Poet Pascale Petit, our interviewee, was born to a Welsh mother and French father and grew up between Paris and Wales. Four of her seven poetry collections were nominated for the T.S. Eliot Award. Poems from Fauverie won the Manchester Poetry Prize and she was also granted a Cholmondeley Award. Pascale has been the judge for many major prizes and her work has been translated into Spanish, Chinese, French and Serbian. Pascale lives in Cornwall but travels regularly to France. Her website is www.pascalepetit.co.uk
Our interviewer, poet and critic Alice Hiller holds a Ph.D. from University College London in transatlantic writing. She has been mentored by Pascale Petit under the Jerwood Arvon scheme. Author of The T-Shirt Book, she reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and Poetry Review and was shortlisted for the 2017 Bridport Prize. Alice divides her time principally between London and Oxford.
In the interview that follows, Alice speaks to Pascale about growing up between two languages, why she writes in English about France and the Amazon, and her most recent collection, Mama Amazonica, published by Bloodaxe in 2017.
Pascale. I am about to become a British citizen because of Brexit, but all my life I've been a French citizen. I was born in Paris in 1953, then sent to live with my grandmother in Wales. From two and a half to seven I lived in Paris so I spent my early childhood mainly there. As an adult I never went back to Paris until my father made contact because he was dying. I went to see him in the Latin Quarter. Over the two years that I visited him I grew to know Paris, having hated it as a child. After my father died, and I started going to Paris on my own for writing retreats, I really fell in love with the city, the Latin Quarter, the museums, Notre-Dame.
Alice. You spoke French as well as English growing up?
Pascale. I'm not really sure which was my mother tongue. I think that what happened was that I would forget one. As a child you learn a language so fast. When I was going to be sent to my grandmother in Wales aged seven, I didn't know any English. Just before we went, my father and mother were trying to teach us a few words. When we arrived and sat on my grandmother's settee, my poor aunt, who was sixteen, was trying to speak French with us. We constantly forgot a language, my brother and myself, and then learnt it again.
Pascale: Yes. I lived in London almost all my adult life, and I haven't written a single poem about London that I would put in a collection. I love Paris as a city. I don't love London. It was a great place to live when I was young - if you're trying to become a poet or a sculptor, as I was. I love London's multiculturalism, though.
Alice. In The Zoo Father, which was your breakthrough collection from 2001, in addition to your Amazonian poems about re-meeting your father in Paris, there were also poems about the Midi. Is that area important to you?
Pascale: My mother bought a vineyard when I was twelve, where we camped in stone huts. It was on a steep slope, so mountainous, just under the Larzac and the Grézac plateau. It was overgrown, very lush, and when we would arrive at the beginning of the summer holiday we'd have to get the scythe out, and cut a path between the two mazets. One was the sleeping mazet and one was the kitchen, at the top, right in the sous-bois. You would walk along the path and these snakes would move in front of you. Then there'd be the lizards and the huge insects. I've been back many times since then. It's now no longer a vineyard, just a patch of wild land, but the insects never seem so big as when I was twelve. Then they seemed absolutely enormous.
Alice: I think there's a sort of hyper-realism about how you see things as a teenager. In The Huntress, the collection which followed in 2005, you explore your Welsh mother in terms of the cave systems of the Languedoc, and you write about excavating painful memories through the medium of beautiful crystals.
Pascale: I was haunted by my mother. I loved looking at the Grotte des Demoiselles - the suggested shapes of the stalactites and stalagmites - and the formations of the crystals in the ceiling. I can't help thinking about the inside of a mountain in terms of the inside of my mother. I was living with my grandmother in rural mid-Wales when my mother bought the vineyard. I remember the summer holidays there as being rather exciting and fun, and her being ok. Although she had suffered from mental illness as a child, it was only when I went to live with her when I was thirteen that she became quite mad. The Larzac was also an Eden – where I was scared of her, but not terrified. My next book will return to that area.
Pascale: That's from being in the vineyard with my mother. She spoke French absolutely perfectly. She was completely bilingual. She would have told me what it was called in French. She used to try to keep our French up. We used to have to speak French at meals in Wales. When I went to live with her in Wales at thirteen she would have called things by both their French and English names. The memory is locked in the French word.
Alice: There's a terrifying poem in your collection The Huntress called 'Lunettes' where you describe seeing your father's "lunettes" when he came into your girlhood bedroom in Paris. The word unlocks a Pandora's chest of memory. You realize the poem – about the rape of a child - through the progressive dictionary definitions of its meaning.
