Oh, So That’s Where We Were Going
An Interview with Philip Gross
by Bryan R. Monte
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
Philip Gross is a prize-winning British poet, novelist, short story writer and university lecturer with more than 15 titles to his name. In 2009, he won the T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize for his book, The Water Table. In 2010 he won the Wales Book of the Year, and his next book, Deep Field (2011), won a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. His most recent book, Later (2013), continues Gross’ reflections on the limits of language, the liminal, fragile places around England’s rivers, estuaries and coast, his father’s death, and the physics and metaphysics of the social and natural universe. In this interview, he explains his development as a writer, his most recurring themes, his writing discipline and future projects.
Bryan Monte: With more than a dozen poetry books and six poetry awards, including the T.S. Eliot Prize, some people might think you began writing when you were quite young. How old were you when you first began to write poetry?
Philip Gross: I was 13 or 14. Prior to that, I had been writing stories. I’d been doing that since, oh, I don’t know – as long as I could hold a pen and write.
BM: Why did you begin writing poetry—for a school assignment or a family occasion or after hearing another writer read?
PG: I was writing a spy story, and there was this character in it, who was a diplomat and a poet. I thought: ‘why not try to get inside his mind a little by writing one of his poems?’ So I did. I never completed the novel, but the character, who wrote the poems, turned out to be… me. I wrote poetry for five or six years, until I went to university to study English. Then… That’s another story.
BM: Where was your poetry first published?
PG: In my school magazine. (Since this was the 1960s, it was an alternative magazine my friends and I, from several schools in Plymouth, started). Some of the poems were performed by a rock band we created too.
BM: Did you continue to write mostly for your own amusement or as an intellectual exercise?
PG: Oh, never just an intellectual exercise. When it threatened to become that, at university, I stopped. Besides, studying at university gave me politics, and some of the critical theory that made it easy to feel superior to the actual business of writing poetry so I thought ‘Why do it?’ There seemed to be more important serious things in life. In fact, the writing also found an alternative channel—alternative, that is, to my state of mind in those years. I wrote songs. Not many years after that, life caught up with me, in the form of becoming a parent—being there at the birth. And you know what? I found I needed poetry again.
BM: Name two or three poets you admired and read when you were young and how you think they influenced your own poetry.
PG: T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land was the first thing to kick me into wanting to be part of that world where I knew the words and images were moving me before my mind could grasp their meaning. In hindsight, certain cadences of classic poetry always physically affected me, but that was as a reader. It was the Eliot that made me need to be part of it.
It also led me into all kinds of haughty solemn mannerisms and a kind of prematurely middle-aged posture that needed to be shifted. Some of the ‘Liverpool Poets’ of the late Sixties helped to do that—a faint British aftershock of the Beats, in hindsight… and not an influence that lasted. But it did a job for me then. I do think writers seek out reading like animals seeking out nutrients in the landscape, by taste and instinct, dimly knowing what will rebalance an imbalance or answer a lack.
Ted Hughes was more substantial, with his combative nature poetry, a feel for the energy locked up in life and language. But all this was in the teenage phase, before the dormant time of university. Afterwards, I’m grateful for finding the different, warmer Modernism of Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts, the scientifically-informed surrealism of Peter Redgrove, then the shock of finding that form could be startling rather than consoling, in early Geoffrey Hill … and finally the gracious but raw address to history in Seamus Heaney’s bog poems in North. OK, by then I wasn’t ‘young’ any more – this was my late twenties … but it was a kind of second writing-birth.
BM: Do you remember any song lyrics or themes you wrote for your band that were reiterated later in your poetry? If so, are there any you are still concerned about today?
PG: What stays with me isn’t the words, mainly those of a reasonably gifted adolescent fighting his way through thickets of pretension. It’s the experience of making the music together—still one of my gut-level models of good collaboration. None of us were gifted musicians but just once in a while something passed around the space between us, almost physically lifting us to play better than any of us could play.
