“The Sharpener: A Third Space for Poetry,” an Interview with Sean Singer

Sean Singer’s first two books are Discography (Yale, 2002)– which won the Yale Younger Poets award, selected by W. S. Merwin — and Honey and Smoke (Eyewear, 2015). His third book, Today in the Taxi, is forthcoming from Tupelo Press in April, 2022. 

Every day for the past few years, I’ve started my day with poems and readings selected by Sean. Last year, Sean moved his daily offerings from Facebook to Substack, under the name The Sharpener — a daily newsletter that helps people “think through poetry.” Sean is one of the most ethically minded poets I know. He has a keen understanding of how neoliberalism has shaped the practice of poetry. Over the years, he has been developing a full-blown social analysis(in the Marxist sense) as it pertains to poetry. I think of Sean as a gadfly, without the noise and buzz that that word connotes. He offers his constant, acute commentary quietly and steadily, from the sidelines. 

I wanted to talk with Sean about The Sharpener, about his forthcoming book, and about the state of poetry today. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation, which was conducted at the end of September, 2021.


Cassandra Cleghorn: Hi Sean. As you know, I’m among your most ardent followers. I want to introduce Tupelo Quarterly readers to The Sharpener, which is celebrating its first anniversary: over 350 daily poetry posts, and over 50 weekly essays. I’m not sure what to call your rich set of offerings. A blog? 

Sean Singer:  I call it a newsletter. I imagine The Sharpener as a digital version of a third space, like a bookstore or a cafe, where people can discover poetry they didn’t know. Every day I post a selection of poetry for free. In addition, once a week, for subscribers, I post a short essay on craft or a variety of subjects relevant to poets. People need good tools. I would like The Sharpener to take the tools of poetry — of emotion, of intellect — and sharpen them, so that the reader comes to know their experience through reading poems. I’ve lived a life of poetry, and I want to offer everything I have for this need.

When Covid started, I lost my job driving a taxi. I’ve been going through a divorce for the last year and a half. So my financial needs made me start thinking about how I’m meant to be as a man, as a worker. I wanted to continue offering the poetry for free every day, but I also wanted to think about how to make some money for myself — rather than enriching Zuckerberg via Facebook. Substack is not innocent of these problems, but it was a way of getting off Facebook during the regime of the former President. The newsletter subscription supplements what I make from my editorial services and occasional teaching. 

This country is in a place of great crisis that most people can’t wrap their heads around. Climate emergency, the pandemic that is now an endemic. Poetry can’t be left up to the university system, which is in crisis. Neoliberal economics have co-opted creativity. We’ve replaced friendship with Facebook, bookstores with Amazon.

Basically, I wanted to reclaim the relationship to poetry, to convene a space that holds a community. My newsletter was an opportunity to make the kind of conversations I wanted to have. I’ve made my own audience.

CC: I so appreciate the daily check-ins you give me every morning. I love how your mind works. Your selections often introduce me to new poets, or to unfamiliar works by poets I already thought I knew. Your combinations are often surprising. For example, Milosz, Eliot, Clifton, Zurita, Wright, Niedecker (September 11, 2021); or Schuyler, Clifton, Trakl, Hass, Rimbaud, Marlis (August 11, 2021). Across centuries and continents, wildly inclusive. Can you say something about your principles of selection? I picture you standing in front of what I imagine is your huge library, letting the spines speak to you. Talk me through your process. 

SS: Well, I do stand before my bookcases, but I actually collate the selections two or three months in advance. Right now, I’ve completed through the end of December. I post in the mornings. Sometimes I follow a loose theme — wolves, or the seaside, for example. Sometimes I share poems I’ve been thinking about. I prefer underrated or overlooked things. I look around my living room and I see this collection of 2000 books of poetry, which is really my life. I reproduce a photo of each poem on the page, to make it seem as though a person is flipping through the books in my personal library. 

CC: Yes, your daily selection does have the feel of “c’mon in, let me show you something.” Sometimes I can see the texture of the paper, or the shadow of your hand on the page. It makes me almost feel the poem, with my hands. For many of us, that tactile experience of the poem is so bound up with what we feel about it. I remember you mentioning to me once that you have a photographic memory. Is that true?

SS: Yes. I often remember a poem by not only what book it is in, but where it’s located on the page, to the left or the right, etc. 

CC: Let’s move to the weekly posts. The subjects of your essays range wildly — from the practical (How to Organize a Poetry Manuscript, Getting Published, Five Things that Prevent People From Writing Better Poems) to the philosophical (Failure, Truth, The Position of the Poet, Politics/Empathy/Change. And always political — at times moving into rant, which I mean in the best sense of the word. Say something about how you devise these topics.

SS: I sit at my kitchen table and I write about things that matter to me. And I discover things about myself. The writing is a way of knowing. Stepping back, I get a sense of myself as a poet and a person. So that the writing is an embodied practice, not an academic exercise.

CC: So an essay on craft does extra service, offering tools for life, for how to get through this time with dignity, if that’s even possible. I think of Kenneth Burke’s phrase “literature as equipment for living.” A great example is your recent meditation upon the “moral injury” that many of us are experiencing right now in the aftermath of Trump You name the costs of those events in our everyday lives, and in our writing: “Poetry is responsible to answer the moral injuries we’ve collectively suffered and are suffering. . . Nothing is more important for poetry now, than to make living and dying important again. To solve and salve moral injury by saying what is real, true, and holy” (September 25, 2021).

What’s it like to hear yourself quoted back to yourself?

SS: [little laugh] I think that’s right. I think a lot of people get into poetry for reasons of self-expression, or for a kind of social capital, and they miss part of the point. Your poetry has to come out of the immediacy of your experience, otherwise what is it for? Poetry must be more than decorative. 

