Review: Advice to a Young Skydiver by Josh Seigal

A review by Sophie Jones.

Joshua Seigal’s first poetry collection for adults, Advice to a Young Skydiver, as described in its blurb, ‘tackles growing up and dumbing down.’ While the title may suggest encouragement to the ambitious youth, its cover image, Jacob Peeter Gowy’s The Fall of Icarus, suggests instead the dangers of ambition, or the importance of heeding your mentors. Seigal is used to being the mentor – a children’s poet and workshop leader, most of his work is intended to educate, to develop literacy and communication skills. However, in our interview with him, he discusses how his poetry for both adults and children aims to get them both “laughing and thinking.” In this, he firmly succeeds.

From the first poem Seigal’s wit and self-awareness is sharp and glaring; he tells us that a piece entitled ‘The First Thing You Should Know’ has been written on a ‘manky notepad.’ He takes advantage of the fact that we read down the page to suggest that the poem is just ‘something to read on the way down,’ and cutting the writing off after proposing ‘the second thing you should know is’ makes us equally aware that all we are looking at is paper, useless without the ‘little symbols’ of language, and not useful enough to ‘save’ us even when they’re present.

With this gift of self-awareness, Seigal likes to play with convention. He takes advantage of the linguistic multitudes of language, so that ‘dilemma’ becomes ‘dial emma’, or ‘OCD’ becomes ‘Oh, CD’. He takes advantage of existing structures, writing a limerick manipulating the pronunciation of ‘Leicester’ so that words like ‘peicester’ can be written and understood, and composing a blues song about a ‘Barkin’ Dog.’ Iconic poems are subverted, creating a version of Kipling’s ‘If’ for teachers whilst Adrian Henri’s poem becomes ‘Hate Is.’

Word play can seem unsophisticated or childish, but Seigal opens the door to readers who may otherwise be intimidated by poetry, taking what knowledge they already have of the form and stretching it, manipulating their fearful preconceptions into something humorous and fun. His poem ‘I’m So Clever’ is a great example, taking a poem with ‘perfect’ rhythm and ‘tight’ rhyme and giving it spaces in the wrong places, mocking stereotypical modernist techniques. By understanding the viewpoint of readers who think ‘all poetry is shite,’ Seigal welcomes even the most reluctant reader with open arms.

Once the reader is welcomed, they are greeted with poems of the everyday. Content ranges from urinal panic to the joy of Maplin, with the rhythm acting primarily as a comedic device, the spaces between lines embodying a sense of comedic timing. The fact that many of these poems have been born as spoken word pieces is obvious, and many of them ache to be performed, the shorter poems acting almost as one-liners between stand-up set pieces.

This feels like a truly accessible poetry collection, destroying the idea that poetry must be profound to be valued or effective. However, this doesn’t mean that Seigal is incapable of profundity, in fact, this easy humour just makes his personal pieces all the more hard-hitting.

‘Melancholy,’ each of its lines not much more than a monosyllable, outlines the pain of depression with stark, tender simplicity; ‘Hospital,’ equally slight, details the superstitions of someone dreading bad news. ‘David,’ the tale of a married couple desperately trying to meet the other’s expectations; ‘Instead,’ of lost love on the train; ‘A Poetry Gig Where My Parents Are The Only Audience Members,’ a presumably autobiographical account of attempting to make your parents proud. Even with these, Seigal continues to have fun with the physicality of language and the page. For example, two poems about fatherhood are printed next to each other, otherwise unlinked. But the ideas of one, a father being unable to get his infant son to point at a train, and the ideas of the other, a father and son lighting a bonfire together, suggest a son with a distant father wishing to reconnect.

These sparks of profundity steadily increase in frequency until the end of the collection, which is aflame with poignancy, ending on the titular ‘Advice to a Young Skydiver.’ This last poem is a neat summation of the collection, and a fitting choice for the title; concise and eloquent, the poem is an affectionate encouragement – ‘you can do it son’ – wrapped up in insightful, self-deprecating humour – ‘the ground’s the limit.’ With this, the collection lands, its wings firmly in place, victorious.