Poetry about being a taxi driver in New York
Collection of poetry by Sean Singer, Today in the Taxi, could easily be described as a vivid portrait of ridesharing in New York in the years leading up to the pandemic. At bottom, however, these poems read like unaddressed letters sent to help us navigate a troubling modern world.
While driving a taxi in New York for six years, Singer is the victim of a carjacking, left a baby in his car, drives a nearly dying young man, stiffens up, gets scolded, flirts and cries, and drives a few celebrities. What carries it through is also what makes this book go beyond a compilation of anecdotes and a meaningful book for our time: Singer’s lyricism unveils a voracious spirit at work, a spirit enriched by books and music and shaped by many types of grief. Singer considers Kafka, Wanda Coleman, Jacqueline du Pré and various jazz musicians both invoked and found in his backseat. The thread of jazz in this book will come as no surprise to previous readers of his work, which includes his first collection, Discography, winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. Singer is also a recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship and author of the collection Honey & Smokeand he writes the daily newsletter L’Affûteur: thinking through poetry.
We talked over email about writing a collection of poetry inspired by his experiences driving a cab.
Rebecca Morgan Frank: Where and when were you driving a taxi?
Sean Singer: I drove the taxi from fall 2014 until the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
RMF: It’s hard not to think of Jim Jarmusch’s film night on earth when taking this collection, and of course you address this directly with the poem”night on earth (Directed by Jim Jarmusch, 1991)”—Winona Ryder also plays a part in your poem. How did this film influence this collection?
SS: I like the movie, but it’s more of a fantasy than something that shows what it really is. The film shows the strangeness of the characters and the watchful nihilism, or quiet risk-taking involved in driving a taxi. Due to the danger of driving himself and the risk of violence from passengers, the driver must constantly analyze and evaluate and then reject most of what happens. The work is 90% boredom and 10% sheer terror.
RMF: The Jarmusch soundtrack featured Tom Waits: what were you listening to in the cab? What would the playlist for this collection include?
SS: I mostly listened to WQXR, which is the classic New York station. I find that classical music has a very calming effect on people. But if there was a playlist for the collection, it would include “Tabula Rasa” by Arvo Pärt and of course the music of Charles Mingus, who is one of the “main characters”.
RMF: Let’s talk about another main character: Kafka appears throughout the book. How did he end up in your cab, so to speak?
SS: Kafka, Mingus and the Lord (who is a female voice) appear in the book as guides through the Styx that is New York. Kafka is for me the most important writer. He is sympathetic because of our origins, our family dynamics and our psychodynamic attitudes.
The time I was driving was a time of tremendous upheaval in American life – escalating culture wars, the rise of totalitarianism – and a time of great loss in my own life. These poems reflect my way of living and thinking about the problems of that time. Three main themes emerge: what it means to work in the labor economy at a time when the income divide is dramatically deepening, watching my New York home transform through time and history, and charting my relationship with the Jewish experience at a time of rising anti-Semitism.
Kafka was a figure who could approach some of this material that allowed me to enter these conflicts in a less frontal way.
FMR: As you mentioned, there is also the presence of the “Lord” throughout the book: she cleans, collects plastic bottles from trash cans in Williamsburg, and is sometimes prophetic. How and when did she find her place in the book, and what do you see as her role?
SS: The Lord in the poems is a guide, an ethical GPS, allowing the reader to witness with the driver. She is an Old Testament lord because one of the tenets of Judaism is uncertainty or questioning, and I believe these poems try to portray the situations depicted as questions first and foremost. The relationship between the speaker and the subjects of the poems – often the city itself – is a matter of interrogation. These questions are often unresolved or without definitive answers.
She is a force of empathy, but also sometimes vengeful, merciful or a force of justice. Since a poem is a public space, a city’s personal memory becomes a city’s public expression. Since identity is linked to memory, I aimed for poems that showed the links between the driver’s private world and a world shared with strangers in the car. I wanted my poems to ethically describe the urban space, but as poems in search of justice, rather than as aesthetic objects.
