The Country Dog Review
Sean Singer

Zahra Marie Darby interviews Sean Singer

This interview was conducted at Settepani in Harlem
on July 15, 2009

Zahra Marie Darby:  The first day we met Yusef Komunyakaa was the guest poet at Rutgers-Newark Writing Series. After I read Taboo: The Wishbone Trilogy (part 1) and the collection Neon Vernacular I became fascinated with his way of connecting a local and historic aesthetic in a single poem.  You have known Yusef for about 15 years now. Tell me when you first met him.

Sean Singer:  When I was a freshman in college I was always writing poetry, but I didn’t know anything about what I was doing. You had to submit your work to various workshops as a prerequisite so I found his book Copacetic in the bookstore. I submitted my work. He admitted me to his poetry workshop. That was about 1993 or 1994. He was the first person who told me poetry was something to which I could devote my life.

ZMD:   You have said that Komunyakaa is a personal influence for you and Etheridge Knight is a spiritual influence. I find that Etheridge Knight has been through a lot in his life obviously with drugs and women. It seems like he has a vessel that I don’t have in my poetry. Do you feel like you are writing the poems that you want to be writing? Do you feel you have the audacity and nerve? To me his poems inspire a pre-Obama audacity of hope.

SS:   First about Etheridge Knight, I have always found him interesting and appealing, and I really admired his work. Around 1995 in Indianapolis there was a celebration of his work and I met his mother there. She was probably in her 80’s at the time. I think it’s a kind of bravery. I think bravery is one of the most important qualities that a writer needs. You need to have a kind of bravery to be able to harness the language that’s required.

ZMD:   Both of these are Black poets who are highly recognized with music—blues and jazz. You are a poet who has a jazz aesthetic. I find that these influences bring up the question of how Sean Singer sees himself. Are you a jazz poet? A Jewish poet? Are you an academic poet in the sense that you have one terminal degree already, an MFA, and now you are seeking a PhD? For example, I asked Komunyakaa at the Writing Series about identity, and he said he doesn’t feel a responsibility to write as a Black poet because when he walks into a room it’s obvious.

SS:   I think labels are meant to limit you if not kill you. I also think if you attach those labels, whatever they are, prior to writing you’re not going to write something that’s surprising. I’ll let the critics worry about that. Jazz or questions of identity can be thought of as tools that can open doors as opposed to limiting or shutting down choices.
     In a similar way, I feel like when I walk in a room people can immediately see that I’m Jewish. Writing is somehow a way to become closer to language or thought in a way that provides more freedom than I have with physical limitations or limitations related to identity. The search for identity is pointless; we can use language as a way to learn what we are.

ZMD:   In an email I said I’m interested in the new book and how a book of poems is different from famous poems—the kinds that are often anthologized. You said, “A book of poems is like a poem in itself, one with some kind of emotional arc or trajectory. The poems are in conversation. Poems in an anthology reflect the editor’s tastes and whether or not they had to pay rights for the poem to appear.” My question is about the first collection, Discography. If it was one poem, what was the occasion? If it was a conversation, what was revealed?

SS:   All of those poems were written over many years, and then I imposed the arc or structure on top of it. It’s not that I had the idea and then wrote poems to fit. That never even occurred to me. It was the opposite. I never knew it would turn out to be a book. It turned out that apparently I had certain obsessions that revealed themselves in a variety of poems that I thought were unrelated.

ZMD:   That’s very revealing. Being in an MFA program with my thesis year coming up several students have said I want to write a thesis that’s about some concept they dreamt. Cornelius Eady wrote Brutal Imagination, which is a strong concept. Do you think the concept came later?

SS:   He probably got the idea to write in that voice. It seems like it’s very malleable and that allowed him to address or speak of a deeper self rather than as Cornelius Eady the poet, etc. The same way I use the Singer character in Discography.

ZMD:   On to Least Divisible. Six weeks ago you cut the current manuscript 20% and changed the name from Carbon Chain to Least Divisible. All of the poems have been published, and I imagine you let many people read the manuscript as it is right now and how it was before. I want to know what kinds of feedback have you received and what do you do with feedback? Is the process different for a collection versus individual poems?

