Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Philip Gross

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.

Philip Gross

has published some twenty collections of poetry, most recently A Bright Acoustic (Bloodaxe, 2017). The Water Table won the T.S.Eliot Prize 2009, and Love Songs of Carbon the Roland Mathias Award (Wales Book of The Year) 2016. He is a keen collaborator, e.g. with artist Valerie Coffin Price on A Fold In The River (Seren, 2015), with Australian poet-artist Jenny Pollak on Shadowplay (Flarestack, 2018) and with scientists from the National Museum of Wales on a science-based poetry collection for young people, Dark Sky Park (Otter-Barry Books, 2018). A Part of the Main – a collaboration between Philip Gross and Lesley Saunders on themes of migration, exile, loss of love or home or language – comes from Mulfran, shortly.   http://www.philipgross.co.uk

The Interview

1. When did you start writing poetry?

Rather surreptitiously, concealing it not so much from other people as myself… I was 13 or 14, a writer of stories from the age of 9 or 10, and I was following the natural kind of self-apprenticeship where you read. read, fill yourself up with it, then have to write your own story in that style or genre. Trying on the clothes of writers you admire, to see if they fit. In my case (this was the early 1960s) I was reading spy stories, gravitating up the literary scale from Ian Fleming through John Le Carre on to Graham Greene. In mid-Greene-pastiche I found myself writing about a diplomat who was a spy and, yes, a poet. ‘Found myself’ is right, because I had a go at writing a poem of his… and I never came back to the novel. But the poetry went on.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I’d say my father… except that it was a private thing for him. A wartime refugee from Estonia, still mastering the English language, he kept a commonplace book, copying poems by hand when he found one that touched him. It was private, but not secret; the Estonian way is to keep the things that matter to you in a safe place, and close to your heart. Now and then, though, he would share one, but mainly it was the sight of his handwriting – like reading made visible, a glimpse of him becoming the poems – and knowing what that gradually more dog-eared notebook meant to him.

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

‘Dominating’? That’s not how I felt it. I was stumbling into a new landscape, and they were the landmarks visible. I wasn’t particularly guided to them, or put in awe of them, by school, but there was a fairly well stocked library, where I found The Waste Land for myself. It’s a very of-the-current-moment attitude that says we should read writers who look and sound like, and are the same age as, ourselves. That’s what I was trying to get away from!  I was adolescent, with no strong sense of a self to express yet. I wanted to encounter whatever was out there, in the wide world, and be part of it.

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

Like inhabitants of a town that was once home, which I’m glad I left – still grateful to them, but I can see them more objectively. That goes through phases, too ; when as a young adult I started to know more about TS Eliot – that cold-fish haughtiness, his later mournful piety, some of his social attitudes – I hastily shed my admiration; a bit later again, I could see some of the vulnerability it came from, and grew less inclined to judge people of another era until I could imagine who I would have been had I lived then and breathed that air.  Writers who seemed more of my own moment, in the 60s, are more likely to have dated. Penguin’s Liverpool Scene anthology went everywhere with me for a while, as did Children of Albion, that monument to the late 60s ‘underground’, but left no trace on my writing. Lasting influences tended to come later, and to ripen slowly, too. I’m not inclined to trust the ways the poetry world’s attention shifts, and reputations with it, but I do take magazines; I am alert for quality work emerging online. I read the contemporary in the expectation that a few of the seeds that plant themselves in me will ripen slowly – that years hence I’ll notice that work which was a closed door to me for years has suddenly swung open, and I’ll think Yes-s-s…. That’s how it’s happened so far.  I trust it.  That’s why I don’t often write reviews: my instinct is, as Chinese leader Zhou Enlai said about the French Revolution (apocrypha alert; this story may be less true than it ought to be): ‘It’s too soon to say.’

5.What is your daily writing routine?

Routine? Oh, I wish. Or no, be honest: maybe I don’t, or I could do it now, presumably, having kicked free of the university teaching that’s shaped much of the last twenty years. Small notebooks travel with me everywhere, and some of the best times to catch forming possibilities is on the train, in transit, in the spaces between something else. True, I have the luxury of knowing that there will be time to pick the threads up later, usually. I might even be reproducing quite deliberately the pressure of a busy day-job life, because I need the friction. Poems are tough weeds; they like the cracks in pavements, maybe better than a well-dug-over bed.

