Sunday, April 4, 2010

Who's Got My Extra?: An interview with Paul Siegell

I “spoke” with Paul about his second and third books, jambandbootleg and wild life rifle fire.

Paul looks like this all the time...

Paul Siegell is the author of three books of poetry: wild life rifle fire (Otoliths Books, 2010), jambandbootleg (A-Head Publishing, 2009) and Poemergency Room (Otoliths Books, 2008). He is an editor at Painted Bride Quarterly, and has contributed to The American Poetry Review, Coconut, Dusie, NOÖ, Rattle, and many other fine journals. He has also been featured in two national music and culture magazines, Paste and Relix, as well as elsewhere exciting. Kindly find more of Paul’s work (poems, poemics, videos) at his ReVeLeR @ eYeLeVeL.

And here are some links to Paul's books, blogs and etceteras:

wild life rifle fire


Poemergency Room

ReVeLeR @ eYeLeVeL

GL: A wise man once wrote: “A poem is energy transferred” from the poet to his reader “by way of the poem itself,” which is “at all points…a high-energy construct, an energy discharge.” The way to write in this mode is to remember that “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT” (a snippet of wisdom that became as important to Creeley/Olson and other Black Mountaineers as “WWJD” is to born-agains) and act accordingly, treating “process” and “perception” as the holy fixations of field poetics. You, Paul Siegell, it seems to me, take much of Charles Olson’s advice. Whenever I read your adventurous and formally innovative poems I always think of Olson’s phrases about “high-energy construct(s)” and “energy discharge(s)” because your work often marches ecstatically all over the page. Your most recent book, wild life rifle fire, is an explosion of visual as well as sonic “energy,” using concrete forms and visual puns to explore the nuances of reading and poem making. Jambandbootleg, too, features a number of concrete poems and different visual paradigms that shake up the dry old left-justified poetry of mainstream verse culture. So, could you tell me about your conception of the poem and poem-making in light of Olson’s “Projective Verse” orthodoxies. Do you think your role as a poet bids you to “transfer” energy to the reader? How important is the physical presentation of the poem? When you write, do you conceive of these different lines of poetry and their layout simultaneously? And, please, no one word answers. I won’t stand for it.

PS: Yes. Yes. Somewhat. Rarely.

Maybe because I’ve only tried to read it while laying low under the fluorescent lights at work, or maybe because it’s on-screen and I’m a slow reader, but Olson’s “Projective Verse” makes me sleepy. I’m down with the parts I’ve read, but I’ve yet to finish it. Kinda bad, I know.

I honestly didn’t learn of Olson until after jambandbootleg was all wrapped up. I saw the phrase “Projective Verse” on another poet’s blog and with a “what’s that?” I copied and threw it in the search. And then, look out, there’s this essay from 1950 and it articulates things in wild, familiar things, felt-already things. (Papa? Dunno.) Maybe I was scared by it.

Here’s my deal: I’m MFA-less, they didn’t teach any of this stuff to us at Pitt, and I should really know more about theory/traditions. I have that responsibility. (There’s an overwhelming So Much going on in poetry at present, let alone decades ago.) What I know is the propulsion of instinct. This thing tryna push from out my fingers, making my grip on meaning looser or tighter depending. If I feel it worthwhile, or just plain awesome, I pay it enough mind (I obsess about it) until it becomes Something More once it’s fully passed through my fingerprints.

None of my poems are made in Olson’s light, but I do have to concede that they’re made in his shadow. And many, many others’.

OK, moving on: Does my role as a poet bid me to “transfer” energy to the reader? See, what I dig about this is that that’s even your question. Heck yeah I’m psyched to write when I’m writing so of course I want the reader to feel that. Energy, discharge, buzzbangboom, transference, acceptance and ah, I’m happy! Isn’t that how we Art our way along? A song is played and a foot is tapped, a head is nodded. [In urge: energy transferred.] When the reader feels it, the leap, from my work, that’s miraculous and I’m grateful.

I don’t know what my role as a poet is.

As for the physical presentation of the poem, yeah, I don’t like ugly looking poems. Ha. But that’s not “100% Important.” I’d like to think that if I read my poems to a person who couldn’t see, the words, the wonder, would still hold up. Audiences don’t see that this poem holds tight to the left side of the page, or this one is in the shape of two cells dividing or this one’s in the shape of fire, but their attentive eyes, their faces, they tell me I’m jamming—So if it’s not important why do I do it? Because I can! Because Art says that this piece about a break dancer would look effin sweet in the shape of an actual break dancer, and so I go: Full force for the fuck yeah!

Always always, the poem, the words and wonder, always comes first. Without the poem, there is no form, and there’s definitely no function that I’d care to share. It’s gotta be a poem, and hopefully a Poem, before it can be anything else. The layout can come later that day or sometimes years later. At some point the poem goes to me, “Yo dude, I don’t look like this.” And so I listen.