SS:   I sent this manuscript in both versions to publishers more than 50 times. I cut a lot of it just to try to keep it alive—add news poems, take poems out, instead of having this stagnant thing sitting there. Feedback, in a way, is artificial. If I ask friends whose opinions I trust or value I’m never sure if they are lying to me; if they offer praise because they want to keep me happy. Really feedback is not that useful. I had a teacher, Carol Frost, who said that if you ever receive feedback that’s more critical than you would give yourself, you’re in the wrong business. So there’s nothing anyone can say that hasn’t occurred to me before if something isn’t working.

ZMD:   If feedback is artificial, then what are decisions for revisions based on? How do you convince yourself that friend A had a point?

SS:   I have a reader whose opinion I value and she said cut the last few lines of this poem, and I did. I can always put it back. I don’t care, and I think maybe she was right; The title wasn’t working or the lines weren’t doing anything. The same thing goes for cutting out entire poems in the manuscript. Even if they were published I figured it didn’t fit or this was part of some other thing.

ZMD:   The first poem in the current manuscript is “Richard Pryor” and it actually precedes section one. What is the significance of this poem’s position? In your first collection, Discography, you had a poem titled “Poem with Groucho Marx Refrains” and I’m wondering what you’re doing with these famed comedians. How are they giving meaning or energy to the poem and how did these poems come about?

SS:   It’s a good question. Well, first of all Robert Pinsky has a poem called “Poem with Refrains.” In that poem the refrains are lines from Renaissance poets. So I thought I could write the same type of thing but I used Groucho Marx, a different kind of authority. And that poem was recently in an anthology so it’s been kind of included in this category you were talking about. Part of the reason that poem worked is it has this kind of call and response of something that’s very sort of grave and serious, and even pokes fun at itself for being so serious. Originally in my first version, [“Richard Pryor”] didn’t precede section one. Someone did a reordering of it for me and she put it there.

ZMD:   Why Richard Pryor? The three quotes at the beginning of the book are about suicide and self-destruction among other things, which I can see in Pryor’s life and in some ways in the poem. Talk about your decision to use highly recognizable names. The first collection had a lot of famous jazz names, too.

SS:   Ironically, in that poem the voice that is speaking is not a comic voice, but a more tragic voice. And I have several poems in there that address writers who had self-destructive or suicidal impulses or did kill themselves. I think maybe it’s a way to find a root to this bravery—to address things that I wouldn’t normally want to address.
     The way a novel has a cast of characters, they are sort of reflections of the poet as a person, as a kind of imagined projection. They are ways of talking about impulses and desires in an indirect way. They are ways also of interacting with history, and a way to have a political manifestation without the first person singular. It’s also a way to make a hybrid form of lyric poetry and something like creative non-fiction or essays. In those pieces of Camus and Kafka nothing is fabricated.

ZMD:   Talking about poems with famous people and hybrid forms brings up the question of what makes a poem a poem. The lines in the poem about Franz Kafka and the one about Albert Camus are from margin to margin of the page—we call these prose poems. Both poems are over a page long (the poem on Kafka is much longer)—we call these long poems. The content of both poems is mostly biographical—we call these people poems. When we look at those two poems we know they are not following a lyrical mode. They’re narrative. Why are they poetry? Why not write an essay about Kafka?

SS:  I think of them as poems because of the metaphorical leaps and the imaginative jumps that they can make, and the kind of passionate syntax. That Kafka piece was originally a creative non-fiction essay, but it was published as fiction. They thought it was fiction. But I really think of it as poetry now.  I think it’s a challenge to try to create lyricism within very long lines or even in prose paragraphs. I think this hybridity of form—prose and poetry, and essay and non-fiction, and lyricism, etc.; that form in itself addresses the content. In other words, it’s a physical manifestation of unifying or connecting these streams of information that I’m writing about.

