by Sean Singer
1. Readers should be producers of the meanings of texts, and not merely consumers of texts. When you cook the food you eat, you feel the food’s creation: subtle changes in textures, flavors, and ratios that were in your control as the maker.
2. The phenomenon of the “celebrity chef” and the “celebrity poet” suggest that we are merely consuming what sustains us, and that we need not participate in its meaning: an expert who exists on a high plane will tell us what we need. Yet, I am not convinced that Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri are good for food culture, and I’m not satisfied by a poem that’s like McDonald’s: sugar, salt, and starch.
3. What if there were no celebrity chefs, and more and better home cooks? What if there was no absurd professionalization of poetry, and more and better readers?
4. I taught myself how to cook about a year ago, though I cannot improvise. I am only skilled enough to follow a recipe. I use Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. Perhaps writing poems and cooking cannot be taught, but can be learned.
5. Food, like poetry, is political. So-called food deserts in poor, urban neighborhoods have almost no fresh food or vegetables, and too much fast food. Diabetes and asthma are epidemic. We know that, like poetry, there is oral transmission of recipes and those scraps that have been written down. When Elaine found the Soup Nazi’s recipes in her armoire, his genius was available to everyone. Sometimes this transmission is one of memory. For example, in Newark, there is one remaining Jewish deli, Hobby’s, on Branford and Halsey. I still crave the mustard-slathered rye and the pickled tomatoes. There are almost no Jewish people living in Newark. Each slice of pastrami reminds the diner of a lost city, one that exists only in the palace of memory.
6. Neruda’s ode spoke of the artichoke’s “warrior heart.” There is an element of fantasy and fiction associated with food: this is why restaurants are all about entertainment. The counter at Sushi of Gari on Columbus Avenue is not just about his artful jewels of omakase. The theatre of the experience consists of watching Gari make each delicate morsel: squid, ume, plum, shiso.
7. Is it moral to spend, say $300, on dinner for two? Or is a meal at a restaurant indistinguishable from other forms of entertainment? Is it moral to spend one’s life writing poems that perhaps 300 people will read, risking living in poverty and eating cereal for dinner? We know that few get the food and literature they deserve. Many live in poetry deserts without a fresh poem in sight for miles. They have never read anything not assigned to them, probably in high school.
8. If you can cook well, you can pay attention to detail; know which flavors work together and what the effect on the tongue will be. I don’t have any information on whether chefs are literate, but if you can write, you know which words work together and what the effect on the ear will be.
9. I read that James Merrill would give people a dozen eggs as gifts—with a line of poetry on each egg. Neruda described the salt mines as a “mountain of buried light,translucent cathedral, crystal of the sea, oblivion of the waves.”
10. If I could either cook well or write well, I would write well. Cooking is too time-consuming and the result is eaten in moments. Writing takes longer than cooking, but can be consumed over time, more than once. I once wrote that flamingo tongues were a delicacy at Roman feasts: so much of culture is not contained in our literature, but in what people ate. These are lost to the caverns of memory, the way the edge of the egg crisps in the pan, from translucent to brown to black. It is no longer the vehicle for new life; its energy is transferred from the ground to the grass to the chicken to the egg, and to the person sitting at the counter on Columbus Avenue.
Each month a contemporary poet presents three poems and one personal essay in which food is consumed, passed over, or reckoned with. Sean is our poet for May, 2014.
Sean Singer was born in Mexico in 1974. His first book Discography won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. His second book, Honey & Smoke, is forthcoming from Eyewear Publishing in 2015.