Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Neal Zetter

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Neal Zetter

Neal is an award-winning comedy performance poet, children’s author, and entertainer with a 25-year background in communication management and mentoring. He uses his interactive rhythmic, rhyming poetry to to develop literacy, confidence, creativity and communications skills in 3-103 yr olds, making words and language accessible for the least engaged whilst streeeeeeetching the most able.

Workshops & Performing

Most days Neal is found performing or running fun poetry writing or performance workshops in schools and libraries with children, teens, adults or families. He has worked in all 33 London Boroughs and many, many other UK cities. More challenging poetry projects have involved workshops for people with brain injury, mental health, drug and alcohol problems, offenders, those with learning difficulties, homeless, other special needs including not having English as a first language.

Neal also produces adult comedy performance poetry and has nearly 30 years of experience appearing at e.g. West End comedy clubs, the Royal Festival Hall, various festivals, in the centre circle of a League 2 football pitch (!) and even a funeral (!!). He ran his own spoken word-based comedy club (Word Down Walthamstow) 2009-13. Neal has compiled and hosted/compered shows with the likes of John Cooper Clarke, Attila the Stockbroker, Michael Rosen and shared bills with Harry Hill, Phil Jupitus, Mark Lamaar, Omid Djalili and more.

Books

Neal children’s comedy poetry books, all published by Troika, include:

For 6-13 year olds:

  • Gorilla Ballerina (A Book of Bonkers Animal Poems) – a collection of wacky poems about weird animals
  • Invasion of the Supervillains (Raps and Rhymes to Worry the Galaxy) – evil companion book to ‘Superheroes’ (below)
  • Yuck & Yum (A Feast of Funny Food Poems), with poetry pal Joshua Seigal
  • Here Comes the Superheroes (Raps and Rhymes to Save the Galaxy) – in the Reading Agency’s top 15 children’s poetry books
  • It’s Not Fine to Sit on a Porcupine – in BookTrust’s top 20 children’s poetry books
  • Bees in My Bananas – a Wishing Shelf Award winner

For 2-6 year olds:

  • SSSSNAP! Mister Shark
  • Odd Socks!

Due Sept 2020 and Sept 2021 for 6-13 year olds

  • When the Bell Goes (A Rapping Rhyming Trip through Childhood) – a semi-autobiographical poetry collection on the theme of childhood covering growing up, school and family life
  • Scared? (Poems from the Darker Side) – a collection of funny, and maybe a few more serious ones, about many aspects of fear

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I wrote my first poem when I was six – a limerick which now appears in the intro to my first book, Bees in My Bananas. I always enjoyed making people laugh and have had an inbuilt sense of rhythm and rhyming for as long as I can remember. So I began writing poetry as naturally as some people learn a new language – there was no grand plan but I have never stopped writing poems since I was a tender year 2 student. And the poem?

There was an old lady from Hull
And she bumped into a bull
The bull said ‘Ow!”
Bashed into a cow
And the cow crashed into the wall!

Not a classic but Love Me Do was hardly the best Beatles song, just a fab start!

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

My Dad used to read to me in bed at night before I was able too. I especially liked the poems he read, the main two that stuck in my head were the classic Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss and The Train to Timbuctoo from Margaret Wise Brown (Google it – it’s a great single-poem book as is the aforementioned ‘Cat’). Both were beautifully rhythmic with strong rhyming and contained many new and exciting fun words, some made up and some that made no sense to me at all – but that’s the joy of poetry and reading!

3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

Great question! Let me answer it in parts. When I I was  a primary school child I wasn’t really aware of poets apart from Dr Seuss as mentioned in my earlier reply. I knew poems, but not so aware who wrote them.

In secondary school I studied Eng Lit to A Level and regularly had rows with my teacher over my frustration at studying Wordsworth, Coleridge, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Keats etc. I absolutely see they were fine poets but they didn’t speak to ME a teenager in 1970s London into punk rock, footy and left-wing politics. I needed to hear poems about those topics and the other things in my life. Of course she never agreed with me 😎.

(So, as I was musically inept, despite my love of it, I started to write song lyrics and worked with tune writers to construct songs In a (completely naff) local band (but we thought we were superstars). Bernie Taupin was my role model but I loved the Stones’ land Clash lyrics and Webber/Rice musicals.)

In my very late teens and beyond I started to write poems prolifically but I still could not name any poets of renown. My home-produced books (6) sold in less than three figures and that wasn’t enough as I needed to share my work, after all every poet is a communicator. I saw adverts in Time Out magazine for performance poetry clubs and comedy clubs in the West End and that’s where it all REALLY began for me. It was a scene and for the first time I got to meet and mix with other poets and learn how to produce the right kind of poems to entertain and engage an audience, as well as make them laugh. So, no longer in a vacuum, I compered for and performed with the likes of John Cooper Clarke (the Godfather of performance poetry!), Attila the Stockbroker, Porky the Poet (AKA Phil Jupitus) etc.

