Photo Credit: Derek Adams
Pascale Petit is an award-winning poet. She has published six collections – Heart of a Deer (Enitharmon 1998), The Zoo Father (Seren 2001), The Huntress (Seren 2005), The Treekeeper’s Tale (Seren 2008), What the Water Gave Me (Seren 2010), and Fauverie (Seren 2014).
She has been shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize on four separate occasions and in 2004 was named as a Next Generation Poet. Her next full-length collection Mama Amazonica will be published by Bloodaxe in 2017.
Hi Pascale. I hope you are well. Thanks for taking the time to chat. I understand you are at work on a follow-up to your 2014 book Fauverie entitled Mama Amazonica. How is it going and have you noticed any ways in which the new poems are a continuation of or departure from your previous collection?
Thanks for inviting me and asking about Mama Amazonica. I’m thrilled to say Bloodaxe will publish it in September 2017. I’ve written about three quarters of the book, but it still needs some key work. I’m going to the Peruvian Amazon in June to research, for up close encounters with the flora and fauna, and it will be up close because the sleeping rooms are open to the jungle!
Mama Amazonica is set in a psychiatric ward and in the Amazon rainforest. It builds on Fauverie in that it is an attempt to love my mother who was too mentally ill to bring me up. In Fauverie I tried to portray my father’s cruelty, but also to forgive him, at least in a book. It was a re-creation or transformation of the actual man.
The father of the book is fictionalised and therefore I could begin to be tender towards him. It is this tenderness I hope to have in Mama Amazonica towards my mother, who is the deeper wound of my childhood. I want to remake her, to turn the book into a mother for myself.
I tried to write about her before, in my third collection The Huntress, which was more about her effect on me, but this is different as it’s about her and the abuse she suffered from my father. It tells the story of how she met him and the devastating consequences this encounter had on her life.
But there are other poems in the book which are about Amazonian and other wild creatures from around the world, some of them in zoos, which is a kind of asylum for them too. I’ve chosen the wildest creatures I could find and limited myself to ones I observed at Vincennes zoo in Paris: wolverines, fossas, jaguars, macaws… and there are hummingbirds. My main interest is in the vitality of the poem, how alive I can make it.
There are longish poems and series of very short ones, two to fourteen-liners, which I wrote quickly. Many of the poems are ekphrastic, in that they were triggered by artworks I have seen or trawled on the internet and I will acknowledge those influences at the back of the book; artists that use taxidermy, such as Julien Salaud, Annette Messager, and the painter of animals Walton Ford whose exhibition I saw at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris.
I love short poems. I think they give a breather to the reader with the intensity and violence of the material, but they also concentrate the images. Even some of the longer poems are made up of concentrated bursts of imagery, so it’s good to isolate some of those single images and put them in solitary confinement to see if they survive!
You were also chair on the judging panel for the T S Eliot Prize this year. I imagine that must have been a thrilling and also challenging experience whittling down all those potential books and candidates to one eventual winner. How surprised were you by the perplexing media storm that seemed to ensue when Sarah Howe was announced as the (more than worthy) winner?
Co-judging the T S Eliot Prize was thrilling and quite a task. I read 143 collections, including books I wouldn’t normally read, books I’d give up on if they weren’t to my taste. Those books I had to read as carefully as personal favourites. It was fascinating and instructive to see what everyone is up to.
Ahren Warner and Kei Miller were my very astute co-judges and their comments on our long and shortlists were a huge help. It must have been a bumper year for poetry because a number of exceptional books we loved didn’t make the list. We could only select six – four of the ten were PBS Choices and automatically shortlisted. I realize now just how hard it is to be chosen!
When I announced Sarah Howe as the winner in the V & A lobby, the room exploded with whoops and cheers. That was a beautiful and long moment! It was thrilling to be part of it, though I was also thinking about the nine wonderful books that didn’t win, in the minutes that followed. Loop of Jade is stunning and does new and surprising things, both technically and thematically; Sarah’s poems haunted me the most and yielded more on each read.
It was the first time a debut collection won, so I did wonder if there’d be any backlash, but I didn’t anticipate the media reactions or the patronising tone of so many journalists towards Sarah. I think they showed themselves up. It’s over now, but it has been noted that there still exists a deeply racist and sexist undercurrent that perhaps wasn’t so apparent before.
You have a busy schedule of writing courses you are involved in this year too including ‘Writing the Wild‘, ‘The Thrill of Writing at Your Best‘, ‘Sky in the Eye‘, and ‘Towards a Collection’ with The Poetry School. Can you tell us a bit more about them and give a flavour of what participants can expect?
I do a lot of teaching on a freelance basis, and now that I’ve moved to Cornwall I teach mainly residential courses and mentor by email. ‘The Thrill of Writing at Your Best’ was a tutored Arvon retreat at The Hurst with George Szirtes earlier this month. The participants got lots of personal attention, plenty of writing time, and longer one to ones with the tutors rather than group workshops. We helped poets push their work forwards, towards that high when you feel you’re writing at your best.
The other two residential courses are at Tŷ Newydd in North Wales, by the sea, where I often teach two courses a year. ‘Writing the Wild’ was in March. ‘Sky in the Eye: Developing Creativity Using Women Surrealists’ Art as a Palette’ is a special course I teach with the film-maker and book cover designer Pamela Robertson-Pearce. We’ve done this course together before and it was so popular the centre asked us to repeat it, though there will be variations this time around.
