Sean Singer: Empathic Questioning in Joyful, Playful, Precise Poems

Sean Singer
BY Ian Catmur

SEAN SINGER made a strong debut with Discography in 2002, which was selected by W.S. Merwin for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. In the same year, the work garnered the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. Since then, his jazz-influenced and experimental turns of language and landscapes have continued to highlight some of his signature poems.

Singer, who was born in Guadalajara, Mexico in 1974, grew up in Florida and graduated from Washington University. His mentor, Yusef Komunyakaa, is one of the first inspiring anchors in his early poetry life. His recent new work has been published in diverse print and online journals such as New England Review, Guernica, Salmagundi, Drunken Boat, Anti-, and From the Fishouse.

Residing in New York with his wife and daughter, he presently teaches at Barnard College while pursuing a PhD in American Studies at Rutgers-Newark.

Poetry is clearly not an intellectual exercise or discourse for you; you strike me as a writer who goes for and decides by strong instincts or energies, be they impulsive or not. Am I wrong?

Poetry is neither an academic exercise nor a specific repertoire, but a way of life. At the same time, I don’t think I need to express my intellectual questions about poetry in the poems. When I’m writing, however, I don’t think about this: the best poems are created by both the writer and the reader. I guess I do prefer strong instincts and energies. My friend, CM Burroughs, read my new manuscript and described a male psyche in solitude/in love/in praise — who is also at some point in the process of turning its back and turning into the self. She saw a masculinity that, for its own survival, does not want to be broken into. Even in Kafka, she said, the voice is on guard against everything, even the female body, so much so that what I see is a man so invested in his own safety that he constructs his self to be what he thinks is indivisible.

Tell me, how much of your empathy have you stretched via the craft of writing? You’ve written a few effective persona poems of the famous and the unknown.

Empathic questioning is vital to writing, in my view. Poetry does not proceed according to the scientific method, but by another kind of inquiry. Empathy manifests itself in poems through subject matter, but also through form and process. It’s often thought that when students or beginning writers choose vague or general or abstract language instead of specific or particular or concrete language that this is a technical problem. I think it’s an ethical problem. Because the student hasn’t taken a stand on X or Y issue, and is unsure of her feelings about it, she selects imprecise words. Writers feel passionately about their language and must take responsibility one way or another for those choices. Yusef Komunyakaa said, “As soon as you sit down to write a poem, you’re making a political statement.”

Has your leap to the hybridised genre of writing lent a performative reading aesthetics that you did not anticipate during the phase of creation? If so, did they violate your expectations, or… ?

I think the hybrid form does enhance the performance, though that might have more to do with rhythm than with combining genres. Genre distinctions are intended to offer formal limitations for writers, not to liberate them. My Kafka piece, which is a piece of nonfiction, was published as fiction, but I feel it’s really a poem. Probably all poems will benefit from being read aloud. The body is an amplifier and the ear is an editor.

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