Friday, May 20, 2005

Sean Singer: The Best Poet You’ve Never Read

If the world were run by Philosopher Kings, I would nominate Singer.
Sean Singer peaks his head into Sal’s, a Bleaker Street Italian food restaurant, no larger than the men’s room in Madison Square Garden. He’s wearing a stylish Ben Smith shirt with a Union Jack color scheme, though the shirt’s plaid in no way resembles the Union Jack.

He’s smaller than I imagined, based off the 2x2 photo on the back of his first book of poetry: Discography. Sipping my cappuccino I raise my hand up to call him over. We have never met, and I vaguely described myself as ‘the big guy in black.’ He smiled, moved across the threshold quickly and sat down. What had intended on being an interview for my NPR Affiliate radio show quickly turned into the most revealing and disconcerting conversation about poetry from the best contemporary poet I’ve read.

Technical Difficulties
My lack of experience with interviews showed off quickly. I think it began when my lapel clip microphone had no clip, and I was looking for something to affix it to Singer’s shirt with. He obliged to help and pulled out a paper organizer clip (the one that looks like a miniature ladies purse if you fold back the arms). My flustering and antithetical smoothness was juxtaposed by his perfect calm. The man sat with a deep and comfortable quiet.

After the waitress, a lovely and well-built Italian women took our orders, Singer and I began to talk. Since I barely knew what I was doing, there was no formal question/answer session, and we seemed to melt right into a conversation about his book.

“I had the whole book completed before I could get it published,” Singer began. His collection of poetry was selected down to the cover. “I knew exactly the picture I wanted to use for the cover. The question was shopping around for a publisher.”

After months of searching, Singer found a publisher eager to publish his work. His patience paid off, because the publisher was no less than Yale Publications. After being selected by W. S. Merwin for the Yale Series of Younger Poets contest, the entirety of Singers work was thrust into publication all at once.

On Singers work, Merwin says:
Sean Singers restless, roving demands upon his language, the quick-changes of his invention in search of some provisional rightness, convey through all their metamorphoses an insistent ring of authenticity that seizes the attentions and may remind us the true sense of the word “original” has to do with the origins of a work and of the talent that produced it: with those sources and impulses that are at once individual and universal, unsounded, irreducible and undeniable. (Forward, W.S. Merwin, Discography)

While Singer’s words are bold and demand authority, Singer himself comes across as unassuming and quiet. This is before I get him talking.

Blues Clues
Sean Singer orders a Caesar salad and nibbles away at it sheepishly. His well selected outfit and thick stylish black glasses counterpoint his well-gelled hair and thoughtful eyes. When he speaks, his body articulates what his slight and raspy voice does not.

“Much of the first half of my book comes from my love of Jazz and Blues. The first poem, The Old Record is indicative of that style of music. The black vinyl coming out of the record lathe is a sort a kind of invocation to the poetry that follows.” Singer says shyly but with astute knowledge of his work.

And it is truly an invocation not only of the work that follows, but the style and subject of that work. The words flood the page in an eccentric pattern.

“The shape of the poem itself is intended to mimic the vinyl coming out of the Scully Automated Lathe.”

But aside from the concrete word creation, the poem gives the reader a glimpse into the esoteric, yet hauntingly familiar scenes created throughout the book. Old Record finishes with the record being removed from the production, after “jazz dust” is removed, and ends in the song’s fruitful verse:

… Resting in a red scissor over
the lumps of steel,
then rising
jazz dust,
rumbly with the Blues,
the old rumormonger taking us
to the juke,
(the Bambara word that is
bouncing resin polymer lost to the racy sough
of “Baby she got a phonograph,
and it won’t say a lonesome word
Baby she got a phonograph
and it won’t say a lonesome word
what evil have I done
What evil has the poor girl heard?” (From "Old Record" Discography)

A Sinesthetic History Lesson
Much of the first half of Singer’s book is a unique chronicling of Jazz and Blues musicians, but also includes Singer’s own poetic glimpse at artists and other musicians. Photo of John Coltrane, 1963 weaves a tale of the Jazz legend through a musical interpretation.

