An Interview with Pascale Petit
Week of the Festival: Ledbury, UK
Week of the Festival: Ledbury, UK
No one in these islands writes poems like Pascale Petit. Part of this is formal: Petit trained as a sculptor at the Royal College of Art in her youth, and didn’t publish her first full poetry collection until 1998, in her mid-forties. Her poems bear out this history in their tactility, their keen awareness of space, their density of colour and hyperreal imagery. My only experiential comparison is walking into a room in a gallery, in which every surface has been transformed: often unsettling, often unsettlingly familiar, a lucid, vivid dream.
The other aspect of Petit’s singularity, I think, is to do with her particular handling of the poems’ substance. Many critics have noted her books’ recurrent focus on a childhood marked by abuse, neglect, and upheaval: The Zoo Father(2001) and Fauverie (2014) centre around her father, and The Huntress (2005) – which drew praise from Les Murray for its peerless ‘mythic imagination’ – and Mama Amazonica (2018) on her mother. These books are difficult reads, and do not shy away from the realities of the aftermath of psychological and physical harm. I first encountered Petit’s work in 2010, with What the Water Gave Me, and I’ll admit that as a young and inexperienced reader, I struggled with a book that felt so unlike anything I’d been trained to read. A remarkable thing about reading Petit’s oeuvre in progress, however, is the space it has made, ever more intensively since Fauverie, for the difficult and often messy negotiations needed to arrive at a place of peace, solace, and healing. In a poetry industry that often struggles to handle traumatic narratives with tenderness and grace, Petit’s books are that rare thing: poetry that neither euphemises violence, nor uncritically reproduces it.
When Versopolis approached me to commission some pieces of new critical writing, and agreed that one of them could be an interview, there was only one poet in my mind. Petit’s most recent collection, Tiger Girl, has been shortlisted for the 2020 Forward Prize, and seems to represent a further evolution in her work, or perhaps the completion of a cycle. I thank Pascale for her candour and patience in this interview, conducted by email over the course of a fortnight, and to Versopolis Review for publishing it.
DC: Hello Pascale! Thanks for having a chat with us. First off, congratulations on your first Forward Prize nomination! Tiger Girl is your eighth full collection of poems, has your approach to writing poetry changed over that time? Has it gotten any easier?
PP: Thanks for interviewing me, it’s an honour, and thank you, I am so thrilled Tiger Girl is shortlisted for the Forward!
Since my second collection, The Zoo Father, I’ve found it much the same for each book – there are easy poems and hard poems. My first collection was much harder, so I guess The Zoo Father was my breakthrough one. I wrote my last three collections, Fauverie, Mama Amazonica and Tiger Girl, in quick succession, starting each one just as the other ended. I can’t bear not to write, I don’t even know who I am if I’m not embarked on a book. When I’m inside the book, I can’t imagine life outside it! But that’s where I am now, not at all sure where to go from here.
I write from solitude. I used to live alone, but now that I don’t, I have a garden shed to write in, though often start poems in bed if I manage to sleep well enough to wake up very early. I write first drafts in longhand in small, thin, lightweight notebooks which I carry around with me around the house and garden and on walks. I also scribble in my iPhone’s Notes app – many poems begin life there. I used to also rent rooms in Paris, my birth city, a concentrated month at a time, an expensive habit, but it worked for me. Watching animals helps, I don’t know why, but their presence is like a muse. In Paris I had special ‘friends’ I’d watch all day, such as Aramis the black jaguar at Vincennes Zoo. He was the one, but there were others – Simara his mate, the wolverines, and in the Ménagerie of the Jardin des Plantes (where Aramis first lived) there are the snow leopards, North China leopards, and clouded leopards. Also the king vultures and macaws.
Now that I’ve spent some time in the National Parks of Central India, my new muses are tigers, and all the creatures of their forests. The forests themselves are muses too. The creatures are like their spirits. By the time I wrote my seventh collection, Mama Amazonica, I’d spent twenty years obsessed by the Amazon rainforest and had twice travelled to primary Peruvian jungles and seen a jaguar in the wild. The book started with the title poem, ‘Mama Amazonica’, and that was the key, because all I had to do to write the rest of the book was to re-imagine myself in the deepest remotest part of the Amazon and visualise my estranged and mentally ill mother as a giant waterlily, just that nucleus, from which the book’s forest sprawled. It was a picture and a feeling. The feeling was an entirely new one about my mother, who I’d always imagined as ice. This feeling was warm, hot even, and luxuriant. That first title poem unleashed the rest.
