Prose Poems, Memos, Hybrid Forms All Ride in This Taxi: A Dual Q&A with Sean Singer and Christine Sneed

Sean Singer & Christine Sneed

Christine Sneed: I first met Sean Singer in the late 1990s. I was a poetry student in the MFA program at Indiana University-Bloomington and he was an undergraduate student. One spring semester he was granted permission to enroll in our MFA workshop, and as soon as he shared his first poem with the class, I was struck by how smart, playful, and mature his work was—in a word, precocious but absent any negative connotations. Not long after he graduated from Indiana University, I wasn’t surprised to learn he’d received the Yale Younger Poets Award for his debut collection, Discography.

We’ve kept in touch over the years, and when I heard his third collection, Today in the Taxi, had just been published by Tupelo Press, I got my hands on a copy and read it in one feverish sitting. Sean asked for my forthcoming novel in memos, Please Be Advised, promptly read it, and we began exchanging questions about these two books. Reading Sean’s answers to my questions about Today in the Taxi, I felt a mix of respect, anxiety, and awe. It’s hard enough to be a writer riding the merry-go-round of acceptance and rejection, but while raising a family and trying to continue his work as a poet, Sean drove a cab full-time in New York City for six years—a job that ultimately came to an end when the pandemic began in March 2020.

Sean Singer: Reading Christine Sneed’s fiction is like getting to play around in the motions of her mind: a funny, quick, sharp, exacting, obsessional, affectionate, appreciative mind. Please Be Advised is a story in the form of office memos. It is a hilarious take-down of the corporate memo’s capacity to make controlling speech seem like “free speech.” Through the form of the memo, she creates a community of coworkers, who both conceal and reveal their inner selves in the context of the corporate performance. She shows the inner life of Quest Industries: a place that reflects the hopes and weaknesses of people so surprising and familiar that they are just like us.

This following conversation was conducted via email. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Christine Sneed: The poems in your new collection all begin with “Today in the taxi,” or a close approximate. They’re narrative poems, i.e., they feature characters and a story, but I’d also characterize them as lyric. How did you begin writing them, and do you think of them as a third sort of poem, such as the prose poem?

Sean Singer: For me, finding the right form is more important than finding a subject. I didn’t begin writing the poems until about two or three years into driving. I struggled with figuring out what the best form would be. Yusef Komunyakaa suggested I read Joy Williams’s book 99 Stories of God, which are very short pieces of fiction in little blocks.

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. It uses brevity and compression without line breaks, but maintains the passionate syntax, intensity, and compactness of lyric poems.

When I was seeking a form for my taxi adventures, I wanted to increase my knowledge of the poems’ content. The poems are about the city, its blocks, and turns, quick trembling and ecstatic voices. The little blocks are like the city’s blocks.

The prose poem is an oxymoron—“prose” and “poem” typically describe opposites, so it weighs and questions contradiction well. The form can accommodate wide ranges of perception and expression. It allowed me to express both the immediacy of experience on the level of the body, and the electricity of language. The prose poem matched the rectangular city blocks and the repetitive motion of the car’s moving through them. The form’s contradictions mapped the city’s contradictions: laws and their transgressions; inside and outside; noise and silence; private and public.

This is the first book in which I’ve written in the first person. The poems are more vulnerable and plain spoken than those in my previous books. My move to first person was essential to conveying the truth of this work. I experienced all the trips I describe in the poems in my body; I drove for sometimes eight, nine, ten or more hours per day. I did the driving, lifted the suitcases, handled the money, opened the doors. My muscles carried the stress of guarding the riders’ safe passage through all the city’s hazards: there are cars, trucks, bicycles, horses, people, and objects coming constantly from all directions. I was in accidents, I was hijacked on New Year’s Eve, I felt physically unsafe many times; people were drunk, aggressive, lascivious, hateful, and demanding.

