Several years ago I was in a club. We called it Poetry Club. Very creative, for a bunch of poets, I know. We tossed around some alternate names for our club, but being poets and invested heavily in language as we were, none of us could satisfactorily agree on a club name and so we left it at that. Kind of like when you wait too long to name a cat and eventually you realize its name is Cat. We would meet on Sundays, in one or another of our gardens, treehouses, or well appointed decks–as we are all wont to have here in LA– though, mostly we would gather at the home of our fearless founder, the poetess Jane McCarthy. We were a motley crew of artists and musicians, designers and dancers and yes, some of us writers.
There were the requisite wines and cheese boards, of course, but mostly there was poetry, in a time when no one else seemed to really care about poetry. My partner of the time found it cute, if puzzling. My girlfriends would introduce me to new acquaintances with a loving roll of the eyes, “This is Allison. She’s a poet. She has a poetry club,” as though this were some secret bit of humour they could share at my expense. I didn’t care. I loved our Sundays spent in the ecstasy of language and emotion. In sharing our hearts and our fascinations and our rhythms. There were, over the years, as many as fifteen of us and as few as four. But this was before the revival.
You may have recently been tagged in an Instagram post, containing a poem that someone felt relevant to your current life situation. You may have felt compelled personally to start penning your own verse, your inner Emily Dickinson becoming your outer Emily Dickinson because, also, what a perfect middle parted low bun, and who doesn’t love a Victorian blouse, and that low tied ribbon is maybe a look we should all steal.
Suddenly, poetry is everywhere. The National Endowment for the Arts reports that young adults have more than doubled their poetry intake, and women and minorities have all increased their poetry reading by huge percentages. These have been wild years, full of gunfire and flood and political upheaval and women and race and more fire. These are times of uncertainty and also of certainty, that change must occur. If not now, then when?
Maybe we are all looking for a new way, or perhaps we are merely looking for the beauty that still exists in this mad, hilarious, confusing world. Women such as the poet Jacqueline Suskin, who was typing her impassioned and intuitive poems at farmers’ markets, on vintage typewriters, in charming dresses, under the moniker Poem Store, long before it was cool, has made a career of the instant poem. I’ve been to elegant cocktail parties where she was for hire, the last of which was at the home of an artist friend in Malibu, this last summer. She asked what theme I’d like my poem written on and without hesitation, I asked for a poem on fire. In no time and much clacking of keys, Jacqueline wrote a bright burning thing, an ode to the creation that comes from destruction. I think of this poem and its generative promise often as that very friend’s home in Malibu was, like so many this last fall, sadly taken by the fires that destroyed much of Malibu. Jacqueline has published three books and has three more on the way. Her call to nature, to the mother, to the terrain of California, in her direct and powerful language, designed to be heard, demands to be felt.
Model, muse, creative director and, definitely, poet, Kate Parfet (who you might remember from this post!), writes to heal, writes to purge. In her recent book, Mirror Domme, her tense, sparse, elegant poems brim with the restrained vulnerability of a woman compelled to share, even as she constructs a controlled world of her own making.
These two women talk with us about their world of poetry, and what is poetry, and why poetry is suddenly so interesting to us all.
How did poetry enter your world? When did you realize you were a poet?
I’ve been writing poetry ever since I was about six years old. I was drawn to the written word before I even knew how to properly create letters. I was always filling up notebooks with my own cryptic language and later started writing poetry diaries. These diaries were full of tribute poems. With this work, I knew I was a poet. For example, I was obsessed with the TV show Beauty and the Beast starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman. The beast in the show is named Vincent and I wrote an entire book of poems about our love. When I was in 7th grade, my English teacher had the class look up examples of every standard poetic form and tool. I asked if I could write my own. It’s always come easily to me, and very quickly. I got my degree in poetry from Florida State University and couldn’t imagine having studied anything else, but had no idea what kind of career I‘d be able to make as poet. I never thought about that aspect of my writing, I just knew that my purpose resides in the art of poetry, and so I followed that course.
Can you tell us how you began Poem Store?
I didn’t want to take that standard route of academic poetry, so I finished my BA and traveled around the Americas for about four years making money as a gardener and tutor. Most poets get their PhD and go on to teach at a university, but that world didn’t interest me. During my travels, I met artist Zach Houston in Oakland, CA. At the time, he was writing poetry with his typewriter at farmers’ markets and street fairs, having customers name a subject and pay whatever they wanted to in exchange for a poem. We became fast friends and he asked me if I wanted to try my hand at Poem Store. It seemed like a fun writing experiment to me–I had no clue that it would end up being my career. I’d just purchased a typewriter at the Rose Bowl flea market the week before. I ended up moving to Arcata, CA and started bringing Poem Store to the weekly farmers’ market on the plaza. After a few months, I became the resident town poet and after a few years of this work it was clear that I needed to bring the project to more people. That’s when I decided to move to Los Angeles. The Hollywood farmers’ market ushered me in and I’ve been writing poetry on-demand for nearly ten years now. It’s been an incredible experiment, my only source of income.
You have made your mark as a poet doing what you term spontaneous poetry. Could you speak a little bit about your relationship to the muse and how your process during poetry events is either similar or different than when you are alone with the page?
