Interviews

In Conversation with Ars Poetica Founder, Lisa Ann Markuson

We only collaborate with people and brands who we think are brilliant. So, when Lisa Ann (LA MARKS) Markuson, founder of Ars Poetica and long-term Cambridge Satchel Co. fan, told us she was visiting the UK and wanted to meet us, we knew we were in for an exciting partnership. 


A few weeks later, LA and her London-based poet, Olivia, sat at the front of our Cambridge and London shops, typewriters at the ready, dreaming up personalised poems for passersby in under a minute. People gave them prompts, and off they went, writing wonderful poems about everything from life aspirations, hopes and dreams to pineapples, wallabies and the colour green. I was even amazed to see LA write a poem in Spanish for two visitors at Carnaby Street - impressive!

 

But let’s listen to the CPO - the Chief Poetic Officer - herself. After two hours of typewriting, LA sat down with me in our Carnaby Street shop to chat about typewriters, trees, TikTok and the tale of how she found her Cambridge Satchel. LA tells us all…

LA deep in poetic thought. Photography: Gabriel Munhoz


The Cambridge Satchel Co.

Tell us about yourself!


Lisa Ann (LA MARKS) Markuson

Well, I'm a poet, and I'm an entrepreneur. So everything I do involves the balance between art and business, creativity and pragmatism. 


I really was never on the track to becoming an artist. It came to me suddenly, by just being so dissatisfied by being stuck in a business world, a nonprofit world, a world where you have to just do what your boss tells you to do. Discovering my entrepreneurial creative spirit in that environment was what suddenly pushed me into creating art and founding my poetic agency.


CSC

Where did the idea for Ars Poetica come from? What does the name mean?


LA

The name is Latin for ‘The Art of Poetry’. I chose the name because I just knew it was perfect as soon as I discovered the original poem with that title. It’s a treatise from 2000 years ago, written by the Latin poet Horace, about the use of poetry in society, and what poetry really is all about and what it should be. And the specific quotation that really struck me the most in this treatise was ‘The aim of the poet is to delight and to teach’. What if I could actually break down barriers and connect with people in a beautiful artistic way? 


The business idea of Ars Poetica was that I wanted to create a structure so that artists could provide something beautiful and useful and valuable and surprising and delightful to anyone. I mean, it's totally accessible. I wanted to create something that made poetry feel like you can literally just hold it in your hands and enjoy it. And I wanted it to be something that could have a real price tag on it - something that was quantifiable for a business to want to hire us or to utilise our services. So I just needed something that fit that niche. And that's how I came up with it!

Meet the poets, dressed in full Bridgerton-inspired regalia in Central Park. Photography: Daniel Steven Krieger. 


CSC

Was there a reason why you decided to use typewriters specifically?


LA

I started using a typewriter for one specific event. And all of a sudden, when I saw the reaction that people had, I thought, ‘Oh, wait, this needs to be the thing all the time!’. We don't always use them - sometimes we do calligraphy and use other forms - but the typewriter is the showstopper.


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What exactly does Ars Poetica offer?


LA

We do typewriter poetry on demand at events around the world. In addition to that, we also do projects where we do copywriting, content creation, marketing campaigns and poetic residencies. But events are our bread and butter. And so that made the pandemic very tough. 


The main thing is that we're bringing the surprise and delight, the literary and the language, to all of our projects.


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And you recently went viral on TikTok! What happened?


LA

Basically, I knew that we finally needed to get on TikTok, and I said, ‘Okay, we're gonna start just throwing some things out there’. Nothing was really working that well at first; I wasn’t that into it. And I was starting to think ‘Am I gonna be able to do this?’. I was really doubting it, because it's not my native platform. 


But one of our poets, Tallie in New York, was doing a really good job on her own TikTok. So I said, ‘Hey, will you do our TikTok?’. And she said yes! When she started doing it, it really blew up. She found a perfect formula for showing what we do. We have now gone viral a couple of times, and we now have 155,000 followers.


CSC

Amazing. And could you tell me about your tree planting campaign?


LA

I've been running our tree planting campaign (basically, we count every poem we write live at events and plant a tree for each poem) for years, and at first no one really cared about it. I almost feel like I was a little ahead of the game and people thought, ‘Haha, that's cute. But who cares about just one tree?’. So that’s why I decided to change the name and focus to ‘Million Poems, Million Trees’. One tree may not do much, but a million trees? You can’t argue with the positive impact that will have.


And now that the climate crisis is becoming a little more top of mind for people it's really starting to resonate. Our goal is to plant 1 million trees by my birthday in 2030, then buy some land harmed by coal mining and plant our own Poet’s Forest. 


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How many have you planted so far?


LA

Right now at this moment, we've planted about 3500 trees (we partner with Arbor Day to get the trees in the ground in the places that need them most) and the number ticks up every day.


CSC

That’s incredible! What kinds of poems do you write personally?


LA

Haiku is my favourite, my first love and my specialty. But recently, I've been working on a new poetic form that I created which I'm calling a short stack. It's a four line poem and it's five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables. It needs to have at least two lines that rhyme and a surprise. So ask me for a short stack when you see me!

LA typewriting at an event. Photography: Gabriel Munhoz.


CSC

You are involved with the organisation Freelancing Females. Could you tell me a bit about it and about your role within it? 