“I often use the concepts and shapes of music to create my poetry. For instance in Photo of John Coltrane, 1963, I’ve broken up the sections of the poem the way sheet music might read.”

Singer goes onto explain how in the poem Ellingtonia he riffs on Duke Ellington’s name in the poem, much the way Ellington would riff on a melodic phrase:

Daffdowndilly Ebullience Daibutsu Ear Dameself Ectogenesis
Dardanekkes Edge Darksome Eidertown Demonax Ellipse
Desirous Empire Doughbelly Eohippus Dovetail Espalier (From Ellingtonia, Discography)

What strikes me as magical about Singer’s poetry is his way of interpret sound through his words. Sinesthesia, the phenomena where people meld senses together (Seeing numbers in colors, hearing light etc..) is best expressed for the non-sinesthetic in Singers work. His ability to manipulate language to create images and sounds simultaneously is the most unique and exquisite example I’ve seen (or heard).

He could peel the marks off his arms.

Blowzèd russet drippingly down.

The shack habitués saw the stand-bys.

His nod-offs. He was out with Moose the Mooche trying to score

He took his shoes off and put his feet on top of them.

Brown suede. Goof Snuff. Yen Pox. Varèse and Wolpe

Klactoveedsedstene. Klaunstance.

He blew an echoic mad-bad flight.

A girl screamed. A water spilled scotch on someone’s lap. (From "Musical shape is the memory of movement" Discography)

Po’ Biz
The high of listening to Singer discuss his worked was only equaled by the abysmal low I felt listening to him discuss problems that existed in the poetry industry itself.

“We call it PO Biz, because there’s no money to make in it. Some poets are successful in making a living on publishing their collections of poetry, or editing other collections of poetry, but for the most part its rough getting by.” Singer said as he slung about the last bits of croutons of his salad through puddles of Caesar dressing.

It is truly difficult for young poets to sustain their writing lifestyle when the simple fact is that sales for books of poetry rank among the lowest for revenue. And when a book of poetry sells well, often times the author is a cross-over artist who is using their celebrity status to sell their poetry (Think Jewel). And while demand for poetry is waning with the increasing popularity of mainstream media and heavily advertised literature, the number of students of poetry is on the rise.

“What is making it more difficult is the sheer number of schools now offering [Masters in Fine Arts] Degrees. Compared to just ten years ago, you’ve got dozens more school specializing in poetry MFA’s. There are too many poets.”

Singer continued, his tone becoming a bit reticent and his posture slumping about around his empty plate of salad dressing.

“I’ve held other jobs to support myself while writing, like right now I’m teaching part time at Hunter College. It’s not that I don’t like teaching, it’s just I want to be able to write full time. Plus, most writing programs only pay adjunct teachers a couple thousand dollars for a semester of work, and offer very few full time positions.

Singer brings into focus the life for many young writers- especially poets. While the need for writing continued to proliferate with larger markets, more media outlets, the desire for literature continues to wane.

“The money is in jobs like grant writing, or technical writing for digital cameras and cell phones. I don’t want to do that.”

Sean Singer Walks Fast
Opting for a fuller meal of pasta and garlic bread, my legs felt somewhat gelatinous as I tried to keep up with Sean Singer as we walked north to Audrey’s, where he will read in less than 17 minutes.

“Sorry we have to rush, I lost track of time, and we have to walk a few blocks.” He said barely looking back I was trying not to pull a quadriceps while keeping his pace.

After a rushed walk twelve blocks to the northeast, we arrived to a packed crowd, eagerly anticipating a reading from five young poets. Singer offers me a handshake and asks me if there is a poem of his he’d like me to read. I said Old Record, because I loved its musical quality.

I sat down with my pint and listened to the poets who preceded Singer, all demonstrating exactly why I love poetry; its originality and beauty. No two are alike, and each one creates a brand new universe within your head.

Purchase Discography By Sean Singer from More of Singer’s work can be read @


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