London, 17 June 2011
  • Philip Gross and Jen Webb

The five questions that guided us were framed as addressing the broad issues of presentation, location, composition, disposition and end product. While the conversation shifted and drifted in sometimes unexpected directions, the overall focus was about what it means to be a poet who works in a university: in what ways might the making of poetry involve, or constitute, a research act; what are the ethical issues associated with such work; what elements are involved in the making of poetry; what investment might a poet have in the outcomes of his or her work; and what is the relationship between poetry and knowledge.

1. Presentation

Philip Gross: I never imagined that I would become an academic; it was a complete historical accident. I’m one of that age band of writers who were working as freelance writers at the moment creative writing started expanding in universities in this country. At that stage I was doing all the other things that working writers did to make ends meet: visiting schools, teaching evening classes. In the process I found not only that—surprisingly, to me—I could teach, but also that I gained energy and ideas from transmitting this thing I was only just starting to understand I was doing, which was writing poetry.

I didn’t start out thinking of myself as a poet, though I had written poetry from my mid-teens. Initially I was writing novels. Then, when I was writing a novel in which one of the characters was a poet, I thought I had better write a poem too, to find out what it feels like, and I never went on to the next chapter of the novel. I just kind of slipped in to the role of poet.

It’s that kind of serendipity that I value; something that is not a matter of chance, but evidence of a life plan that is led by the writing, and not vice versa. None of the things I’ve intended in my life have actually happened, but better things have happened instead. Increasingly it’s what happens in my poetry that’s made me aware of what it is that I am doing. I’ll look back on the work some time after it has been published, and think, ‘Oh, that’s what’s going on! I didn’t know’.

Jen Webb: I’ve recently been interviewing visual artists, and several of them said precisely that: that it’s only when they look back at their work that they think, ‘Oh, that’s what I was up to, that’s what I was trying to find out’.

Philip: Isn’t there something interesting, there, about the academic definition of knowledge? Because here are we, saying something that could be regarded as rather fey and mystical. But how very down to earth is the creative work we make, though often it has those things that we don’t know, at least consciously. If it works, if it has coherence and a life of its own, then it can say things that we can be genuinely surprised by; and isn’t that the wonderful thing about it?

Jen: Yes. But I guess I’d hope we could be surprised by more conventional research work as well, because if we knew the answers at the beginning, we wouldn’t start doing the work. Still, in conventional humanities or social science research, there is such a planned approach: you know where you are starting from, you know the methodology you’re going to be using, and you have a pretty good sense of the field in which you will be operating. Of course there is also an element of chance, and a lot of opportunistic behaviour, in social research, as in creative practice research.1 I’m not sure whether there is more of this among creative arts researchers, but we do know that our work is emergent, and that we operate as much by chance as by planning, while perhaps the sociologists just pretend the randomness is not happening.

Philip: It’s a methodology that dare not speak its name! I can utterly understand it. Of course you can go out and interview people, or you can conduct an experiment, and the outside world may give you a finding. But creative work gives you findings that seem more unexpected. I think it is because in effect it’s something you are making out of the contents of your own head—you’re making a discovery that flows through your head—and you can be wrongfooted by it, can be surprised by it. Who would have thought that you could be surprised by your own work? Certainly not the people who decide on research funding applications and want to know in advance what the question is. 

I think there is this open secret most of us writers share: at the end of the project we say, ‘Okay, that’s the answer; now, what was the question?’ I value such serendipity, and by that I don’t mean coincidence or chance, or benign fate either. I think I mean the kind of lucky correspondences you find in life when you are alert to them: when you are ready, when your senses are alert.  That is a kind of research; and quite a lot of discovery does happen when you’re in that state of preparedness. The world speaks to you, in a sense. I absolutely don’t mean that new age idea that the universe conspires to give us goodies. What I mean is that it is something wedo, by filtering the world through our limiting frames of mind.

Jen: I agree. I went to a lecture by the philosopher Elizabeth Grosz,2 and during question time, one of her answers to a question on becoming led to an audience member pouncing on her, and saying, pejoratively, ‘That sounds like magic’. And she replied, ‘Well, it ismagic; if you consider that magic is the sympathetic attunement to the world and the things that are in the world’. Philosophy can accept that, perhaps, in a way that perhaps sociology cannot, and I was quite charmed by that notion and have been thinking about magic since then; again, not in a new age sense, but in the sense of it being a kind of awareness, a consciousness.

Philip: That’s interesting, yes. Magic always dabbled in correspondences and was not about chance but preparedness, as we were saying earlier about being ready.

On that: can I give you one final thought for the first question? After I joined the university, I spent seven years defending my writing self from the academic world. I was lucky to be working in a place where I and several other writers were working alongside academics who were interested in writing. We ran a masters course with each other, and I found there was a fascinating convergence whereby we grew less afraid of each other. Gradually the academics started taking me to one side when their colleagues weren’t looking, to say ‘I’ve just finished the first draft of a novel—you wouldn’t mind having a look would you? Don’t tell anybody’. And I too was becoming less afraid of the terrifyingly sharp instruments these people appeared to wield. I had thought, ‘These people can cut anything apart—if I let that touch my working operations, there’ll be nothing left. They’ll explain to me why I can’t possibly be doing what I’m doing, and then I won’t be able to do it anymore!’ But gradually I grew un-scared. A lot of that was very personal: we just made friends with each other, we worked with each other and looked at each other’s work. It was a matter of humans just getting to know each other. I don’t think we could have worked it out at a conference.