GL: The title of your second book, jambandbootleg, refers not only to your life and travels as a Phish fan, but to the aesthetic of the book itself. Bands like Phish place a huge emphasis on performance and improvisation, perhaps as much as writing and recording their music in the first place. Thus, many of the concert poems in this collection are poetic bootlegs, or poems derived from someone else’s original performances. For jam bands, doing the same song over and over becomes part of the challenge and fun of presenting music in this way; fans want to see what this version of the song will sound like on this particular night. Did this notion of improvisation inform your concert or “SET” poems? In other words, since you were so often describing the same band playing the same songs again and again, did you feel the need to somehow enact improvisation in your poems in order to accurately report on what you were seeing?

Sweet Photo

PS: Absolutely. But it’s not haphazard writing. It’s still very much purposeful, crafted, and hopefully, real. Peaks and releases. There’s always a direction in which I’d like the reader to go.

I love large crowds, and love being in them with my friends. When you’re at and a part of a Full-of-Great-Crazy-Joy place where there’s 10s of 1000s of like-minded others and they’re all there for a band, for the experience of accepting the transfer of energy from unbelievable musicians, beloved, there’s a lotta people-watching potential, a lotta free things going on, self-expressions, and the entire event is… improvised, much like the music. The mirror. Sure, there are plans/arrangements: score “supplies,” take a piss, meet up with the Coleman crew, chill and whatnot, but the entire thing is in love with the spontaneous. If you allow yourself to descend into it all, you’re gonna wind up talking with strangers, and hopefully not have any fear. So, let’s get into the song—Let’s see what happens…If I didn’t write it with that kind of feel, that heady American festival atmosphere, I’d be doing it wrong.

Again, I love that that was your sense. In all, “SET I” (the road trip, the arrival, the overall sense, etc.), “SET II” (music/style in the U.S. in relation to the concert parking lot, etc.) and “SET III” (an honest take on intoxication and what it means to have a ticket, etc.) took me about 12 years to write and your question says a lot about what I had hoped to accomplish.

GL: There are a couple of poems in jambandbootleg that go back, way back, to the days when we were both undergrads at the University of Pittsburgh, oh, however many years ago. “EPIcureANS PAY FOR FeeLINGS” and “Pass/Fail” are two wildly different poems from that era. (The former is a formally exuberant but tonally complex poem about drug-sloppiness, and the latter is an anecdotal piece about one of “your” father’s friends who presumably died in Vietnam because he didn’t purposefully fail an intelligence test, the way the speaker’s father did, in order to avoid the draft). I love these poems and certainly think they belong in the book, but I wonder what it was like to work with poems that were written at such different times. Did you feel that you were dealing with the work of two different poets? Or did it seem as though there was a steady and stable arc of voice and vision that ran from college-Paul to the Paul or the present day?

PS: College-Paul is where jambandbootleg got started. It’s where all my poetry got started. The first poem I ever wrote was after an NYE-run of PHiSH shows my sophomore year. If I was going to book some poems backboned by jambands, college needed to be there. All the potential of not knowing anything—So many things to taste. I had and have no qualms about including those early voices. They lend range and arc to the project, as well as offering the very central [UNDERGRAD > GRADUATION > JOB HUNT > REAL WORLD] transition that so many of us go through.

GL: The final poem in jambandbootleg, “Requiem for a Festival” details your experience of the last Phish concert (or so it seemed at the time), the teary and alluvial Coventry show of August 2004. The poem dramatizes your complicated reactions to the past as a peripatetic Phishhead who has to move on to something new. The poem is dated September 21st, 2004, more than a month after the finale, and “you” begin the poem by contemplating the soiled wristband from the concert, which “you” are a little reluctant to take off. The whole “subgenerational” movement seemed “a firework departed” at that time and your speaker doesn’t quite know what to make of things now that the Bacchanalian festivals have packed up their tents and departed for good. Could you tell me about the biographical underpinnings of this poem? Did it seem, at the time, that you were losing, in addition to the band, a little of your poetry too?

PS: Fuckin’ Coventry. We were all so effed up by it. Just one listen to Page crying during “Wading the Velvet Sea” and it all has that hurt again.