Nearly all the poets I’d met or read since my school days were older and, in 1989 when my performance career really started, I was very aware of their presence and influence – I looked up to them. Now I guess, 60 next week, I try to affect younger poets and those starting out in the same way: advising, encouraging and mentoring. And that’s something I really enjoy doing.

Maybe in 50 yrs time or less, my poetry will be as irrelevant to people then as the poets I studied at A Level were to me. And there will be nothing wrong with that. I get it!

3.1. What is the right kind of poem to engage and entertain?

One with a repetitive rhythm, strong rhyme and a chorus/repeated word/line. This works well with my children’s poetry (in class and on assemblies) and adult poetry (in clubs, at arts events etc). We call them ‘call and response’ poems in the trade or often I refer to them as ‘interactive’ and I should add the poems must be about a topic people can relate to in a voice and with words that speak to them.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I don’t have one. I try to write at different times of the day, on different days of the week and in as many different places as possible. Doing that means there are no times I feel I am unable to write and that must be a good thing. I guess indie cafes are my favourite places but, as I don’t drive and travel by public transport, I do loads of writing on trains, tubes and buses. Other regular haunts are the British Library, Foyle’s Bookshop in Charing X Road and home of course

5. What motivates you to write?

I am very self-motivated when it comes to writing. I always feel I have something to say about things that other people will find interesting too. I am never stuck for ideas, have never experienced writers’ block and keep a long list of topics for future poems. I have written my next three books due out the next three Septembers am already planning more. And the ideas themselves come from keeping my ears and eyes constantly open and writing about what’s around me and my experiences e.g. people I meet, places I go to, things I hear on the news etc

6. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

My influences are threefold:

The aforementioned Dr Seuss and Mary Wise Brown books inspired my rhythmic, rhyming and comedy poems. Other poets like Edward Lear and Spike Milligan did the same.

I have always had a love of music too as I explained so, as I used to write song lyrics it’s not surprising that my poems, as well as being very rhythmic and containing strong rhymes also have choruses and a strong use of repetition.

Finally, since before I could even read, I have had a love of superhero comics, especially Marvel. I used to look at the pictures when my brother collected them and when old enough to read myself I started avidly buying and collecting them myself and have never really stopped. In fact I bought this month’s new Marvel Avengers comic today. These streeeeetched my imagination, developed my vocab and taught me a lot about what was going on in the world around me e.g. politics, Vietnam Nam War, life/death, relationships, history, space and science etc. And of course this love of comics also inspired both my Superheroes and Supervillains poetry books. Keen comic fans will immediately spot some of the styles and influences from the 1960/70 Marvel and DC comics in particular. Without any doubt at all, if I never read these comics I would not have become a poet and author.

7. Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

As I read mainly Biggs, auto-biogs, social history, popular science and other non-fiction my book choices are theme-led rather than author-led so I have not got too many favourites. However I especially like Bill Bryson, Mark Kermode, Jon Ronson and Malcolm Gladwell as they all have a fantastic writing style and a passion for their subject. The last four books I read are Van Gogh’s Ear, The Radium Girls, Chernobyl and A History of the World in 21 Women with many Marvel comics squeezed in between.

The poets I especially admire are the ones that have been on the scene for many years like Michael Rosen, Brian Moses, John Cooper Clarke and Benjamin Zephaniah – you have to take your hat off to them for the quality and quantity of their output. I hope I achieve at least equal longevity as I certainly want to continue what I do until I leave this planet.

8. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

I write because I must. A poet is what I am not what I do. So, while I might be able to lose interest In other hobbies, jobs and pastimes, I can never give up being a poet.

9. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Read, write, read, write, read, write adI infinitum. Like anything you wish to do well, the more you practise and immerse yourself in it the better you will get.
And write from the heart about what you love, like, dislike and hate – about what you feel and what matters to you – and you will produce your best work.

9.1. Why write children’s books?

I write poetry for children, teens and adults but, to date, have only produced children’s books. This is because I make my living performing and running workshops in schools virtually every day so the book buyers are there in front of me. Most days end with a book sale with children I have worked with wanting a memento of the day, signed and dedicated. Given the above my writing is certainly weighted to the younger market especially as, sadly, not many teens or adults want to buy poetry books, even if they enjoy listening to poems for their age group.

10. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

In my biog you will see details of the next two books I have due in Sept 2020 and 2021, both written. I am working on my 2022 poetry book now (the title is a secret!) and am looking at both an anthology of mixed poems and an EY/KS1 book for the near future.

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