connect to. I know that I am a human too, so there’s no way I’m the only person that’s feeling these things, and I’m going to let you in on it. I’m not going to keep it a secret or make it a tribute to my strange mind. Although my mind clearly works in wild ways, and I can’t explain how I can create a poem that quickly. That’s not the point.
The point at the end of the day is that I have seen time and time again that it is possible for people to tap into that part of themselves, and that’s really … That’s the thing that I feel devoted to.
TS: Now, I want to read something from Every Day Is a Poem. You write, “The poetic mind is the root of change. We’ll always look to poets for the beginning of true transformation.” And then you continue, “Poetry is not a dusty book on the shelf. It’s alive and well, at the forefront of resistance, and it thrives in activists everywhere.” And I wanted to hear about that, because I think we’re at a time when a lot of people feel this sense of being in resistance to the status quo. How is poetry at the forefront of resistance?
JS: I think of poems as these direct containers that deliver this really concise message, in the least amount of words as possible, very carefully chosen, powerful image. Something that gets you to the heart of the matter right away. And there is a sense of almost urgency in that, which I think reflects in this time, where we want to get our inner voices out. Our clarity needs to be at the forefront and at the surface, and the expression that we’re offering the world should be rooted in this sense of, I will offer this up with every ounce of my being, and in a way that people can read quickly. Our attention spans are moving rapidly, there’s so much coming at us, so much information. And as I’ve watched poetry come into the limelight in the last five years or so, really have this resurgence, I think partially that happens because of technology and our attention spans changing. But it also is happening because we are rapidly desiring change, and those voices who are delivering these powerful messages are doing it in this really direct and powerful way.
TS: OK, what about that person who says, “I’ve never really been that drawn to reading poetry, often I feel like I don’t understand it. It’s not accessible, at least not accessible to me. And I certainly wouldn’t know how to go about writing it, even though I care a lot. There’s a lot that I care about right now, but I just wouldn’t know how to express myself in poetry.”
JS: That’s who this book is for, perhaps.
TS: Where do I start?
JS: I mean, it’s for anyone who wants to uncover that voice that they have inside, but I think specifically, over the years, interacting with people in public, and connecting on that point of “I’m not a poetry person. I don’t really like poetry, I’m not really drawn to poetry.” And yet they are drawn to me, to communicate with me, with my typewriter, and then suddenly they are a poetry person. And I read them the thing that we’ve created together in our exchange, and they’re totally sold on it and moved by it.
I think that most of the concepts that we carry around about not being connected to poetry, or not knowing how to engage with it, are just taught to us in school. We’re taught to have this approach with poetry where we have to understand exactly what it means, we have to dissect it, we have to be able to pass a test to show that we know what the author was saying. But to me, that’s absolutely not the point of what it is to read a poem or to create a poem. It’s just to write it, and get a feeling out the best way that you possibly can, and then when you read it, you’re taking whatever it is that you need from it.
So in this book I pride myself on having gathered all of these tools that allow people to have permission to do that. That’s really what, I think, the thesis of the whole book is, just allowing people to have permission to enjoy and indulge in poetry. To write poetry, to express themselves in this way, where beauty is at the forefront of what they’re feeling, even when they’re talking about their pain or their life experience.
TS: It’s interesting, this word “permission,” that people need permission to appreciate what’s beautiful right around them and find words for it. That’s interesting, why do you think people need permission for that?
JS: I feel like there are so many things in our social systems that block people from being able to be vulnerable, being able to communicate about a deep emotion, or even having access to understanding how to communicate about those things. And that’s why I think poetry is this great doorway into that, it allows you to see, oh, look how vulnerable this person is being, and look at these words that are attached to this very mundane everyday occurrence. And that just can click inside of people, where they’re, oh, I can see the world like that as well. I mean, the whole feeling of putting on this poetic lens to then go out and experience your life is, I think, the basis of that.
TS: Now, at the beginning of Every Day Is a Poem—I love that title, I mean it’s really beautiful. I was mentioning to my wife, I said, “I’m going to interview this woman who wrote a book called Every Day Is a Poem.” And she said, “I think that’s the favorite title I’ve heard from Sounds True in quite some time.”
JS: Oh, I love that.
