A few years ago I saw on social media that an acquaintance, who is an award-winning poet, drove taxis, Lyft, and Uber in New York City. Always interested in how artists earn their livings, I asked if he intended to use his experiences in his poetry. He did not think so then, but things change. Now he has published many such individual poems in journals and is shopping the completed manuscript with book publishers. I asked if he would talk here about the intersection of his work and art, and he graciously agreed.
Sean Singer is the author of Discography (Yale University Press, 2002), which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition and the Norma Farber First Book Award; Honey & Smoke (Eyewear Publishing, 2015); and two chapbooks, Passport and Keep Right on Playing Through the Mirror Over the Water (both from Beard of Bees Press).
Sean is the recipient of a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. He earned his MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, and his Ph.D. in American Studies from Rutgers-Newark.
The Common Reader: Hey, Sean. How did you come to drive—as a poet, if that has anything to do with anything? And how is it going?
Sean Singer: I began driving the taxi because when I finished my Ph.D. I couldn’t get a job teaching, or doing research, or anything. It was kind of a “Plan Z,” but it turned out I like driving and know my way around the city well, so I’ve stuck with it for four years. I’ve done lots of different kinds of work in my life, and in some ways, this is less exploitative than working as an adjunct for a big university. The expenses of the job are high: there’s the car, the commercial taxi insurance, the gas, the maintenance of the car, including washing it, and so on. The advantage is that my schedule and time are my own, so there’s a certain freedom that can’t be gotten elsewhere.
TCR: What is a typical day?
SS: I wake up at 6:00 and make my children’s lunches and breakfasts, and mine. After the school buses pick them up I drive from my village in the Hudson Valley, in the northern part of Westchester, to New York City (it’s about 35 miles) and try to get a trip going into the city, or to one of the three airports. I usually drive for about five hours then get back for when the school buses bring them home. Then I make them snacks, help with homework, and cook dinner, etc. Then the day is over and I do it again the next day.
TCR: I am interested in your perceptions and mental drafting. Can they be turned off? Or is the job stressful and exhausting? Do you jot things down? Voice-record? Wait ‘til you get home?
SS: No, it can’t be turned off. I do keep a little notebook, but I’ve never tried voice recording. My process for all my books has been to read and think-through what I wanted to make, and spend several years doing that. Then I usually write the entire thing all at once. Then, of course, I revise. The job can be stressful because it can be physically dangerous. Driving is only about 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental; so the driving itself requires complete focus, especially when other peoples’ lives are involved. But, unlike teaching, at the end of the day there are no emails to answer, no meetings to attend, no bosses to please, and no one to be responsible for; also it gives me lots of time to think and brood, so it’s good for making poems.
TCR: When did you know you were working on a book?
SS: I think after about three years of driving, I started making the poems. I think the challenge was figuring out what the form would be. For me, form in poetry is the main thing. The content in poetry is secondary. When I was vexed with the form problem for the book, Yusef Komunyakaa suggested I read Joy Williams’s book of short fiction, 99 Stories of God, and that turned out to be the “breakthrough” I needed.
TCR: Where have the poems been taken so far?
SS: Many have appeared, or will soon appear, in Bennington Review, Birmingham Review, The Common, Copper Nickel, The Literary Review, The Cortland Review, Memorious, Otoliths, Rascal, The Southampton Review, and Waxwing. I’ve sent the manuscript to a handful of contests, so now it’s a waiting game. It’s not unlike a Victorian wedding night, and I’ve been very anxious about the whole thing.
TCR: Has driving changed your poetry any? Will you stick with it for now?
SS: I have mixed feelings about driving; on one hand, it gave me so much material with which to make 70 or so poems; on the other hand, my experience teaching and education are completely wasted. Also, now that the book is done, I’ve really been feeling internal and external pressure to do something else. But it seems like the teaching job I wanted my whole life and trained so many years to do can’t or won’t happen, so I don’t know.
This book is in some ways the opposite of my previous book, Honey & Smoke. That book had long forms and long lines; this book has short poems. That book was oblique and dense; this book is clear and straightforward. That book went out of its way to avoid the first-person singular; this book is all first-person and the speaker is much more vulnerable. I decided at some point to do something completely different rather than be tempted to repeat myself.