ZMD:   By far most poems in collections today are written in free verse, though some are written in forms like villanelles or pantoums to kind of show the poet’s chops or range. How important is freedom in poetry and jazz on the way to establishing order? For example, how important is freedom to describe an idea in a poem or to create a baseline in jazz?

SS:   I think poetry lets you increase your freedom because it lets you write about whatever you want, and you can revise it so that you can get it exactly so, whereas in your own actual life you don’t get to make anything perfect. Order is imposed on chaos and freedom, I think, is an impression you can get to by using prosody, or not using prosody, or mixing them in different ways. It’s not that writing in free verse is a requirement of freedom. In fact, imposing some kind of form is usually a better way to be freer not the way to limit freedom, but to increase it. That’s the reason people use those forms.

ZMD:   You have said you write in an organic form.  I find that to mean if a poem is about love then love should be reenacted in the poem. It can take shape in the poem by its qualities being present versus writing about love. Talk about your organic verse, which I think may be what we call free verse in twenty or thirty years based on your description in this interview.

SS:    Sometimes I give an assignment, which is think of someone you know well who either bores you or irritates you or even disgusts you, and then write something that increases your affection for the person. So in other words the act of writing it increases your affection. A lot of people of our generation, my generation grew up being taught tolerance, but to tolerate something you’re beginning with a position of intolerance. A more manageable or more useful idea is a question of empathy.

ZMD:   I agree. For example, the term post-black is very popular and though I don’t think it’s clear exactly what’s meant by it I think people who use it are saying we live in a more tolerant world. But you make an interesting point because if, for example, society has to ignore my race to accept me then that’s not empathy that’s tolerance. Do you think it’s a more tolerant world?

SS:   I think even though Obama was elected, which was the greatest thing that ever happened; it doesn’t mean that, “Ok our troubles are over.” That’s just naïve. You can see this in the confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor. The right, while they are accusing her of being racist, never miss an opportunity to reveal their own racism. They’re talking about her, but they’re really talking about themselves.

ZMD:   What do you think about advice poets give about poetry? Poets often have manifestos; I think of Marianne Moore’s prose “Humility, Concentration, and Gusto,” which praises those three qualities in poetry. A poet’s prose about poetry is very interesting to me because it becomes a matter of if the poet follows her own advice. What is your advice to Sean Singer? Do you say to yourself don’t be cliché? Do you say something to yourself against a tendency you have that you abhor?

SS:   Never repeat yourself. I think this is one of the most important problems—when I was first starting I had a certain freedom that I had to replicate now. Because when I was first starting I wasn’t being published. No one was reading what I was writing. I could write whatever I wanted however I wanted. Whereas now I can wrongly feel external and internal pressures to be a certain thing or to write a certain way. If that happens it’s very bad because already I’m limiting what it is I can or can’t do prematurely based on things that have nothing to do with writing. So I have to try to recreate the situation that I was in when I was first writing when there was absolutely no consequence to what I was doing.  My desire to be published has nothing to do with writing. When I confront the empty piece of paper and I have to write a new poem, it’s bad to think about all of those things—reviews and magazines and editors, and so on and so forth. That’s why I say when I first started I wasn’t worried about those things. In a way the pleasure and the information I got from writing was more valuable than it is now. So I think it would be an easy trap to try to repeat things that I did before, but it wouldn’t be creativity. I would become a stenographer, which to me has no meaning. I would rather write something fresh and new that was worse than write something better that was repeating something I already did.



 Zahra Marie Darby is a graduate student at Rutgers-Newark in the MFA program (poetry) and a part-time lecturer in their Writing Program. She received her B.A. from Spelman College (2004) where she was among student contributors and editors that helped poet Sharan Strange launch Spelman's online literary journal (l-i-n-k-e-d). Most recently, Zahra lived and worked in Atlanta, reporting for a bi-weekly newspaper whose mission is to inform and connect members of the African Diaspora.

Sean Singer’s first book Discography won the 2001 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, selected by W.S. Merwin, and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. He is also the recipient of a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He lives in Harlem, New York City.