TS: It’s beautiful. Anyway, right at the beginning, you’re talking about awe, and the power of awe, and you offer this definition for awe: “A feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.” And I wanted to talk about that, because I get the reverential respect, that makes sense to me. And I get the wonder, too, but I thought the mixed with fear or wonder, that the fear part was particularly interesting. And I’m wondering if you can explain that a bit.
JS: The part of the definition that I lean towards is the reverential respect and the wonder, but the fear being included in that standard dictionary definition, to me, is this sense of everything is on the precipice of being lost. Everything is impermanent. We don’t get to keep all of this. And so to be in awe of it is toeing the line with your death, basically. Things ending, things being destroyed, things are never able to just stay steadfast. And we have this fear around that, but I think instead of this fear being this negative thing, I think it could inspire this sense of, well, if I’m going to lose it all, I might as well have this reverential respect for it in the meantime.
TS: OK, and then I think when it comes to having experiences of awe, often I think people have this notion that it just happens. Like, it happened while I was watching the sunset, it was an incredible moment, everything aligned in that second and I felt awe. But you describe it more like a practice, that we can practice awe. So how do we practice awe?
JS: I think it’s this attunement, and one of the exercises that I offer in the book, which is just one of my favorite things to do on a daily basis in order to get grounded or to remind myself of my own sense of awe, is just to look around and find something very simple. Whatever first catches your eye—an object in the room, your pencil maybe—and then just give a moment to think of why would that thing cause me awe? What would cause awe to arise because of interacting with this everyday thing? And the more and more you train yourself to do that, the more every single object around you, every experience, offers up this reverential respect and wonderment, because you’ve tuned your mind into seeing that.
TS: And then take us through the process of turning this respect, reverential respect, this sense of wonder for what could be an everyday object, turning it into a poem. How do I take those steps?
JS: Usually what I do is, I’ll choose the object, and I’ll just ramble about it for a little while. I’ll ask myself certain questions, like who made this object, where did it come from, why is it in my house, why do I care about it? How long have I had it? And I’ll just start writing and writing, maybe a page or two about this everyday thing. And then at the end of that, I’ll find the parts that move me the most, and I’ll try to stitch those together. And then I have all these other tools in the book that explain, oh, and here you would maybe want to put an image in, and here you would maybe want to think of something that your unique experience with that object, not something cliché that you’ve heard a million times, but the questions of why and how and where did these things come from, or why we’re drawn to them. Bring out only the personal. And the personal in the poetry is what makes it interesting. You don’t want to read the same thing over and over and over again, you want to read each person’s strange take on it, so that you can then access that awe, that sense of awe.
TS: OK, so someone says, I get finding the object, appreciating it, asking questions, writing various pages. But then when I go to take that and turn it into a poem, the critic in me comes up and says, well none of that was particularly revelatory, or who really cares. Something like that, some version of that. What are your recommendations at that juncture?
JS: Well, something I like to tell students when I work with them and when they’re writing, is you don’t have to show your work to anyone. It can be just for you. So if your awe is linked to only a cliché take, that doesn’t actually matter. No one has to read it, you’re not … I’ve written and thought a lot about, this book is not about trying to craft the world into a many-armed poetic beast of academic prowess. It’s just about letting people express themselves, even if only to themselves. So your journal could be filled with things that don’t matter and don’t make sense, it doesn’t have to be a crafted, perfect poem to be poetic.
And I think that’s part of the permission, is just letting yourself put your critic aside and enjoying what comes out and what reminders spring forth and just what kind of meaning then gets added to your life because you’re carrying this mindset around. As opposed to, now I’ve written a whole book of perfect poems. To me, that’s not the point. The point of having that poetic toolkit is actually just a sense of mindfulness.
TS: Now, here you are, running the Poem Store, your traveling typewriter store, did you ever have experiences where you froze? Somebody said—and you went in the trance state and nothing came out? Or what come out—and you thought, that’s not very good, what do I do?
JS: That did not ever happen.
JS: It just didn’t, I don’t know why. Again, no, not to me, that didn’t happen.
TS: And you never had the thought, after you delivered the poem, well that one was a weakling?