Justice is love and the figure of the Lord in the poems is a stable ray, the lines on the road that show us which is the right path. She has a feminine voice I think for several reasons: She’s unexpected, confuses tradition with expectation, and is a way to balance a relationship of relief and loss. My mother died of a brain tumor while I was writing the book, and I suspect the Lord having a female voice is a way to preserve His direction and trust in me.
RMF: You really make incredible turns in these poems, sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes transcendent. These seem to perfectly reflect the dissonance between the outer life of the job and the inner life of the driver, including your personal grief. Can you say more about how you found your way to those tight turns?
SS: The metaphorical power of poetry lies in connecting unrelated things. It also has metabolic power, which is physical and involves the ear and the breath. Finally, it has a metamorphic power, which concerns self-transformation. Car turns are a bit of all of this because you have to avoid hitting anything: bicycles, dogs, horses, cars, buses, trucks, people, objects; some of the riding is of course physical, but most of it is mental. Alert attention should be met with calm, but also, especially in New York, aggressive and defensive. I also had to fight with my self-image. Was I a writer, a failed academic, a driver or what?
The turns in the poems allow the self to move in and out of these states and spaces. The poems are filled with contradictions because the task is so contradictory: to sit and move, calm and assertive, to look ahead but have to talk to someone behind you, to listen to intensely private moments but be invisible.
I wanted to convey the spontaneity and fatality of the interactions I had. I wanted to find ways to connect the immediacy of my embodied experience with the electricity of language. I felt each of the poems in my body because I was there commuting for five years. I lived each of these poems, and a lot of it was physical.
RMF: Jazz has informed your previous work, and this collection is no exception. How do the structures and rhythms of jazz continue to influence you?
SS: Jazz is about being joyful despite the conditions, and that’s rhythm. Rhythm is a way of dividing and organizing time. Part of the form in the book is the phrase “Today in the taxi” (or some variation of it depending on the time of day), so the cumulative effect is one of a kind an endless recurring series of paths which have a constant element and a variable element. The rapid turns of the poems are like those of the car, and these surprises come from my interest in the freedom of jazz.
RMF: This condensed chronicle of so many years appears to us as readers as a liminal space, a timelessness shaped by continual transitions, but this rhythmically repeated line, “Today in the taxi”, also grounds us in each present. individual without date and without time. Was there a daily record from which the book emerged?
SS: Yes. I kept a notebook in the car and while driving I was able to remember every trip I took. Over 8,000 trips, I could remember each person, where I picked them up and where they were going. The constancy of this line reiterates the similarity of each journey and allows the driver to be like Charon, a cosmic ferryman, whose boat carried the souls of the dead across the river of death.
Each of the journeys is a transition in the small world of the passenger; the driver is present, but ultimately an outside observer. The eerie anonymous intimacy also means the driver’s inner monologue and what he reads and hears can permeate his entry into these little worlds.
RMF: Is there a story from your taxi experiences that has never been the subject of a poem, but that you would have liked?
SS: Once this drunk man approached the car and said “I need a taxi”. I said, “I’m expecting another passenger.” He said, immediately enraged, “Who? Who the fuck are you waiting for? I told her Alexandra because a young woman had called me and asked me to wait in a particular place.
Then I thought he was drunk and was going to leave, but he got in the car. So I repeated, “I can’t take you.” I’m expecting another passenger. He shouted, “I’m Alexandra’s fucking father!” Don’t, don’t fucking tell me you’re waiting for someone else! You’re going to Berkeley Heights, New Jersey!
This kind of abuse was common. There were other times when women tried to flirt, pick me up, or invite me out.
A third moment happened on New Years Eve when I was hijacked by a guy who demanded I take him to Coney Island. He told me to pull over somewhere on Surf Avenue so he could pee at a construction site and I drove off and left him there.
Anything can and does happen in New York, and the car is a small version of that.