Philip Gross talks to Hilary Menos about writing poetry about his family in The Wasting Game and Deep Field, the importance of self-knowledge, and what makes a ‘good’ poem
HM: I find it hard to go back and read my poems in Human Tissue, about giving a kidney to my son Linus. Since that time I have occasionally (and reluctantly) written more about it. How does it feel for you to go back to The Wasting Game, those tender, beautiful poems about your daughter and her struggle with anorexia? Do you feel your poetry did it – her – justice, and is there anything you would do or say differently, looking back? Was it important to you to preserve some degree of your daughter’s privacy, or did you feel that your writing would be kind enough to allow you to write freely about her?
PG: Great caution is what I feel, revisiting. Not regret – we did our imperfect best at the time, with the people we were. I say ‘we’ not to shrug off my responsibility, but there were genuine conversations at each halting stage on the way from notebook scribbles to a published (and unexpectedly publicly exposed) collection.
From this distance, I wish there had been a way to write it without identifying individual people. Could there have been? And would the book have garnered half the attention that if there hadn’t been that “human story” handle on it? (And that was 25 years ago, in a time not yet as committed to confession as our own.) Plus, it seemed important for the person at the centre of it to speak for herself – we were interviewed together on Woman’s Hour. Was that naive? Who knows when we ‘tell our truths’ today if that will still be the record we want to stand, thirty years on? But we did what we did, in good faith.
I knew at the time that the poem that’s the epilogue to the sequence, ‘Visiting Persephone’, would be the last thing I’d write on the subject. If anything more was to be said, it would be my daughter’s prerogative to say it. I think I’ve kept to that, with the exception of conversations like this, which need to be for a particular reason, such as helping writers think through the decisions they make. One vital thing: I never claimed to speak for her experience. I was writing about the chasm of understanding that had opened up in the middle of our family, and the utter cold alien feel of the illness that had struck, in a sense, at all of us; we were all changed and estranged by it, and hardly recognised ourselves.
Who knows when we ‘tell our truths’ today if that will still be the record we want to stand, thirty years on? But we did what we did, in good faith
HM: Poems are often offered with the rider that the sentiment is genuine or that the poem is honest or authentic or true. But we know that neither genuine emotion nor a slavish reproduction of reality guarantee any sort of poem. When you are writing about a subject as close and personal as this, how can you be sure that the thing you are making works as a poem, and is not simply an expression of emotion, a record of feeling, or a personal catharsis? When you wrote the poems in The Wasting Game were you thinking about how they would work together, how they might be read by an editor or reader, or were you simply writing out of sheer necessity?
PG: Making poems out of that material was nowhere in my mind, initially. To have thought it would have seemed a heartless, parasitic thing to do. I write a lot in notebooks as a way of getting a clear sight of what is happening inside and around me. The way I write there, fragmentary and at all angles, tends to use the tools of poetry; spaces and disjunctions on the page can speak as loudly as words, and unexplained images can be trusted to be a store of meanings that my brain doesn’t yet understand.
If I was writing then, it was to clarify confusion. Not even to express emotion – the emotions were unclear, conflicted, complex, tangled. I’m glad if the overall impression is of tenderness, but there are strands of helpless anger and frustration in there too. The sequence ends with the simplest, saddest, dogged kind of love, but it was a journey to get there – maybe that’s why I needed to write it, to find the way through. Even so, my editor at a time saw the work as unkind. Their template, from family experience, was of sympathy and kind concern for someone struck by a physical illness, whereas I felt I was facing someone in a hostage situation – a whiff of Stockholm Syndrome – who was willingly half in love with a thing that was killing her in front of our eyes.
It was the otherness of the illness that struck those sparks. It felt like an alien, impersonal thing, as crude and slow and narrow-minded as the person it affected was gifted, quick and sensitive. Which of course might be the point – looking at the pressures on a female adolescent in the world then (and how much more so today?) I could understand how they might take the offer made by anorexia – look, you can rise above all this, feel exalted, impervious, strong – and say ‘Yes’.
As the scratchings came to read like poems, I thought to share them with other families we met, as confused and chilled as we were by their similar experiences. And then other people saw them, and were touched and moved … One choice follows another. And meanwhile the poems had formed, with a life of their own and yes, as a poet you start feeling a responsibility (explain this how you will) to that life too.