JS: Well, that’s a good avenue to take while talking about it, because people say the same subjects over and over and over and over again. So I’m faced with thousands of love poems, thousands of “I want a poem about my dog,” “… about my child,” about this or that. Which, to me, got extremely uninteresting at points, but then I came up with these little questions that I would ask people to get them to dive deeper. They’d say, “Oh, I want a poem about love,” and I would say, “What kind of love?” And then they would launch into something. And to me, that just pays tribute to what I said before, which is that the more personal you are, the more you’re willing to dig deep into yourself and find what you actually are trying to say, that’s when the poems get more interesting.
So instead of just falling into this state of writing the same poems over and over again, which would be extremely boring, I would just further my practice of connecting with the person, and trying to get them to give me more information.
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TS: Now in a TEDx talk that you gave, you tell a really moving story about someone you befriended when you were Poem Store-ing, and the friendship was unusual and evolved. And you called him a timber baron, which I thought was an interesting phrase. Anyway, I wonder if you can share that story and what that tells us about poetry and connection?
JS: That’s one of the most amazing things that’s happened to me through this work, and basically I was just writing poems at the farmer’s market. As I did, I wrote a poem for this man who I did not know, and later he wrote me and had had a really awful tragedy of losing his wife to cancer. And he wanted a specific, special, tailored poem that he could read to put her ashes in the ocean. And it had been years, and he wasn’t able to do this, and he saw in me this potential. I wrote this poem for him and his family, and it allowed this huge shift in their grieving process to happen. And then he and I became really great friends. And it wasn’t until we met up, when I delivered him the poem, that I realized he was the senior vice president of the largest timber company, and a person who clearly is engaged with practices that are against my Earth-worshiping self.
So I was, oh, I already have this deep, personal connection with this person. And through that process, we ended up reading many, many books together, and we’re still really close. And I’m close with his whole family, and our connection inspired an entire section of the forest to be saved, and these trees will never be cut. These old-growth redwood trees. And local activists ended up working with him, basically because I said I thought it was worthwhile and that he could be trusted. And the point of the whole story is the poem opened the door for us to have this connection.
We’re such unlikely friends, but because we first connected in the realm of vulnerability, and from the heart, I then could never see him in any other way. I couldn’t dehumanize him, I couldn’t strip him of his grief, I couldn’t strip him of his human story, and poetry was this bridge that allowed us to see each other clearly, and not just shut each other out based on preconceived notions of villainizing someone or something like that. And what came of that is all this land that is now saved, and I think to me that just makes a nod to the power of poetry in general.
TS: Now, we’re living in a time, obviously, where people are very attuned and pained by the level of divisiveness that we feel, particularly in the United States right now. How could I, or anyone, develop more of a poetic mind that would help with that divisiveness? I mean, do I need to be writing some poems to Republicans, or what can I do?
JS: Well I used to see myself as someone who would be placed in a room of many timber barons, and be able to melt their hearts with my magic. But the truth is, is that most of the things that occur that create great change occur through personal relationships. And that’s really difficult, because oftentimes we don’t have access to these people in the first place. But then also, when we do, like our family members or people in our lives who think really differently than us, the divide is so strong at this moment that it’s hard to see where to start. But I think, honestly, when I give a poem to a friend, and they give it to their mother who has a completely different viewpoint on life than them, then there’s a melting point there, where they then connect emotionally, and that could be an opening. The trust that occurs when you actually have a connection with someone, and you let the heart connection be there first. And poetry does allow for that. So I don’t know if it’s the ticket to me writing every Republican poems, but I’d be interested to see what would happen.
TS: There’s an interesting chapter in Every Day Is a Poem, it’s called “Use Your Pain.” And I wanted to hear more about that. How our pain can be useful to us in writing poetry, and not just a hole that we fall into and wallow in.
JS: I think that pain in general, for me in my life, has been this place of growth. And where I’m wounded and where I’m hurt and where my traumas reside, that’s where all my depth is. And I’ve allowed myself, especially as a poet, to go into those places, to not turn away from them, to not be afraid of them, to not shut them down. And in there is where I find all of my unique take on life. That’s where I find my perspective. That’s where I … It’s those places and those lessons and those transformations that inform all of the choices that I make—all of the choices I make on the page or off the page.
TS: What would be your tips, if you will, for somebody to explore their pain in a way that something transformational happens in that exploration? It sounds like you do that naturally. I think sometimes when people look at turning towards their pain and going into it, there’s a fear of, well, I’m going to go into it, and how am I going to get through it?
