Mandy Kahn & Jacqueline Suskin
Editor: Nicole Disson
Portrait by Shelby Duncan
“Poem Store presents this great practice of letting go.
I can't edit. I never see the poem again, and
I don't even get to choose the subject. It is beyond poetry almost,
—Jacqueline Suskin so performative, so intimate and immediate.” — Jacqueline Suskin
Los Angeles-based poet Mandy Kahn is author of the 2014 poetry collection “Math, Heaven, Time” and coauthor of 2011 post-modern non-fiction book “Collage Culture: Examining the 21st Century’s Identity Crisis.” She also writes libretti, collaborates with composers by writing poetry to music, and is a writer-in-residence for THE SERIES, a live performance event that pairs artists across genres.
Jacqueline Suskin is a poet who lives in LA and runs the Poem Store, a pop-up writing project which involves composing impromptu poetry for strangers on her typewriter. Suskin is the author of poetry collection “The Collected” and “Go Ahead & Like It,” a book about the empowerment of making lists of what you like.
Los Angeles poets Mandy Kahn and Jacqueline Suskin are carving out a place for their old-world craft in the new world. Jacqueline with her pop-up Poem Store – a folding table, her manual typewriter and a simple sign – where she writes strangers short poems on demand. The customer chooses the subject and price, and Jacqueline takes four or five minutes to punch at her typewriter, reading the poem out loud once before handing it over forever. Mandy’s work takes on more traditional forms with a modern poetic instinct – she collaborates with composers to set poems to classical music, writes libretti (or the text for an opera) and is at work on a poetry book about the life and work of famous composers.
The two trade stories of the secret life behind writing – hoarding hotel pens and paper, appreciating the small details and being ‘pregnant’ with a new book.
A Los Angeles-based photographer by way of Reno, NV, Shelby Duncan’s work spans editorial, art and commercial and has appeared in Jacqueline Suskin’s book “Go Ahead & Like It.”
Poet Jaqueline Suskin’s performance poetry project. She writes spontaneous poems via typewriter, for a small donation, at venues ranging from farmer’s markets to weddings to artist residencies.
Mandy Kahn: I’m so glad to have a chance to have this conversation with you, Jacqueline. You’re both a dear friend and someone whose work constantly surprises and inspires me. I’m always so impressed by Poem Store because of what you can do on the fly – I need to draft everything out, but you’re like a brilliant jazz musician: you can flow in the moment, publicly. It’s like watching a meteor shower, watching you work.
Jacqueline Suskin: Ha! I like this description, a meteor shower… it feels like that, this strange outpouring of something bright to offer up to anyone who wants to take a look at the sky. It’s an incredibly different practice than what I call my “regular writing.” I edited my first book for four years! I love to edit. So Poem Store presents this great practice of letting go.
I wonder if you ever use a typewriter when you work?
MK: No, I’ve never used a typewriter, but if I did, I think I’d get the loud, electric kind that was used in offices in the 80s – that’s the particular clickety-clack that really does it for me. I like the sound of industry.
JS: YES! My next gift to you, the loudest typewriter I can find!
MK: Amazing! You just made my day. I DO commit everything to paper. I don’t save on the cloud, except as backup. I don’t trust the cloud any more than I’d trust tucking a piece of paper into an actual cloud.
JS: Do you have particular notebooks and pens that you prefer?
MK: Yes – I like pens from hotels. To me the most beautiful note is one made with a hotel pen on hotel paper. So every time I stay at a hotel, I call down to the front desk and ask to have pens sent up, and then I take them everywhere. That’s the luxury I tote along with me in my canvas sack.
JS: I adore this hotel pad/pen idea. I have so many myself. I usually write letters on them to show my friends where I’ve been or to thank someone for joining me there. Also, they are usually so unique. I have a huge paper collection. Do you?
“To me, the most beautiful note
is one made with a hotel pen on hotel paper.”
— Mandy Kahn
MK: I have a large collection of hotel pads, but lately they come with fewer and fewer sheets of paper. These hotels must be onto me. So I go through them quickly. But this summer, in Italy, I bought the most beautiful pad of paper I’ve ever owned: it’s been printed across the top with an illustration of 19th century bicycles – the sort with one huge wheel and one small wheel – and its cotton pages are subtly ridged. I find that jotting casual notes on paper like that makes me feel like I’m living a luxurious life, and well.
JS: Oh yes. Wow. Sounds very similar to my favorite pad that is from an old railroad company. It has a train charging ahead at the top and it feels so appropriate to write letters on. I send so much mail. I have pen pals and try to send notes to everyone I love. Do you have a relationship with the mail system?
MK: I wish I had more of one. For me, writing a letter – or an email – draws from the same well that writing a poem draws from. And I have to draw lightly and carefully from that well.
JS: I like this. It is another example in the difference of our pace. Pulling from your first compliment, I can tell that you think my quickness is commendable, but I often wonder what other writers think about the fast nature of it. I suppose I wear the hat of being a “first thought best thought” kind of writer, but with Poem Store I really don’t have any other choice. My friend calls it the “YouTube of Poetry.”
MK: I’m a great believer in artist as sieve – that if one can allow a naturalness to flow through him, he is doing his highest work. So I admire expediency immensely. As time goes on, I’m able to complete things more quickly and with fewer drafts, and I’m glad of that. I’ve studied and studied the editing process not to learn to extend it, but to internalize it so it might happen while the thing is in midair. So when I speak of your process, I speak of it with reverence.
