The Poetry Extension’s founder and curator, Natalya Anderson, interviews our ‘Poet of the Month’ for May, Pascale Petit.
Pascale Petit is a poet based in the UK. She was born in Paris and grew up in France and Wales. Pascale was a visual artist for the first part of her career, having trained as a sculptor at the Royal College of Art. She has published seven poetry collections: Heart of a Deer (1998), The Zoo Father (2001), The Huntress (2005), The Treekeeper’s Tale (2008), What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo (2010), Fauverie (2014) and Mama Amazonica (2017). Four of her collections were shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize and her seventh, Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe, 2017), won the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize and was a Poetry Book Society Choice. Pascale’s eighth collection, Tiger Girl, is due from Bloodaxe in 2020.
Natalya: Tell me about your early life as a sculptor and your studies at the Royal College of Art.
Pascale: Thank you for interviewing me Natalya, and for the honour of being May poet of the month. I did my MA in sculpture at the Royal College of Art, the sculpture studios were just behind the Natural History Museum skips then, and had once been where horses were kept, so we had large studios with high ceilings with skylights. We could do what we liked with the wooden floors and walls. I made installations while I was there. I raided the Natural History Museum skips and found all kinds of treasures, such as wax casts of monkey embryos. I also hung out in the glass department a lot, as one of my assemblages, ‘Bodytrap’ was made of interconnected glass boxes and the whole structure was connected with flying glass arcs that were blown from the kiln. I didn’t do very well though when I was there – I got ill. Also, I had been working in casting resin and fibreglass before my time there, had made translucent life size female figures with beetles in their wombs, thorns and birds embedded as veins, and a transparent cast brain containing butterflies. But at this time it was discovered that working with fibreglass and resin was dangerous, and that resin was carcinogenic, and as I had a cancer scare I stopped using it, and used crystacal plaster (a very hard plaster) instead, but I don’t think that worked for me. As I’d been involved in the feminist movement in the visual arts, taken part in the touring exhibition ‘Pandora’s Box’ by the Women’s Images group, I encountered some resistance to my work as well – and in the end, Phillip King, the professor, took me under his wing, so I would not have more antagonism from the head of department. There was the feminism, and also my subject matter, which, like my poetry, was concerned with women’s experience, childbirth, trauma and pain. This was not welcome at the time, 1980s. Looking back, I wish I had taken a different approach, found a way of working in miniature, with body parts, rather than whole figures. Then I might have continued. It might have helped to study some women sculptors too, who worked differently to the mainstream male formalism of that time. But the only women I remember being taught, were Barbara Hepworth and Elizabeth Frink, and I was not interested in them. Had I seen the work of Annette Messager, or Louise Bourgeois, it might have been more encouraging, and given me some alternative strategies. Ten years after I left – I had gone there as a mature student at the age of 32 – I stopped making sculptures or even drawings, and concentrated on poetry. But I had written poems all along, from my teens.
Natalya: When did you start writing poetry? What drew you from sculpting to poetry?
Pascale: As I said, I’d always written poems. Before I got into the RCA, I would spend one year writing and the next sculpting. I didn’t do both together, because when I was doing one I would be totally focused on it and forget my other self. After the RCA, I was broke so didn’t have a studio, I worked full time in Clifton Nurseries in Maida Vale for a year and a half, to pay my overdraft back. The hours were long – 8.30 until 6 each day, so hardly any time for making art, but that year changed me. I remembered how much I loved plants. I was queen of the flowering indoor plant glasshouse, which sounds grand, but I looked after the plants and served customers, some of which were very posh. I learnt how to care for all the tropical species, so I could give customers the correct plant-care advice. It was heartbreaking to watch them load their taxis with gardenias that would be binned after parties. When I left there I started making plants instead of women, and managed to exhibit some, in a rainforest exhibition at the Natural History Museum and London Underground commissioned a poster of Kew Gardens, which was shown on the Tube. Then I did loads of art projects in schools based on the Gaia Theory, with all age groups, which included the kids making paper costumes of themselves as environments on earth – deserts, rainforests, seas, and polar caps, in a play. These residencies were fun but exhausting. I put all my creative energies into the teaching. I soon realised that I no longer could make art for myself. I gave up! This meant I only had the poetry to fall back on. I could not survive without being fully creative, so what happened was that because I could no longer fall back on sculpture when the poetry got hard, I had to work through the difficulty. And that’s how I improved and finally developed as a poet. I soon found that I could get further with metaphor, with making images with words, than I had using raw materials as a visual artist. Another thing that stuck from my time as an artist was my need to have a studio – a place where I could create a world of my own. So my writing rooms and sheds are studio-like, they still have strange things hanging on the walls – such as giant dried cardabelles (giant thistle flowers) and animal skulls.