The sequence ends with the simplest, saddest, dogged kind of love, but it was a journey to get there – maybe that’s why I needed to write it, to find the way through
HM: I wanted to ask about your father, about writing about his old age and his aphasia in Deep Field. Did you approach writing about him differently in any way due to your experiences of writing about your daughter in The Wasting Game? I think you’ve described your approach as writing into the “resonant space” between the two of you – writing about your relationship rather than directly about him. Is this a way of preserving a little distance or privacy for him, and perhaps you too? Why was it important to you to write about him, and to what extent were you telling your own story through your exploration of his experiences?
PG: To step back one or two paces from this sensitive area to ones which might feel like routine poetic practice … I’d written from family material – what I knew of the Cornish family’s history, and what was happening in the present with the birth of my two children – from the start. In the same spirit, I’d been writing incidents from father’s life. That life as a wartime refugee and exile from his homeland, and from the language of his birth, felt like an undeniable heritage, and maybe a responsibility to use it to connect my small life growing up in Plymouth with a wider sweep of places and times.
The heart of that wartime experience was delicate material, only entrusted to me in my adult life, once I was a father myself. My first book contained several versions of stories he had told me – re-created, shaped and semi-fictional but in each case tested out with him for their essential truth. I made no assumption of a right to do this – for example, I didn’t work in the same way with my first wife’s family history, though resonances with my father’s exile meant I did touch on Jewish experience in general.
So coming to write about his old age, in Deep Field wasn’t without precedent. We were closer by then, more than we’d been in our lives, with me increasingly involved in his care and support. Paradoxically we became closer still while he was losing his language. He was trusting me, asking me, to speak for him in practical ways, such as encounters with medical staff, when I would literally interpret for them his largely unintelligible language, drawing on small verbal clues and nonverbal gestures. Wanting to represent the depth, the richness and actually the courage of his life felt like an extension of this, as much as the times I’d take a chess set into his geriatric ward and we’d play in full sight of the medical staff, so they could see how brilliantly that part of his brain was functioning, even while he was struggling in so many ordinary ways.
The space between me and my father felt resonant because so much else was echoed in it: how his estrangement from language recapitulated other kinds of exile, how it ironically mirror-imaged my experience as stammering child and adolescent, how it opened up deeper history to do with human language …
In other words, this was nothing like the situation behind The Wasting Game. I never claimed to be, or wanted to be, speaking for my daughter. I spoke for myself and other close family members, maybe, as we gazed into the terrible gulf opening between us. What I was describing was the illness, with its rigid attitudes, its gestures, its tones of voice which were nothing like the lively, imaginative young woman we knew, but startlingly like the other anorexics in the adolescent unit. I was writing to reach for her, maybe, or to make sense of the inability to reach.
The space between me and my father felt resonant because so much else was echoed in it: how his estrangement from language recapitulated other kinds of exile, how it ironically mirror-imaged my experience as stammering child and adolescent, how it opened up deeper history to do with human language. If it had only been a matter of a medical condition, I may not have felt the call to write.
There was still a caution, a balance to be kept between representing him with respect and with honesty. Some aspects I didn’t feel the right or need to touch on, ones that as a physically private person I know he would have found shaming. (After his death, in the next collection, Later, I wrote a little more nakedly about his gruelling last weeks, partly as a kind of cry of protest on his behalf). But it felt necessary to portray his situation truthfully, because the paradox felt so important: I’d never felt such respect for him as I did in his weakness, or indeed seen him as emotionally eloquent in his gestures as he lost the power of speech. We grew closer as his illness and dying pulled us apart.
The space opening up in The Wasting Game was different. The challenge there was in asking ‘Can you love this?’ even when what pulled us apart was in some sense the other person’s choice. The gradual move to ‘going public’ came with realising that the process eating at our family went wider than a single illness. Looking around people I knew, or whose experience I’d heard, told me that many things – addictions, obsessions, cult-conversions, political ideology – create a similar estranging space.
Deep differences, then, between the two occasions in one family. What links them is the question: what can love do in this situation? What does love, tough love as well as tender, look like, faced with this? And also, incidentally: what can poetry do? I have a lifelong instinct that those questions are connected. If no crisp conclusive answer has yet come to me … well, that may be why I did, and do, and hope to continue to write.
What does love, tough love as well as tender, look like, faced with this? And also, incidentally: what can poetry do? I have a lifelong instinct that those questions are connected
Do you, Hilary, feel a possible scruple about writing any family experiences at all – say, love poems for a partner, or the celebration of a birth – as well as the upsetting and exposing ones about illness or death? An absolute scruple about all of this would really cut a swathe through the historic stuff of poetry. But is there a discrimination to be made on some grounds – between the positive experiences and the negative … between those driven by affection and by other, less likeable emotions … between good faith and bad … between the stories of people still living and people now dead … or just between the ones that make for good poems (whatever ‘good’ might mean) and those that make for bad?’