LA

Of course! I'm the Director of Collaboration for Freelancing Females, which is the world's largest group of women (and allies) who work outside of the traditional 9-5. I always joke that the Freelancing Females Facebook group (60k+ women!) is like my safe space on the internet: our group is the most collaborative, inclusive, friendly group I've ever been a part of. In addition to providing education and inspiration, rating and sharing our favourite products, services, and tools for freelance living, we also share job and client opportunities with our members and host on and offline events. We have also just launched a podcast: For the Love of Freelance


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Favourite poem of all time?


LA

Oh wow great question... It might actually have to be 'Ars Poetica' by the ancient Latin poet Horace because it has an incredibly timeless way of expressing what I believe is the value and purpose of poetry, performance, and really all language arts in society. Or it could be Kate Tempest's "Brand New Ancients" - another epic poem, but a contemporary one. 


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Favourite word of all time?


LA

Ikigai - the Japanese concept of finding your life's work as almost an equation, or maybe an intersection, between four components:

  • What you love doing
  • What you are good at doing
  • What you can earn a living doing
  • What the world needs you to do

And that's what I do now with Ars Poetica and Freelancing Females.


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Favourite thing about the UK? 


LA

I think it has to be the history. Being from the western states (California originally, but honestly it applies to the whole country with few exceptions), we don't have a lot of beautiful lasting architecture from before the 1800s. When I'm in the UK, I feel I'm walking with the ancients, learning from them, touching what they touched... It's beautiful.


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Who’s your role model? 


LA

I look to a few people - some living, some passed on - for guidance and inspiration. There's spiritual leaders, namely Jesus and the Buddha, whose teachings are so loving and wise. Then there are writers I adore: Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, Octavia Butler and Ursula K LeGuin specifically. And of people still roaming the earth, too. I am amazed by Oprah's story of coming from horrible circumstances to reaching such great heights of success and inspiring the world. And finally, a friend of mine, Rita J King, who is a writer, environmentalist, artist, and has an incredible business mind to boot.


CSC

Do you have a favourite article of clothing, and if so - why?


LA

I love dramatic things. I have a long blue wool cape that actually belonged to an Italian soldier in the late 1800s, and a big leather and fur coat from the 1970s that makes me look like a Russian movie star or something. I love vintage dresses, bright colours, and one-of-a-kind things. My bespoke blue tuxedo is also a favourite; it was made for me by a wonderful lady suit maker called M. Press Atelier.

LA’s blue wool cape. Photography by "Qui Style". 


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Do you collect anything?


LA

I sort of collect typewriters... I have about 13 scattered around the country in various places. Books tend to accumulate around me too, somehow. But most of all I collect people and experiences. If I could just meet and chat with new people every day and just make them treats and write them poems I would probably be satisfied.


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Any advice for those who want to write poetry but don’t know where to start?


LA

Ah, writing poetry. Honestly a great place to start is to just journal, first thing in the morning. Put a little timer on or give yourself a minimum "quota" - ideally three pages but just one is totally fine while you're building up your writing muscle. I highly recommend the online course The Artist's Way if you want more guidance - I've done it twice! And after that, taking little classes or writing with a group is really wonderful. In fact, I teach a free weekly 30-min "therapeutic poetry" workshop with SocietyX. Come by! 


CSC

And finally… Tell us about your Cambridge Satchel!


LA

Oh, this is the best story. About eight years ago, I knew that I wanted to find a more mature, adult bag to carry around during all of my adventures in New York City. But I really wanted a bag that I knew was ethically sourced and which had some sort of transparency in the process of making it. 


I started searching and searching and I was willing to pay a high price for something that was really wonderful and well made, but I kept hitting these blocks when talking to luxury bag companies. I would ask, ‘How is this bag made? What are your labour practices?’ - and I would get either radio silence or a blatant refusal to share any information. 


So, I went to Facebook (of course) and asked all of my friends if anyone had any recommendations. Finally an awesome friend of mine named Kelsey turned me on to The Cambridge Satchel Co., which I had never heard of before. And I was immediately so smitten with the bright red Portrait backpack. This bag was so perfect for me because it looked beautiful and professional, yet had this incredible vintage luxury feel and of course the red colour made it very fun and light hearted. When I found out that the leather was ethically sourced and that The Cambridge Satchel Co. care about the dyes they use, and that they treat their workers ethically, I knew that it was meant to be. 


I actually didn’t even know that The Cambridge Satchel Co. was a woman-owned and founded company until after I bought the bag, which just made it even more incredible and made me even more proud to carry it. I’ve been carrying this bag for almost a decade now and it still looks basically brand new. Every time someone asks about it, which is pretty often, I’m always so excited that I’ll take it off my back, show them the embossed logo and tell them to go and check out the company  - so I’m a pretty huge fan and I’m excited to add a new bag to my collection this holiday season! 

LA with her Cambridge Satchel backpack. Photography: Gabriel Munhoz 

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And so you can see why we love LA so much. She’s such a fan of The Cambridge Satchel Co. that she even wrote a special poem just for us and our founder, Julie.


We can’t wait to see LA and her poets next time they’re back in the UK. Thank you for your energy, your enthusiasm and, of course, your poetry!

For more about Ars Poetica, visit arspoetica.us or head over to their Instagram or TikTok