Interview: David Neita

Today we’ve sat down with a man whose life path has brought him to pursue what many of us might view as opposing careers; David is a successful human rights lawyer, supporting claimants from the Windrush Generation amongst others, and is also a published poet whose works have influenced people from every corner of society. So, how is it that these two can live in harmony, and how has this man’s powerfully tangible message of ‘slowing down’ become a soothing tonic for our overstimulated minds? Let’s find out, by meeting David Neita, The Poetry Lawyer:

The first thing that we wanted to ask you really was if you could tell us a little bit about your journey, how you came to be living in London, and how you found your voice in poetry? Is it something that you’ve always immersed yourself in? When did you know that poetry was for you?

Well, I always knew that poetry was an art form that I could connect with. It was introduced to me very early in my life; even before schooling in Jamaica there is a poetic rhythm in Jamaica, the way of life is poetic to start with, the way the work day is scheduled, the movement of the people, the songs on the radio, the sounds of the animals, the agriculture around you - there is a poetry there. I picked up on poetry because it is so important in my culture, in that it is used in the reggae music I grew up with, it is used for spoken word, and so I was hearing it all the time. I admired it, and I saw that it had a power to arrest people’s attention. In a space where I wanted to share ideas, in school for example, I thought that poetry connected with my peers, a lot more easily than making a speech. So I was writing poetry from a very young age. It was just a hobby, and I did it for fun, to make people either think or laugh, or consider, or cry, or evoke emotion.

I had been to England very early on in the 80’s, as part of an exchange programme, and I fell in love with the city of London. And the same poetry that I was feeling in Jamaica, I was feeling in London; the movement of the busses and the taxis, the movement of the people. The whole thing was poetic, and I started to write about it. I studied law in America, and I went to the only law school in America which had a one year exchange programme with England, and in your second year you could opt to come to London to study, so I did that, and when I came here, I never went back. I felt more a sense of home here in the UK.

In 2015 you performed your poem, ‘Slow Down’ at a TED Talk. Having gone through a global pandemic, and a national lockdown, life for many feels even faster than it ever has, even though we have become more restricted. Does the sentiment of your poem still ring true to you, and in what ways do you think it has changed? 

I think the lockdown was devastating for a lot of people, when you think about how it affected people’s mental wellbeing, and people’s ability to work or make money. But, on the other side of it, because people were forced to slow down, it made people reconsider their priorities, and many people started new things; learning another language, learning the importance of visiting family. I started drawing cartoons every day, based on the political situation. You’re locked in your house, and so people started to discover their local parks and outside spaces, the value of walking. And some of those habits have stayed around. People have said, ‘well, this worked for me during lockdown, maybe I should take this forward into this new opening. And maybe I don’t have to go back to the pace that I was working at before,’ because people discover the value of slowing down.

I went to an island once, in Thailand, called Koh Tan. And in Koh Tan there is no electricity, there are cats but there are no dogs because of the sonar emitted by the large bat population, and the children have to go on a boat to go to school. Apparently sometimes the wealthy go to Koh Tan for a week, just to force themselves - because there is no electricity; when it’s dark you have to go to bed, when it’s light you wake up, and it rebalances the circadian rhythm, and gets them appreciating the business of working with nature, and not working against nature. I think all of these things can be reminders that we can be more simpatico with our nature. Sometimes, by speeding up you think that you’re getting more, but actually you’re missing out. And that’s sometimes the value of slowing down, and just seeing more, and experiencing more; it’s in that context that I wrote that poem. We all know that you could be working long and hard, and not be as rewarded as working considered, and smart and just taking time. Slowing down was enforced upon us, and now we realise that we can enforce it on ourselves.

How do you feel that the focus of your poetry has changed over the last five years, and how optimistic do you feel about the future?

Well, there was a time when I refused to write any romance poetry; I thought that ‘If I’m going to be a poet, I must be a serious poet, writing about serious things.’ I was forced to write a romance poem when I was invited to a valentines day event at the House of Commons. And they said, ‘no, we don’t want anything about love of mother nature, or anything like that’, so I made myself do it, and I discovered that, by doing it, it was really appreciated, and people came up to me to say ‘can we buy your book?’. And I realised that you shouldn’t put limitations on your work, you should be open to write about everything. So right now, I don’t adopt a particular style, I feel that I should experiment in writing in different ways, and on a range of subjects. There should be no subject that I’m afraid to write about or explore.

Another way it has changed for me is that, if you’re waiting for an inspiration to write, you will have a very small number of poems. But if you want to be a consummate writer, and have the discipline of writing, then you can truly start to generate a body of work. What I’ve just expressed is a sort of western way of thinking, of gathering a lot of something, but that’s not the value of the haiku poets. What I discovered when I was looking at haiku, is that some of the greatest writers don’t have a lot of poems. Their rating is not in the number of poetry that they write, but in the quality of the poems. If you look at Bashō, and Onitsura, it was about writing that one beautiful poem. I’d like to keep a balance of the two; that quality, but also that practice of repeating a task, and getting better at it.

The last question is about the duality of your careers. You have your very, sort of, facts and figures career as a successful lawyer, and the very purely artistic, and from the soul career of being a poet. How do you find that those two intertwine with each other; do you get to use much of your artistry in your legal work? And vice versa.

Absolutely, I think they influence each other. There was a limiting belief in certain families when I was growing up, which was that ‘you’re either academic, or you’re sporty.’ Some parents would tell their children, “you’re not playing football, because you need to do your work”. And actually, everyone can see the evidence now of people who do both, and one helps the other. I’ve always felt that you need to have a balance in your life, doing a number of things which compliment each other. So, I’ve always thought that the creative side, and the academic side could work together.

A lot of my poetry is actually about law, and critiquing the system of law that we have. And I can critique in a creative way. I’m working with the Windrush compensation claims now, and I’ve written two plays about it, and one of those plays I’m taking to Edinburgh festival. My work in the law, I need an outlet. So yes, I’m trying to get justice for the clients, but I find an outlet so I write a play, the play then gets taken on, and the play is then used to bring in more clients. So I think they can work together.

No matter what area of life people are working in, if they allow themselves to engage in their interests, they’ll find that it will actually improve their work, not diminish it.

Also, there is the aspect of your poetic and philosophical stance of slowing down, considering the decision, must apply brilliantly to your legal work. If you can take a step back and say, ‘actually, what is the right thing to do here’. That’s quite a poetic way to look at it. 

Definitely, it is important to think through legal issues in that way, but it doesn’t always help your bottom line, in terms of making money from law. The courts want a longer process, which means that the client is paying more. And I get this with divorce clients as well; the amount of people I’ve sat down with and found there was just one thing they’re arguing about, and we could just negotiate that thing. And that is about slowing down and not just rushing. The first reaction is often self, and ego, but if you think about it, the right response might be, ‘let me subjugate self, for a bigger cause’, so in law it is definitely, definitely important to bring in the creative side.