Philip Gross and collaboration

Hello poets and readers,

I recently revisited the text of UK poet Philip Gross’ keynote speech ‘Together in the Space Between: Collaboration as a Window on Creative Process’ given at the Poetry on the Move festival in 2015 and later published in Axon. Gross has had the advantage of a number of productive creative collaborations, both with artists from other media and, less commonly, with a fellow writer. Early in his career, he worked in a mixed group of painters and musicians from several traditions gathered around John Eaves’ huge charcoal drawings of Stonehenge, a collaboration which was extended to include the artist FJ Kennedy. The topic of Stonehenge is one shrouded in unknowing, which was deemed inviting to creative adventure, to leaving behind preconceived notions and to improvising.

It’s often been noted of potential writer collaborations that what puts many of us off is the apparent loss of unique ownership or authority. Gross writes that a good collaboration takes nothing away from either party. I agree with him. In my own experience, writing with others has given me energy and taken me into spaces that I wouldn’t otherwise have occupied. Gross talks a good deal about the collaborative working space in various contexts, and he examines it via the phrase ‘the word, the image and the space between’ in a villanelle that emerged from his collaboration with engraver Peter Reddick in the book The Abstract Garden.

Gross suggests that working with other kinds of artists can produce poems that are equal and contrasting with the original pieces which gave rise to them, rather than being in any way secondary. This idea comes in the context of his collaboration with photographer Simon Denison which resulted in the book I Spy Pinhole Eye, where the poems speak to an unlikely series of photos of the concrete footings of power pylons. Gross is a Quaker and, when recalling the meditative tenor of the composition of the poems, likens it to the atmosphere of Quaker meetings, where the intention is “to hold the quiet space between the people.” The words don’t restate Denison’s images, and, despite the images coming first, the photographer felt that they had been changed by the poems.

Gross borrows Charles Babbage’s description of his early computer as ‘the difference engine’ to emphasise the value of the differences between creative artists, effectively extending the metaphor to creative collaboration, and says that it is difference which gives the space between artists its energy. Amongst writers it’s a matter of being “distinct and open to each other,” an experience he shared with Sylvia Kantaris in producing the book The Air Mines of Mistilla.  Gross values most those collaborations that are artistically intimate, with a sense of “getting inside each other’s process.” One poem that came out of his collaborations with artist Valerie Cotton Price even defines ‘God’ as the living space between people/collaborators.  Often, these poems also reflect on the process of making the art as a further dimension to their content, so they could also be termed ‘process poems’. In some cases, the works produced become so well fused that neither participant can remember where an element originated. And yet, that collaboratively held space can allow, “a disciplined release of individual ownership, and liable to return to the writer a work-in-progress that is more itself, not less.”

  4 comments for “Philip Gross and collaboration

  1. April 4, 2019 at 8:26 am

    I’ve met Philip many many times, and we both attended a workshop that was badly prepared (not poetry) and the whole group of us decided to create a self-catering residential experience on Dartmoor. Philip does lovely baked bananas, and also showed me a place on Dartmoor where you can fly.

    He’s definitely a poet’s poet, 24/7, but connects with everybody too.

    Call of the Page


    • April 9, 2019 at 10:48 am

      Thanks, Alan. A poet’s poet, indeed. When he came to Canberra for our Poetry on the Move festival, he offered many insights on a range of topics. How was the process of collaborating on Dartmoor? There could be few more atmospheric places in which to gather, I imagine.

      Liked by 1 person

      • April 9, 2019 at 7:50 pm

        Philip knows Dartmoor (Devon) better than the back of his hand, and so we did a wonderful poetic version of a yomp. Thankfully my experience of the Black Mountains (Wales) came in handy, so I could keep up!

        The process is interesting, and perhaps my own isn’t so incredibly different, in that every angle into poetry, not just the norm, can be explored.



      • April 11, 2019 at 9:26 am

        Thanks, Alan. Yes, there are many angles into poetry, and walking’s certainly one of them, as Melinda Smith described in our first podcast.

        Liked by 1 person

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