Natalya: You have long documented your travels around the world, often with a focus on wildlife. When and how did this begin to shape your life?
Pascale: It all began with a book Waterfalls of the World, and a miserable Christmas when I was very depressed. I was 38 and just separated from my first husband, and this book that I found in a relative’s house astonished me. It was Christmas Eve and I couldn’t sleep, so I pulled it down and started to leaf through it, and I was crying at the time. But I stopped crying, because I knew this book was important. At the centre was Angel Falls in Venezuela’s Lost World, the remotest and highest waterfall on earth. When I got home I went straight into a travel agent and showed them the page, and asked if it was possible to get there. As it happened, flights had just opened up in small planes to it; tourism was just beginning there. I went to Angel Falls twice, and the kilometre high plume was my god for a long time afterwards. But my obsession expanded outwards, to the vast table mountain around it and the rainforest, its creatures, trees and tribes. I read everything I could find about Amazonia. Then when my father reappeared, in Paris, after 38 years absence from my life, I found I could only write about him through the wonders of the Amazon. Many of its creatures were in the zoo next door to his tiny flat – in the Ménagerie of the Jardin des Plantes. There was even a black jaguar there back then, and coatis, which I adore. And so my lifelong interest grew.
Natalya: In many of your award-winning collections, you have written about the dark and devastating parts of your childhood. Can you tell me how you’ve approached writing about sexual abuse and childhood trauma, and how that has helped or hindered your emotional well being and mental health over the years?
Pascale: I suspect that what happened was that I found a way to write about wild nature, through my human traumas, to come to it at an angle. I’d gone to the Venezuelan Amazon twice, just before my father made contact with me. The contact was traumatic, because of what he had done to his family before he vanished when I was eight. I had tried writing about the Amazon, and my parents, in my first book, Heart of a Deer, but now that I was visiting him, I could write directly, in the raw, about things that had seemed shadowy before, obscured by foliage. Human suffering is part of nature, and I was interested in how they illuminated each other. I read a great deal of anthropology at the time, especially about the Yanomami people of southern Venezuela and Northern Brazil, who had been the subject of extensive study in France. I was also particularly interested in the head-shrinking Shuar of Ecuador, formerly called the Jivaro. Both the Yanomami and the Jivaro did things that shock us. I researched how much of their rituals were part of spiritual quests, rather than the gruesome tales that anthropologists reported – such as head-shrinking their enemies, and in the case of the Yanomami, such as their warlike natures, rape of girls from other clans, and their ritual of drinking the ashes of their dead relatives. The more I read – sometimes in French and even Spanish so I could source oral accounts – the more I understood how highly evolved their spirit worlds were, and how knowledgeable they were about their rainforest plants. In any case, I needed to write my second collection, The Zoo Father, to survive. Writing The Zoo Father did keep me alive, and so I knew I had to make books of poems to transform what had happened to me as a child. I suffered from depression since childhood, and took medication for it when young. But it seems to me that art is a better support, even sometimes a cure. Might it be possible to make books where the childhood is changed, by the spell of poems? I guess that might have been what I was after.
Natalya: I will never forget what you have said there – that it might be possible to change a childhood under the spell of art. Thank you for that, Pascale. Your brilliant collection, Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe, 2017), won the 2018 RSL Ondaatje Prize. What was that experience like, and how do you feel about your work on that collection?
Pascale: What a surprise that was. I could not believe it when they announced it! I almost missed the announcement too, because I was staying at a Heathrow hotel that night, and I’d checked in there then took the tube into London, and it stalled for an hour. So I missed the drinks and mingling part, and arrived just in time for the big dinner. Then I found I was seated next to Grayson Perry, and was too shy to talk to him, but we had a good chat after the announcement. So many people came up and kissed me. I didn’t sleep that night – I was much too excited. Then I flew to Belgrade for a festival and it all seemed like a dream, especially as I had no wifi there. But I will always be thankful to the Royal Society of Literature for the prize, and it’s such a special prize, for a book that best evokes the spirit of a place. I’d been in love with Amazonia for twenty-five years, and so that felt extraordinary, to win something for my mad obsession. And to be the first poet to win, as it was a book prize, out of the poetry coteries. Mama Amazonica means something magical to me – because in it I manage to love my mother. When I went to Venezuela the second time, I climbed Mount Roraima, as well as being canoed to the base of Angel Falls, and when I got home I was ill for a few years. So, although I really wanted to go back to the Amazon, I didn’t dare, until I started to write Mama Amazonica. The book started with the title poem, where I imagine my mother as a giant Victoria amazonica waterlily. That image kept expanding in my mind, and when I pictured it I felt differently about my mother, who had died around the time my father reappeared. I felt warm towards her, instead of fear and iciness, in her rainforest backwater, which, in the book, also became a psychiatric ward. She had suffered from severe mental illness most of her life. So there she was, ill, but part of the extreme milieu of nature at its most intense and savage, at its most beautiful and colourful. I went to the Peruvian Amazon twice, stayed at Tambopata Research Center in Tambopata National Park, in the Madre de Dios region of South-Eastern Peru. It was the only lodge in the core of that national park, so the forest was pristine, virtually untouched by humans. I was surrounded by the most dreamlike sounds and scents, night and day, one wall of my bedroom open to the jungle! I saw my favourite creatures, including king vultures, harpy eagles, giant river otters, and many macaws, who even came into my room, along with monkeys. On the second trip, just as I was leaving in the boat sailing downriver, I saw a jaguar, which fulfilled a lifelong wish.