HM: Funny you should ask this. Just last week I had a conversation with a family member about how they use (I am trying hard to avoid using the word ‘plunders’) our wider family experience in stories they write. This person asks me to proofread, and it feels very strange to encounter a character with the same name as, for example, my ex-husband, or my oldest son, especially when the character clearly shares traits with the real person. Even more weird when I find a character obviously based on me, and living through events I experienced. There’s much I could say about this, as you can imagine, but I’m trying to use it as a learning experience.
Personally, I am quite private about personal details of my family, certainly when it comes to writing about difficult experiences, and where people involved are still living and likely to read it. My first marriage fell apart spectacularly badly and I could say plenty about my ex-husband, but how would our three sons feel about that? How to write about a difficult relationship with a parent, while they are still alive and likely to read it? My father died before I began to write poetry in earnest, so I have been spared that conundrum, and have written about him, albeit pretty obliquely. In Fear of Forks, my recent pamphlet with HappenStance, I have written a lot about my son, Inigo, the trainee chef – he even appears on a short video we made of one of the poems, ‘Knifework’. But these are loving and celebratory poems, even if key themes of the pamphlet are fear of change, grief and loss.
With Human Tissue I sent Linus a manuscript before sending it off, and he was happy with it being published. But the poems in the pamphlet are not really about Linus himself anyway. They are about how I felt when this awful thing happened, how I wanted someone, or something, to swoop in and save the day – the doctors, medical science, some higher authority, God (as a card-carrying atheist, this bit was hard). It’s about the process of internal bargaining, and the search for someone in which to place trust, and the place I ended up in when everything failed. I don’t claim to know or speak for Linus’ experience, in fact he only really appears in one poem, ‘Fistula’, which refers to one of the darkest points in that difficult time, when he was losing the kidney, and was on a new drug to try and prevent rejection, and was not responding well to the drug. We both hit a particular low, together. Did I write this down because I thought it would be useful for other families in a similar situation? No, like you I wrote it to try and make sense of my own situation. And to try and find a way through it.
Did I write this down because I thought it would be useful for other families in a similar situation? No, like you I wrote it to try and make sense of my own situation. And to try and find a way through it
Going back to your question about scruples, I think, actually, you have already answered it. As poets, the whole of human experience must be available to us to write about – no absolute scruple. But ethical concerns, yes. I think your suggestion of writing ‘in good faith’ holds firm, although we need to be rigorous with ourselves about our true motivations, and not kid ourselves that we are writing in good faith when we are not. I have one poem on the go at the moment which I suspect is not written entirely in good faith. It’s certainly driven by unlikeable emotions. But I’m reminded of Tony Hoagland here, when he says it’s important to vocalise things like “condescension, lust, contempt, fear” because it’s all “part of the big ball of turmoil, paradox, conflicting feelings, ideologies, clashing with our finer sensibilities …”. Unlikeable emotions are part of life, possibly the most interesting part, and poetry should be able to deal with them, though perhaps not pander to them. And so, perhaps, to the other question lurking in the room – what makes for a ‘good’ poem?
PG: You’re right, of course, to hang a quiet question mark beside the words ‘good faith’. Essential benchmark it might be, but it’s neither infallible nor un-fake-able. It throws us back on something even more important, which is – I can’t think of any other way to say this – self-knowledge. Having the instinct to feel uneasy when we suspect we’re spinning ourselves a line.
That’s not the answer to what makes a good poem, in itself. Obliquely, though, it points to one thing that makes a poem not so good, and that really matters for this conversation: sentimentality. That doesn’t just mean being prone to ‘soppy’ feelings. Nor is it an argument against strong feelings. For me, sentimentality is when we’re so partial to any one emotion that we seek it out at all costs, avoiding contradictory evidence – we pander to it, as you say. These days, people are sentimental about anger, moral outrage, tough-guy violence as often as about happy endings, cuddliness and kittens.
HM: Yes, the moral purity claimed by some poets these days verges on the fanatical, and makes me feel old and unfashionable and slightly scared, though more for them than for myself. The white heat of moral unassailability must be a bit of a drug, and I imagine it’s a hard path from there to a place where one can be comfortable with the world’s – and one’s own – contradictions and foibles and failings. So I’d like to put a word in for unfashionable poetry, the satirical, the cynical, the ironic, even the confused – poems that admit to the many conflicts, both outer and inner, in our messy, imperfect, human lives. And also a word in support of poets knowing and practising the craft of poetry, developing their understanding of form. So often these days political correctness and moral righteousness are prioritised over formal competence, imagination, and a willingness to go beyond the accusatory finger or the weeping saint, and it makes for a less generous – and less fun – poetics.