With Tiger Girl, I had a mystery at its heart: my maternal grandmother’s secret half Indian heritage. I had very little to go on, story-wise. But what I did have was the many stories she’d told me about her encounters with a tiger when she was a baby. This is the kernel of this book. My grandmother was my saviour, in an otherwise tough childhood, and brought me up for nine years – two as a newborn, and seven from the age of seven to fourteen. I found myself writing love poems to her. I’d always been much more afraid of tigers than jaguars – they are more ferocious – but I knew I had to see wild ones. What was it like for her to see one with the new eyes of a baby? So I went to several tiger forests, and saw many. On the first trip I only saw them in the distance. On the second trip I was within touching distance of Queen Spot-T! Several times. It was heaven.
But it’s impossible to visit India’s forests without becoming acutely aware of the threats to the forest and all its inhabitants. This is the bass note of Tiger Girl, and became my major theme. The easiest poem to write in this book was ‘In the Forest’. It wrote itself, so it feels like the heart. It was easy to write some others too, such as ‘Green Bee-eater’. I found the delving into my childhood with Gran quite hard. I’m not sure why. I’d have to concentrate to remember. Actually, I suspect it’s to do with how I had to forget that happy time when I went to live with my mother when I was fourteen. I literally had to forget Gran and her love, and not mourn my separation from her because that was offensive to my mother, since I was supposed to love her instead. So I blanked Gran out. Then I started creating forests (perhaps like Gran’s huge garden) in my head where I could hide from my mother.
DC: That's a dynamic I see a lot in your work - even in poems that handle a lot of pain, such as those poems about your mother, there's so much life and colour. Reading feels like setting foot in a forest, or a garden, or a gallery, or a blend of the three. I’m fascinated, too, by the thought of the forest being the living thing, the singular, interconnected ecosystem, and the creatures within it being spirits, or expressions of that thing? I know you get asked a lot about your career as a sculptor, but does that training enter your thinking as a poet? How did you find moving from sculpture to poetry?
PP: I’m so pleased you agree with that idea, of the forest being an organism, and animals and birds its spirits. I think if beings from another planet saw earth, they’d be amazed at forests, and might think they’re the occupants, and if the aliens existed in a different timeframe, saw the trees as dynamic quick beings, not static at all, they might have more of a sense of what a forest is. But then they’d see us, the human mass. I imagine having to live on another planet without vegetation or animals as they might do, and it makes me scared, and then I think that might happen here where we have such plenitude. In my poems I want to describe the forest while it’s still alive and some of it still healthy, as a record. So I work at making the poems as alive as possible, however painful the subject.
But yes, I’m not recreating a natural forest, I’m making artworks of them. I trained as a sculptor at the RCA, didn’t have any literary education, apart from A Levels. I was used to being in my studio creating my world. It was compulsive and I was very dedicated. Eventually, I stopped, which was a huge step. I always wrote poems as well, and they were making the ‘sculptures’ better than my 3D attempts. There were pieces I felt were fairly successful, particularly my two in the feminist touring exhibition ‘Pandora’s Box: Women’s Images of Women’ (1984-5). One was of two life size transparent women, made of fibreglass and casting resin, and they had little tableaux inside them, thorns and birds embedded inside their bodies. My other piece was a large glass structure of interconnected domes and boxes I called ‘Ancestral Memory’. There was a central dome, and the green right-hand side of the structure contained thorn rainforests with nests containing family photographs, and the blue left-hand side contained undersea-scapes. I used a lot of insects, beetles, hummingbirds etc. When I look back at these sculptures I can see a precursor of Mama Amazonica. But I made them in 1984!