The singer-songwriters I came to admire weren’t much like what we played; they were the likes of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen (always sharper and gravely wittier than people tended to think), and Joni Mitchell with her way of twining effortless speech rhythms round the lines of music like ivy round a tree trunk. Later, Tom Waits, with his endlessly unsettling blends of surreal and sentimental, his weird ventriloquisms. All the men, at least, were anything but tuneful singers, but they had voice; it was the music of voice I liked… and still want that in poetry.
When I performed years later with an improvising, free-form band called Vanilla Allsorts, it was in spoken poetry, not song—words having a conversation, on their own terms, with the music round them. If anyone wants a clue to ‘hearing’ my lines on the page now, they could try thinking of the natural syncopations of voice rhythm growing round the musical beats of a line.
BM: Do you think that growing up in Cornwall inspired the recurring setting and theme in your poetry for the coastal landscape and (vague) borders?
PG: I was born in Cornwall and grew up in Plymouth… already a borderline—a real one, marked by the river Tamar with, at that time, only two chain-ferries crossing it. But the granite moors, with bogs and sudden clefts and rock-faces, on one side … and the sea on almost every other side. Yes, that sense of a physical place has always been there, and it’s still my inner landscape … even though I could never say simply where was home.
My mother’s family was Cornish, a long line of Methodist lay preachers, working in a saddler’s shop … but my mother’s father had been born in British India, blown to these shores by the First World War … (curiously like the way my father was brought by another war, another kind of exile.) I wrote a lot about it early on, then not, or not explicitly … and I have a feeling there is more to say about it now.
The sea, though, has often been there, as a real thing and a metaphor, especially when I found myself writing about my elderly father and aphasia. The sea, after all, is what connects the world, even if it sometimes marks a border, keeping man-made nation states apart.
BM: How much do you think your father’s refugee status after WWII and his emigration from continental Europe to England influenced your themes of borderlessness and the ability of language(s) (or lack thereof) to express perception and to communicate?
PG: His language was always good, almost too good to be a native speaker (and that in several languages, too, so I always knew that languages were relative, a matter of choice and of chance). It was his story that was the question, and it has been there in my writing from the very start—very explicitly in the recent books. The story of exile, of travelling on, is not unique; in fact, I’ve come to see it as what the human species, historically and prehistorically, did. In a globalised world, there will only be more of it to come.
But he wasn’t the kind of exile who insisted on his history, on passing it on. He kept it contained inside himself, where it had all the power of the thing not said. From him, I learned more than I realised at the time about open-endedness and implication, evocations, telling clues and hints—all good writerly stuff. For him to have simply expressed it, filled the house with his emotions, all the sentimental songs of home, would have been a pressure I would have resisted, especially when I came to my teens.
As it was, I spent half my life learning to be expressive, to perform a little more. (I was a child with a stammer, so this did some good.) Then, in time, I came to see the different power of containment, of not saying everything—I don’t mean being silenced but of choosing sometimes to hold one’s peace. This need not be forbidding; it can be an invitation. When I write, I never assume I can tell the reader everything; I write to enlist them, hopefully, in the same kind of looking. A lot of what they might see they will see for themselves.
BM: Do you have a specific writing discipline?
PG: In a different life I might have a writing discipline, but for the last ten years I’ve been white-water-rafting my way through a constantly competing jostle of calls from a full-time job, freelance writing and teaching and speaking engagements, the writing itself and family. The poetry seems to survive this pressure, or even perversely thrive on it. It comes up through the cracks. What has suffered has been the writing of long prose, like novels. Maybe that means that, under stress-testing conditions, I find that I’m a poet by necessity . . . and all the other kinds of writers that I’ve sometimes been (of prose, and radio and stage plays) merely by choice.
BM: When, where and how do you usually write?
PG: On the train. In the car, pulled over in a layby, with my small black notebook. First thing in the morning or late evening, in a bigger black notebook/journal/studio-space for words.
BM: Do you know where you’re going when you start a poem or does the destination only become clear once you’re well underway?