Jen: So it’s again about correspondences, connections, preparedness—the quality of being in a space together and adapting oneself, consciously or not, to the other. It sounds like a marriage.

Philip: A good marriage, yes. There mustn’t be any compromise. Any good sort of love, where you don’t need to be in the fuzzy middle ground, does involve both people being wholeheartedly themselves. It’s like that curious advice from Rilke about lovers being guardians of each other’s solitude.3 I puzzled over what he meant by solitude, knowing that he was rather too good at that himself. But being guardians of each other’s individuality suggests a kind of space in which each person can be entirely themselves and then they can meet.

One of the things I really value in my university work now is an ongoing project called Borderlines in which, again, I and the other creative writers are talking to our colleagues in English literature. We had been wary of each other and wanted to know if we had anything we could offer each other, or if we were completely divided by the fact that what critics do is deal with the thing that has been written, while writers are in a sense no longer interested in the thing that has been written, but in the ‘being written’. It’s very exciting: we’ve started holding events that involve people from most of the universities in Wales. That is a model of a conversation you can have over the borderlines; the sort of model you could use for almost any borderline. So that excites me, that feeds me, and that is knowledge.

I said that I’d spent first seven years defending myself in the university setting; then I spent about seven years embracing the fact that I was there—though I was working half time and still didn’t want to include too much of myself as a writer. During the last seven years I have agreed to bear the title and the status of being in a university, thinking, ‘Well, if anybody can articulate what’s going on here it had better be me’. That is partly because I’ve been in this field from the moment it started: I was one of the particles around which it mysteriously crystallised. And it is partly because I feel I am strong enough now that I no longer need fear that the genuine mystery and unconsciousness of what we do will be destroyed by conscious thought. I think we must explain everything we can, and if the imagination gets scared away by that, well, it was a bit precious in the first place. It’s a bit like arguments about faith in God; there can be a kind of pious attitude that says, Don’t ask any questions, he’ll be offended, he’ll be really angry. But the other attitude, the one I like much more, is the sort you find back in the Book of Job when you say, ‘What do you think you’re doing, God? Explain yourself!’

Jen: It’s a Jewish approach, I think: really arguing with God, challenging the divine will.

Philip: That is an approach I can quite easily embrace, as a Quaker. Quakers are comfortable about asking questions, because if there is a genuine experience it won’t be scared away by our performing all the operations we can with our minds. That, I think, is an analogy for what matters in writing: not being afraid, and not being pious. One of the things I know we are thinking about is the significant role of not-knowing in what we know, and that’s an important working part of knowledge—the not-knowing, the preserving and fashioning of some creative not-yet-knowing which you don’t foreclose. It involves a conscious operation not to jump to easy knowledge but instead to retain a curiosity, along with other things: discomfort, puzzlement, thwartedness, ill-fittingness. The brilliant thing about being a writer is you can put a positive value on those states.

Jen: Have you read David Malouf’s recent essay on happiness?4 He talks about precisely these things, and describes the human as the one creature who doesn’t have rest, who is restless, who has restlessness. It’s an old proverb, a narration of how, when the world came to be, humans were the last in line to get their gifts and there was nothing left. So people had to make their gifts for themselves and what we got was restlessness—unrest. That lack of rest is the energy and agitation that keeps us wanting to find out about the world, as well as what keeps us damaging it.

Philip: Yes, that makes absolute sense given what I understand us to be as a species: that at some point we gave up the convenience of invariable instinct, the thing that tells you to fly north or whatever, and what we had instead of that was imagination and story making. For better or for worse. If there is a fruit that we ate in the Garden of Eden it’s that, and I don’t wish it uneaten for one instant.

Jen: Wasn’t it the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree of knowledge? And perhaps that ‘wanting to know’ is what put a stop to our capacity to rest. And perhaps too that knowledge of good and evil leads to our trying to find the dividing line, or the defining line, between what is good, what is evil.

Philip: Because we actually have to make our minds up, as opposed to having instinctive behaviour. Maybe you call that sort of thing ‘choice’ … These sort of questions complicate things … [laughs]

Jen: You mentioned story making; I love your poetry, but I wouldn’t have thought of you as a narrative poet particularly.

Philip: I’ve been a novelist as well, of course. When I started writing poems there was quite a lot of narrative going on. Much less of it came through by the time I found that I could write novels as well. But I found myself in a borderline kind of place: you know, being the person who’s published a book for older young people. And that’s more or less where I stayed, always in danger of edging up against that line, to the point when I wrote myself out of anything that the publishing industry would recognise as a children’s market.

Jen: So it’s what I think is called YA. Is that what you wrote: young adult?