I did have strong ecological concerns back then – and these have grown, while the outlook for the natural world has become bleaker. My training as a sculptor has absolutely entered my process as a poet. I’m not afraid of relentlessly pursuing an obsession, as some visual artists do. I’m thinking of Cézanne with his Mont Saint-Victoire, of Bill Viola with his water videos, of the Chinese firework artist Cai Guo-Qiang. I’m naturally drawn to their way of approaching a subject, in depth and width, instead of making a collection of poems that offer a modest variety of subjects. There are a number of poems responding to Cai Guo-Qiang’s firework events in Tiger Girl. Initially, I was very excited by his tiger installation ‘Inopportune’, featuring nine lifesize tiger replicas vaulting through the air, pierced by arrows. But that poem ended up in the bin. His firework and gunpowder events ‘Sky Ladder’ and ‘Ethereal Flowers’ sparked two poems in the book: ‘Sky Ladder’ and ‘Her Flowers’. Although I read a lot of contemporary poets (but not enough!) I also see what the visual artists are up to, and draw influences from both sources.
The only way I could give up making sculpture was to treat my poems as sculptures that are somehow recreated in the reader’s mind. I always had a problem with storage of old pieces, renting garages I couldn’t afford, but with poems there is no storage, they sleep in their little paper beds!
DC: The installations alluded to in Tiger Girl, like Guo-Qiang's pieces and Do Ho Suh's 'Staircase III', are such good fits for your poems, I think, in their blend of vividly surreal and mundane things. The latter is part of your poem 'Her Staircase', toward the end of the book, which turns an upsetting real-life moment into something very beautiful - the way the poem tries to create a space of healing and safety for someone we've spent a whole book getting to know, whose pain we've witnessed. Is that act of transformation something you find yourself drawn towards? Are there artists who inspire this kind of movement in your work? I see a lot of Lorca in Tiger Girl, I think, another poet-artist!
PP: I’m incredibly touched that you find some Lorca in Tiger Girl. Thank you! I spent time with Do Ho Suh’s ‘Staircase III’ while I was tutoring poetry courses at Tate Modern, on Monday evenings when the galleries were closed to the public. It was installed near the very high ceiling, so I’d walk underneath this impossible staircase made of red gauze. It had an intensely metaphysical presence, and I longed to write about it, but couldn’t, though my students did. It was only when I was writing Tiger Girl that it came to me that it could be Gran’s staircase. She moved to a different council house after I left, in the Welsh village, but before, we’d had a council house in the middle of nowhere. The stairs were concrete with a concrete hallway floor. I fell down them myself when I was eleven, and was very lucky just to break a front tooth. So the stairs haunted me. Her manner of death was shocking, although she was ninety she was in good health. The red gauze stairs became her staircase, and gave me a way of writing about her death while transforming it, as she goes through the accident backwards.
That’s the special power of poetry – that you can change what happened, at least in the book. You open the book, and there’s an alternative version stored inside. Once that’s made, it can’t be unmade, as long as it’s made well. There are hidden resonances with Do Ho Suh’s piece too, because his stairway was a subversion of the one in his New York landlord’s house, and how he felt about being an immigrant, a tenant, about ideas of identity and home. I suspect my grandmother felt her half-Indian strangeness in very monocultural rural mid-Wales, and I arrived from Paris, but remained only a temporary (but happy) ‘tenant’ in my guardian’s house.
I write poems to transform the trauma of some experiences into what I hope is beauty. I’m not sure what art is, but it does seem to have this ability to transcend pain and ugliness. Many artists have influenced me along the way – Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Anselm Kiefer, Bill Viola, so many! The poem-films of Jean Cocteau, Keats (my first love). Many literary loves: Pablo Neruda, Lorca, César Calvo, Selima Hill, Sharon Olds, Natalie Diaz, Ferenc Juhász, Les Murray, Tomas Tranströmer, Rilke. I’m particularly interested in the expansive ideas about language in the work of Natalie Diaz and César Calvo. Calvo, talking about his Amawaka language in the Peruvian jungle, said that “our words are similar to wells, and those wells can accommodate the most diverse waters: cataracts, drizzles of other times, oceans that were and will be ashes”. A big influence on Tiger Girl is Gond art, the paintings by Jangarh Singh Shyam in particular – one of his paintings graces my cover. There are two main tribes that were displaced from the Central Indian tiger forests when they were designated as national parks – the Baiga (who believe they are descended from tigers), and the Gonds, and I completely fell in love with their art. The Gonds were forest people and the main motifs of their paintings are trees and deer, they have a deep mythology of the forest.