‘Writing a poem’ is often not what I think I’m doing when I start. One might emerge from the general mulch of thinking and setting down words. Other times, such as being offered an invitation to write to a commission or a wish of my own to write for a person or occasion, I might start from a kind of alertness for the poem that might resonate in that space, with no idea yet what it might be. Other times again the resonant space might be in the to-and-fro of a collaboration. That would include those times when I’m leading a writing workshop and write alongside everyone else—a guarantee that what I’m asking them to do is something I’d find meaningful to do myself.
Quite a number of poems that have appeared in my books began life in a workshop or a writing game…only to reveal themselves later to be part of a train of thought and feeling going back for years, underground, not breaking surface till they had that provocation. You can tell from that answer that I often don’t know, almost don’t believe in knowing, where a poem needs to lead until it’s done. Or rather, the experience of done-ness is exactly that, when I look at the poem and think: Oh, so that’s where we were going!
BM: How many drafts does one of your poems usually go through before it’s “finished?”
PG: If any students of mine are reading this, here’s a confession. I’m a hypocrite, but only superficially so. I’m always telling you to make time for your writing. I’m always telling you to do draft after draft and . . . well, sometimes I do. Other times I sense a rapid movement of the language that seems so sure of itself that even if I can’t quite see why it must be like that, I trust it and say stet – let it stand.
On the surface, then, I’m a hypocrite. At another level, I know that I’m almost always in a writing posture, in readiness, and sometimes I whip that notebook out in the most inappropriate situations. Living and looking around as a writer is just what I do, and I’m never really off the job. I might say something similar about drafting. The judgment of this-word-that-word-what-about-a-pause-or-nuance-there is just the state I live in. I’m redrafting myself all the time.
BM: Have you ever written a poem that came out after one or just a few drafts exactly as it was later published? If so, could you name some of these poems?
PG: The corollary of this—of always being on the job—is that in one sense you pay over the odds for all the actual poems that get written. And equally, some times you get something that feels like a free gift, made whole, just landing in your lap. (No, I’m not going to out specific poems . . . partly because that feels like making a special claim for them above the others, but mainly because I often don’t remember.) As in real-world economics, the free gifts and the over-the-odds-ness come out roughly even in the end.
BM: Do you develop/address your poetic themes consciously when you start to write a poem or do they come about more subconsciously?
PG: I trust the themes that emerge more than the ones I’ve put in by conscious intention. At the same time I know there are concerns and preoccupations, in the sense of long-running conversations going on inside me, so there’s an appetite to notice certain things, or to catch a glimpse of something I’ve already met at a different angle and say, Yes, but on the other hand . . . Even after a book is published, poems keep on popping up later to remind me there’s more to be said.
And the tremendously strong gravitational field in whose grip my last two collections have orbited, that of my father’s old age and the failing of his body and his language, clearly opens out into questions that stay with me well beyond his death… because, well, it leaves me as the oldest generation in the family, with no one standing between me and an old age of my own.
BM: How do you explain the shift in emphasis in your poetry from personal and social relations and politics in the ’80s and ’90s, to one which is somewhat less social and political but which has embraced, to a greater extent, physics, metaphysics and the limitations of language (for example, in your later collections such as The Egg of Zero, The Water Table, Deep Field and Later?)
PG: It is always revealing for me to have some alert and patient reader discern large-scale shifts such as you feel you are seeing here. Am I aware of them? I do have a sense that Changes of Address: Poems 1980-98 was a conscious packing up and letting go of everything up to that point, a granting myself some permission to find out what comes next. It was also the start of a new phase of my life in other ways—a new marriage, a new relationship to my work in universities, and maybe a new coming-clean about the subtle relationship between being a Quaker and a writer too.
And yet . . . many of the threads there in the early books are still in the weaving. I started my poetry life writing about my father’s Estonian experience; quite recently, in Deep Field, I found myself dealing with it in more detail than ever before. I always responded to the spirit of a place, initially very much in the southwest of England, but the (almost literal) immersion in the estuary landscape where I live now is the same urge, just a different place.