PG: I’m disinclined even to use the term ‘political correctness’, which tips into the set-piece culture-wars debate. I want to refuse those terms of engagement, on that artificial battlefield. But I’ll certainly cheer for generosity – a bold use of the human gift of empathy, of listening. A cheer for imperfection, too, not as a failing but as a positive good; as with the need for seed banks to preserve a wide variety – who knows when we might need it? – a moral monoculture is a danger. Craft, a cheer for that too, because the sheer work and reworking of material helps reveal it better, from more angles, clearer, like the polishing of a lens. And of course fun, in the deep sense: the life force at play, delighting in its possibilities.
HM: Speaking as an editor and a reader, I would say ‘good’ poetry recognises and respects the contract between writer and reader. I will spend time reading your poem as long as it gives me something in exchange – pleasure, insight, a tool to bring home. If it is dull, self-righteous or clever-clever, or if it seems to celebrate its own inaccessibility, I’m put off. I don’t demand verbal gymnastics, or semantic fireworks. I don’t demand blood, in fact I’d rather there was no blood at all. And I don’t have to understand everything in your poem. But I do have to believe that you understand what you are doing, and are doing it honestly and open-handedly, and that we are involved in a joint project, a real exchange. That a bridge is formed between us.
Speaking as a writer, I can only trust that a poem is good when it makes that almost imperceptible ‘click’. For me that suggests that the sonic net I am trying to construct is in fact in place, the interplay between content and form is working, and something in the poem has taken flight. It exists separately from me, almost as a small living machine. Of course whether it will be found ‘good’ by other people is another question. But all we can do is put our stuff out there and see what comes back. It’s a form of Show and Tell.
PG: For me, a ‘good’ poem is one that has its own life, undeniably. Whether you like it, approve of it, agree with it or not, it speaks for itself. (The ‘you’ here means the reader and the writer, equally. “I do have to believe that you understand what you are doing,” you say. I’d add, “At least doing your best to understand”, though the poem itself might be constantly outpacing you.) The poem might even be morally bad, politically misguided … though if it is, simply being a poem doesn’t exempt it from being judged, in a different court, on those grounds. And most hateful ways of thinking do involve a kind of blindness to any different experience, so the resulting poem will have that flaw too.
It can certainly give voice to unpleasant emotions – condescending, lustful, hateful and the rest of Tony Hoagland’s useful catalogue. A healthy culture needs its share of magnificent outcries, rants, snarls, lamentations, roars of pain … It needs a place to contemplate strong feelings, especially those that seem almost too strong to contain. To do their job, it needs its writers to be not so wedded to the feeling that they can’t step back and see it otherwise. Good faith means offering up to the reader’s judgement a clear sight of these feelings, and of the someone who’s feeling them, whether or not that someone is the writer’s self.
So … A good poem is a weaving, a movement, of language that embodies a knot of experience. It need not be (I could say: should not aim to be) the last word on a subject. I like multi-faceted sequences which come back at a subject ‘at all angles’, as I said. But a good poem stays with you, goes on breeding questions, new responses, on a second or third reading, and again when you come back to it years later.
A good poem stays with you, goes on breeding questions, new responses, on a second or third reading, and again when you come back to it years later
And there can be more than one species of good. I’ve just come back from being alongside nine other good writers on the TS Eliot prize shortlist. After the announcement, I saw more than one poet, and their friends and backers, sincerely uncomprehending about how the winner could have won while lacking a list of the qualities their own work patently had. And they weren’t wrong; it’s just that there were several, not directly comparable, species of right. For the judges in a game of top-class chalk and excellent cheese, the final choice will be which of the many criteria for ‘best’ will have the casting vote.
Don’t mistake this for the kind of laisser faire that says we can’t make judgements – especially where it matters most, with one’s own work. I draft, redraft, reshape fairly restlessly – reaching around in the dark for the click of right-ness, one notch closer to the way it needs to be. Can I enunciate what kind of good I’m chasing? Maybe it’s better not to think I know too clearly. Better to be quieter, and feel for it, like the quiver in the dowser’s rod. And if in doubt, keep writing, and trust that the writing will tell you. I write because I know the writing knows better than me. I just have to listen to it well enough.