CC: You insist on sincerity — an old-fashioned idea, perhaps — which sometimes feels as though it’s getting lost in the pell-mell competition for prizes, for celebrity, for the bullshit. In your ethos, I hear an echo of an earlier moment, of writers from the 1950s and 1960s, whom you often quote. And from that era, the bebop that is so central to all your thinking. You often reference jazz musicians – to my mind, your reading of Charlie Parker’s 1946 recording of “Lover Man” is worth the price of one year’s subscription to The Sharpener — as a way of talking about artists who are “real” and feel a responsibility to express that reality. What ways of expression ring true to you?

SS:  As poets, we have an important duty to defend the language, when you’re writing and reading, so that the work is not just a product that can be consumed and discarded like every else. I think an ironic or clever stance in poetry is often a way to avoid responsibility. 

CC: As I read your essays, I feel I’m witnessing you in the act of reckoning with yourself. Calling yourself to task as a poet, figure out something difficult. “I’m always renegotiating my relation to poetry,” you write. I appreciate you showing us this. It’s not always pretty. For example, your relationship to the Yale Younger Poets prize, and to the phenomenon of prizes more generally (December 19, 2020). That piece was an attack on what many people have come to think of as the natural terrain of the poetry business.

SS: Yes. Part of the reason for that is that there really is no market for poetry. There’s a very small audience. And so the response by poets is a kind of insularity, or grandiosity — maybe that’s not the right word . . .

CC: . . . I know what you mean. It seems weird to speak of “grandiosity” about something for which the stakes are so low. . .

SS: Right. But I think these things are related. Because poetry is not something that can be sold as a commodity. And very few people care what’s being said through poetry in respect to politics. Very few people read closely. So that the political role of poetry is always adversarial. People often encounter poetry as a kind of separate existence. And it’s not like we can have a union. So the reaction of poets is often defensive: self-aggrandizement, ego, self-preoccupation, paranoia. I believe we can have a much more expansive relation to poetry. 

CC:  You’re a good model for this. You occasionally bring your own poetry into the weekly essays, using a detailed analysis of the poem to illustrate the topic at hand. When you do this, it always feels necessary, not at all gratuitous (e.g. “Oh, by the way, I have a book coming out next year with Tupelo Press”). You model that one can share one’s own poetry without it being an attempt to upon yourself more fame or notice. If you did this on Facebook, it would be like: “how many likes is Sean going to get for sharing this publication or prize?” Instead, you’re sharing the poem for itself, couched, as it were, in its relevance. 

SS: Yes, there’s a myth, a misunderstanding. The poet is not an important person. There will always be another poet. It’s the poem. No matter how much attention somebody gets, it will never be enough. Capitalism insists on competition, with no regard to peoples’ lives. Its central tenet is that some lives are more important than others. That’s why we have vaccine hesitancy, that’s why Haitians are being whipped on horseback, that’s why we don’t have a healthcare system. And so on, and so forth. So, if our starting position is that the poem can be a collective engagement or conversation, rather than an expression of individualistic, proprietary self-absorption, I think everything will be better off.

Whenever someone gets attention in poetry or gets a prize in poetry, it’s good for poetry as a whole. It lifts up the whole thing. People are missing the point. You have to give something to poetry to recognize what it has given you. To make it all about solipsism is a symptom of a much bigger problem that is outside of poetry.

CC: The more we talk, the more I see that your forthcoming book, Today in the Taxi, grows out of these ideas, and brings them home. This set of prose poems grows out of your experience as a taxi driver in the city.  “I moved the city around the city,” you write. You meditate upon your experience as driver, and upon the car itself, which moves along the asphalt, and upon the conversations in the back seat, catching a glimpse of yourself in the rear view mirror. The book creates an unbelievably rich set of metaphors through which to think about your role as poet. As driver and poet, you ferrying people around. Where you want to bring your riders/readers?

SS: Well, first of all, the ideas for The Sharpener came out of the writing of the book, not the other way around. The ride-sharing services made getting from place to place almost a game, how to find the cheapest ride, subsidized by venture capital. But there are hidden costs. The drivers’ bodies do the work, the drivers assume all the risk and responsibility. The other part of it pertains to the passengers. Uber has your credit card info, your address, where you’re going and with whom, how much you spend, and so on. It’s not about transportation, it’s about surveillance capitalism, the gathering of data. As a rider, you’re paying them, but you are always also what they are selling. Through this system, the passengers and the drivers are changed from persons into data that is commoditized, and sold at great profit. I think of it this way: that the ride share companies have a parallel book to mine in the cloud, where each of these trips is stored as data, but I’ve transferred the data into poems. So on one level, my book aims to restore passengers and driver to personhood.

Of course, I also try to show how quirky and strange and idiosyncratic people are. There are poems all around us, often in mundane situations, but you have to be ready to recognize them.

The other part of it is that I, as driver, always assume a risk — cabdriving is unsafe. But the other risk I assume in the book is that I’m writing more vulnerably by writing in my own voice, so that I can convey the immediacy of my experience, its dangers and surprises and meanings. 

CC: Indeed. The book makes vivid your own vulnerability, at the hands of irrational or drunk people. You say at one point that you always carry a screwdriver with you in the car. Do you think being a poet is dangerous?

SS: Huh. That’s an interesting question. I think poetry requires a certain amount of danger, in that you’re living at the edge of reality. Most people are kind of insulated from reality. But I think poems really come from going to the edges or the very ends of experience, and ask us to be conscious of that reality and to talk about it with as much clarity as we can get. There’s a cost to being afraid, to lying about your own experiences. That’s where the danger is.