JS: There’s an exercise in the book that’s about making a map of your past, and moving through this timeline of all these things that have happened to you. And partially that is celebratory, it’s partially painful. It’s partially hurtful to look at the past, and it’s also sometimes incredible, because of all the things that you’ve gotten to do in life. But I think starting in this place of looking back and seeing what has made me who I am, how did I get to this place? How do I see my collection of thoughts and break it down to understand which threads link back to what? And in that practice alone, you then have this better understanding of yourself, and you see yourself as this whole person.
JS: And so I’ve constantly put myself through a lot of nurturing, therapeutic experience of looking backward and taking from my past and seeing how it’s made me this person who I now can love in that reflection. I love myself because of all these things that have happened to me, even if they were horrible and hard. The lessons that came from them, and that’s the practice, is finding these lessons and then just illuminating them further and further and letting them keep expanding.
TS: Now, there’s a question prompt that you offer to people in this section of the book. What are the words you use to soothe yourself? And then you further encourage people to expand on that in writing. And I was curious, what are the words, Jacqueline, you use to soothe yourself? If you’re willing to share that.
JS: It changes throughout time. I do think I included one in the book that’s like, my pain is a seed, my pain is a seed. Just to remind myself that the things that hurt are often the things that grow into something beautiful. But I really think a lot about positive affirmation, and that kind of rewiring your neurological mindset, of replacing a negative thought or a painful thought with an appreciation. That you’ve gotten through these things, or that you’re not just resilient but also paying attention, that you’re even tuned in enough with yourself that you can just appreciate, oh, this is where my pain is. And so there will be things like that, and I also like to tell myself that I’m safe, a lot.
TS: Now, you wrote a book Go Ahead & Like It, another great title, about the power of making lists about what you like. Developing an appreciative eye. Go Ahead & Like It. So, tell me more about how, if I want to go ahead and use this practice in my life, I am going to make lists of what I like—how I do this, and how it’s real and rich and meaningful?
JS: I love how that book connects to this book, because it’s really actually just this tiny practice built into a bigger concept, which is just being able to tune into the world around you, especially when you’re in a moment of discomfort, when you feel ungrounded, when you can’t connect to what you care about, or even when you’re just bored or feeling stressed. Just turn your lens outward and find all of the things that you like, and writing these lists. I did this practice for years and years and years. I still do, and I was moving and I found all the lists.
And I thought, this is really a thing that has worked for me. It has totally transformed my life. I will not be stuck in any situation ever where I’m unable to now turn my mindset towards, oh, I like the way the light is coming through the window. I like the way my socks feel in my shoes, I like that my shirt smells like my grandfather—all these little details coming. I can now tap into that, whenever, just because I’ve practiced writing those lists so much.
TS: You know what I noticed, because as I was reading about it, of course, I just tried it. I was like, OK, I’m going to go ahead and like it. And what I noticed was that it was actually, in a way, more native to me, even, than being grateful. Even though, of course, I’ve interviewed many people, and have heard about the power of making lists of what you’re grateful for. And I do that, I do it. But I noticed it was a little more one-step removed. But saying, in the moment, that I like the color gold in the hand drawing in front of me, or I like the shape of this microphone, that is just so immediate. There is an immediacy to it that I really loved. I just want to thank you for that. And why don’t you go ahead, Jacqueline, go ahead and like it and tell me what you like right now in this moment?
JS: Well I like that all of the apple trees where I live are full of apples. I like that I will be able to make many galettes from them. I like that my cat is being patient and not meowing loudly. I like my cup of tea. I like that I have just unpacked my favorite slippers from a box. I like that my desk is well organized and that I have a large stack of unused paper that’s ready for me.
TS: Very good. So going ahead and liking it, that’s obviously one aspect of having what we could call a poetic mindset. What else? What else creates this mindset of the poet?
JS: Well I do think that most importantly, it’s an attention to detail. But I also think that it is an ability to move from the micro to the macro and take the detail and expand it all the way, as far as possible. So it’s often, for me, a balance of these two things at once. And it’s not just the detail and then the great expansive universe. It is that, that’s a huge part of, I think, the poetic mindset, is find all of the ways that it all connects. And showing this great web of being. But then there’s also just this balancing act of binaries, which is to me an incredible poetic gesture, just to offer people all the time.
