OLD LYME — Decades before he was appointed the town’s poet laureate last week, Roger Singer struggled in school with an undiagnosed case of dyslexia. Now as a teacher of local poetry workshops, Singer said he encourages other writers to take risks, be heartfelt, and to write every day.
“I just want to encourage them to take a chance, stand out, and don’t be afraid of rejection. Even Babe Ruth struck out more than he got on base,” Singer said in a Tuesday phone interview.
“Another thing is to encourage people to keep writing, even when the classes are over. Write something every day, and put it away, but don’t throw it away. I’ve gone back many times and found things from a while ago and revised them.”
In December, Singer began working to form a shoreline chapter of the Connecticut Society of Poetry. He said he’s currently planning for the group to have its first meetings in late April or early May when seasonal residents of the area begin returning for the summer.
Since moving to Old Lyme in early 2019, Singer has taught multiple workshops and six-week courses on poetry at the Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library and the Lymes’ Senior Center.
Singer, a retired chiropractor and veteran of the Air Force, said one of his primary goals is to get more people talking about poetry, seeing it as an art form that they can practice and engage with.
“I indicate to people that they’re writing it for themselves,” he said. “Don’t worry about somebody reading it in an office in New York or San Francisco. Just write what you want to put on paper. You will help one person, and that will be the success for the day.”
At the recommendation of the Connecticut Poetry Society, he applied for Old Lyme’s unfilled position of poet laureate. The Board of Selectmen approved his application and appointed Singer to the role at their January 21 meeting.
Singer’s work is published in the online jazz magazine Jerry Jazz Musician and elsewhere, including onto his own blog. His 2015 collection of poems, Poetic Jazz, is available on Kindle. He said his writing takes inspiration from jazz and the Beats, particularly Jack Kerouac.
Singer said that poetry is a way for him to tap into some of his earliest and most vivid memories, to when he was an adolescent with an undiagnosed case of dyslexia.
“I love to write about diners. My father had a floor shop in Hartford for 50 years, and they would send me out to North Hartford to different diners. I remember the creaking floors and the greasy aroma that would follow you outside. That came before I was even able to really read… To see an object really helps me, just like how some people connect with music.”
He said that as an 11-year old in West Hartford he was reading at about a second-grade level, and he consistently felt left out hearing friends talk about the latest James Bond novel on the bus.
A middle school English teacher, who happened to be going blind himself, played a record of Clint Walker reading Jack London’s Call of the Wild, and it was a revelation.
“I said, ‘Oh I can see this!’ Other kids were falling asleep or throwing spitballs, but I was enamored of that man in Alaska and his dog, and years later that helped me with a breakthrough.
In his own teaching, Singer said he encourages students to write short, concise sentences. At the start of classes, he points out that Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was only 271 words, but had a much greater impact on those that heard it than the two-hour speech delivered by Edward Everett at the same ceremony in 1863.
But beyond any technical advice, he said, “I try to bring them out at their level. You don’t have to write like somebody else. Just write what you know best and bring out what you’ve experienced and put it on paper. I never wanted people to write like me or to try to write like Billy Collins or Maya Angelou. Poetry is words without song, so you just have to find their level, encourage what’s good and show what can be taken out. But the final choice is yours. I’m not here to change you, just to encourage you.”