“Traces, traces, traces”: An Appreciation of the Poetry of A W Singerman

The poet A W Singerman passed away in 2017. He was 31 years old. As well as a poet, he was a musician and artist book maker, had interests in oral history, and worked as an archivist. Here, poet and lecturer Colin Herd offers us some insight into his work.

The poetry of A W Singerman takes the reader out on what I think of as thought-­feeling­language experiments. With an immense sensitivity to the sound of language and its musicality, and a grounding in music as performance, his writing invites readers on quests, and it’s a thrill to pursue his lines of thought through paradox, tenderness, vulnerability and a deep, abundant humour and generosity. It is also, always, firmly rooted in an emotional and intellectual relation to the world:

I know that we speak the truth
when we are saying nothing,
but I want to give the wind
a face, the sun a palm
the moon some room (May, 36)

The form in which Singerman excels is the long sequence made up of shorter aphoristic poems. May, his bound collection which came out in 2010, is a sequence of poems written every day during that month. Singerman never takes rhetorical language at face value. He restlessly interrogates and unpicks what Tom Leonard, who tutored Singerman on the MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, calls “the professional tone, the invisible suit of office” of some contemporary poetry (Definite Articles, 179). Singerman was a huge enthusiast of Leonard’s work; he read him carefully, excitedly and responsively, and often commented on the inspiration and motivation that Leonard’s poetry represented for him as a writer. Leonard, in turn, wrote in 2010 on his blog that:

It’s not even about “being passionate” as such. Just being committed, I suppose, totally. I get it from a young poet like Alex Singerman, just published his first book, well, self-published it. Language part of being in the world. Not for fucks sake “the arts world”, let alone “the poetry world”. Innate musicality, the semiotics of space and puncutation as part of the instrument being played.

The music of Singerman’s poetry is often oppositional, and like the Blues that inspired much of his musicianship, its drama and magic comes from the pitch across major and minor, its wavering on the semitone, its use of ‘blue notes’, and even call-­and‑response  techniques. The sequence of May begins by pitting at least two and possibly three familiar phrases against or in tension with one another, and somehow transforming them all in turn:

In Dialogue
What can I say?
Good question (May, 10)

Each line riffs off the previous one, and gains charge and electricity from it. For once “Good question” means “good question” though not maybe in the ways we might expect. And the simplicity of the line also encourages the reader to reverse through it, to “question good”, which is something that this poetry never fails to.

In one poem, ‘What is Poetry?’ (always a good question for a poet to ask!), Singerman offers a sequence of definitions, including “Time / in no time”, which draws attention to the complex relation of poetry to time and also enacts or performs its own moment in time, a turn. Again, Singerman is interrogating familiar colloquialisms, tipping rhetorical phrases on their side, and allowing them to spill out their subtleties, their unexpectedness, and forming a walking bass or groove. He’s taking us up to paradox, to syncopation, and inviting us to inhabit that elliptical beat – “time / in no time”. No place is more rife with the sort of familiar phrasing that Singerman’s poetry transforms than the workplace, and another poem finishes with a catalogue in which office language begins to encroach and gain traction, but which Singerman resists and adds grist with almost every word expressing double/ multiple meanings – playing on performance, emotion, and emerging into a theatricalised witty ascension: “the way you see / a new air /or outfit // a certain gait, opened doors // promotions”. Singerman so embeds in his poetry a wit and sensitivity to polysemy that he can make that word “promotions” the last line and allow us to do the work of seeing in it all the marketing speak, career speak, and a kind of elevation or overview, an etymological ‘moving on’ or ‘going forward’. In a later poem, “air” appears again, reprocessed and with a different set of semantic baggage: “Does it mean something / or just the air / conditioning?” The economy is startling here, as in so many of Singerman’s poetic projects, which like the work of the American poets Robert Creeley and Philip Whalen, both of whom Singerman deeply admired, manages to occupy territory at once abundant and stripped back. 

Singerman spent a year of his undergraduate studies at the University of California San Diego, and certainly there is an influence of the work of Eileen Myles (searing rigour and self-­examination; treating each text like a performance) and Melvyn Freilicher (formal adventurousness, wit and experimentation), both of whom tutored him. He also spoke of the finely tuned poetry of Elaine Equi, who he also knew in San Diego, as an influence. In Clapton Aphorisms, an unpublished collection, Singerman takes his minimalist approach, and pin-­point, at times excruciating, humour, even further. There is intense self-­deprecation, but also a wistfulness that is always sparking and exhilarating – in the gap between words and lines where so much of the energy of Singerman’s poetry takes place. One poem simply reads: “Giving down.” While another playfully and sensitively observes that: “Silence is tricky to describe.” As in May, Singerman here is most at home in paradox, in the “either/or”, the flux and multiplicity of language. His writing destabilizes and unpicks certainty and assurance at every turn. There is a great impact and thrill for the reader in the movement around and between these short bursts of wit, insight, and feeling. Singerman published work in a range of magazines, including etcetera, erbacce, a-­a-­a and Streetcake. As a musician, he performed and recorded widely, including an album ‘Songs in Green Pen’ and a night at the ICA in London, and with many different bands. One poem from etcetera, contains some of the lines of his I find most musical and attuned to the sound, both of place and of language:

listen close
the door is shut
the wind rhymes
with tighten
if you just

The language here is twisted and wonderfully aslant, way out, like an interpretative blue note, the note in Blues music which is played off key, or in a way that isn’t standard, i.e. by switching a quartertone to a semitone or vice versa, for expressive purpose. You have to place your understanding not only of the sound of wind and tighten but the meaning of each on their heads and only then does the particular semantic pressure he’s elucidated start to make a kind of sense. These are the kinds of lines I’m thinking of when I call Singerman’s poetry “thought-feeling-language experiments”: they display, reward and demand an attentiveness to emotion, to semantics, and to music. They are, to echo Tom Leonard’s words, both passionate and committed, to understanding the world through language, and language through the world, neither as an abstraction but as wrapped up together and experienced as such. I dearly hope more of Singerman’s work will make it into print, but for now, his collection May is available on Amazon and is a wonderful place to start.


To read some of A W Singerman’s work, please click here – Pages from A DAY – AW SINGERMAN