Beat B-Boy Breakdown: Nick Schmitt on Paul Siegell’s Poemergency Room


Poemergency Room, Paul Siegell, Otoliths

Imagine, if you will, a world in which a poet combines the structural, linguistic and verbal, play of e.e. cummings, the rhythm and syncopation of Kerouac and other beat poets, while translating the physics of breakdancing—b-boying specifically—into the aural aspects of poetry. In spite of the Twilight Zone overtones of the combination, it finds strange allocation within Paul Siegell’s collection of poems, Poemergency Room. What is probably most interesting about Siegell’s poetry is the relation of his poetry to b-boy dance. His emulation of, and correlation to, the other authors mentioned is merely a tool for the dance his poems become. Take for instance, “*The Cantilever Bridge*”:

Subordinate to irreverent fluorescents Squinting Outta touch with business-hour eyes As is often the case If I could just open one Lean on it again See what spills The covenant of coworkers Tense with ego in all our offices Mouse I dunno how you do it

While the literary devices used reflect those used by Beat poets, it is “toprocking” that makes this poem original. Toprocking is a dance style distinguished by quick, rhythmic foot shuffling, done standing up relying on mix of “coordination, flexibility, rhythm, and most importantly, style” or so Wikipedia claims. The word-working Siegell creates in the excerpt is a rhythmic and stylistic working of words in a poem. The rhythm arises from the use of alliteration and meter, the style arises from emulating the Beat poets, and from maintaining his seventeen syllable line. “*Cantilever Bridge*” is almost all toprocking.

Siegell’s work is—much like b-boying—fun to look at. Many of his poems contain caligraphs. One, “*acrobatic macaroni, or at a music-boiled battle scene*,” portrays a young b-girl in mid freeze. A freeze is when a break dancer stops mid-movement, like a freeze frame; the frozen move is often a balance intensive one . She is depicted, with words, frozen in the moment, twisting like a piece of macaroni in boiling water. The words he uses describe the scene in this manner: “brave, | beginner b-girl | ///quint- essential | in white- on-whites | \\\toprocks her | adidas like an | uncaught can | of spray paint, | graffiti freed from the | bricks—”

“*acrobatic macaroni, or at a music-boiled battle scene*” contains all the elements of b-boy dancing: toprocking, downrocking, freezes, and power moves. He begins toprocking “brave / beginner b-girl.” The alliterative “B” sound creates a beat for the listener/reader to follow and he splits up and splices words in a stylistic way—using slashes and spaces—that encourage the reader to read on the beat. Downrocking, an element involving floor and foot work, is more difficult to bring out. If the metaphor breaks down here, it is not Siegell’s fault. He gives us a hint “[the Odunde b-boys] drop the dance into downrock: thrust rhythmic power moves.” Alliteration is sustained and Siegell even uses the word downrock. Then alliteration stops and a long list of italicized words, e.g. “flare,” “swipe,” “suicide,” follow that can only be the names of power moves. Downrocking requires sufficient skill in toprocking and it normally segues into the sexier power moves. The metaphor is luckily preserved.

In comparing this poem to b-boy dancing, I am walking a thin line between creative arts and performing arts. This is not an accident on my part, and I think Paul Siegell is conscious of this line also. The poems above are conscious of more than rhythm, they are conscious of a beat (e.g. classical music is rhythm based, turnstyling is beat-based). In some of Siegell’s poems he attempts to capture or re-perform some performance. In others he is purely a creative artist, as in the poems below.

In “*ANTIBIOTICS*”, Siegell depicts a young man, in caligraph form, running. These two poems are just the more extreme examples of Siegell’s play with the visual structure of poetry. Other examples include using a capital “I” to represent the white dashes on a road in “*driving the center lane lines*” and “*the chill soar*” in which Siegell not only compares readers to hawks soaring, looking for roadkill, but also places the letters on the page as if they were pieces of roadkill spread across the highway.

These last two examples remind me of cummings’ visual play in poems like “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r”. Cummings makes the letters hop about on the page like a grasshopper while Siegell makes his letters roadkill, or turns letters into the center lane lines of a road. Both poets confront us with the fact that words and letters are works of art in themselves. In addition to this visual correlation with cummings’ work is the word play Siegell often employs in his poems.

In “*The Double-o Poem, or All in a Woodpecker’s Afternoon*,” Siegell constructs a poem of words with double-o’s. “*THE’S THEME PARK THESAURUS*” describes a theme park, using many words containing “the” within. He also capitalizes every presence of the definite article, emphasizing it’s predominance in our culture although it often lacks a connecting noun, sometimes becoming a noun itself; for example “if THE is to reach—unhinge THE tilt-a-whirling THE—to or for a sort of THE—” (11). These two poems are reflective of cumming’s wordplay, perhaps less sophisticated than “anyone lived in an any-how town,” but they still represent a similar preoccupation with words and their meanings. These are just some examples of how Siegell’s work exhibits aspects of e.e. cumming’s work.

