Interview by Tiffany Troy
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 www.seansingerpoetry.com. Today in the Taxi is about his experiences driving a taxi in New York City.
Tiffany Troy: How does your first poem, “One-Tenth,” set the reader up to read the collection that follows?
Sean Singer: It introduces a lot of the themes or threads of the book. The first poem teaches you how to read it, or what to expect. So the poem tells you that there’s danger, unpredictability. It introduces the Lord character. You’re introduced in the middle of an unpredictable, unknowable environment and it shows porousness of the city landscape and then the enclosure of the car where you just have no idea what state of mind the person entering into that space is going to be.
Tiffany Troy: That’s fascinating as a lifelong New Yorker because the enclosure of the taxi cab itself is mobile, and travels to different places.
The poems really does great justice to the diversity and the myriad experiences and socioeconomic statuses of the city by looking at people the speaker picks up. You’re able to capture so well the conversations, as well as the screaming, of course.
Can you describe the process in writing this collection? You obviously drove a taxi for a number of years. How does that shape the way the collection is written?
Sean Singer: First of all, I did more than 8000 trips, which is a lot. Everything I described happened exactly the way that I describe it. I was very careful to stick to the truth and reality of what happened.
The purpose of Uber and Lyft is not to have a taxi service. The purpose of it is to have a data collection service. The product that they’re selling is the passenger. They know your name, your credit card number, your address, where you’re going, how much you spend who you’re with. It’s actually a voluntary invasion of privacy on all sorts of levels. The rideshare companies keep a record of these trips in a cloud where you’re basically reduced from a person to a set of data points that they can then sell.
The idea of these poems is to restore the human element. You’re witness to people’s lives often at a very difficult moment for a short period of time. The driver’s invisible and is expected to not be aware of what’s happening back there, as if it’s all happening on TV. But then you become witness to all kinds of intimate moments, because of the anonymity of that.
These rideshare companies are not really providing a just a means to get from A to B, it’s much more complicated and sinister than that. Added to which the driver has to absorb or take on all the risk, the danger of driving itself, the insurance, the gas, the damage to the car that the rideshare companies really have no involvement with any of them.
Tiffany Troy: I think you restore the human element and allow us to see the people who are riding the car. In one of your poems you talk about the passenger using the taxi as an ambulance and how it’s like so much cheaper than calling an actual ambulance. Some of these people might not be the most sympathetic characters but is true to memory.
How does the prose poem shape the way in which you create the different prose block?
Sean Singer: A prose poem is a deliberate choice to emphasize and enhance subject matter that purposefully deals with contradiction and tension. The prose poem deals with perception differently from verse in its deliberate lens on the ambivalent, where the prose and the poem are this middle area. It uses the brevity and compression that a lyric poem has but without line breaks, but maintains intensity, the passionate syntax, and compactness of lyric poems.
And for me finding the right form for poem is almost the entire game, the subject matters is less important. When I was trying to figure out the right form, I wanted to increase my knowledge of the poems’ content. The poems are about the city, the blocks, and the turns, and quick trembling and ecstatic voices. The little blocks are like the city’s blocks.
The function of metaphor in a poem is about connecting unrelated things. So it has metaphorical power and it also has a metabolic power, which is physical and involves the ear and the breath. I actually experienced in my body every single one of those poems. And finally there is metamorphic power, which is about the transformation of the self.
When you’re driving eight 910 hours a day in New York City, you have to be aggressive but also calm, or attentive and defensive. I was driving for three years or so, before I wrote anything. So had to think, am I writer, or failed academic, a taxi driver, or what. So the poems are filled with all these contradictions because the job is so contradictory. You’re sitting but you’re moving forward. You’re calm, but you’re assertive. You’re looking ahead, but you’re talking to the person behind you. You’re listening, but you’re actually invisible and not actually involved. I wanted to convey the spontaneity and the inevitability of these bizarre interactions, to combine the immediacy of experience which I felt in my body and the electricity of language.
I feel like the prose poem is a way to contain all of those oppositional impulses.
Tiffany Troy: I feel like it’s so true that to be a New York professional, you really need to be super assertive to get where you need to go in the shortest amount of the time. You have to be friendly but not too friendly to not cross any boundaries.