Philip: Yeah, except that has become a definite marketing category of its own, and there are very strong expectations of what young adult fiction is now: that it is something that gets to grips with adolescent issues. It’s become quite a strong genre of its own; it’s not as liberating as you might think. I think it’s just another age band now, and it always tries to escape from the tag of being problem fiction, but …

Jen: So your own novels then are not forthe age group and the issues and complexities they face but they are designed for readers who have certain capacities to read, to handle story and language? I mean, it’s not about their issues but about their thinking?

Philip: Inevitably there has been quite a lot of adolescent stuff going on in them because I assume, when you write for people younger than yourself, you are partly doing business with yourself about periods you didn’t find straightforward, or perhaps you didn’t do that particular rite of passage cleanly the first time around. So you’re probably re-enacting part of that. But I just want to write for people who are hungry for language, and who are thinking quite ambitious ideas, about the world and about small chances as well. At one point I stumbled in to writing something a bit like horror fiction but I couldn’t stay in that genre because it seemed to presuppose that you accepted the existence of absolute evil and absolute good. I thought, well that doesn’t interest me. So I was gradually writing novels that were less and less of a genre fit.

I think I’ve agreed with myself that the next novel I write, if I ever have time—imagining having time to write a novel!—if I ever did, I think I would see that as an adult book, without having to strive to prove that it’s grown up. I think actually some of the novels I’ve written have been quite grown up even for adult readers, but they’ve never quite made that step. To have been addressing the adult market they probably needed to start somewhere slightly different from the place they started. I couldn’t just write them up by a few years and then put them on the bookshelf. It needed to come from somewhere else. But I’m just so busy that I can’t imagine having that space to be able to give days on end, and preferably weeks on end, of work, so that you can fall asleep with a question in your mind and come straight back to it first thing in the morning without answering your emails first, without thinking, ‘Has there been a crisis at the university that I have to sort out and if I don’t sort it out now it will be more complicated by this evening’—but I see the glint of knowledge in your eyes. We’re just sitting here with pangs of nostalgia and yearning. [laughs]

Sorry, all of that was a backtrack on that first question which was about the balance between a writer and being an academic, and those neat seven year epochs …

Jen: That’s very biblical. It’s not quite seven fat years and seven lean years perhaps, but something like Jacob serving seven years for Leah and seven years for Rachel …

Philip: Yes, there’s something very answering about that seven yearly epoch, isn’t there? Which makes me wonder, because I have just reached the end of seven years in my present job and the university is in a crisis, so maybe something entirely new is about to start happening in that yin yang sort of way. It’s a fact that the last seven years have borne fruit, and they have reached a kind of fullness exactly as that yin yang says, so I expect to find the seed of its opposite present somewhere in it, even now, and then things will change very fast.

Jen: It’s quite exciting.

Philip: Or terrifying.

Jen: But maybe it’s always the same thing: maybe the excitement is terror?

Philip: Yes: and that’s an example of not knowing what the next bit of life research is, but feeling yourself a state of readiness; and it’s finding an alertness just because of the state of the world around us, my eyes open for what it could be. Okay, so that’s the back-story.

Jen: It’s a beautifully crafted back-story too.

Philip: Never trust it when literary people write back-stories that are well crafted. [laughs]

Jen: I want to ask you about balance, and the ground from which you’re writing. When you’re preparing to write, do you find a balance between the concepts or the ideas that you want to convey and the language or the images in which you convey them? Do you think there needs to be a balance? Do you think about it consciously?

Philip: I’m not sure that I’d use the phrase ‘ideas I wish to convey’. I don’t write in order to tell people things, especially in poetry. I write to explore something and figure out what’s in it. I don’t think I write to tell people about the thing I’m looking at. It’s nice when the thing comes alive so people will be interested in it. I’m absolutely not a writer who’s ever gone out to find interesting things to write about. I’ve got colleagues and friends, good writers, who literally search the Internet for fascinating facts or anecdotes and then they make good writing out of it. I absolutely don’t do that. I have a kind of faith that the poetry is in the looking and listening, and that there’s a kind of elegance about starting with the smallest, least interesting point you can find and seeing what it might disclose, and how it might attract attention.

I need to tell you about one of my last year’s books called I spy pinhole eye. I was working with a photographer [Simon Denison] who had taken an obsessionally single-minded series of photographs. He was working with a homemade pinhole camera, which was nice and down to earth. He has all the arts and all the knowledge and he chose to work as basically as you can. He was going around pointing this at a very functional object, in a series of different fields all over the Welsh marshes, again, again and again. And when he first sent through these photographs—because he had an instinct that I might be the kind of writer who’d like to write something about it, even just the foreword of his book—I looked at these almost abstract images and said, ‘That’s extraordinary Simon, what are they?’ He said ‘Do you mind if I don’t say? Just look at them’. If he’d told me in advance that they were images of the concrete footings of electricity pylons I might have run a mile; but they were, and there was a kind of beauty in this meditation. They were all functionally the same thing, there were dozens of them, hundreds of them, and they were all unique. And I just got into that state of mind that was like a meditation. I ended up writing a book’s worth of poems that ran in circles around the dogged straight lines that went with the images. It was a deeply odd book. It clearly worked: it won last year’s Wales Book of the Year prize. It started from a thing that you would not think, on the basis of it, there could possibly be anything to say about …

Jen: It sounds like the koan practice. Taking the meaningless syllable and then just being with it, repeating, repeating, and it begins to illuminate something—who knows what that would be?