In the next collection, there will even be poems specifically about Cornwall again. As for social and political concerns, living in a complex, multi-ethnic energetic city like Bristol made some of those rather vivid for me. But a forthcoming book will be responding to South Wales, specifically the edgy, wounded post-industrial ex-mining culture and landscape of the Taff valley where I work now.
Maybe part of the shift is to do with how much a poem is about what it’s ‘about’. I think the question of about-ness is intriguing. Early on, I often wrote about a place in a way that reflected a moment of emotion or relationship taking place against that backdrop. Or alternatively, I wrote in, even invented, a relationship to give expression to the place. I suspect that now that multi-layering is just more closely interwoven, so that The Water Table is about the land-and-water-scape . . . and is equally about the yearnings and the losses that we find reflected in it, and about our ways of looking, and about relationships, not least the relationship with our own sense of self. No one of these levels is just a metaphor or symbol of the other. They are equally there.
BM: To what extent do you think Quakerism has influenced your writing—your poetry’s themes, your writing process, and/or how you practise your vocation as a poet?
PG: It has been a slow process, noticing that more and more I explain what I’m doing in writing, and often in the way I hope to enable other people’s writing too, by reference to what Quakers do—the experience of worship as a patient and alert form of listening. You bring your self, your appetites and your thoughts with you, of course, but what you hope to find is something else, something that particular resonant listening space, shared with other people, might present you with. It might be in, or just behind, other people’s words. It might be in the silence. Modern Quakers have a great range of ways of explaining where that something else might come from, sometimes in traditional terms, sometimes not in necessarily religious language at all. The interesting thing is that we might articulate it in different ways, but we all recognise that experience as the same.
The relationship I want with poetry (which means with other writers, past and present, and with other readers) feels very akin to that resonant, listening space. In it, what other people find in your contribution might be different from what you felt you put in, and it may also be true. In Quaker meetings, you don’t debate—you can lay quite different experiences side by side, to be part of a process that might know better than any one of you. To speak in a way that leaves space for other people is a virtue—you might say, a gift.
BM: Is your repeated exploration of zero, negation or loss influenced by Postmodern philosophy which is more concerned with gaps and what’s missing over what’s present and connected?
PG: These un-things, like the number zero, seem almost never to have had a negative feeling for me. (Regarding shifts over time, note that my collaborative verse-fable with Sylvia Kantaris, The Air Mines of Mistila, was doing playful-but-serious business with nothings more than a quarter of a century ago.) Postmodern philosophy wasn’t my door to thoughts on these lines, though it has been interesting, in my academic life, to find myself sometimes in the same room as it, once it peeled back its layers of jargon enough to be seen. As long as I’ve been aware of Buddhism, which is all of my adult life, I’ve known that their Void was the place of endless and emergent possibility. At best, Quaker worship looks towards that fertile space.
I’m aware, of course, that the world has outer darknesses that people are consigned to by all kinds of forces, oppressions, illnesses and so on . . . and that there are silences of suppression and repression, as I’ve said—being silenced as opposed to holding one’s peace. I hope poetry can be aware of all that, too. Some people might want poetry to propose the answers. In a world replete with ideologies, I’m sceptical about answers—we need more and better questions. I would rather contribute to building and holding that resonant, questioning space, in which we can notice more, have wider sympathies and with luck even think beyond our own opinions.
What comes out of that space is not magic. It is our kind of work and discipline—not the only useful one, but the one that I seem to be built for, dealing with these curious contraptions made from words and silence, from the black ink and white space on the page.
BM: Were you surprised to win the T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize?
PG: Yes. That’s not modesty – just an acknowledgement that there are many good poems or books that are worth the keen attention that an award can bring; only some of them catch a fair wind and win one.
BM: Has it changed your life?
