Interview with Sean Singer
by Francis Raven

Sean Singer was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, and grew up in Florida. He received his MFA from Washington University in 1999 and has won scholarships to Bread Loaf and the Catskills Poetry Workshop. His book Discography won the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. Series judge W. S. Merwin praised Singer for his “roving demands on his language” and “the quick-changes of his invention in search of some provisional rightness.” Singer currently lives in New York City.

Q: Much of Discography is about music, where did that interest stem from?

A: I have always been in love with how words sound, and their subsequent rhythms and rhymes. I had been listening to early rural acoustic blues, like Blind Lemon Jefferson, and got interested in blues music's development into modern jazz. The first jazz CDs I bought were Miles Davis's Kind Of Blue, Hank Mobley's Soul Station, Thelonious Monk's The Genius of Modern Music, and John Coltrane's Blue Train. After that, I became obsessed. Discography

Q: What are the difficulties of putting music into poetry?

A: Someone said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. There have been many attempts, from the 1920s until now, to describe or even represent jazz music in verse. There are some anthologies of those poems and some wonderful fiction where it occurs (i.e. James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful, and Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea) but can words, which are inert, be made to MOVE and become music? That was an implicit question I had when I began my project of Discography.

The difficulties are: first, how much biographical, musical, or historical information about jazz is required for a reader to enter the poem? If it's too much, I could alienate the reader. Second, what are the distinctions between describing music and actually representing it? What are the differences between creating the recollection of an emotion and creating, in real time on the page, the emotion itself? Third, are traditional methods of prosody (pacing, rhyme, meter, enjambment, accents, stresses, syllables, diction, etc.) sufficient to suggest the syncopations and individual code of jazz? Fourth, how can I create in my poems the sensation that the poem is SIMULTANEOUSLY SPONTANEOUS and INEVITABLE? Fifth, can I adequately express my enthusiasm for jazz? Sixth, how many ways, in terms of form and sound, can I explore problems 1-5? Seventh, what does jazz have to do with me, as the writer, and with the other elements I want to include?

A: The relationship between politics and poetry is extremely important. The moment a person sits down to make a poem, he is making a political statement. The Bush government has arranged the war in order to get re-elected, and I believe it is poets' responsibility to do something about it. The danger to poetry from the Bush government is bad tangibly in the form of reductions in arts and education funding, and is bad for poetry intangibly as well in the form of the demoralization of humanity here and abroad. Poetry must counter the Bush administration's sustained assault upon civil liberties, environmental protections, and generally everything poetry values: freedom of thought. Poetry is also an American cultural export that may convince Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia that we are not all going to roll them under the meat grinder. Poetry is a model of how to live by virtue of what it is: making choices of some words over other words and being responsible for those choices.

Q: What's the most difficult poem you have written and why?

A: Always the poem I'm writing now if the most difficult one because it's unstable material. Beyond that, poems, like “A History of Ota Benga,” which require much research, are difficult. I became interested in writing poetry after I was interested writing journalism. But journalism's supposed objective camera eye has been an important quality I want to bring to my poems. I also generally find free verse more difficult than formal poems, and poems about my real life more difficult than poems through a mask.

Q: I noticed that you taught high school, how did that influence your poetry?

A: The only way teaching high school influenced my poetry was by providing a paycheck, so I was able to eat and pay rent. I've done lots of different jobs to support my writing, and that one lasted two years. I sometimes was able to get kids interested in poetry, either writing it or reading it, but that was like a bonus. I taught at an expensive private school and I found it difficult to deal with the kids' parents, who usually treated me badly-- with scorn and disdain-- and expected perfect A grades for everything.

Q: Who were your mentors or influences?

Other influences are: Bob Kaufman, Etheridge Knight, Wanda Coleman, Hart Crane, Weldon Kees, Bruno Schulz, Aime Cesaire, and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Q: What's your working strategy? When do you write? How often? On a computer? Longhand?

A: I don't have a special strategy. I was impressed, when I visited Emerson's house in Concord, Mass., that he did his writing on a little desk facing a wall to avoid outer distractions. I would like to write every day, but I don't. I like writing in longhand, though my handwriting is 19th century-looking and childlike. Usually I work out most of the writing in my mind for a long time-- many months--but then the actually creation of the poems occurs all at once. Then multiple, small revisions happen after that. But many of my poems were made all in one burst of energy, like “The Old Record” and “Ellingtonia.” They were made almost as if I was taking transcription.