Philip: Yes. My understanding of what works in a koan is you give your mind the illusion that it’s answerable by logic, it sounds like a logical question but the mind can’t understand that it can’t answer it; and it thinks and thinks and thinks until in a moment of complete exhaustion it throws up its hands, it gives up, and at that moment you get just a smidgeon of enlightenment. Or at least you see past your brain. More than your brain observes, or it tells more of you than just your brain … So where did that come from? How are you going to cram all of this back into the neat boxes of your five questions?

Jen: I won’t. [laughs] But the next question is, ‘Do you ever feel guilty about using the material you find?’ Is that relevant to you?

Philip: Dead relevant. I am thinking of one particular book, a book called The wasting gamewhen I was writing about my family’s experience of my daughter’s anorexia. The same ethical questions are absolutely back with me now. My father is extremely old, he’s deaf and has completely lost his spoken language with aphasia. Unavoidably I have been writing poems about being alongside him and that has become a whole book called Deep field, which is being published in November. So every question that was asked about The wasting game, aboutwhether there’s something unethical about writing someone else’s experiences … I’ve got be very sure that I’m answering right.

Jen: Knowing that there can’t be a final answer, a correct answer, but one that you can live with, that you can stand behind.

Philip: Yes. I still think on balance that to write and publish the poems in The wasting game was a good thing to have done. It wasn’t flawless, it wasn’t a completely harmless thing to have done. Ask my daughter now whether it was a good thing and whether she felt she was right to approve of and authorise that book in the first place, and she’ll say, ‘Well I guess it was because there are other people out there who need to know this stuff. They will be up against it and it’s better to know than not to know’. I wish that none of that ever happened but it’s probably the least worst thing to have done, to have written and published it.

So now there is my dad. He literally doesn’t have words for it. In my last book there was a poem which was very much for him and about him. He read it and knew it was him and he kind of smiled, he nodded and then he made a little eloquent gesture, putting his hand to his head as if to say, ‘I can’t really do this stuff any more’. So, will I put this new book in his hand? It would be dishonest not to, and yet it’s quite a complicated affair. The poems go quite deep inside him and also into what the business of language means to me as well. I’m a writer, but I’m a person who never found language easy. I have a life which is lastingly marked by having been a child with an extremely bad stutter, so I’ve no sense of language being a natural given thing. For me it’s a live recalcitrant thing that has its own purposes that don’t necessary accord with ours. It’s great training for a poet.

Jen: Because you were always aware that you don’t own language?

Philip: Yes. But we never have an uncomplicated relationship with language. I think, very often, with my father I’m being like a good parent, being a kind of guide and spokesperson for the person who is trying to speak: not wanting to patronise him or to speak for him, but feeling extraordinary discomfort because so much of our self-worth in the world is in our speech and our voices. It’s also been fascinating, because he still has a voice; he just doesn’t have speech. He utters a great deal, but almost none of it makes sense that anyone else can uncode. I feel I’m doing well if I get one word in a hundred. It’s a condition he is handling with extraordinary stoic patience and good humour. So this question about guilt is an absolutely essential one at the moment: do I feel there’s a danger that I’m exploiting him? I think if he and I, in some quite mythical way, were standing outside of time, looking in at our selves who are in this moment, I think he would say that I’m doing the right thing by him and by, if you like, my gift: that in fact I can do this work, and I’ve been given this material which I’m finding, even in the advance of the book being out, quite a lot of other people find really quite resonant.

Jen: Well, a lot of us are 50ish and have ageing parents, or are 40ish and have anorexic children. Not that one writes necessarily to do good, but to make something real perhaps.

Philip: It’s more that we do live our lives in poetry, and sometimes it’s not clear to other people or even ourselves why it matters so intensely; and then once in a while the lived experience is just standing in the way and saying, ‘If you avoid me, then it devalues your whole gift’. If it’s worth you being able to discover anything more than an ornate word game it will be some help with this situation—not necessarily making it better, but it being clarified.

Jen: So clarification you think is maybe the point of this work?

Philip: Yes. I’m not using words like healing because I don’t think healing is at issue. It’s rather being alongside what is inevitably happening within our lives. I’m saying clarity rather than understanding, because understanding implies a sort of grasp of purposes and reasons, but it might be more of a matter of just seeing and acknowledging what is, and that we must achieve clarity to somehow be with it more effectively.

Jen: Is that a Quaker philosophy? I mean this is coming from a religious belief, or is it, do you think, the effect of having been a poet for so long and having thought about these things? That’s not one of my questions; I’m just interested.

Philip: It’s only in the last, very small number of years that I’ve talked about being a poet among Quakers and being a Quaker among poets. Suddenly I just noticed that I was using the one thing as a metaphor for the other, both ways, all the time. For instance, I was explaining what I was doing and what I hoped people would be doing with each other in a writing workshop, and again and again I was saying, ‘Well, think of a Quaker meeting’, and people said, ‘Well hell, I’ve got no idea what goes on in a Quaker meeting so tell us’. I was finding not just that there were analogies there, but that it might be coming from the same place.

