Sean Singer is the author of Discography (Yale University Press, 2002), winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, selected by W.S. Merwin, and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America; Honey & Smoke (Eyewear Publishing, 2015); and Today in the Taxi (Tupelo Press, 2022). He runs a manuscript consultation service at seansingerpoetry.com.
On the latest episode of the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast, James Morehead interviews Sean Singer to learn more about “Today in the Taxi” and Singer’s approach to writing prose poems.
James Morehead: Before I ask about your upcoming book, I have to share that I loved every page. I found myself getting “into flow” as I was reading and almost finished your book in one sitting. How did you approach ordering the poems, and were you consciously trying to sustain the momentum of the book?
Sean Singer: “The ordering of the poems is not straightforward. They’re not chronological. They create the sensation of something that’s fragmented, but has repeated elements or constants, such as the phrase ‘today on the taxi’, the form, and the various characters that reappear. They start off more narrative and become more lyrical as it continues to the end, where it’s a little more porous and a little more abstract. Each section has the same number of poems, which creates a kind of balance.”
Morehead: To make the book more than a series of anecdotes from your years as a taxi driver, you include the voices of Kafka, jazz musician Charles Mingus and the Lord (as a female voice). You describe them as an “ethical GPS” for the reader. How did you choose these voices to complement and help expand your experiences?
Singer: “They’re kind of like a bridge between the immediacy of experience, and the inward state of the driver. They’re reference points or portals to parables or philosophies, or they’re external things that the driver can bounce off of as he’s reacting to these situations. Driving is full of duality and contradictions: you’re sitting, but you’re moving forward. You’re invisible, but you’re overhearing very intimate details of people’s lives. You’re looking forward, but responding backwards. Those characters allow connections among all those different states of being.”
Morehead: Each poem follows a common structure – a vignette always introduced with “Today in the taxi”, presented succinctly – matter-of-fact, and then a turn. Did this approach come later, requiring you to re-work earlier poems to fit the structure, or did the structure of the poems emerge early?
Singer: “I had been taking notes on different experiences, and I didn’t find the form. I didn’t know what the form was going to be. And for me, the form is the entire point, the content is less important for me. Once I decided to make them into prose poems, which is a contradiction in and of itself, then all of these scenarios I had been thinking about came out al at once, Of course I revised some, deleted some, made changes to some, and made literary fixes. The prose poem has a long history of being connected to cities, and talking about cities, going back to Charles Beaudelaire, so it was it was a great way to balance the narrative aspects, the more lyrical aspects, and the physical embodied moments, with the thinking through of the self and relation of those physical things.
“I physically did all the things that I talk about, lifting the bags and cleaning up the messes. The form is very important to let the poems exist in an external form, that readers can then find a way into.”
Morehead: Were there other forms you tried before landing on prose poetry for this book?
Singer: “Not really. I had to think through what the right form would be. I tend to think about it for a really long time, for months or even years, and until I can figure out what the right form is I don’t actually write anything, but then when I sit down to write, it all kind of comes out.”
Morehead: Many books of poetry are collections of poems written individually, without a book in mind; at what point did you know you had a book in the making, and how did that influence your approach to selecting which stories to tell, and which to edit out?
Singer: “I happen to think that poems exist in the atmosphere, in the environment, and it’s the responsibility of the poet to have enough facility with language to be attuned to when those poems occur and transcribe them into English. Driving a taxi for many, many hours, it’s hard. It’s 90% boredom and 10% sheer terror. A lot of the time it’s very mundane and repetitive, and you have a lot of time to think and brood. When I realized that enough very strange things happen, this rolling therapist officer—rolling confessional, I thought it might become a book. I had some strange experiences where I couldn’t convey the immediacy, or were too difficult to explain, or I was less interested in after a while.”
Morehead: The stories you share capture the amusements, peculiarities, and annoyances of everyday life, yet each expands into something philosophical or profound. How did you find these connections?