6. What is your work ethic?

People have tended to tell me that I get things done – twenty-odd books of poetry have come from somewhere – though it’s sometimes hard to spot it on the surface. I still feel the need to explain to my wife, who is a fiercely disciplined and steady worker, that my restlessness, getting up and doing odd jobs, making coffee, staring out of windows, are part of the job. I don’t need to explain it to her, actually. I may need to explain it to myself. Having said which, I like commissions. A provocation or a limitation often brings out good and unexpected things that I wouldn’t have found on my own. Collaboration , which I love, works the same way. It gives an actual, answerable form to the sense that something is sitting in front of you with a question or a provocation, saying ‘Well?’  When that process gathers momentum, as it did quite recently with A Part of the Main, a poem-conversation between Lesley Saunders and myself stung into being by the world events of 2016, the back and forth can be daily, by exchange of e-mails almost. And sometimes a sequence of my own can have the same effect; each section is like a question or one facet of a complex situation, out of balance on its own, that demands a response. (I suspect that all creative work is in some sense collaboration – sometimes with the dead, the absent or imaginary. But that’s another story.) I’m not a musician, but I can see how a composer might need to work through all the variations, all the contradictions, maybe with a tool like the sonata form, before the thing feels ‘done’.

7. What motivates you to write?

Basically, it’s how I think. Or rather, it’s the place where thinking and feeling come together – physical senses and appetite, and curiosity, some knowledge, some freedom to make leaps of free association… It’s where I come together, whatever that ‘I’ is – and that’s a mystery I find intriguing too. It’s also where it feels most likely that something will take on a life of its own and grow in its own way, irrespective of what I intend. I’m not talking only about physically writing, but all the times I’m thinking in a writing posture, as it were. I might be walking, or listening to music, or in my Quaker meeting, or just on a train. What they share is a balance of inwardness and openness, quietness and yet connection, that feels rare, becoming rarer, in this world.

7.1 So balance is what motivates you to write?
Yes… but by ‘balance’ I don’t mean compromise, not a bland and blurry neutral state. Think of Keats’ ‘negative capability’… which he means in a positive way: the ability to hold apparent opposites together in dynamic tension. That’s true in good collaborations, and maybe good relationships too: you don’t become the same. Where’s the fun in sameness? Where’s the energy? I like the quaint old term (for the earliest computers) ‘difference engine’. I suspect that’s what creative thinking is.

8.You keep mentioning collaboration. Is that an important principle to you?

Clearly, yes. Way back in the mid 1980s, I wrote a letter to the Poetry Society newsletter inviting people to join in a chain-linking of poems responding to the nuclear anxiety of the time. I was touched and spurred on by the range of responses that came. That sequence, A Game of Consequences, never reached book form, partly because the old Cold War came to an unexpected end. ‘Damn,’ thought a tiny part of me. ‘What a waste of good poetry!’ Only a tiny part of me, I should add. The whole sequence did appear, years later, in Envoi magazine (issue 111) but had other consequences for me. It put me in contact with poet Sylvia Kantaris, and what ensued almost by accident, on what seemed like a whim, was the book-length collaboration The Air Mines of Mistila (Bloodaxe 1988, a PBS Choice). That was my first experience of the speed and energy that can breed in the air between two people, till the thing seems to be writing itself, owed by neither of you; it just bursts with its own life, and your small poetic egos are left running to catch up.
In hindsight, the Game of Consequences was also what first put me in touch with Lesley Saunders – also a gifted collaborator e.g. with Jane Draycott on Christina The Astonishing (Two Rivers, 1998) – with whom thirty years later I’d fall equally unexpectedly into a collaboration that is about to be published by Mulfran, A Part of the Main.  In between there have been close collaborations with visual artists, most notably and continuingly Valerie Coffin Price – on A Fold In The River (Seren, 2015) and other projects still under way now.