Jen: So your idea of the analogy was not the Platonic sense, always rocking: touching and moving away, touching and moving away.5 You see it as something more laminated, maybe?

Philip: But that is some superordinate thought of the issues that matter so much in both things, of being very close to whatever it is that matters most in life. Speaking earlier, I almost used the nicely quaint old Quaker word, which is clearness. I think it’s the concept that the Buddhist or the Taoist use: when you feel that you are seeing things clearly enough around you so that you can take the appropriate course through them.

2. Location

Jen: The next group of questions is about location. They’re quite practical questions like, is there a place where you write best, or where you feel most comfortable writing? Is there a place that you feel most comfortable writing about? Really what I’m asking is, where are you in the world, or where is your poetry in the world? Or actually, is it in the world, or is it maybe more in a transcendent realm? How anchored must your practice be?

Philip: I don’t have a Yeatsian tower or a fond little garden shed, but a notebook, which is rather small and fits in the pocket and lives mostly in snatched moments. That’s where a lot of the writing starts. It isn’t a question of clearing the space; I’m not one of those people who needs the ritual of going over a threshold and into the writing space. I honestly would find that an intimidating thing. It would suddenly feel like a burden, like a sudden paralysing thought: is the word in my head worth spoiling a perfect good piece of paper for?I’ve always been a writer on the backs of old envelopes, almost literally, because of finding all kinds of playful ways of being in that state of not quite full on-ness. I find it a constant struggle to stop my notebooks from becoming linear. If you see my notebooks, I usually work in little blocks of words and fragments at all angles on the page, and I’m always trying to leave space between the ‘stop things’—the ‘that’s what they are, that what it means, that’s where it’s going’ things. Trying to hold on to those freefloating states. I think I valued finding out about haiku at some point in my writing life, quite a few years back, because it’s a way to take that fragment, but you can’t possibly make anything of it; you just let it be itself.

Jen: Yes, in which case it seems to be approaching visual art rather than narrative art?

Philip: Hmmm. Except like I said earlier we are story-making animals. I almost don’t recognise what people say about the lyric moment because any moment starts in implying about story: it makes you wonder what happens next. It’s one of the things that gives moments their power; it’s like our human minds get busy on them.

Jen: We start to think ‘what next?’ They’re the narrative questions.

Philip: Yes. I’ve lots of respect for that Buddhist enterprise of grasping the pure essence of things, irrespective of us. I think it’s a very healthy but mythical thought.

Jen: I think it’s mythical, but still it seems one seeks to achieve the unachievable because it keeps you moving, being.

Philip: That’s like a koan in itself isn’t it? It doesn’t mean you can answer it but it’s a good myth. I think a myth that opens up the field of possibilities, myths that give life and more abundantly, those are good myths. Myths that close things down and limit them, often with answers, it’s like you reach checkmate. There’s no shortage of answers; what the world needs is more good questions. 

Jen: I’ve been investigating for I suppose six or seven years now, first a bit tangentially but with more intensity lately, this whole issue of creative practice and knowledge, and I actually think it’s a furphy in the academic sense; I think what good art gives us is questions. The accountants can give us the answers.

Philip: Well yes. There could be a nice meta-question there, though, about what kind of knowledge is a question? I’m not saying that because I could imagine what the answer would be, but it does strike me as being a good question.

3. Composition

Jen: Composition, then, and your approach to it. You’ve said you find these snatches, you keep them in your notebook, you don’t allow them to juxtapose too promiscuously.

Philip: I think they do juxtapose, and sounds a highly mythical thought but it’s a completely true experience that if you leave random things lying around in a notebook, one day you will open it and see that some of them have snuggled up with each other and possibly even started to breed. They kind of shuttle around behind your back. [laughs]

Jen: They do, don’t they? I’ve often noticed that things seem to change if I don’t pay attention.

Philip: Actually, that’s a practical application of the not-knowing we talked about earlier, and ensuring that you create a space in which it can happen.

Jen: When you move from those notes to actually composing a poem, what is your process? Do you write quickly, do you labour over each word and shift it around, get the right spot? Do you taste the words?

Philip: I should just say that taste is interesting because there is something quite tactile about what’s going on. Sometimes if I’m trying to explain what it is that I haven’t got yet when drafting a poem, I end up making gestures with my hands. It’s almost as though it was a shape in the air which truly consisted of the actual words. Quite often I sense a sort of sensory and emotional force field that something has created in me, and it might not be the same thing I’m writing about, but then I am scattering the iron filings in that particular magnetic fields and watching them make fantastic shapes.

Jen: Do you think you compose in a somewhat conscious manner? Are you thinking, ‘Right, I’m going to write a poem and I think I’ll write an 11-line poem, a series of those’? Is that the sort of approach you take, or is it that things do happen, and you are the motility behind the action?

Philip: I think I’m feeling for the bits that don’t need to be thought through. It sometimes is the sound of a voice or a flow of a sentence, and when that starts moving, then stand back, don’t interfere with it, just write it. You can’t see what it’s for yet, but trust it.