In your collection, you’re the voyeur but you’re also perceiving and judging the people riding the taxi as much as they are judging you in terms of how much they’re going to tip you. I felt what you described as the prose poem’s ability to hold contradictions acutely when you bring in conversations or snippets from Kafka. The prose form allowed you to do so without having the references feel out of place.
Who are some of your literary influences and how did they shape your thinking while you are driving and shape the way in which the speaker sees the world?
Sean Singer: Kafka was a master of expressing alienation, degrees of power and powerlessness, victimization, alienation. Those fragments/ quotations from Kafka are like an alternate GPS that would be an ethical or philosophical guide as I balance and negotiate all of these characters and situations in a job that could be 90% boredom and 10% real danger and terror. Kafka is a way to have a voice that would reflect the porousness of the situation. It’s not my consciousness per se but it’s sort of like a another countervailing force to balance those juxtapositions.
Tiffany Troy: Kafka serves as a foil to the speaker. In one Kafka quote, Kafka was somehow unable to cry and he described it as a human phenomenon he was unable to experience and it points to the contradiction you mentioned in terms of the positionality of the speaker of the poem.
The Lord in some ways functions similarly to Kafka. Why did you gender the Lord she throughout the collection and what do you want the reader to see or get out of this character?
Sean Singer: The Lord has a female voice. That voice allows the reader to bear witness along with the driver. She’s a Lord from the Old Testament because one of the tenets of Judaism is sort of uncertainty or questioning. The poems try to present each of these situations as questions, above all else, rather than judgments. So the relationship between the speaker or the driver and the subjects and often that’s the city itself is a relationship of questions that are not resolved or not answered definitively. The Lord is of voice of empathy but also sometimes she can be vengeful or merciful or indifferent. And since a poem is a public space, it’s a place where collective memory is a kind of expression, and identity is really tied to memory, so I wanted to make poems that showed the connections between the driver’s private world and a shared world with the strangers in the car.
There’s a social justice-seeking impulse in addition to just the aesthetics of the poem. I think it’s a female voice for several reasons. She’s unexpected because most people think of the Lord is like a male or a father figure so she confounds tradition and expectation. It’s also a way of balancing relief and loss because my mother died of a brain tumor actually when I was writing the book, so I feel like this idea of this first female figure is a way to sort of preserve her guidance or belief in me.
Tiffany Troy: I felt you definitely did your mother honor in terms of the Lord as the moral compass and poems as public spaces of social justice.
My next question is related to how your poems are interested in not having definitive answers but in raising questions that are not necessarily resolved or resolvable, much like the hustle and bustle of New York, in the space of a page.
I am wondering if you could speak of moments where the speaker become the big focus of the poem as opposed to the voyeur, like in “Bottomless Flats.”
Sean Singer: The goal with self-driving cars is to completely eliminate the driver. I often felt I was just an extension of the car, just there to get this person to wherever they want to go, and that I’m invisible and not actually a person. Many of the poems have this interiority. I have a lot of social anxiety and I’m very introspective so I would not actually speak, unless I was asked to collect a direct question. But at the same time, I have this interiority that is constantly bouncing off or reacting to whatever is happening back there. It’s New York City so anything can and does happen, but it’s also a range of the human experience: people in pain, people screaming, people committing crimes, people making out, people stressed out, you know. And so it’s just a very strange experience, where the thinking and the brooding meet in this single moment that’s very brief. These poems exist in the atmosphere and you just have to be kind of attentive to when and where they happen and then have the facility with language to sort of capture them before they float away. Out of those 8000 trips, I felt like I picked the ones that felt most like that, if that makes any sense.
Tiffany Troy: I think that definitely makes a lot of sense, like a photographers’ frame. You are trying to capture the most distinct, interesting, characteristic, of the essence of New York through the different prose blocks which as you said are like city blocks, which are so different from Astoria to Brooklyn.
Do you have any closing thoughts, you want to share for your meters.
Sean Singer: In my previous books, I never wrote in the first person. I was always very hesitant to bring the self close to the surface and that way, so this book I deliberately wanted to make more it’s first person, more vulnerable and direct. There’s some risk involved in trying to do that and I just hope that people can understand themselves in this particular moment of the culture or history, and can see the entire human experience in these little tiny moments like even something very small has meaning.
About the interviewer: Tiffany Troy is a critic, translator, and poet.