Lately, I’ve been talking a lot about holding onto hope and hopelessness at the same time. Not being hopeful and abandoning hopelessness, not being hopeless and abandoning hope, but holding both things at once. And that to me feels like a huge part of my mindset as a poet, is being able to hold both sides of things at the same time, and not forget one side, or shut something out. And that takes a lot of practice, but it’s also extremely healing and soothing.
TS: OK, I’m going to circle back to the beginning of our conversation, when I asked you, here, the Poem Store, what happens inside? And you said, “I go into a trance state, I don’t know how else to put it really. And the poem comes out.” And a lot of our conversation has been about different exercises and various kinds of craft that you can apply, ways you can open. But look, most people don’t go into a trance state when given a theme and come out with a … There’s something going on there. Do you even believe that you can offer people exercises or practices that will evoke that in them? Is that a gift? Are you a psychic? I mean I just have to ask.
JS: Well, I always like to tell people they can call me whatever they want to call me. Because I’ve been asked that question a lot of times, and I do think that I have always been like this, even when I was a little kid. I was always writing, I was always translating the world through these little chunks of text that I now know were poems. So it’s clearly something that I was born with, something that’s part of who I am, but in writing this book I uncovered this understanding that I had this quality of knowing who I am and knowing what I’m doing to a point that I could offer it up. Because I really do consistently come back to the difference between being special or being someone who has a gift, to then also just being a human being, and I have this mind that has the ability to piece apart the way that I work.
And if I can offer that up, then maybe it could be a practice that someone else can do. And I think the greatest teachers throughout time—that is what they’re doing. They’re taking their sacred, special gift and they’re trying to offer it up to others, because without their ego, they are then saying this can also be yours.
TS: Now, I’m going to read from Every Day Is a Poem. You wrote, “The poems that I wrote for my Poem Store customers had an innate optimism. I didn’t set out intending to write positive poems for the masses; it’s just that whatever I’m channeling when I create spontaneously for strangers is a thing of light.” It is a thing of light. And I thought to myself, oh, Jacqueline’s blessing people. She’s blessing their lives in a certain way, even though you didn’t use that word. That’s my word. But I thought, that’s part of what makes it unique, the way that you operate. I’m wondering what you think about that.
JS: I think that’s true. And I think watching it uncover itself throughout these 11 years of writing has been an understanding that that is what’s happening. And again and again and again, it functions that way and it did take on an entire life of its own. Something that had an experimental quality then became this calling, where I knew that I was doing something bigger than just having a fun time writing poems on a typewriter. I watched people cry—I have never in my life sat down to do a session of Poem Store without at least one person weeping. So there is something moving through me, and I think just to offer people the chance to have that thing move through them, even if it’s just for themselves in their own office space or something, that feels like a worthy gesture. Even to praise whatever that mysterious thing is that moves through me.
TS: And then Jacqueline, here I hope it’s respectful for me to ask this of you, but of course I would love to have a spontaneous poem here, for our Insights at the Edge listeners, if that’s all right. And I don’t know if you have to write it, and then read it, or how this process works, but would you be willing to do that?
JS: I would be willing to do that. Let me just pull my typewriter out. Because I’ve got to use that, that’s part of it.
TS: Oh, that’s OK. I want to hear the sound of the typewriter, too. That’s good. And I’ve been considering what is the theme, and I really do think the theme of Insights at the Edge, and really in many ways the theme of Sounds True altogether, with over 35 years, is how we can each best serve spiritual awakening in the world. And wanting people to do that, and wanting the gift of this podcast, and the gift of all the books we publish at Sounds True, to be in service of that. And wanting to further it, and accelerate it at this time.
JS: That makes me very happy, and I would love to write a poem about that, so here it goes. All right. To be in service. [TYPING]
Now we find the function of self to self,
Expanse of our energetic quality
The offerings are infinite, and the path weaves together into a union
A well-built bridge for all of us to move across as time allows.
Let it rise into urgency, let it take form through language and image
And find the flowing sense of lesson come forth freely
From one core to another, and onward still.
TS: Thank you. The well-built bridge, very beautiful. Thank you so much, Jacqueline.
JS: You’re welcome.