I started my writing life as a very fastidious writer. I still do lots of drafts but not in the same dogged way of going back over it and over it. I do quite a lot of redrafting almost accidentally, by letting things stand in a folder for often quite a while and then one day I’ll pick it up and glance at it, because I’m looking for things that will fit in this evening’s reading; or suddenly I’ll start investigating; or I’ll want to type something out and send it off and then I look at it and think, ‘Oh that won’t do, no no, it’s not that, it’s not that’.

Jen: But because it’s been sitting away for a while it’s sort of died inside you so you can see it in a new identity?

Philip: It’s become more safely other. I don’t want to be doctrinaire now about the process of drafting, and I know for our writing students the drafting business can become a kind of orthodoxy, a kind of mechanism, but I think redrafting is the outward and visible form of a necessary process whereby we’re trying to let the thing be itself. You hope you would turn around and suddenly see it.

Jen: Are you surprised sometimes by your poems, years later?

Philip: That’s what it’s for. If it wasn’t for that, it would be a waste of time.

Jen: Again I’m startled, because a lot of what you say is very, very close to what visual artists often say about their work. 

Philip: Really, that interests me. I’m not a visual artist, but my wife was trained as a visual artist and I’ve really enjoyed comparing notes with her, and doing poetry and art workshops with her, especially in schools. I love working with people in other art forms. It’s nicely uncomplicated because you can be wholeheartedly impressed, and full of appetite for each other’s work. You look at each other and say, ‘You can do that, aren’t you clever?’ It’s so gratifying on both sides. [laughs]

One of the moments of clearness I had about changing my working method, and the thing that maybe cured me of fastidiousness, was being at an exhibition of Japanese pottery. It was incredibly simple bowls, each of which had been painted with a single spiral mark in the glaze which had been made when the wheel was still turning. The mark had to be a single gesture as it moved, and I thought, ‘If I was doing that I would be stuck in the wheel, in the gesture’. So that very tactile sensual image or thought of being with whatever that moment or that phrase or that cadence might be … that’s not the same thing as advocating a kind of a Beat splurge, that’s not what I do. It’s more of a Quaker thing than that. It involves quite a lot of waiting, and listening.

Jen: You mention preparedness earlier. I’m thinking of Pierre Bourdieu, who wrote quite a lot about people doing things well. He talked about the internalisation of skills: about soccer players, for instance, who know where the ball is going to be in a way that isn’t possible, because the brain hasn’t had time to process the calculations, but still the foot knows. And that’s like being a fish in water, when you are so much at home within it that you don’t really have to be thoughtfully aware of that.6

Philip: That is absolutely Taoist or Buddhist isn’t it? It’s similar to Zen archery when you spend 14 years picking up the bow.

Jen: Yes: until your hand is the bow, the bow is your hand. Then it can never be that Beat explosion you mentioned—you aren’t going to shoot everywhere—but you’ve been so trained that it becomes a ‘natural disposition’ of the body. Speaking of which ...

4. Disposition

Do you have to be in the right mood to write poetry, or in a particular mood? Or do you approach it more as, ‘Well, I guess I’ll just write’?

Philip: I don’t recognise a sort of poetic state of mind. I’m unlikely to do it when I’m feeling dull and muddy and stodgy, so once again it needs a kind of alertness. What feel like the best moments in writing come with a kind of lively appetite for what’s going on around you. Actually it’s quite a childlike feeling about it: ‘that’s a good game—can I play?’ I’m not saying that because I’m also a children’s writer. Oddly enough I think it applies in adult writing as well. I’m writing now about my father and you might say, ‘You can’t call that playful’, because it’s rather tragic, but there is a kind of serious play in tangling with language and getting stuck in there. I shouldn’t use the image of surfing in the presence of an Australian, me who’s never stood up on a surfboard, but the image of the waves being a palpable energetic thing which you are both sort of wrestling with and dancing with, and both riding and in the grip of …

Jen: You could use a horse riding image rather than a wave one if you prefer to avoid the Australian imagery because actually it’s the same sort of thing, especially if you’re a child riding a big powerful horse. You’re absolutely one with it and you’re absolutely at war with it, and afraid of it but loving it as well.

Philip: Yes, I’ve never been a rider but as a child being brought up the south west of England I did play in the waves a lot. I’ve got the feeling of the physicality of water.

Jen: And the language can do the same to you in the process of composition?

Philip: Yes. So to use a very common parlance phrase: it’s the state of being up for it.

Jen: Another good sporting analogy. [laughs] Do you think these sort of states, the being ready, the being up for it, the being conscious of its intense physical otherness: is this related in any way to knowing, or the actuality of knowing?

Philip: I want to know more than I know now because I feel terribly stupid in life. Seriously, I do not have the academic’s gift of holding lots of available knowledge in my head such that I can cite it. In the middle of an argument or in the middle of an exchange I can suddenly doubt that I even know the name of the author I’m about to quote, let alone that I can get the facts right. I think there’s lots of stuff in my head, but the way it’s in there is not particularly functional.

Jen: It’s like your notebooks.

