Pascale Petit was born in Paris, grew up France and Wales, and lives in Cornwall, UK. Her poetry collection, Fauverie, was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and won the Manchester Poetry Prize in 2013. Petit’s fifth collection, What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo was shortlisted for both the T. S. Eliot Prize and Wales Book of the Year, and was Observer’s Book of the Year. Four of her books were shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize and were Books of the Year in the Times Literary Supplement, Independent and Observer. She is the recipient of a Cholmondeley Award and was the chair of the judges for the 2015 T. S. Eliot Prize. Petit is a co-founding tutor of The Poetry School and she taught popular poetry courses in the galleries at Tate Modern for nine years. Her seventh collection, Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe, 2017), won the 2018 RSL Ondaatje Prize, was shortlisted for the Roehampton Poetry Prize, and was a Poetry Book Society Choice. Three of her books were translated into Serbian by Milan Dobričić and published by Treći Trg.
We got to talk to her at the 12th international literary festival “Trgni se! Poezija!” [“Snap Out! Poetry!], in Belgrade, Serbia, organized by Treci trg.
Rhizome: When you talked yesterday [in Novi Sad] about your poems the image that came to my mind was “The change of Philomel, by barbarous king so rudely forced”, and it struck me that there is some kind of connection there between this type of metamorphosis of your personal experience through poetry into this “inviolable voice”, that also takes place in Eliot’s The Waste Land. So, my question would be, what is your approach to this transformation of suffering into poetry? How important is it for you and how you poetically accomplish it?
Pascale Petit: Transformation is what I am after. As I think I said in the talk. I’m not interested in expressing myself, I’m not interested in telling my story. All I’m interested in is enjoying writing my poems and changing what happened, transforming it. So that, for example, with my latest book, Mama Amazonica, which has not yet been translated into Serbian, I feel I have a mother that I can love, a version of her that I’ve created. It isn’t – if I think hard – it isn’t the real mother that I knew, you know, when she was alive. So, it’s that act of transformation. And also, in her case, in this book I changed her into the whole Amazon rainforest – if you think of Daphne, for example, changing into a tree – she didn’t just change into a tree, my mother changed into the whole Amazonian forest. And into the waterlily flower, which is pollinated by beetles, and in the poem they are the father, the rapist. But yes – in Ovid, which T. S. Eliot references, it’s a story of the nightingale. I think all my books are these transformations.
R. The second question would be – how did you come to mediate this transformation of these figures, the mother and father, through the images of a rainforest? It seems to be very well developed and detailed in your poetry, and it struck me as an interesting and complex way to express certain ideas about personhood and subjectivity.
P.P. I write in an unusual way, for a poet, I write more – because I did start out as a visual artist – I write more as a visual artist who has an obsessive subject and pursues it on, and on, and on. Like for example Paul Cézanne with Mont Sainte-Victoire – he’s always just getting it in different lights, trying to get it better, trying to get it right. It’s a deepening process, rather than, “oh, I think I’ll do something different now”, you know. But it started because I had been to the Venezuelan Amazon to see Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world, and from there I was just completely overwhelmed by everything to do with the surrounds: The table mountains, the rivers, the forests, the Pemon people of that area, the myths, especially the shamanistic rites, the rituals for young people, so everything – it became rather like Rimbaud’s, a “prolonged, deepened, sustained derangement of the senses”. It worked like that.
R. There is another question that I want to ask you from this. It deals with this contrast between wilderness and so-called civilisation, because in your poetry you bring these metaphors and images of rainforest to the urban surroundings. It seems that you discover the wilderness within the ordinary, everyday experience of modern living. And on the other hand, there is also a reverse process. How does this take place?
P.P. Yes, well – to continue, about how it started – it really started because I’ve really been to the Amazon rainforest and got very obsessed by it, and then my father contacted me, out of the blue, after 35 years’ disappearance, and it was such a big thing for me, and I went to visit him, and it was very difficult to visit him … but I persisted. There were several months when I didn’t go, I couldn’t bear to, but next, near to where he lived in the Latin Quarter, was the Jardin des Plantes, the zoo, menagerie, the little zoo in Paris. The other big zoo was then closed down for renovations. And there I saw Amazonian animals, and I just started writing these poems The Zoo Father, in which I portrayed him and myself with these animal masks, and it really just all came from that. But I brought wilderness into Paris, and I suppose Paris was for me a savage place. But also, I loved the wilderness, I loved the Amazon, even though, you know, it felt quite hostile, as well, and it’s uncomfortable. It is definitely uncomfortable (laughter). But I loved it. And I actually got to love Paris, whereas I hated it as a child.