Pamela offers the art component and I tutor the poetry; the artwork frees up the writing and vice versa. Our starting point is women surrealists’ art, which we both love and breathe; it’s impossible not to feel inspired by them! We’ll look at work by artists such as Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Meret Oppenheim, Frida Kahlo, Lee Miller and Annette Messager. There will be screenings of ﬁlms, such as Pamela Robertson-Pearce’s amazing ‘Imago: Meret Oppenheim‘.
‘Towards a Collection’ is a short downloadable course I wrote for The Poetry School for anyone wanting to get their collection together. It’s full of tips on editing, structuring and ordering a collection, titling poems and books, marketing, and how to approach magazines and publishers.
I understand that one of your other passions in life is sculpting. It’s tempting to draw a parallel between the crafting of sculptures and how it is analogous to the crafting of a poem. Do you think the two disciplines are comparable and are there things you can express in your sculpture work that you can’t in your poetry and vice versa?
I trained as a sculptor and spent the first part of my life making figurative installations. I also wrote poems then, but the sculpting was harder so that took most of my energy. Eventually I realised I was getting more out of writing, out of metaphor rather than materials, and I stopped making sculptures, and put all my energies into poetry. Before then, I’d give up when things got tough, and become a sculptor for a year, but once I couldn’t switch artform I had to persevere with writing. I had to go through the blocks and as a result the poetry improved.
My sculptures were about the same subjects as my poems: my mother, the female figure and mental health, violence towards women, ecological concerns, trees, birds, the abuse of nature, women and children. I used the same media and objects that I use in poems: thorns, insects (donated by the Natural History Museum London), beetles, morpho butterflies, hummingbirds, nests, glass, water, or the suggestion of water in my use of casting figures in polyester resin – transparency.
I didn’t make traditional stone, or clay, so it wasn’t a question of removing excess clay or stone until the remaining shape was clean, if that’s the analogy you mean. But there was the hard labour of making objects or figures suspend disbelief for the viewer, of making them believable in the round. I was a very committed sculptor so I don’t think I’ve given it up entirely.
I see my poems as sculptures, except that they’re made with words, so they only live in the imagination, but they are the shaping of an image. I miss the studio atmosphere, though do try to recreate it when writing, to get into that trance when you can’t hear the phone ring, and I surround myself with amulets, such as bird skulls, a dried Sumatran bat, giant atlas and lunar moths and their cocoons, given to me by a butterfly-house keeper – things I’ve always loved to have around me.
What does the rest of the year hold for you? Are there any dates in the diary you are looking forward to or are any specific goals you have set yourself?
In June I’m going to the remote research station deep in the Peruvian Amazon. I must admit I’m scared I won’t be up to it – I’m not fit or young! But it’s well overdue. I went to the Venezuelan Amazon in 1993 and 1995 and those trips turned out to be the biggest influence on my writing ever since.
This time it’s research for Mama Amazonica, and I was very lucky to get Arts Council funding so I could go, and also to buy me time to write at home. Apart from that, I’ll be working on finishing the manuscript by autumn.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
I wrote ‘Jaguar Girl’ after watching Simara the young female jaguar at Vincennes zoo. She’s a super-dynamo and destroys everything in the enclosure, uproots the banana bushes, pulls down the logs and climbing frames and gnaws them apart. I’ve also witnessed her race back and forth in the pool thrashing the water into foam.
I wanted to write a praise poem to my mother when she was experiencing a manic high. I’ve had a taste of those myself, but not as bad as hers. That feeling of super-powerfulness and recklessness that you can do anything must be what it feels like to be a jaguar, apex predator of your realm. Except that humans are destroying their realm, so they are endangered. And of course the mania is followed by a crushing depression.
This poem was originally published in the Transatlantic poetry issue of Ploughshares last year, edited by Neil Astley, along with the title poem ‘Mama Amazonica’ where I imagine my mother as a giant waterlily pollinated by beetles.
Her gaze is tipped with curare,
her face farouche
from the kids’ asylum
where ice baths
failed to tame her.
Her claws are crescent moons
sharpened on lightning.
She swims through the star-splinters
of a mirror
and emerges snarling –
She’s a rainforest
in a straitjacket.
Where she leaps
the sky comes alive, unleashed
from its bottle.
My mother, trying to conceal
her lithium tremor
as she carries the Amazon
on her back,
her rosettes of rivers
and oxbow lakes,
her clouds of chattering caciques,
hyacinth macaws –
her flocks of archangels.
Her own tongue is a hive
all the orchids of the forest.
Her ears prick
to the growl of roots
the purr of plants growing.
My Animal Mother,
a highway bulldozed
through her brain,
into a trembling rabbit
whenever I’m scared of her.
She who has had electric eels
pressed to her scalp
can vanish into backwoods
where no one can reach her.
I’m trying to sew her
to make a patchwork
of gold dust
and ghost vines,
a sylvan pelt
of torn down trees,
the shadow dance
of leaves on litter.
I’m trying to conjure her
in her zoo cage
as the doctor comes
running to dart her.