Philip: Yes; and it doesn’t carefully index the stuff under titles like corresponding to that vague smell in the air—you know the one I mean?Possibly it’s a bit like that lovely thing, Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book, where she gives you little phrases like,things that give one an unclean feeling which makes the heart beat faster. [laughs]

Jen: I love those odd congeries of thought! So it isn’t really about knowing then?

Philip: I want to grasp things better than I do, I want to be closer to things than I often am, and I want to know but not too soon. It’s a lovely moment when you’re just on the verge of knowing something; there’s that apprehension moment when you’re full of appetite and you think, ‘We’re just starting to make a pattern’. That’s much better than the moments when it has happened.

Jen: Yes. I was talking to a PhD student yesterday about this and about the terrible banality of having done the research. Beforehand it’s so mysterious, and while you’re doing it, it starts to become exciting and new and then once you know it you think, well everybody knows that, there’s nothing special about that after all. It isn’t necessarily true but it does tend, for me and for a lot of people I know, to be the response: once the work is done it’s well, what now?

Philip: It’s the closure of a gestalt isn’t it?

Jen: Yes it is. It’s almost like a little death. And the sadness, the disappointment of it not having changed everything, maybe is what drives you to the next question. I’ve been a researcher for over 20 years now, and I’m continually disappointed. And continually excited about the next option. [laughs]

Philip: It’s getting rather touchy now with this kind of sexual metaphor at work.

Jen: I shouldn’t have said little deathshould I? But on the other hand, I do think the brain is the body and the body is also a knowing object. And sexuality is an important part of energy and aliveness. Again we’re not supposed to talk about it in those terms but …

Philip: I’m not a fan of a kind of Freudian reductiveness about it though. I’m inclined to think that Eros is a much wider, deeper, more deeply diffused thing than just sex. It’s going to have appetite all over it.

Jen: Yes, and if you think of the story of Eros and Psyche, it actually isn’t really about sex. It is more about that being-connected, the knowing, being-known, being-too-known.

Philip: Being-too-known: absolutely. There’s a myth for what we’ve been saying about necessary unknowing, isn’t it?

Jen: Yes it is. I have been working with a colleague on the Icarus myth, and that makes me think about all the other myths and how they do and don’t transform one, how they confront one. Wondering what it is about Icarus that I find so captivating, and why maybe I’m not so captivated by Ariadne.

Philip: I was in one of these Borderline workshops some months back, and one of the others in the group had brought us as a starting point the Orpheus myth in a piece by Blanchot, writing about Eurydice.7 I must say the essay got up my nose because it was a relentless abstractifying of it. Several people in the group said that if it isn’t also a story that could be a story about a flesh-and-blood girl, if Eurydice is reduced to a symbol, then this is not myth, this is not metaphor, this is painting by numbers. It’s offensive, the idea that you actually are using the figure of a dead girl.

Jen: Yes. It’s really important that there is the physicality of that woman, the skin of both of them, her place against and apart from him, and without that why would he risk it? And why would he throw it away carelessly?

Philip: Yeah, because he wanted to know too soon. [laughs] But it’s heartbreaking because it’s such a breach of faith. In no way is it fair, but that’s why it’s a tragedy I suppose.

5. End product

Jen: Finally, can we go back to the question of knowledge, and let me ask you, do you feel any ownership over any sense of knowledge that might arise in your readers when they read your work? You’re not writing to makeknowledge, you said, but you are writing to open things up. Do your readers owe you anything? Do you own what they read?

Philip: I find it gratifying to have been a part of the process. Obviously as the owner of a more or less functioning ego I’m pleased that the book has my name on it, both pleased and surprised—but that’s something else again. I’m not saying that is what makes me go on doing what I do. I don’t feel it’s my knowledge that I’ve given them. I’m pleased when somebody discerns something in what I have written which I wasn’t aware of having put there, as long as I feel it’s a reading in good faith. I think I do recognise a reading in bad faith: when someone is reading what I write and they put it in the service of some ideology or grievance or obsessive appetite of their own, then they will find what they want in it. I don’t see that as a particularly creative reading. But when someone does engage with it in good faith and sees more in it, I’m just delighted, I just say thank you.

Jen: There’s a little piece from Auden; it comes from his essay in Secondary worlds, and it says, ‘In so far as one can speak of poetry as conveying knowledge it is the kind of knowledge implied by the biblical phrase—“Then Adam knew Eve his wife”,’ and he goes on to say, ‘knowing is inseparable from being known’.8 Does that have any resonance for you with your work?

Philip: I think it’s a lovely quote. It’s the feeling that you have physically and not just intellectually touched something; that you have brushed up against a bit of life and felt it on your skin. That makes it very rich. There is that particular thing which we do in universities; I agree that if we want to be part of the university where the name of the game is knowledge, then we do need to pay our dues by giving it some articulate knowledge, so I do think we need to be prepared to put into serviceable words what we think has passed.

Jen: So let the work be the work, of itself, and then stand back and write something sort of semi-orthodox?

Philip: That makes it sound as though the knowledge is purely reflective and post hoc; of course once you know you’re in a game it’s happening in small ways all the time, but yes, let the work find itself, and you accompany it, observantly.