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

In spite of what I’ve been saying, I don’t generally think in ‘projects’. Mostly I trust the force of gravity – the internal kind, that draws the particles of poems that I’m writing anyway, unthinkingly, into the orbit of some concern or apprehension I might not have a name for yet. All of my collections in the last ten years have looked consciously themed, but they weren’t. The elements fall into the force field; they relate to each other – attract or repel. Some things I write don’t coalesce but stay in the offing – outliers, I might discover years on, of another concern yet to come. The sequences at the heart of my most recent Bloodaxe collection, A Bright Acoustic (2017), existed for some while as notebook jottings that I scarcely recognised as poems… till I noticed that they had begun to do that thing of talking to each other. Then I started listening in.
Collaborations are a little different – with a palpable agreement, at least to experiment, there at the start. There’s a very engaging, and long overdue, exchange which is partly cross-translation going on between myself and Welsh-language poet Cyril Jones. (Valerie Coffin Price’s visual work is there too, as a kind of medium in which we meet.) I’ve lived in South Wales for nearly fifteen years now, in bilingual public space, absorbing random amounts of Welsh while not consciously learning it. Cyril is the first writer-friend who’s opened a door for me – who’s trusted me, in fact — to come in and see the inner workings of Welsh poetry, alongside him. For both of us, there’s the eternal question of what can or cannot be translated from the tight organic forms of poetry. The consequences can be unexpected, which is always a sign of life and possibility. The writing I’ve been doing in response has been finding itself back in Cornwall, where I was born, or on Dartmoor, near where I grew up, rather than in Wales.

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

I’d say (rather annoyingly) ‘It depends what you mean by being a writer.’ More of that a bit later.
Practically, there’s a world of difference between writing forms. If you want to become a playwright, you’ve got to involve yourself with live theatre, or the film world, or whatever your medium is. If you’re a writer of creative nonfiction, you are consumed with research – if a travel writer, you travel. Writing novels, at least in my experience, involves whole rafts of time, the freedom to go to bed with the book in your mind and wake up to it next morning — not to break the working trance. Few of the things I’ve been saying about my poetry life would apply.
That doesn’t mean that poetry is dilettante business. It just has the chance to be lighter on its feet. You still have to engage with the field, the medium, or you are working in a vacuum, with little to go on but yourself, and for most of us that’s pretty predictable stuff. Poets have the two edged advantage of knowing in advance this will not be your main day job, that pays the bills. There may be a few exceptions, but most of those involve another job, as a performer or a public personality, alongside actual writing.
One course is to work in a field that relates to the writing. I have done this directly, as a teacher and enabler of creative writing. Other writers would caution against this, fearing that the writing-teaching, however satisfying, however thought-provoking, might leach away the creative energy you ought to be saving for your own work. They would say Do anything, however menial or dull… but keep it distinct. Getting that balance right for you is something you have to discern for yourself.
Back to the question of ‘what is the question?’ The one I’ve been answering is ‘How do I become a working writer?’ I’ve been assuming this means something broader than ‘someone who lives entirely by their writing’ – rather, ‘someone who puts their writing at the centre of their life; other work and choices all relate to it’. In all of them, poetry not excepted, some measure of self promotion is going to be part of the job. Novelists and anyone in more commercial fields learns that half of the job is ruled by publicity – and paradoxically, the more successful you are, the more it demands, so you need to become very skilled at boundaries and protecting space and time to write. Nowadays poetry publishers considering a first collection have been known to ask for evidence of the writer’s social media profile – their ability to do part of the job of marketing for themself. Poets tend either to cringe at the thought of this… or love it just a bit too much. Beware.
On another level, the answer to ‘how do I become…’ is blunter; if you need to become, you aren’t, and unless some life event compels you to it, probably won’t be. That might be lucky. A lot of people write. Some write very well indeed, when they choose, in an otherwise healthy, balanced and financially successful life. Writers, on the other hand, are lumbered with it; writing is integral to how they think, feel and negotiate their place in life. It may be an unfortunate quirk, a mind-mutation, even a pathology. And yet, cultures seem to need someone to do it (even when they think and say they don’t). For better or for worse, it could be you.

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