Q: What are you working on right now?

A: I'm working on my next book. Part of the book has poems based on historical events. I'm making a poem based on the premise that Vincent Van Gogh never existed and was an invention by his brother Theo.

I'm making a poem set among 19th century whaling ships on Nantucket Island, and to consider the idea that whaling missions consisted mostly of men who were away at sea for two or more years, whereas the society on Nantucket was maintained by women. This gender dynamic mirrors that of spermaceti whale societies, where bull whales generally travel alone, diving several miles deep to hunt, and only occasionally visit female whales and their calves.

I'm making a poem about Hedy Lamarr, the silent film star who invented torpedo guidance system during World War II; her system was based on a player piano’s rotating paper rolls.

I'm also writing a series about writers' daily jobs and what those jobs had to do with their writing. For example, I wrote one about Franz Kafka's work writing factory safety regulations for the Kingdom of Bohemia, and this work’s reciprocal relationship to his notorious hypochondria. This piece has been accepted by Salmagundi and is forthcoming. I also wrote one about Albert Camus's desire to be a soccer goalie, and one about William Faulkner's job at the post office.

Q: Do you have a favorite poem?

A: I quite like Hart Crane's “Voyages” and Anne Carson's “First Chaldaic Oracle.” I find, though, recently I have trouble reading any poem just for pleasure without seeing its architecture and technical elements.

Q: Do you have any advice for younger writers?

A: Read and write as much as possible. Read as many different kinds of poems as possible and then try to show in your writing what you've read. Intellectual bravery is an important quality. Poetry is about making the language MOVE, not about mere self-expression. Do not be dull. I don't want to be pleased. Don't do what's already been done. Hearing poetry is a psychological mechanism, not entertainment. It's an art that deals with subtle things and complicated things. The best younger writers are open to taste, courage, individual code, and are irreverent; they do not assume no one has ever thought like they do. The worst are tied to their assumptions, read and think literally, and don't think poetry is something that's made. They think it's any precious thought they've had chopped randomly into pieces like a corpse. Final piece of advice: get a good dictionary and read it. I use the 20-volume O.E.D.

Q: How did you get into the poetry business?

A: You mean writing poetry or the actual poetry business, what William Matthews called “po-biz,” or something else? If you mean the poetry business, I didn't get into it. I never expected to make any money from poetry, so anything I get from royalties, readings, etc., is all a bonus and is astounding to me. I've missed financial opportunities here and there because I don't have any feeling for the business end of this, which has nothing to do with poetry. I think people outside the world of poetry publishing and the cocktail parties which follow readings see something nefarious or unsavory, but poetry business is no different than any other field (including other art forms) in America. That means that there is some money involved in the selling of art. We are all slaves to the credit card companies.

Q: How did winning the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition change your life or your poetry?

A: It didn't change my poetry, but it made publishing my poems easier. Sometimes it was almost like I was given a key to a new room, where the mayor cut a sash with giant scissors. Mostly it gave physical form to a project I had been devoted to for a long time. It didn't help me find jobs so much, which I had expected. I struggled just to meet basic conditions. But now sometimes editors will ask me for poems, which was obviously different than before. The other thing was that Yale arranged some readings with other Yale poets, which was always great for me. Also a few times I was actually recognized by strangers, which was outrageous.

Q: Who are some contemporary writers who you admire?

A: Besides my mentors, Timothy Liu, C. Dale Young, Tracy Smith, Brian Blanchfield, Joyelle McSweeney, Mong-Lan, Adrian Matejka, Doug Powell, Sarah Manguso, Nick Flynn, Anne Carson, Laurie Sheck, C.D. Wright, Wanda Coleman, Brigit Pegeen-Kelly, and Mary Leader.

Q: Are there any recent trends in poetry that you're especially excited about?

A: For a while I thought people would be trying to figure out how to write narratives in a new way. I suspect the next trend will be writing about science. I'm especially excited about anything that's not narrative, doesn't start the first line with the first-person singular, and anything that uses the subjunctive, because this century is the century of doubts, wishes, and possibilities.