Singer: “Prose is for the most part about taking things apart, which is analysis. Whereas poetry is about bringing things together, which is metaphor. Poems are metaphoric, but they’re also metabolic, meaning, your breath is involved. Your hand is involved. They’re metamorphic, meaning the speaker changes or transforms in some way through the act of making the poem, and the metaphors bridge these idiosyncratic, or strange, or upsetting, moments. They do have mirrors or reflections in other aspects of experience.
“For example, the poem where the woman leaves her baby in the car and then goes into the building, and I didn’t know if she’s going to come back. I had read in one of Franz Kafka’s diaries that he had read this story about a woman who killed her nine-month-old. It’s the aspect of danger, and the mindset you have to have to leave a baby with a stranger, in a place like New York City. And yet on another level it’s not terrifying, it’s completely mundane. She was fine with it, and I had to be fine with it. I don’t know how I found the relationships. I guess I was just think about these things almost constantly and they melded together somehow.”
Morehead: As I was reading the poems I thought of certain movies, and spread throughout the book, sure enough, there they were: Night on Earth, Taxi Driver, Drive, and Paterson. It made me think of how drivers are in a unique position to invisibly observe. In the poem “Invisible Screen” you write, “The inside of the cab, neither public nor private, is so transparent that you can look through it and see the world. I thought of Adorno, talking about Beethoven’s long waves of bass notes, not of tension but of lingering.” How has writing this book, and your experiences as a driver, influenced your poetry?
Singer: “I think it’s very difficult to balance conveying lived experience with surprising or electric language. Some people can do one or the other, but when you try to do both, you know, it’s almost like moving a seesaw on one end. You’ve got communication or straight sense and on the other side internal thinking, which is not always sensible. Poems usually can’t do both. I think the prose poem enhances juxtapositions or contradictions. It was a way for me to have nonfiction types of observations with more passionate syntax.
“I need some something as the source, I’m also interested in the process of creativity. And so, I think the other part is this book is much more vulnerable and straightforward and direct than I’ve done in the past. For example, I never wrote in the first person before. Being vulnerable in that way is very risky. I think that was the main way that it changed my thinking about how to approach a poem.”
Morehead: Your poem “The Entire City” stood out for its break from the structure you’d set; you wrote: “Tonight in the taxi the yellow moon was a coin, and the kale florets moved serrated edges along an orange grid. A citadel on a hill’s spiral, no one breathed a note, and a ruin rubbed a fish backbone over a texture.” Even though this poem is formatted as a paragraph, you could have used enjambment, it’s arguably not a prose poem. Was a break from the pattern, at about the midpoint of your book, intentional?
Singer: “I can’t remember my thinking of why I placed that one exactly where it is. But there’s an arc that becomes more lyrical, in some ways where the Lord’s voice kind of rises up a little bit. I wanted to have enough variation within that form and still be connected to what came before and after. This device of having every poem begin with ‘Today in the taxi’ is almost like an endless loop where you don’t know if it’s the same day, or a different day, which is kind of what it feels like.
“And I think after all those years, I drove on every single street. I was somehow able to remember most of the trips: where I got them, where they were going, who they were. But I don’t describe what anyone looks like, I wanted to present them almost as these ciphers, where they’re just people that have experiences, you don’t know who they are, which is what it’s like.”
Morehead: In addition to the three books you’ve written, you also author a newsletter, The Sharpener, and offer Editorial Services. Share a bit more about the services you offer for aspiring authors and poets.
Singer: “I sometimes describe it as psychological revision or psychological coaching through writing. So much of the risk in writing poetry is really being open to a part of the self that’s not readily expressible or explainable, and then to be able to present it in a way that has enough air, whether it’s a door or window, for an outside reader who is separated in time and space, to find a way in to it. That process, that long middle psychological stage between the initial impulse, the initial triggering subject Hugo called it, and the thing that’s as close to your intention of the poem, that middle space is not understood. I don’t impose my own aesthetics, I help the person go through the wilderness and try to convey what was intended. Sometimes those things are literary, like verb tenses, or sometimes they are about looking inward or looking into the psychodynamics of the thing that’s being written.
“It’s not talk therapy, but it’s using the skills of that to best bring the poem out and onto the page. It could be just one poem or could be a whole manuscript.”