Natalya: I worry about how we can – in the ebb and flow of our lives from childhood to adulthood – fear or hate our parents, and then become a version or a reaction to them. It’s a frightening line to walk, even if we are in recovery (active recovery - from depression, or addiction, or anxiety disorders, etc.). Your writing has been an antidote to that fear for me, and I’m sure so many others. What has your experience been during the political upheaval and corruption you have witnessed in the EU and UK throughout the ordeal of Brexit? How has that impacted you as an artist?
Pascale: When the Referendum voted for Brexit it was a shock. I believed that the xenophobia I had encountered, and observed, in the UK had receded, that Britain was a country that now welcomed strangers. I was shocked and dismayed. I was directly affected, as I had lived in the UK for most of my life but not British. I was brought over when I was a baby, then sent back to Paris at the age of two, then returned to Wales to live with my grandmother again from the age of seven on. That’s fifty-five years over here. At no point in those fifty plus years did I feel that I needed to get British nationality. And nobody ever questioned whether I had a right to stay, or asked for my citizenship status. But suddenly I felt scared. The citizenship application looked forbidding – I’d never remember all my trips abroad, it was impossible. I would fail the exam, and so on. Eventually I was advised that because my mother had been born British, that I could do a shorter version of the application, and that’s what I did. However, it took nine months for them to process it, and during that time they kept my French passport – I was grounded. I had to cancel some international festivals, one of which was to launch Serbian editions of three of my books. Every step of the process made me literally shake. I was terrified they’d reject my application and I’d be sent back to France, where I have no family. As well as this, I became acutely aware of my foreignness, and would avoid mentioning Brexit to neighbours in case they became hostile once they realised I was French. I think Brexit is a step backwards in the evolution of the human spirit. It is one factor in a general swerve to fascism, and it terrifies me how many people can’t see that, or how it was manipulated by corruption and lies.
Natalya: Your constant attention to, and care for, the human spirit is a great source of power. Your eighth collection, Tiger Girl, is due from Bloodaxe in September 2020. Can you tell me how it will explore your grandmother’s Indian heritage and the tiger forests of her stories? Why is this exploration important to you?
Pascale: My maternal grandmother saved my life. She looked after me when I was a baby for two years, then for seven years from the age of seven. When I wasn’t living with her I was shunted from home to home, a children’s home at the age of four, then various places. My grandmother used to tell me stories about tigers in Indian jungles. She spoke Hindi in her sleep. She also had what seemed to me to be a huge garden around her council house, and she spent her every spare moment working in it among her beloved plants. She hated the cold and stuffed newspapers around windows. She did tell me that she was born in India and spent her childhood there. But it was only at her funeral that I was told she was actually half Indian, and that this had been a carefully kept secret. I wanted to go to India to explore her heritage. I gravitated towards the tiger forests, and wanted to see a wild tiger. Tigers are more dangerous than jaguars, so any encounter is done in jeeps, but the Gypsy jeeps for safaris are the open kind. I went on two trips. The first time I went to Rajasthan, where my grandmother was born, and to Ranthambore National Park in that state, then to Kanha National Park and Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh, though Gran had also lived in Hyderabad in Telangana. I wanted to get as close to a tiger as she told me she had, when one came into her tent and walked up to her cot. And on my second trip, spent entirely in Bandhavgarh, I did! I was within one metre of Spotty, the queen of Tala Zone. I saw dozens of tigers, but that encounter was magical, we made eye contact! What soon became obvious though was just how endangered these apex predators are, as are the forests they inhabit. There are fewer than two thousand wild tigers left in India. The more I researched the more I realised I might be one of the last to see them, and the same goes for Indian leopards, sloth bears, wild elephants, even owls and Indian rollers have to be protected from poachers and loggers. Tigers are particularly targeted for the Chinese Traditional Medicine black market, and Tiger Girl explores that tragedy as well as my grandmother’s heritage.
Natalya: Pascale, thank you for these honest, deeply moving responses. Thank you for your books.