JS: There is something happening there, in that rapid flow, that is far beyond me.
MK: Yes, absolutely. The natural is, for me, always the highest possible expression. But to achieve the natural within form, that is a dance. And for me, that’s always the goal.
JS: It’s funny, having this conversation with you is so enjoyable because, honestly, I don’t know that many poets. I have only a few who I call friends, who I speak with regularly… do you ever crave a poetic clan of sorts? A group to read and write and rejoice in the written word with?
MK: Well, that’s a tricky question. It gives me great pleasure to speak of the works I love with someone who shares my love of those works. But I’m not altogether comfortable among groups of writers. I feel very lucky to call you and a few other poets dear friends, and I’m able to do that because each of you is a gentle person. But in general, I’m afraid that I haven’t always found gentleness there, and I can only be in gentle environments because I’m so darn sensitive.
JS: Ah, yes I understand. I could, and probably will someday, write an entire book on my personal issues with group dynamics. Speaking of books though, do you have new ideas in the works?
French composer (1862 – 1918) whose work work figures largely in Impressionist music, a style which conveys a feeling, mood or atmosphere.
Hungarian composer and pianist (1881 – 1945) and scholar of folk music, founding the comparative study of music which later became ethnomusicology.
MK: Yes – I’m deep into a book of poems about composers and their works. This week I’m writing about Debussy.
MK: My tables are stacked with biographies. I should already be into the Bartok book but I can’t get past Debussy: I just go deeper. Poor Bartok is watching me from the top of the stack.
JS: And are you someone who has projects lined up? Are there books in waiting? Patiently hoping for this current composer brilliance to finish up so that you can get to your next gift for the world?
MK: Awww, very sweet of you. Yes, I know what my next five projects are, and am deep into most.
JS: I feel that way. I have enough book ideas to nearly last me a lifetime. I’ve learned to let them come as they will. One at a time usually. Just how I like my poet friends, just how I like everything… I’m a one-on-one, one at a time kind of gal. No matter how performance-based Poem Store is, it’s still a one-on-one connection that makes it work.
MK: The good thing about having an idea in the queue is that sometimes, by the time I get to it, it isn’t a burning need anymore and I can skip it. And the ones I can’t skip – where my interest never wanes – those are the necessary ones. If I can walk away, I do. The others, they wake me up in the night. They stare at me as I move through a room. They are visceral presences, waiting on me.
JS: It’s as if those are my exact words right there. Exactly how I feel. The great rhythm of it, the feeling that moves me to write – the force of that comes whenever it pleases and I know it when it enters the room. It sticks to an idea and tells me that I cannot let it go. That’s when I know a book will come.
MK: I have a very pregnant process – I consume written works like they were a necessary food, I balloon with an idea, I pace around with my hands at the small of my back, I snack constantly, I need naps, and then at the end I’m fidgety and agitated and all I can do is pace and wait and read and sleep – and usually I have at least one good cry – and then there’s a labor, and there it is.
“I once moved to the woods to work on writing
because I felt like a grumpy old bear.
I just needed to eat and walk the trails
everyday until it was time to sleep on it
and finally wake up into the birth of it all.”
— Jacqueline Suskin
JS: I am more than fascinated at how perfectly that rings true to my process. I once moved to the woods to work on writing because I felt like a grumpy old bear. I just needed to eat and walk the trails everyday until it was time to sleep on it and finally wake up into the birth of it all.
MK: That impulse is strong with me, too. I get this desperate need to head immediately into deep nature, and I can’t do anything until I scratch that itch, and I usually drive to a deserted beach in Malibu and swim out as deep as I can before I fear being swept out with the tide.
American photographer (born 1939) whose work is characterized by its mundane subject matter, and whose work in color photography helped lead to its acceptance as a legitimate medium.
I wanted to talk a bit about your book “Go Ahead & Like It,” which I love so much – it always brings my attention to the present moment in a way that fills me immediately with a sense of being enriched. Every listed thing calls for a focusing of the mind in appreciation. It reminds me of a certain sect of fine art photography – the work of the very natural shooters, like William Eggleston, who draw your attention to the beauty that was there all along.
JS: Wow what a comparison! It’s funny because that is what I feel your book does as well, in perhaps a more subtle way. Each poem calls my attention to some detail that gets fleshed out into a beautiful verse. I feel that way about good poetry. I think, as a poet, I’m focusing on the beauty hiding in plain sight, but “Go Ahead & Like It” took it a step further because I believe anyone can do that. I wanted to remind them.
MK: Thank you! And, yes – it’s a muscle, one’s ability to focus on the small detail appreciatively. It’s a muscle that can be exercised – made stronger, more prominent, more taut.
JS: In my work as a writer, I’m just doing my best to be in service. If I can help folks figure out a practice of sustained elation, well maybe the world will be a better place…?
MK: I feel certain that the attention to detail you invite your readers to pay will improve their lives, and from there, everything larger than their lives. Attention is an ecstatic practice.
JS: I equate it to poetry.
MK: Yes, it’s all the same.
JS: Amen to that.
MK: So here’s to the ecstatic practice of deep attention to the stone, the bit of moss, the ticket stub – whatever’s at our feet.