R. There is beauty in the Amazon, and in language as well, in the way you construct and use these images of rainforest.
P.P. Thank you. Yes, I was interested in the language. It’s having fun with the language, as well, and the names of the creatures, of the plants.
R. And what I see also is you, taking the power in your own hands, and then you change the history on a certain level. I was interested in this from the social position of women and subjective experience. It is often said that women’s poetry is subjective, which is not true, and even if it is, why should this be considered as a problem? It is used to devalue women’s poetry, because it supposedly talks only about their own “small” world, family, which is a manipulation, because the totality of the world is made up of these “small” worlds.
P.P. Yes, and the relationship to your mother, especially, forms you. It forms politicians, it forms everyone. It is true that I am sometimes accused of my work being over-personal, confessional, and those kinds of things. Going into areas, especially in the UK, where it’s not polite. I don’t know what it’s like here, but it’s not polite to talk about certain things. But the way that I see it is that you just have to look – I’m talking about the outlook from Britain now, you know, which is where a lot of people are quite comfortably off, not everyone – but looking outwards for example to India, Pakistan, the way that women are treated, the way that they are raped, the way that they are punished for being raped. For me it is a really big issue. And for example, in war the women are raped, you know, and I am very interested in why. Is it just to do with sex, because soldiers need sex? I don’t think so. I think it’s a power thing, and it’s a contempt thing. They are showing contempt for the Other. I look at it from an intense personal story. But I don’t think that it’s about just that at all. And then, also not just women and children, but nature, the Amazon rainforest, which is being decimated. It’s the rape of nature. Those are my themes, I suppose.
R. I was wondering how you see your position as a female poet in Britain? You talked a little bit in one of your interviews about Wales and France, and how you’re positioned there, how you come from the visual arts, and in some ways, it seems that you can be seen as an outsider.
P.P. I have felt as an outsider, an outlier they call it these days, partly because of the way that I write, partly because I went to art school, I don’t have a literary education. And also, the intensity of my work is not British. Also because I write about landscapes outside of Britain. I think you’re more accepted if you write nature poetry about British nature, which is beautiful, and I might do that one day, but I haven’t done it yet. I might, because I live somewhere beautiful, now. And so, the role of women in British poetry – everything is in the process of changing at the moment. It’s been slow, slow, slow. And now it’s an explosion. There is an explosion of poetry from poets of colour, a lot more women, gay, queer, trans people, disabled people. Just a whole spectrum has opened up. Whereas before it was really conservative, very traditional, and very rooted, you know, the British do have a wonderful British tradition. But they had very much a narrow vision before. But it wasn’t reflecting British society, in the cities anyway, London, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, the big cities, which are multicultural.
R. I will just jump to the question from before, because you were talking about women and nature. What is your feeling about this women’s connection to nature? Is it something that you connect directly? We have something similar with African American women’s poets, like for example Audre Lorde. You don’t seem to be as direct as Audre Lorde, who really insisted on the women-nature, “mother nature”, “we are nature”, kind of parallels.
P.P. Yes. Because if I did that in the UK it would just be seen as new agey.
R. Your language is different, but are your feelings similar there, with nature and women?
P.P. Yes, I guess they are. I was brought up by my Welsh-Indian grandmother.
R. You mentioned this in a previous interview [shamanistic tradition passed on by your grandmother]. This is why I also wanted to ask you about shaman traditions in the Amazon.
P.P. My grandmother was from the Indian subcontinent. It was family secret, so I didn’t know the facts, but she was from Rajasthan, so northern India, tiger country. Yes, my poetry is spiritual, mystical, and that is what I am after. I am after writing spells, and trances, and I am an animist. I believe everything is alive, so, trees, stones…are alive.
R. How does this transfer to your poetry?
P.P. When I write a poem I am trying to make a spell. I’m trying to get into another state – it’s very hard to say really, without saying something clichéd, and I don’t want to do that – that’s what I’m after. I’m after the unknown. I’m not interested in the world as just seen as being physical, and material. I don’t believe that the world is just material. I have a feeling for the numinous, and that there is something. There is a force somewhere, I don’t know what it is. There is something going on that is way beyond my comprehension, and human comprehension.
R. Could you as a conclusion, perhaps tell us about the poetry you read or some of your influences? What do you love to read?
P.P. It isn’t always poetry. My work is very influenced by visual arts, and one influence which you could see in poems in my books is a Peruvian vegetalista shaman, plant shaman, called Pablo Amaringo, and his paintings, I think are an influence. Pablo Neruda whom I really love. I just have so many influences…
R. Thank you very much.
For Rhizome: Jelena Anđelovska and Stevan Bradić