TS: You know, one of the other things about your personal story that moved me a lot, and quite honestly felt resonant for me in some ways with my own life story, is that you worked so long for so many years supporting yourself. And eventually, a certain kind of heft, or it built, but it was so … You were in the trenches for so long, just doing it. Just that same sound of the typewriter, and then suddenly newspapers or magazines and Oprah, and the Atlantic. You’re getting attention from all these different directions. Your poetry books are being published, now a book Every Day Is a Poem is being published. And to me it was just a testimony of your willingness just to do it, even when you weren’t getting attention. Even when you weren’t making very much money, you were still just out there with your typewriter at the farmer’s market. So I wonder if you can talk some about that, because I think sometimes people think, oh, well, that person, they’re just lucky. Or something like that. What’s your view of it?
JS: I have always understood the worth of working on something when you actually feel it, and working with Poem Store and letting it have its own life. And it honestly took me on a ride that I didn’t have any expectation around. When I decided to move to Los Angeles and really pursue this path, I had no expectation. I didn’t grasp at it, I didn’t think, it has to look this way, it needs to be like this, it has to be this thing. I just thought, I’m going to do what I know is the thing that wants to be done, which is writing poems for people and making poetry accessible for people and offering up connection. And I think, I don’t really know if I believe in luck? I don’t think I believe in luck. I think I believe in being attuned and paying attention and following the signs and leads and letting your life just be in this flow of whatever it needs to be. And so after working for all that time and just witnessing it, watching it build on itself and build on itself, I’m still in the same place I was as when I started, which is a complete place of the unknown.
I have no idea what direction this will take, or what shape that it will take. I didn’t know Every Day Is a Poem would be a book. I didn’t know I would ever write anything like that, and then when it came out it came out fast and clear, and I just let it be. And so I think that’s my consistent advice with people who are wondering, how do I let my path open up, and how do I let my trajectory be a great one? And I really think it’s just that. You just let it. You don’t grasp at it. Don’t try to say it has to look like this or be this thing.
TS: A couple of times you’ve talked about making poetry accessible, and that that’s part of what you wanted to do, coming to Los Angeles, wanting this accessibility. What do you mean by that? What makes a poem accessible?
JS: Well for one part, it’s just letting it be available to as many people as possible. So going to a place like Los Angeles was really just a gesture of, this is where all the people are. But then also, making the actual language accessible is what I was saying before, not shrouding it in some sort of esoteric nature. Not having it be something that shuts people out, but letting it be this inviting and healing mechanism. Because honestly, throughout my entire life, that’s what it’s been for me. I’ve looked to poetry in moments of despair. I’ve looked to poetry to help me express myself. So I think that just giving that to others and letting them know that they do have the ability to access that, that it’s all around them all the time, that just felt like such a poignant calling, and a very easy thing to lend myself to.
TS: OK, just two final questions for you. The first is that, this program’s called Insights at the Edge, and I’m always curious what someone’s personal edge is. Their growing edge in their life, right now, the thing that’s like, oh yes, that’s the thing I’m trying to work out.
JS: I’m consistently trying to work out how to allow myself to be engaged with love in a different way. The growth of my love life and what it looks like to be someone who is so open and expansive and so romantic and so poetic all the time. How does that translate into a more condensed, appropriate, personal version of partnership, or connection with the people in my life? That also translated a lot to me being a lot more kind, because I’m very direct, and very blunt, and that’s been a really … My tone as a person outside of the realm of poetry is always something I’m working on.
TS: I think someone will find that very refreshing, and a safe space for them, actually. They’ll always know what you’re thinking. OK, to end, Jacqueline, I’m wondering whether it’s from your own poetic writing, or a poet you really love and admire, a couple lines of poetry that are a go-to refuge for you?
JS: Yes, I have this poem that I’ve been just loving so much, it’s called “The Poet” by Kahlil Gibran. And I changed the pronouns, but “The Poet:” “She is a link between this and the coming world. She is a pure spring from which all thirsty souls may drink.”
TS: Gorgeous. I’ve been speaking with Jacqueline Suskin. She’s the author of the new book Every Day Is a Poem: Find Clarity, Feel Relief, and See Beauty in Every Moment. And Jacqueline, you’ve really inspired me to just go ahead and like it. There’s so much to like, and you really touched my heart. Thank you so much.
JS: Thank you.
TS: Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast. And if you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app, and also, if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.