Jen: And in that observant accompanying you can articulate for the university—so that they can report on it—what it is you’ve done, at least if you think at that moment it might be what you’ve done.

Philip: And it would feel, if we were cynical, thatwe were just doing it for the university; but in fact we’re doing it for ourselves.

1As Alex Seago writes, ‘the process of discovery in much successful research work is, in reality, a combination of rigorous methodology and the following up of intuitive “hunches”’ (1994: 5).

2Grosz 2005. Quote taken from Jen Webb’s notes of the seminar.

3 Rilke wrote, on marriage: ‘I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other’ (1975: 27). ‘It is a question in marriage, to my feeling, not of creating a quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries, but rather a good marriage is that in which each appoints the other the guardian of his solitude, and shows him this confidence, the greatest in his power to bestow. A togetherness between two people is an impossibility, and where it seems, nevertheless, to exist, it is a narrowing, a reciprocal agreement which robs either one party or both of his fullest freedom and development. But, once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky’ (1975: 28).

4 Malouf 2011. Malouf’s story is a retelling of the genesis story told by Plato, in the Protagorus, which recounts how Prometheus came to the rescue of both gods and humans, declaring that the human gift was to get gifts for themselves, to be improvisors, to develop ‘the power of imagination, of invention’ (27). This self-making property of human beings is, Plato suggests, also our problem, because we are never capable of being satisfied, of feeling we have done enough. ‘What Protagorus identifies as the irritant in human nature that makes the pearl,’ Malouf goes on to write, ‘is our essential restlessness, our dissatisfaction, our unrest’ (30).

5The reference here is to analogy as a method for identifying equivalences, or sameness in difference—to what Barbara Maria Stafford terms ‘analogy’s combinatorial strategy’ (2001: 84). It is not a bonded connection, but an ‘elastic’ connection in which differences connect, albeit briefly, and their similarities become visible in a moment of juxtapositioning that is both creative and dynamic. The significance of this, in the context of our conversation, is that analogy, for Plato, is not only creative but also capable of generating knowledge through the affinity, or kinship, that is analogy (Plato 1955: Pt 7, Bk 6.490).

6This refers to Bourdieu’s notion of the ‘practical sense’, or what he also calls a ‘feel for the game’ (P Bourdieu and L Wacquant 1992: 81), the non-reflective ability to comprehend and negotiate the cultural context in which you are operating. It is an aspect of how the self is constituted by virtue of the various contexts through which it passes, in which it finds itself—what Bourdieu also terms the habitus, or ‘history turned into nature’ (1977: 78), which has the effect that you become so attuned to your environment and your milieu that you come to feel like ‘a fish in water’ (1992: 127).

7In ‘The gaze of Orpheus’, Maurice Blanchot writes:
Orpheus has gone down to Eurydice: for him Eurydice is the limit of what art can attain; concealed behind a name and covered by a veil, she is the profoundly dark point towards which art, desire, death, and the night all seem to lead. She is the instant in which the essence of the night approaches as the Other night. ... Orpheus’ work does not consist of securing the approach of this ‘point’ by descending into the depth. His work is to bring it back into the daylight and in the daylight give it form, figure and reality. Orpheus can do anything except look this ‘point’ in the face, look at the center of the night in the night. (Blanchot 1981: 99)

8This quotation comes from the essay ‘Words and the word’, and its context reads:
One can never grasp a poem one is reading unless one hears the actual sound of the words, and its meaning is the outcome of a dialogue between the words of the poem and the response of whoever is listening to them. Not only is every poem unique, but its significance is unique for each person who responds to it. In so far as one can speak of poetry as conveying knowledge, it is the kind of knowledge implied by the biblical phrase—Then Adam knew Eve his wife—knowing is inseparable from being known. To say that poetry is ultimately concerned only with human persons does not, of course, mean that it is always overtly about them. We are always intimately related to non-human natures and unless we try to understand and relate to what we are not, we shall never understand what we are. (Auden 1968: 130-31)



Works cited: 

Auden, WH 1968 Secondary worlds: the TS Eliot memorial lectures, London: Faber and Faber

Blanchot, M 1981 The gaze of Orpheus, and other literary essays, New York: Station Hill Press

Bourdieu, P 1977 Outline of a theory of practice (trans Richard Nice), Cambridge: Cambridge UP

Bourdieu, P and L Wacquant 1992 An invitation to reflexive sociology, Cambridge: Polity

Grosz, E 2005 ‘Bergson, Deleuze and becoming’, seminar hosted by the University of Queensland, 16 March

Malouf, D 2011 ‘The happy life: the search for contentment in the modern world’, Quarterly Essay 41, March

Plato 1955 [c380BCE]The republic (trans HDP Lee), Harmondsworth: Penguin

Rilke, RM 1975 On love and other difficulties: translations and considerations of Rainer Maria Rilke (trans and ed JJL Mood), New York: WW Norton and Co

Seago, A 1994 ‘Research in art and design: conflicts and contradictions’, Royal College of Art Research Papers

Stafford, BM 2001 Visual analogy: consciousness as the art of connecting, Cambridge MA: MIT Press