My work with Poem Store is more like a therapeutic exchange than anything else. The way that I connect with each customer or guest at an event leads to the outcome of the poem I write for them. Ever since I was a child, I’ve been able to connect deeply with just about anyone. I’m an empath, so even if someone doesn’t tell me that much about themself, I can feel what they are going through, I can understand their experience by looking into their eyes or by simply paying attention to their body language. Really, everyone who comes to me either wants to celebrate something in their life or heal something in their life. My Poem Store poems are healing tools, positive verse meant to remind the reader of the bright side, or even just to show the person that I see them, I’m witnessing their pain, and they aren’t alone. To have my audience stand in front of me is such a rare gift for a writer. The muse is instantly looping between us because that’s what connection is: it’s the muse alive and expressive, aching to share and be seen by the other. When I’m alone and writing my books, the process is very different. I have a lot more time to craft images and paint a narrative, to mine new language and find the best way to show my reader something that I went through personally. It’s a different aim, a distinct outcome that belongs to me first and then to my reader. When I write for a Poem Store customer, that poem that comes out of the moment is ours, then theirs, and it’s never mine.
What, do you feel is the role of poetry today? The NEA has reported a rise in the readership of poetry while there exists a decline in the reading of novels. Why do you think the form has taken on importance in the current emotional climate?
Poetry gets to the point very quickly and people’s attention spans have certainly changed. Poetry holds its weight in less words, and so it’s great for people who don’t want to focus for too long, but want to delve into the depths. This political climate and the challenges we are up against socially call for some major awakening and hard work. Poetry enables us to get to the core of the matter faster and transform more rapidly. So I think it’s a blend of short attention spans and a need for radical expression combined. It’s an incredible time to be a poet and I’m excited to see all of the powerful work comes out of this moment in history.
Who are the poets and what are the poems that have moved you most?
The first poem that changed my life is “In the Waiting Room” by Elizabeth Bishop. I was visiting FSU, one of the Florida schools that offered me a full scholarship, and decided to sit it on a poetry class for the day since I knew that’s what I wanted to study. The teacher read this poem and I’d never heard anything so incredible. I was already in love with the beats and with Walt Whitman, but this poem struck me with its sense of self-awareness, with its lens that seemed to take in the whole of time. I chose to go to FSU because of this poem. My favorite poets are Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry. I love every single poem that Mary Oliver wrote. She is the queen of accessibility, something I deem very important in the craft of poetry. I love a lot of esoteric poetry, strange academic work, odd spiritual verse, but the work that’s the most accessible, the work that expresses the magic of the universe in gorgeous language that even my mom can comprehend, that’s the stuff that really inspires me. Mary Oliver does this without fail and Wendell Berry is a close second. They are both naturalists in a sense, writing about the earth, and that’s my favorite subject matter. I’m an ecstatic earth worshiper.
You’ve been writing poetry for so long, and are, singularly, a poet. How has your process or voice evolved over the years, and from book to book?
My poetic voice is a tool, so the more I use it, the sharper it is. This means that I’m a better poet with each book that I write. Poem Store has certainly affected my writing style and I have to uncover the rich voice of my personal world outside of that work whenever I sit down at my desk. I like that challenge because it keeps me sharp as well. I’m lucky that I still love my first book The Collected, which came out in 2009. It’s a collection of found photographs with accompanying narrative poems, and whenever I pick it up I’m so happy that I don’t hate it! My process is much more dedicated now that this is my career, but I have always shown up to write because I have to–I can’t really live well without words. But now, I don’t just write in my journal every morning or jot ideas down throughout the day, I also sit down and write for hours, edit for hours, and make the most out of my craft. I’m currently working on three books, so I have to show up everyday! I’ve also grown in my sense of using my poetry as a therapeutic tool. After nine years of Poem Store and all of the phenomenal results I’ve seen, I consider myself a healer and I take that role very seriously. That means my process expands beyond the craft of poetry and into the realm of healing; two muscles combine to create the voice and the work that I put forth into the world now. It’s an honor to practice this thing that feels ancient and larger than I am. I’m grateful and in awe of it every day.
How did poetry enter your world? When did you realize you were a poet?
I started writing short stories, mostly allegories about giraffes and other awkward animals in third grade. I studied creative writing in college, but published my first book of poems, Mirror Domme, this past year.
What is your writing process like? Do you await the muse to arrive or do you have a disciplined practice?
Often in flux. There have been periods of necessity and other times when it’s hard to put something down. I keep a notebook next to my bed to write down my dreams, using them as jumping off points for raw, honest feelings. I can get pretty lethargic during these winter months once the sun goes down, so I try to keep to morning writing.
In addition to being a poet, you are also a creative director and model. How do these various disciplines feed into each other? Do you find there is a continuity to your aesthetic?
I’ve always been drawn to a subtle dark aesthetic across the board in art, film, photography, literature — acknowledging this darkness as a natural part of self exploration, instead of burying it below the surface. I also like the use of negative space in images and poems. That’s been consistent.
Who and what are you reading? Is there a poem or a poet that really touches you?
Right now I’m reading George Saunders’ collection of short stories, In Persuasion Nation. I keep a few poetry books on my dresser — Hummingbird Numina by Gretchen Mattox, From One to The Next by Holly Prado, and Perfecta by Patty Seyburn. I have a few other go-tos by Bataille and Bukowski, but they’re in my attic crawl space until I buy a proper bookcase.
Since you’ve released your book, Mirror Domme, how has the quality of your newer poems evolved? Do you find you have a constant voice or are you in a new chapter of discovery?
Even though I’ve grown a lot in the last year, probably more so than any other year, I’m still continuing to explore themes of ego, truth and control. The main difference is my relationship to self. Older work focused a lot on other people’s perception and attitude towards me. It feels good to start examining identity from within.