Robert Zell is the author of two chapbooks (One and Reflections). His poems have been published in Whirlwind Magazine, Danse Macabre, Poetry Ink and others. Bob has a B.A. in Psychology and Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. Zell hosts monthly readings at the historic Pen and Pencil Club in Philadelphia.
Interview with g emil reutter
GER: Did your background in philosophy have an impact on your poetry?
BZ: When I was younger, I thought the purpose of philosophy was to clarify language and search for truth (Logical Positivism), but then I took a course on Friedrich Nietzsche and that kind of twisted my brain inside out. He wrote about subjectivity, hidden motives behind people’s beliefs, highlighting the many nuances and limitations of language. In particular, I think his writing of aphorisms was what eventually (many years later) led to my writing poetry. He’d write these bite-sized, little nuggets of wisdom or come at you with a unique and highly original perspective that you could meditate upon. I experimented with aphorisms, then later, much to my own surprise—poetry—during a difficult time in my life. Frankly, I had no interest in poetry and never read any except in high school when I had to, until I started writing it myself. My only inspiration I can imagine is song lyrics, especially Ronnie James Dio and some other metal artists who wrote songs that had a lot of meaning behind them. Listening to music is a great inspiration to me.
GER: Why poetry?
BZ: First, I wrote for catharsis, then I shared some of my early pieces to friends who encouraged me to write more, and I found it came relatively easy to me. I had worked on my vocabulary over the years and found a way to inject some improvised structure into my writing. I have a background in psychology and hypnosis and there’s almost always a line or two (sometimes almost entire poems) which were informed by those fields. Nietzsche was a multi-level writer who explored a lot of unconscious themes and I kind of follow in his footsteps. But I don’t ever think I made a choice to be a poet, it just bubbled up from inside.
GER: It wasn’t too long ago you took a road trip and reconnected with nature. What impact did it have on you as a person and as a poet?
BZ: I live in South Philly and there’s not a whole lot around me or in my everyday travels that allows me to get away from the hustle and bustle of modernity. When I get out into the woods, hiking and photographing, I feel like I’m in an altered state. My senses awaken, my mental chatter diminishes, and I look at my surroundings almost from a child’s viewpoint, and I feel at peace. I think being in nature enhances your powers of observation and you sense details you never did before, and then you can bring those details and imagery to your poems. And as a person, you become less self-absorbed because you realize there are so many experiences you can open yourself up to and that the world is enormous and often beautiful once you stop focusing on the negatives in your life.
GER: How long have you hosted the Pen and Pencil Poetry Series?
BZ: It’s been almost 8 years from the first reading until now (we didn’t have reading for almost two years during the height of the pandemic).
GER: How would you describe your interaction with poets who visit your series?
BZ: I love it. There’s a real positive energy in the room during the reading and the conversation afterwards is always lively. P&P transforms into a super supportive environment with everyone encouraging each other to write more or read at the open mic. I’m hoping to continue building a sense of community and continuity by doing readings every First Sunday.
GER: You have recorded over 300 poets reading in Philadelphia at various venues, but mostly at your series at the Pen and Pencil Club. Your YOUTUBE channel is a historical record of poets in Philadelphia. Have you ever viewed yourself as a poetic historian?
BZ: No. I thought it would be nice for everybody to have a record of themselves reading so they could share it with their family, friends, and fans. It also helps with promoting everyone’s material and readings, including my own. But you are correct in pointing out the channel is a historical record, as I pat myself on the back.
GER: You have published a few collections. Can you tell us about your collections, One and Reflections?
BZ: One was a collection of poems from my first year of writing poetry. Reflections was from the second year. I planned on doing at least one chapbook a year, but that plan didn’t quite unfold the way I hoped. I love the creative act of writing poetry, but I’m not as dedicated to the editing and publishing process. I don’t know if there’s any themes I had in mind when I compiled the collections; I just selected what I thought was my best work during those time frames. Both collections are quite diverse. I have a sonnet in each, I have several storytelling poems that were created out of thin air, and some based on my life experiences, I have some confessional poems and some that are isomorphic metaphors for something in my life that I disguise. I think the one thing that ties most of my published work together is there’s a positive message by the end however dark and gloomy I veer off along the way. That’s as much for me (who probably reads my poems more than anyone else) as it is for the audience.
GER: How many poems have you written, and do you plan on developing another collection for publication?
BZ: There was a point several years ago where I was writing at least 10 poems a week (most not very long). I haven’t approached that pace again, but I still have a huge number that I thought were worth keeping at varying degrees in the editing process. I probably have about 100-120 poems close to fully edited. I have several hundred more which may or may not be worth revisiting.
GER: What poets do you look to for inspiration in your own writing?
BZ: John O’Donohue, Diane Ackerman, William Butler Yeats, Walt Whitman, the Romantic Poets, William Blake, Seamus Heaney, Robert Frost, William Shakespeare, and several local poets who have read at my series (no names).
GER: Where is Bob Zell heading?
BZ: I’ve been working a lot between bartending and bouncing, and I’ve been burning out, especially from the latter. I’m planning on opening a hypnosis practice in the coming months and I’m hoping that if I start getting clients, I will not continue to work three part-time jobs and I’ll have more free time to edit and hopefully publish a chapbook or a full-length collection by year’s end. I will continue to host the Pen and Pencil reading series for the foreseeable future and I think I’ll be going to many more readings elsewhere now that things have opened-up again. And I’m opening-up again, writing more, and welcoming positive changes into my life.
Find Bob Zell at Amazon:
Bob Zell’s YOUTUBE channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCVXeHjv2E1a8UBWCIS6OcAQ/videos
You can contact Bob at: firstname.lastname@example.org
g emil reutter can be found at https://gereutter.wordpress.com/about/