Was a crazy week. I was living in Atlanta at the time, so I flew up to Philly to catch the final pre-festival show in Camden, NJ with my old college friends (Note: *08.12.04 – PHiSH – Tweeter Center, NJ* is the first poem in the book. *Requiem for a Festival* (08.14-15.04) is the last). All weird feelings when something that big and fundamental, to us, began winding down. A few hours after the Camden show, around 2 AM, I got into a white van with six other fans, our white van got in a line with three other rides, we all got gas then made our way up to the Northern Kingdom in Vermont. Took us 26 hours, and we were the lucky ones. With all the heavy rains during the days leading up to the event mixed with all the in-coming cars getting stuck in the mud, the festival radio station was forced to tell people to turn back, go home: no more vehicles would be allowed into the venue. WHAT!? Something like 110,000 people were expected to attend, but only 65,000 or so made it in. People drove from all over, and with ticket in hand, weren’t able to get in. Mud City. Others, and these people are truly special, they parked their cars however many miles away from the gates, they packed what they could carry and they hiked in. Now that’s a fan. Those people, they’re the believers. They’re the true spirits of the jambandbootleg epic.

And so with the final notes of a band I’d spent so much time and money on, a band I’d found to encompass so much love, I wasn’t losing the poetry, I was gaining ground on the poems. It was time to get them tighter. To get serious. It was time to go from being able to see just the head and a fluttering heartbeat in the ultrasound to beginning to make out the fingers and toes. The nitty-gritty. Without Coventry, jambandbootleg wouldn’t be what it is.

GL: Is wild life rifle fire, your brilliant visual poem/new book, the wave of Paul Siegell’s future? Are you currently working with poetry/visual art projects or are you writing in more traditional Siegellian directions?

Check it out!

PS: Thank you, Greg, for your kind words (and for this interview). I’m really glad you like the new book. I’m having a great time getting it out there, seeing so many surprised and charmed reactions, and it’s definitely something I’m excited about, but I doubt I’ll doing something like this again. Well, maybe, but differently, of course. (After my dad saw it he goes, “You should do something like this, but for kids, as a children’s book.”) Thanks, dad. We’ll see.

Elsewhere on the visual front, something that’s started getting published is a series of poemics called hot pepper people (samples at Moria, Antique Children, and forthcoming in Word For/Word). I’m having fun and glad editors have taken to it.

The next big thing is Trombone Bubble Bath, which is currently in manuscript. (((Whooo’s got my publisher?))) Look for poems to go down the left margin, ha, look for some sonnets, and also, sculpted by the spacebar, poems in the shape of a raven, a quaver rest, a trumpet, a saxophone, an old STS9 sticker, Roger Waters on his bass, and a few other offerings I’m very excited about.

And then in a few years time, Take Out Delivery.

GL: You have a strong poetry-presence on the Internet. You also write a lot about community, in your own way, in your poetry about music. Could you describe how and why your poetry is so suited for the Internet? Do you think that you have courted a different kind of readership because of it? Do people go to your readings expecting, well, something of a show—that is, the kind we get from the poems themselves?

PS: I’m going to answer your poetry-suited-for-the-internet question with how this whole interview got started: ENERGY.

The Internet’s a funny thing: Someone’s always on it. I’m amazed every day that I’ve created and sustained a facebook group with over 1200 members. I’ve garnered a lot of great relationships thanks to my activity on Goodreads, and turning some poems into YouTube videos has been fun and rewarding, too. I’m planning on doing a few more videos, in a different style, in the coming weeks. All of these portals, plus ReVeLeR @ eYeLeVeL, are all great ways to get in touch with readers, and for readers to find me.

From the emails I get, my work reaches out to not just those in college or grad school, but to those IMing their friends all day at office jobs, to those downloading music onto their computer, and even to those of the older generations. Somehow, people in their 40s/50s/60s and up have also taken to my style. I think maybe I remind them of something. I don’t know.

Since the birth of jambandbootleg back in July ’09, along with the HUGENESS of having bassist Marc Brownstein of the Disco Biscuits lend his name and praise to the back of the book, my readership has absolutely gone beyond the “standard” poetry reading crowd (i.e., poets) and is engaging people that are fans of the same bands as I am. Live music fans are very appreciative people and when they like something, they really let you know.

With wild life rifle fire now, a whole new set of people are taking notice. Artists and graphic designers are starting to come aboard. I got an email recently from a complete stranger that said he didn’t “care much for experimental poetry,” but really liked what he saw of wild life rifle fire. Plus, for people who have always been curious about what I was doing but never knew how to enter it all, this book has given them a much more comfortable place for them to merge onto the interstate.

As for my readings, I don’t know about a “show,” but we’re getting there. I think you already know you’re gonna get some liveliness. One woman came up to me after a recent reading and said, “I felt like I was just listening to music, not listening to poetry.” That was kind of stunning. You’re gonna get my smile, my eye contact, you’re gonna get challenged, entertained, new platforms from which to think about things, and you’re gonna wanna see some of the poems up close. Now, imagine a gallery show/reading with some of the shaped poems and wild life rifle fire-elements up on the walls. Stay tuned!

I’ll be reading at The Soundry in Vienna, VA on May 7, and all over the Philadelphia area this summer. For more info on dates and upcoming events, please see here. Thank you!