What could be a geekier pursuit than crafting words and symbols into highly designed bits of brilliant poetry? Not much because geeks love a good bit of poetry, especially when it involves some Internet speak.
Paul Siegell is a local poet with a penchant for word design. When he isn’t working as a copywriter at The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, he’s hard at work marrying poetry and design into an intoxicating torrent of excited emotion for all of us to enjoy.
His three books, Poemergency Room, jambandbootleg, and wild life rifle fire are some of the most passionate and unique pieces of poetry I’ve ever come across. He’s one of the few people able to distill emotion into the very finest visual representation. Paul Siegell has a minimalist’s love for Helvetica and a musician’s love for sound.
To me, all of Siegell’s work rings true to that of his jam band punk personality. And although his poems are heavily visual, to get the full effect , you’ll need to see him give a live reading. It’s as electrifying as going to see your favorite band in concert.
I got a chance to chat with Paul about his work, inspiration, and awesome tee shirts.
When did you know you were a poet? Was there a singular moment of realization?
I knew – if I could know – when working the opening drafts of a long poem, SET I, which, along with SET II and SET III, would become epic runs within my second book, jambandbootleg.
The feeling, fantastic, came immediately. I had a “big idea.” More than just a one-off poem, I’d the idea for a whole book, a whole experience.
May/June ’96, post-sophomore year at Pitt: I was reading things like Dickens’ Great Expectations, rereading Ginsberg’s Howl, spinning Phish and Dead bootlegs on cassette, and writing about live music – and live-music lovers – until 4 in the morning, crashing, then waking up all way on the other side at 4PM, with just enough daylight to pull myself together by the time mom came home from work. Pages upon pages. Editing, revising, deleting great chunks. Teaching myself how to launch into meaning through rhythm and imagery.
Finally having something to do, I fell madly in love. I had something to work on. I had a purpose. I had Purpose.
Your debut book, Poemergency Room, and your follow up, jambandbootleg, are heavily influenced by live music. What is it about a concert that moves you to write?
That’s just it. Concerts move me. Ask my friends: I dance my face off. I shake it all out. And on good nights, as my body releases into a riot of excitement, I start hearing things in my head. The performance of expression. The created crowd. The historical connection. Inspiration in the hetty, sweaty deliciousness.
There is a decidedly visual component to your writing. What is it about concrete poetry that appeals to you?
Fifth grade, Mrs. Grossman’s class: a poetry section for a couple of weeks and at the end everyone had to write a poem. My 10-year-old head had nothing. Everyone else, scribbling away, acrostics and whatnot, and I was sitting there waiting for recess. Mrs. Grossman came over, sat with and asked me to name an animal. Last name’s Siegell so I said bird. “Good,” she said. “Now fill the page with the outline of a bird.” I drew a bird. Then she goes, “Write in as many kinds of birds as you can think of, all the way around your drawing.” So I did. When I was done she said, “Now erase the line.”
Your latest book, wild life rifle fire, is a collection of poems while at the same time one singular book-length poem. Did it evolve as a collection or as one single poem in your head? Maybe a bit of both?
It was the morning after the long Labor Day weekend, with me seeking that wrestle and peace of writing something well, and I looked up on a weirdness: I had “ZOOM IN” typed in Helvetica on my screen, a headline for some ad at my marketing department job. I increased the point size a bit but I went too far and it was too much for the margins and then MS Word broke the line to reveal: “ZOO / M IN.” Cue eureka. (Animals in captivity + zooming in makes something larger, but this says minimize.) I fell in love immediately, and that, as if a meditation, would become the first page of the book. (Side note: Philly locals the Disco Biscuits’ “Digital Buddha” was playing in my earbuds when this happened.) I hit print and took “ZOO / M IN” home to show my fiancée. She took one look and said, “Make more.”
From there, with purpose again, I explored and found and created and stumbled upon and made more and threw some out and hammered away at creating order, at creating meaning, at creating “an eyeful for the mindful.”
What would you hope a reader would get out of your poetry?
Read Siegell… Cop buzz?
An astonishing compliment I occasionally receive: “Reading your poetry makes me feel like I am at a concert.”
A poet-friend of mine, Michael Ruby, after recently reading my books, said: “POEMS AT EVENTS/POEMS AS EVENTS.”
Better yet, when I’m told that my poems have inspired, and helped someone write theirs. Go team!
Would you consider yourself a graphic designer as much as a poet?
No no no. I’ve worked with graphic designers for over 10 years. I’ve far too much respect for what they do to call myself a graphic designer. I’m just writing poems, and some just look funkier than others.
You made the jump in medium and started publishing your poems on tee shirts. What was it about shirts that you felt was a good fit for your work?
A B-shirts C-shirts D-shirts E-shirts F G-shirts
H I J K L M N O P-shirts
Q R S
T-shirts U V-shirts
Y and Z-shirts… Now I wear some poetry. Next time won’t you strut with me?
What are some projects that you’re working on?
I’m in the process of cooking three new books: Trombone Bubble Bath, Take Out Delivery and Jacques Lipchitz.
If Poemergency Room and jambandbootleg were part of a trilogy, which they are, Trombone Bubble Bath would be the conclusion, and is.
Take Out Delivery is something different altogether. It’s thematically wackadoo prose-type poems engaging our culture, all paired with poemics (poem-comics).
Jacques Lipchitz was a cubist sculptor (1891-1973), and my absolute favorite. Jacques Lipchitz is a book-length visual poem built upon typographical recreations of the artist’s sculptural biography, and as appropriate, some of my bio as well.
Do you have any live readings coming up?
Check this out: I gave a reading at Fergie’s Pub on Saturday night of St. Patrick’s Day weekend. Yeah, that went well. Hahaha.
+ Sun, May 19th for Jubilant Thicket at Head House Books in Queen Village at 5PM. (Facebook invite here.)
+ Tue, July 2nd at Red Hook Coffee in Queen Village at 7PM
+ Sat, July 13th for Fox Chase Review’s Poets On The Porch at Ryerss Museum from 1PM to 4PM. (Details here.)
+ Wed, Sept 18th for E-Verse Equinox at Fergie’s Pub at 7PM.
+ Fri, Dec 13th for Mad Poets’ Poetry Aloud and Alive at Big Blue Marble Bookstore in West Mount
Airy at 7PM.
What sort of geek would you describe yourself as?
Phish freak. Word nerd. Flyers fan. Shows I dig on: Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, and the Avatar: The Last Airbender series. Appa, yip yip!
Any advice for budding poets?
First, register for the University of Pennsylvania’s free, online Modern and Contemporary Poetry course. Do so immediately. Then, go to as many local poetry readings as you can. Then, and most of all, my goodness, read.