PG: A bit of praise is nice, of course—balm for the ego—but for the poems to be really encountered, to be read as if they matter, that’s the real thing. I rarely turn down an invitation to bring the poems to listeners and readers, and of course there were more invitations after 2009. This has hardly ebbed at all since. Winning Wales Book of the Year 2010 with a cross-arts collaboration I Spy Pinhole Eye, and the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education Award for children’s poetry in 2011 with Off Road To Everywhere did not make life simpler.
Dropping this new visibility into a timetable that felt already full with university and writing work and family seems to have taught me a dubious lesson – that with a bit of deft juggling and a lot less sleep the quart-into-a-pint-pot trick can be done. Whether it can be carried off indefinitely is another matter, but I’ve never planned on living indefinitely, either . . . and in the meantime there’s work to be done.
BM: In addition to being a poet, you’ve also written five children’s novels. Do you still have time for novel writing, or is your time taken up mostly with the writing, teaching and talking about poetry?
PG: You point at the one part of the work that seriously struggles to find itself a space. Writing novels is a thing I can’t pick up and drop, dip out and dip back into. Trying to do that simply hurts—like grating the gears of a car into forward and reverse and back again without a clutch. Somehow poetry survives, even perversely thrives, under that pressure. There is more fiction writing I’d like to explore, but it might not be for the children’s market. The novels I wrote under that heading were anyway working their way to a point where you could question whether they were children’s novels any more. So maybe (it occurs to me, for the first time, as I say this) I’m using the enforced pause on this front to let new directions clarify.
BM: Were you consciously concerned with England’s problems related to flooding and conservation when you wrote The Water Table? Do you see this book’s and your other books’ concerns with or awareness of borderlands—the coast, rivers, and wetlands—as emblematic or prophetic of the UK’s current water management problems?
PG: When The Water Table came out I was asked whether it was a response to the then debate about building a tidal barrage across the Severn Estuary. Now it looks as if I was predicting last year’s flooding crisis… though we quickly forget that only the year before there was deep concern about impending drought. No, water has always been the most present element in my writing, and I wrote about the estuary because… because it was there. Crossing it defined a new stage in my life. And it offered an almost fractal elaboration of questions about boundaries and separations, limits and belonging, not least between the human and the natural world.
At the same time, I’m aware, as any thinking person must be, that this last relationship, between the human and the wider context, demands attention. From here on it will be reaching into every corner of our lives, and in unpredictable ways. In a sense it always did, but for most of human history the answer seemed straightforward (if hard to do): defend ourselves, master the surroundings, put the green stuff in its place. Now maybe we are faced with much more complicated choices.
The opening poem in Later gives a birds’-eye view of water, as I saw it from an aircraft flying down the spine of Wales. That’s a view that puts us in our place. The migration of birds meant a great deal to the ancient people of Estonia, and I seem to have inherited that. To me, it also suggests the migratory paths of people – from the start of human history, but especially a visible and public issue now.
In a recent collaborative piece of work on wetlands with a natural resource economist, a cultural ecologist, an anthropologist and a visual artist, I found myself writing the keynote text for the project, a list-form prose poem called “Wetland Thinking.” This attempted the (of course) impossible, to imagine the interconnected world of things looking back at us—not with any heavy eco-moralism, as it turned out, but with a wry challenge: can our famous human ingenuity and imagination help us make that step outside our own perspective, even just for a glimpse?
BM: What are some “projects” in which you are currently engaged?
PG: I mentioned earlier that I have been writing about the Taff Valley—concurrently with the earlier books, and still ongoing business now. This will be a book with artwork and design from Cardiff-based artist Valerie Coffin Price. Like all my work with artists, it will also be looking at the co-working itself, with the different ways of seeing, the resources different arts bring with them. It will be watching our negotiations on that boundary. The Taff itself, famously unpredictable water, sometimes harnessed, sometimes polluted but never quite governable, flows through that writing as well.
And a new collection of poems has just coalesced. It’s called Love Songs of Carbon—yes, that’s the stuff of our bodies, mainly. Carbon and water, in not very stable combinations. Those poems are lying on my editor’s desk right now. What after that? Don’t ask me. Look inside my notebook, or listen to it. There: drip, drip….