CS: Many of the poems in your new collection relate harrowing stories. Were there others you thought about telling but didn’t? Or are there “Today in the taxi” poems you wrote that didn’t make it into this collection?  

SS: Over the years I made more than 8,000 trips. I had to be judicious in knowing what to include and what to exclude. Some of the memorable moments I didn’t include: an elderly man leaving all his pill bottles and I had to go chase him down; the Russian oligarch on the phone talking to someone about buying a $600 hat. She said, “It’s the perfect daytime hat”; kids throwing up in the car without me getting any kind of tip from the parents; when I was hijacked on New Year’s Eve by a very volatile guy in Crown Heights going to Coney Island. A constant state of danger and unpredictability. There were a few moments when I felt a genuine connection with a passenger but don’t know necessarily how to articulate that.

I believe that poems exist around us, and it is the poet’s job to be attentive to them and then have the craft skills and technical facility to bring them into the physical object called the poem. The ridesharing companies like Uber are not taxi services. They’re tech companies and are in the business of selling data, and the passenger is the data they’re selling: they know your name, address, credit card number, destination, travel companions, habits, and tastes. People happily pay them to sell this information.

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However, all the risk and responsibility: the gas, the insurance, cleaning and maintaining the car, fixing the car, and the physical toll on the body is all on the back of the driver. Uber keeps records of all this data and data about the trips in the cloud. Part of my intention for the book was to reclaim or restore the human stories to these data sets.

We have given over so much of life to the Techno-Utopian Cult, that many people can’t tell fantasy apart from reality. The driver is not an extension of the car and the passenger is not a data point. I would like the poems to be like the taxi’s window, so you could look through and almost see reality.

CS: As you note, all the people in your poems were real, as were the situations you describe. After those six years driving a taxi, how would you say you’ve changed as a writer and as a member of the human race?

SS: I drove from the fall of 2014 until March 2020 when the pandemic started. All of the stories happened exactly the way I describe them. I think I changed in that I better mastered compression, I am more able to accept people for who they are instead of my resting mind being a static mush of judgment and hostility. I’m more able to separate my opinions from my reactions, I’m more able to metaphorically connect my interiority with the immediacy of experience, and add countervailing other voices if I need to.

The period during which I was driving was a time of considerable upheaval in American life—an intensification of culture wars, a rise of totalitarianism—and a time of great loss in my own life. I separated, bought a house, moved, had to suddenly start a new business when COVID started, had to homeschool, and my mother died. All losses trigger all previous losses, so I still haven’t really thought-through most of this.

These poems reflect my living—and thinking—through the problems of this time. Three main themes emerge: what it means to work in the gig economy in a time of sharply intensifying income divide, watching my home of New York City transform through time and history, and charting my relationship to Jewish experience in a time of rising anti-Semitism.

One of the tenets of Judaism is uncertainty, or questioning, and I believe these poems try to present the situations described as questions above all else. The relationship between the speaker and the subjects of the poems—often the city itself—is one of the questions. These questions are often not resolved or answered definitively.

The time while I was driving, 2014-2020, corresponds not only to neoliberalism’s increase in the gig economy, but also the rise of fascism, which also meant a huge increase in anti-Semitic crimes. The Anti-Defamation League identified 2,107 anti-Semitic incidents in 2019, an increase of 12 percent from the previous year. That’s the highest number since the ADL began tallying hate crimes in 1979. The handful of times when I experienced anti-Semitic passengers was harrowing; I had to get us both safely to the destination, but felt like physical harm could come to me. I kept a screwdriver in the console next to me.

I put everything I know into the book, and I still feel I don’t understand any of it.

CS: Music and musicians often feature in your poems–these new ones and others in your two prior collections, Discography and Honey & Smoke. I remember you also wrote concert reviews for the Bloomington Voice when we were students at Indiana University. Will you address a little here about the influence of live (and recorded) music on your writing?

SS: Each of my books has a set of music that was essential to its making. Today in the Taxi’s playlist includes Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa and “Fleurette Africaine” by Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach.

