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:
Your Subject, Your Price
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:
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