THE POEM STORE: ZEN AT THE FARMER’S MARKET?

A customer approaches a small table set up among the produce booths at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market.  A small sign on the table reads:

                                                        Poem Store

                                               Your Subject, Your Price

                                                              Yes

The poet, who sits behind the table asks her customer for a topic and is told “Since Wednesday”.  In about 3 minutes she types and then reads the following poem to her customer:

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…..

The customer, with tears in his eyes tells the poet:  “So Martha started chemo on Wednesday” and the poet simply nods.

This above exchange was described in a recent article by Deborah Netburn in the LA Times titled “Poems While You Wait”.  The article focuses on the unusual occupation/practice of a poet by the name of Jacqueline Suskin.  Jacqueline can be found most days set up at a small booths at Farmer’s markets and similar events . The payment is up to the customers but most pay around $5 for their poem.  Suskin always asks if she can read her poem because she considers poetry to be an “oral art”. Some people try to think up far out topics but most ask for a poem that somehow relates to current events in their lives.  She has a lot of repeat customers and newcomers are usually surprised at how relevant and poignant their personal poems turn out.  .

Jacqueline is quoted as saying: “The thing I like about Poem Store is that it is not about me.  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.”

Because she understands that her customers are wanting to buy  vegetables and get right home, she works very quickly.. According to Jacqueline: “Part of the exercise is to get down immediately what comes to me.  They are like little mantras, little prayers that get handed out”.

Jacqueline thinks that people generally ask for poems that might provide them help with or insight into personal problems:  “They want hope, or confidence, or they just need someone to see who they are.. Half the time I feel like I am a therapist or a psychic”.

The poet doesn’t know how she manages to write poems so quickly.  “There is just this blurry area there.  There is no answers to how I can do it so quickly, so I don’t question it”. She goes on to say, however that it is exhausting work:  “This is the most physically draining thing I’ve ever done in my life.  When I’m done writing poems for four hours for people I don’t know, I’m like a zombie.  My brain is mush”.

Those of you who have been reading my past blogs, can probably see why I was intrigued by this article.  The quickness of her responses to requests for poems resembles the improvisational skills of jazz musicians and the storied shenanigans of traditional Zen  masters (see  YEAH MAN: IMPROVISATION IN JAZZ, COMEDY AND ZEN) ).  Although Jacqueline seems to be making a living writing poems, there is a selfless element to what she does. One of the elements of the Buddhist, Eightfold Path is right livelihood, which essentially means that a practioner should make a living in a job that is consistent with Buddhist ethics and ideals.  Certainly, Suskin’s Poem Store seems to be an example of this.

 Jacqueline Suskin’s interactions with the public also remind me a lot of Marina Abramovic’s performance piece at MOMA where she sat staring into the eyes of museum visitors during opening hours for a month.  In a post called  The Artist is Present”, I admired the Zen-like quality of Abramovic’s art.  Both Marina and Jacqueline attest to the strain of having to “be present” with strangers for hours on end, but both also seem to draw an immense degree of satisfaction from their actions.

I think many artists become depressed or cynical because they feel that the public does not appreciate their creativity to the degree that they would wish for.  They suffer alone and are not able to feel that they can find a way to use their creative skills to benefit others.  It seems that Jacqueline has found a unique means for accomplishing this, while still supporting herself doing the thing she loves to do..  I wonder whether the Poem Store concept, might  be  something that other artists could, with some creative “tweaking”,  utilize to energize their own practices?  I’d love to hear reactions from some of my artist readers (or anyone else for that matter) about their take on this article.  To read the original article, use the following address: 

http://www.latimes.com/includes/sectionfronts/A1.pdf

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4 thoughts on “THE POEM STORE: ZEN AT THE FARMER’S MARKET?

  1. It’s obvious that the reason Jacqueline is so successful is because she can write good poems so quickly. Most poets would not be able to create under the pressure of time restraints in a noisy environment. It’s almost the same when jazz musicians improvise an entire new melody for 32 bars or more for every tune they play and do it over and over again for a three hour performance. You mentioned that for some artists “the public does not appreciate their creativity to the degree that they would wish for.” That’s probably because they have not reached the level of expertise and the fame to acquire an audience who appreciate their output because they haven’t been at the right place at the right time to acquire an audience. So they may be content to create their art for themselves or a much smaller audience.

  2. Hi Charlie,
    Your last point above is important and is something that I would like to address both in future blogs and in my life. Most of us artists will never “acquire an audience”, or at least a very big one, and so we are left with the dilemma of how or why to proceed with our creative interests. I’ve just read two books that have helped me think about this. One is called “The Art of Practice” by Madeline Bruser and the other is “Effortless Mastery” by jazz pianist “Kenny Werner. Both draw from Eastern philosophical perspectives and seem to suggest, to me anyway, that ultimately we create for ourselves and to the extent that we get hung up on audience reception we miss the whole point of creating. It is a little bit more complicated than that but I hope to write more about all of this in future posts. Thanks so much for your comments; feedback from you and others are an important part of my creative process.

  3. Jaqueline was a regular at the Arcata Farmer’s Market when I used to live there. It’s great to hear that she is still cranking out her poems!

    Much art practice is not what one would consider performance art. Yet all art is “performed” in one way or another – it’s a question of to what audience. Poetry straddles the line; on one hand the composition of poetry is rarely a public performance, and on the other hand the recitation of poetry is often public.

    I’ve always enjoyed how Jaqueline has managed to attract an audience to the very act of composition. After all, this is a significant part of the experience of the Poetry Store. The atmosphere of the farmer’s market, the antique typewriter in a suitcase, the very clothes she chooses to wear – these seem to be quite deliberate decisions on her part. It all contributes, in a sense, to a show. The typing itself is a show. And it asks the question: Why do we choose what to display and what to “hide behind the curtain” when it comes to our own work? What can we learn by unashamedly revealing more of our own creative process? Of sharing work we might not otherwise ever share?

    • Thanks Sean for your insights. Your second paragraph touches into some things I’ll probably end up writing about in the future. Influenced by the books mentioned in my reply to Charlie above, I’ve been experimenting with ways to make my trumpet practice more fun and engaging. I’ve just started, but it occurs to me what I am doing is trying to make “practice” more of a “performance”; one where I am both the performer and the audience, playing whatever exercises I am working on for my own enjoyment. That way practice becomes a form of meditation, as suggested by Kenny Warner.
      You say in your reply that “all art is ‘performed”. According sociologist Erving Goffman, all life is performed. This leads me to think that maybe “spiritual practices” can be conceived of as “performance based”. If so, when Dogen says that practice and enlightenment (enlightened performance?) are the same, he may also be pointing to that fact that Zazen Practice could be considered the same sort of “self-performance” that I was talking about above with respect to trumpet practice. I know that practicing both trumpet and meditation can become a drag and it occurs to me that it is up to me to find ways of shifting my awareness about them so these practices become fulfilling.
      I haven’t put this all together yet, but can see some future blog posts coming out of my experimentation. So thanks for your comments.