Poems begin with listening, so music is part of a poem’s capacity to move words beyond their inert stasis. Music gives poems a potential to control, destroy, and create social institutions because it goes directly to the body. Music gives poems the freedom to engage not just the cerebral, but the respiratory system, too.

I listen to music all day, enough so that I can internalize the sounds. Jazz is spontaneous composition, and I would like to make a poem that feels simultaneously spontaneous, yet inevitable.

CS: You’ve written a nonfiction manuscript, if memory serves. Would you talk a little about this book’s subject and if it shares characteristics with your poetry collections?

SS: My nonfiction manuscript is a version of my dissertation, which was a kind of cultural history of Newark, New Jersey, which experienced a riot/uprising in July 1967 where the state police, national guard, and US Army was called in to invade the city. I found a handful of artists from Newark in different genres and wrote about how their art could explain what happened to Newark since then. So, I looked at Philip Roth and Amiri Baraka; a photographer, Helen Stummer; a jazz musician, Grachan Moncur III, and the poet Lynda Hull.

Writing prose is really about analysis, or taking apart; poetry is about metaphor, which is about putting together. So, they engage different impulses. This book’s subject, though, is both a close reading and celebration of some of the creative work I wrote about in my poems. It’s also a critique of the decades-long systems of white supremacy which destroyed Newark to begin with.

I became increasingly interested in hybrid forms: anti-poems, essay-poems, nonfiction poems, and prose poems, also long lines and horizontal energy in a poem. My experiments in creating and destroying genres was a way for me to reconcile my doctoral work and my creative work.

SEAN SINGER: Now let’s talk about Please Be Advised. Its form is a series of corporate memos/emails. The form allows you to draw attention to the characters’ quirky imperfections and obsessions, and also to the ways corporate language masks the childishness of their self-seriousness.

What do you think about the way format in a text or in speech is limited and made uniform; the arrangement of its presentation, and therefore, the psychological interface of that information? Are these forms meant to stifle the human voice? Are they intended merely to serve the corporate interest? What other things does this form do for you?

CHRISTINE SNEED: I think you sum up so much about Please Be Advised here: “The form allows you to draw attention to the characters’ quirky imperfections and obsessions, and also the ways corporate language masks the childishness of their self-seriousness.” I’ve worked in at least six different offices since I began working for a wage in adolescence in the late ‘80s. My first job, after babysitting, was part-time secretarial work for a collection agency; I think my hourly pay was $3.60. I was glad for those paychecks, and remember one stretch of many summer hours when my semi-monthly check totaled more than a hundred dollars—I felt incredibly flush. (I’ve since thought at length about Chomsky’s view that selling off parcels of one’s life for an hourly wage is a highly problematic system. I know he’s right.)

I’ve worked in the offices of colleges and non-profits too, and in each setting, corporate or not, I realized pretty quickly that the atmosphere in every office was largely dependent on the boredom, the frustrations, and the egos of the people in charge. Many of my coworkers (and bosses) were nice people and pleasant to work with, but I think we were all, to some degree, flattened by the simple fact we were required to be in the office at a specific time, five (or more) days each week, which can eventually become dispiriting, perhaps especially if you’re a writer or an artist (although no matter what one’s vocation, I think many of us suffer when required to sit in the same office for a certain number of hours, week after week, year after year, in order to earn a wage that sometimes barely allows us to pay our bills—or in some cases, not), and feel our talents and interests have nothing to do with filing invoices or attending meetings about how most efficiently to squeeze more money out of people.

The memo form does serve the corporate interest, sure—most notably perhaps in its easy legibility. There is an art to writing them. (I used to teach undergraduate courses in business writing—a lot of them, and I enjoyed teaching them, frankly, because writing an effective memo was something you could teach specifically, unlike how to write a memorable poem or story, which is so much more subjective and also depends much more on the alchemy of imagination and experience than the “bad news” memo does.)