These examples reflect the best of Siegell’s creative, as opposed to performing, work. Other examples are simply clever, they are the poems of a young and less experienced poet, either trying too hard or not hard enough. “*global warming*” exemplifies the cleverness

got      the      hots
for         an
Inuit—            think
I        should
email               her

While the breaking apart of the sentence can be possibly be seen as the breaking apart of polar ice caps, it is an experiment not in replicating life but an experiment done to be clever.

Siegell’s best work lies in his attempts to re-perform a work of performance. His inspiration is better derived from occurrences like b-boys and b-girls, concerts, and even daily activities—like an office day in “*The Cantilever Bridge*.” This poem is reminiscent of Kerouac’s breathless rhythm in The Subterraneans. On page 57 Kerouac writes “O grayscreen gangster cock- / tail rainyday roaring gunshot spectral immortality B movie tire / pile black-in-the-mist Wildamerica what a crazy world!—.” What brings this passage to my memory is the mixture of alliteration, lack of punctuation and the surreal images created by the author; it is the same style that Siegell creates in his poem quoted before.

A reader will not find in Paul Siegell’s Poemergency Room a philosophical exploration of life, self, beauty, movement, or any number of investigations Socrates et al endeavored on, so it would not do Siegell justice if I philosophized his work. What a reader will find in Siegell’s work is a celebration of life, a celebration of performance and activity. His poems are devotions written to life. They are fun—a word sometimes used in the negative sense, and they are reflective; and to make poor George Orwell spit at me with contempt, they are filled with remnants of life.

6 responses to “Beat B-Boy Breakdown: Nick Schmitt on Paul Siegell’s Poemergency Room

  1. Cool review on a great book, but I want to clear something up. You mention Siegell’s poem, *the chill soar*, and say, “(he) places the letters on the page as if they were pieces of roadkill spread across the highway.” Roadkill is an interesting way to look at it, but I believe what the author was trying to do in that poem was to create an actual two-direction highway. Consonants going one way, vowels the other, and to me, it seems that the letter “y” is the hawk. Just wanted to throw that out there. Thanks.

  2. You say “…it is an experiment not in replicating life but an experiment done to be clever.”

    I say: what’s wrong with being clever? One definition of clever is “[the] showing [of] inventiveness and skill.” Another definition of clever: “mentally sharp or bright, witty; possessing quick or able intelligence; nimble with hands or body; … resourceful; showing inventiveness or ORIGINALITY; possessing MAGICAL ABILITIES”

    To me, the lack of cleverness is what’s wrong with some poetry these days. Paul Siegell’s book “Poemerbency Room” is original (despite your over-comparisons to Kerouac and e.e. cummings) and it possesses magical abilities, too; I say “magic” because it is not a book you can easily set down off to the side once you finish reading it; something about it keeps drawing the reader back. Take for instance the poem “Poembrance the Bloom.” I read it the other day (for the umpteenth time). In this poem, he writes: “all that blossoms is blessed/all that withers is wake/all that blossoms is bright/all that withers is wail…all that blossoms is brief/all that withers is witness.”

    “All that blossoms is brief/all that withers is witness”– just chant that to yourself. Some people have the bible, I have this poem. This poem isn’t just about the alliteration (the Bs and the Ws), but if you (the reader) are just focusing on that– sure that’s all you will take from the poem. However, a true feeler of poetry would notice the alliteration after the fact and say “Wow, how did the poet manage to do that and yet not lose the poem in the process!”

    This author is special and, to me, this book might just be what the doctor/sorcerer ordered for those sleeping-poets out there, and for those would-be writers who need a push.

  3. I agree that e.e. cummings and Paul Siegell “…confront us with the fact that words and letters are works of art in themselves…,” but what I disagree on is that “…a reader will not find in Paul Siegell’s “Poemergency Room” a philosophical exploration of life, self, beauty, movement…”

    Siegell’s poems are not just “fun” little whimsical poems and his poems not only “[Celebrate] life,” his poems _are_ life. A poet’s job is to give a whole new take on life, self, beauty, movement, to give the readers his philosophy or his “side of the story.” If not that, then all poets would sound alike.

    And Paul Siegell gives a WHOLE NEW take on life in “Poemergency Room” — that is why he is one of the fresh new voices in poetry. Some poets talk about the same thing, in the same way as everybody else, but you won’t find that here, not in “Poemergency Room.” That is what makes it an outstanding read.

    Read it again, Paul Siegell’s “philosophical exploration of life, self, beauty, movement” is in every page, every poem.