Philip Gross was born in 1952 in Cornwall, and grew up in Plymouth. With a Cornish mother and an Estonian father, Gross has emerged as one of the greatest poetic voices of displacement, conveying what Terry Eagleton views as “lost bearings and blurred frontiers” (Independent on Sunday). He won an Eric Gregory Award in 1981 and, in the following year, won the National Poetry Competition. He was recently awarded the TS Eliot Prize for his collection The Water Table (Bloodaxe, 2009). His other collections for adults include Familiars (Peterloo, 1983), The Ice Factory (Faber, 1984), Cat’s Whisker (Faber, 1987), The Son of the Duke of Nowhere (Faber, 1991), I.D. (Faber, 1994), The Wasting Game (Bloodaxe, 1998), Changes of Address: Poems 1980-1998 (Bloodaxe, 2001), Mappa Mundi (Bloodaxe, 2003) and The Egg of Zero (Bloodaxe, 2006).
In addition to poetry, Gross is adept with a range of other genres including science fiction, haiku and opera libretti, stage and radio plays, radio short stories and poem-documentaries. Gross has also collaborated with visual artists, dancers and live musicians. I Spy Pinhole Eye, a collaboration with photographer Simon Denison (Cinnamon, 2009), was the English-language winner of the Wales Book of the Year. In 2010, Gross was commissioned by the Poetry Society to produce a new translation from the Norwegian of Nordahl Grieg’s ‘Gerd’, which was displayed around the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square. Since 2004, Gross has been Professor of Creative Writing at Glamorgan University. Prior to this position, he taught for some years at Bath Spa University College. Gross also commits his time to working in schools, and has published both novels and poetry collections for children and young people.
In Poetry Review (96:3), David Morley describes Gross’s poetry as “ceaselessly experimental, intensely alive” and “significant”. These experiments begin in Gross’s notebooks, which, he explains, contains the “mulch” that eventually take on the form of poems. And certainly his poems retain the thoughts and provocations that propel a stream of consciousness. He weaves recollection with reflection, always retaining a sense of what has gone before but never quite settling in the present. Gross himself maintains that “we inhabit history”, and his poetry communicates a constant searching with little progression or certainty. While Gross is able to elaborate precisely and elegantly on the things around him, he also acknowledges an impalpable absence which leaves his characters in limbo: “There’s this place in each other we can’t have/ or hold: uncurtained windows, hoards of sky.” (‘The Song of the House’, I.D.)
Finding depth in the simplest of ideas, Gross has the gift of patience when approaching themes and subject matter. His recent prize-winning collection, The Water Table, carries poems inspired by the Severn Estuary, contemplating the abiding yet unknowable fabric of water, and drawing connections between nature and mankind. Simon Armitage, chair of the 2009 Eliot panel, appreciated that “there are big concerns throughout the book and [Gross] writes with real lyrical confidence”.
Many of Gross’s collections attempt to consolidate identities from his past and present homeland. He is concerned with the complexities of journeys and the ever shifting spirit of home, “as if any place/ existed, over the horizon, anywhere” (‘The Duke of Nowhere’, The Son of the Duke of Nowhere). Identity is a powerful theme running throughout his work – where we have come from, where we live, the names we leave behind and the borders that amplify difference. The multitude of voices share a sense of unbelonging, and an urge to reclaim something lost or perhaps never known: “the sweet ache/ of dreaming yourself a nation. When you wake/ the place is always wrong. That, or the time.” (‘A Breton Dance’, Cat’s Whisker).
The meditative quality of Gross’s work is heightened by the intensity of the imagery he selects, with relationships always shifting, never anchored. But there remains hope in his work, and an understanding of the vital commitment to live in the here and now. “I think, we’ve got to think,” Gross declares at the end of ‘Bodily Fluids’ (I.D.), “but not too much.”
Familiars, Harry Chambers/Peterloo Poets, Liskeard, 1983
The Ice Factory, Faber, London, 1984
Cat’s Whisker, Faber, London, 1987
Manifold Manor, Faber, London, 1989 (Poetry for young people)
The Son of the Duke of Nowhere, Faber, London, 1991
The All-Nite Café, Faber, London, 1993 (Poetry for young people)
I.D., Faber, London, 1994
Scratch City, Faber, London, 1995 (Poetry for young people)
Coniunctio: A Spell (with pochoir illustrations by Vance Gerry), Prospero Poets, 1995
Nature Studies (with wood engravings by Ros Cuthbert), Yellow Fox Press, Winscombe, 1995
A Cast Of Stones (with art by John Eaves and F.J.Kennedy), Digging Deeper Press, Avebury, 1996
The Wasting Game, Bloodaxe, Newcastle, 1998
Changes of Address: Poems 1980-98, Bloodaxe, Newcastle, 2001
Mappa Mundi, Bloodaxe, Newcastle, 2003
The Water Table, Bloodaxe Books, Tarset, 2009
I Spy Pinhole Eye (with photographs by Simon Denison), Cinnamon Press, Blaenau Ffestiniog, 2009
Off Road To Everywhere, Salt, London, 2010 (Children’s poetry)
To read more about Philip Gross, visit his website
Visit Philip Gross’s profile on the Bloodaxe website, and on Salt’s website
Listen to Philip Gross read from his work here
In 2010, the Poetry Society along with the Royal Norwegian Embassy and the Mayor of Oslo’s office, commissioned Philip Gross to write a translation of Nordahl Grieg’s poem ‘Gerd’. This was then displayed around the Christmas Tree in Trafalgar Square. You can listen to Philip Gross read his translation of Grieg’s poem here.
Polly Clark reviews The Water Table in the Guardian