DC: It’s always fascinating to hear someone’s constellation of heroes, exemplars, or elders. Yours are very well-travelled, I notice! Really interesting to see Natalie Diaz in there too, a younger poet among the legends. You mentioned working as a tutor at the Tate Modern, you were a mentor to three truly outstanding poets (Omikemi Natacha Bryan, Momtaza Mehri, Warsan Shire) on The Complete Works programme, and I occasionally see reports from some of your other mentees online. Could you tell us a bit about that aspect of your artistic life – did you have mentors of your own, starting out as a poet? Has filling that role changed your own approaches to poetry?
PP: I tutored poetry classes at Tate Modern for nine years, working in the galleries when they were empty, having intimate experiences of the artworks. It kept me informed about contemporary art. I had an exciting and large group of poets. It will take me years to write poems from those years and those encounters with extraordinary exhibitions. I began teaching by holding workshops in my home when I lived in Walthamstow, then Mimi Khalvati asked me to join her and Jane Duran to start the Poetry School in 1997. I never expected to do any teaching, thought it would be something I’d not be any good at, partly because I’m so shy. But freelance work always comes my way, and I tutor for Arvon and Tŷ Newydd residential courses. I’ve had the good fortune to mentor some extremely talented poets, and continue to do so. Four were part of The Complete Works programmes, the first was Mir Mahfuz Ali, then Warsan, then Momtaza and Omikemi. I’ve loved being part of The Complete Works family, and although that programme is finished, I’m still mentoring one or two. I also mentored four very talented poets for the Jerwood/Arvon scheme, including Romalyn Ante.
Just as working at the Tate kept me up to date with the latest artists, so working with these poets keeps me on my toes! I’m sure I learn as much from them as they do from me. I tell them everything I know and they give me so much in return, keeping me up to date with what emerging poets are up to. It definitely feeds into my own writing. I feel like a beginner myself, so much to learn and read still. My approach to mentoring is to be open to new ideas of what poetry is or might be, and to help each poet develop their poetics – with lots of encouragement and kind honesty. It’s very rewarding when they publish their debut collections and we keep in touch.
I’ve never had a mentor myself. Or any formal literary training. You could say my education was being in a studio to create my own world. But I’ve always read a lot too, somewhat obsessively. I’ve specialised in studying the natural history, mythologies, and peoples of the Amazon rainforest. Since my tiger fixation, I’ve read every book on Indian wildlife I could find. I’m a self-taught poet, but I’ve been lucky to be encouraged by Les Murray for twenty-five years, and his encouragement has kept me going through rough patches. Many poets have been kind and supportive along the way.
DC: I love seeing how a poet’s obsessions feed their work. The best work tends to do that, I think, bring new stuff into poetic domains. Thank you so much for sharing so generously about yourself and work, and to finish I’ll ask my go-to question for poets: what was the last book that excited you, and why?
PP: This is actually a tricky one just because there are so many books that have excited me! But The Night Life of Trees (Tara Books, 2017 edition) was a revelation. The Gonds, a forest tribe of Central India, have screen-printed their tree paintings on thick black hand-bound paper, along with short accompanying myths. The sacred trees glow in the centre of each page, with names like ‘The Tree of Song’, ‘The Squirrel’s Dream’, and ‘The Tree of Twelve Horns’ – the latter a reference to the twelve-tined Barasingha or swamp deer which almost vanished and was just salvaged in time, and is central to their art and myths. Opening this book is like going into the evergreen sal forest at night and experiencing it with the eyes of the people who once lived there. There is even a marriage between two trees. The texts are brief but I keep rereading them, as if they hold long lost secrets. They fed into poems in Tiger Girl. For example: ‘The Peacock’ fed into my ‘The Anthropocene’ poem and ‘The Trees of Song’ inspired my poem ‘Trees of Song’. I don’t understand trees, but these artists do. They are Bhajju Shyam, Ram Singh Urveti, and Durga Bai. The book is a work of art in itself, and a talisman for me, though the matte hardback black cover has been nibbled by snails in my writing shed.
Language, breaking silences and Irigarayan mysticism'
Language, breaking silences and Irigarayan mysticism'