Philip is a professor of creative writing at Glamorgan University and the author of The Water Table, which won the T.S Eliot poetry prize for 2009. His newest collection, Deep Field, was published last November and written after Philip’s father, Juhan Gross, after deepening aphasia deprived him of the power of speech.
Deep Field is inspired by your father, a wartime refugee. Can you tell me more about him?
My father reached England in 1946. He was born in Estonia, a country on the border of more than one country, occupied at different periods by Russia, Germany and Sweden. By the end of the Second World War one fifth of the population were either in exile or had been transported to Soviet labour camps, where many died. So he was not going back and never went back. I didn’t know most of this as a child; it was only in adulthood that he trusted me with his experiences.
Deep Field is not a narrative of what happened to him in the war, although there are enough echoes to piece a narrative together. The full story could be written at some point – my father wrote an account of his own. This book is an exploration of what was happening with his language, and about language itself.
How many languages did your father speak?
Before the war he was already learning English; like many Estonians then, he had an interest in English culture. Because of the war, he had no option but to learn quite a bit of Russian and German, a lot more Russian than he wanted.
He was an able learner of languages; he knew a fair amount of French. When he was young he learned a bit of Esperanto, which came from a vision of a universal language, like the hope that the League of Nations (the earlier form of the United Nations Organisation) would do away with war. That idea is quite poignant now, two world wars and countless conflicts later.
Philip Gross. Copyright: Stephen Morris
What happened when he started to lose his language?
As his only child I became his interpreter for the outside world. When you become the translator of another you acquire a lot of empathy. This was compelling for me, not just because he was such an important person in my life, but also because the issue was language, which is what I’ve built my life around.
I was imagining what it would be like not to have that bridge between you and the world- who would you be anymore? Language is what defines a person in our social world, and maybe inside ourselves, too. Without use of language, would we have a sense of identity?
How did Deep Field begin at this time?
I didn’t know that I was writing a book. That is the best way, I think, when you’re faced with something that you’ve got to think through – doing a lot of writing. Gradually it became apparent that what I was writing was poems. It also became obvious that I was writing them for him.
The very first line of the sequence that runs throughout the whole book starts by addressing him by his first name. We did call each other by other by our first names (rather than my calling him ‘father’ or ‘dad’) but that poem insists on the fact that I am speaking to him, not about him. I was saying the things that I could not have said anymore because he was cut off by his speech loss and deep deafness. Some of the things also dealt with complicated memories and feelings, which at that stage at the end of his life he couldn’t have handled.
Were you able to overcome this communication barrier?
Sometimes (and this was something of a revelation for me) the answer is not words. Sometimes the person just needs you to hold their hand. Even if he could not grasp the message or respond, in a sense he did, because he was still an active part of the way I think. I think who we are is a very complex and interesting thing. We are partly made of – we internalise – the people that matter.
These deep problems of communication and identity are key issues for sufferers of illnesses like Alzheimer’s and their families. That’s why I’ve had such strong very emotional responses from people who’ve read the collection. It’s about the place where you could still meet… but not quite meet… or maybe you can. The last pages point at the ways we communicated beyond words.
More on the subject: Philip gives creative writing advice on YouTube.
Phillip has his own website, which you can see by clicking here.
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