The memo, like the poem (I was a poetry MFA and this novel shares more genes with a poetry collection than my other books do), thrives on silences, white space, and its implicit (or explicit) acknowledgment of the reader/recipient.

SS: Please Be Advised evokes the tension between people’s personal problems that they’re expected to conceal in the workplace, for example, the section on what kinds of shoes are permitted on which days, which becomes absurd. In what ways do you think the corporate, homogenized doublespeak can be critiqued through the ways your characters choose to conceal or reveal themselves?

CS: I’m not sure if I ever thought of this book specifically as a critique of the doublespeak that is sometimes a feature of corporate office culture, but I recently heard something Larry David said about his character on Curb Your Enthusiasm that summed up what I was doing in this novel with its many malcontents, misfits, and miscreants: David said that his fictional persona gets to say all the things you’re not supposed to say in real life.

I realized this was exactly my intention with most of these memos: under the guise of “proper” corporate speech, my characters, perhaps especially Quest Industries’ president Bryan Stokerly Esq., were saying all the revealing, rude, potentially ruinous things you’re never supposed to say in the office. Stokerly makes clear on many occasions what his weaknesses are and what he really thinks of his colleagues. The other characters do the same—sometimes inadvertently, sometimes not.

SS: Since memo literally means “it must be remembered,” do you think this method of communication creates dynamic and efficient change within the organization, and therefore makes your treatment of them ironic? To what extent are you cataloging memories?

CS: That’s really interesting. I’ve never looked up the definition of memo. As for what the memo does in the context of this novel, I do think it creates dynamic change within Quest Industries, although some of it is far from positive! What each memo does, I hope, is demonstrate the sort of ungovernable interior landscape of each character, their uncensored thoughts and unseemly behavior innocently laid out for others to ingest—with no one appearing to understand there could be consequences for the eyebrow-raising details these characters reveal.

And I was very much cataloging memories—the IRS plot thread, for one, is dependent upon these memos as the artifacts/evidence of a foundering company’s multi-faceted quirks and ongoing folly.

SS: Your book reinvents the memo to allow your characters to be as expressive, difficult, and real as they want. In the way the typical office memo is like censorship—trying to obliterate speech, or at least autonomous speech—your characters live within the form to become themselves. How do you balance these apparent contradictions?

CS: I took it as my writerly mandate to upend both the self-imposed and corporate-imposed censorship that prevails in most (all?) traditional offices. Larry David’s fictional persona’s MO to compulsively thought-broadcast really was the guiding ethos for this book, and once I was firmly in its grip, that really opened up the collective story I was telling.

The only thing that mattered was the variety of experiences and the individual voices of my characters. I wanted this book to be wide open, i.e., full of believable but generally inadvisable commentary emerging from the mouths of the characters, especially disgraced coroner/Quest Industries office manager Ken Crickshaw Jr. and President Bryan Stokerly Esq., who are Please Be Advised’s most frequently recurring characters.

SS: I notice echoes of Lucia Berlin, Grace Paley, and other popular culture such as the movie Office Space and The Office. In your book, you allow most of your characters to tell their stories within the story. For example, when Brenda Priebus tells about hooking up with a male stripper [in her “Story of Personal Triumph,” examples of which appear throughout the novel, penned by different Quest employees.] Even though your book is satirical, you seem to maintain a general affection for these people. How do you do that?

CS: I’m so glad you noticed the affection! I had such a good time writing these characters—I do love them all. I wish the office jobs in my past had featured more nutty souls like the ones in this novel, but I suppose we needed to get our work done and not goof around all the time. When I was first sending out this book, I described it as a novel that examines the anomie and accidental sadness of the corporate office—the fact so many of us are forced to spend the majority of our waking hours at jobs we don’t care much about with people we wouldn’t choose to spend time with if we had any say in the matter.

With this in mind I wanted to explore the absurdity (and inherent despair) of this system by using comedy and hyperbole and the surreal.

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