Alice: Responding to a more positive element within your French heritage, as someone who originally trained and exhibited as a sculptor, was the Midi a key part in awakening your visual sensibility?
I'm thinking of the poem 'My Larzac Childhood' in The Treekeeper's Tale of 2008, when you remember the "grass-snake-flashing paths" and the "museum of the dragonfly's abdomen". You describe the dragonfly wings as if the light is coming in through museum skylights.
Pascale: I have a thing about glass. I think it was because I was placed in an incubator when I was a baby. I think of my mother in terms of a glass mother because she was very brittle and otherworldly. She was strange to us. I think that brought this obsession with glass to my looking at the glass wings of the dragonfly. I became a visual artist through drawing. It happened when I was deeply unhappy at home in Paris and I would be left in school in the evenings. It was a horrible school. I don't think I was any good at school because of the language. I would draw, and I found I could escape. I had a total facility. I drew submarines in the ocean. It was a way to make an alternative world for myself. Later in Wales I became very good at school, and there was a lot of pressure for me to go to university, but I chose to go to Art School.
Alice: Art can be a place where we are able to realize ourselves if we come from backgrounds which don't allow us to say who we are. We become ourselves in the art that we make and then take that self forward.
Pascale: I began discovering Paris like a tourist. I fell in love with Notre- Dame. I spent every day going in there. There were also the sparrows outside I could hand-feed. That was such a wonderful draw.
Pascale: I rented short-term lets in the Latin Quarter as close to the Jardin des Plantes as possible. Usually facing the gate. I would walk in the gardens every day. And discover new things about Paris each time. It was wonderful.
Alice: The Fauverie poems are very powerful. Having a creative engagement with a place where you have suffered, and making good work, even if is complex or has difficult themes, gives the work deep roots.
Pascale: I did those very pleasurable things, but also went back to the Boulevard de Grenelle, in the 15th arrondissement, where we lived. My father had given me the address. I went there and twice I was let into the cellar where I was locked as a child. I'd had so many dreams about it when I was a child and then a teenager. I made an installation when I was on my BA course – of being in that cellar. In my memory the main feature of this cellar was a window. Afterwards I told myself I must have imagined this because cellars don't have windows. I went into this cellar, and there was a window. It was at the top of the stairs, looking over the courtyard, very high. It was one of those small courtyards which I remember so well as a child. There was the cellar then you went down the steps and there was the earthen floor. It was the most terrifying cellar I've ever seen. The first time I told the concierge why I was coming. He let me in and the light went off and it was terrifying. Every detail comes from that visit.
Alice: In Mama Amazonica, your current collection, which was published by Bloodaxe in September 2017, there is a poem 'Square de la Place Dupleix', which takes the reader to the Paris square of chestnut trees and pigeon gods, and then lets them fall back into the "coffining dark" of your childhood.
Pascale: That poem should have been in Fauverie. Although Mama Amazonica is about the abuse and rape of my mother by my father, at the kernel of it is a sequence of poems about how that trauma also permeated to his children. I really wanted to write about finding this park. I tried on several occasions but I could not find it. Nothing matched my memory. Then I went behind our block and there it was. It was incredible. There was the church. There was the school with the infant school next to it. I had to find my own way to school and back and I always got lost even though it was very close. I remember my mother telling me off, saying "It's just around the corner." I have no sense of left and right. I just went in the wrong direction. I would play in the sand in the square, which I also see as a precursor to being a sculptor, and then the gendarme, who was in his little hut, would put me on a stool, and phone my mother, and say "She's here."
Alice: In Mama Amazonica, although many of the poems are based on two recent trips you made to the Amazon, and have vivid descriptions of being in the Amazon and the creatures you saw there, there are also more poems about Paris. I was interested in 'Bestiarum' which takes as its starting point Walton Ford's 'Bête du Gévaudan' at the Musée de la Chasse et Nature. It seems to be informed by the French idea of the loup-garou.
Pascale: The legend is from the Lozère, just above the Languedoc. I discovered the Musée de la Chasse quite late. They have contemporary artists among the permanent displays. It is such a beautifully curated museum. I loved Walton Ford's paintings. There are two poems in Mama Amazonica based on his work. 'When My Mother Became A Boa' comes directly from one of his paintings.
Pascale: In the Musée there are stuffed wolverines, for example. There are lions. They do things in Paris not allowed in the UK. Quite a lot of stuffed animals in shops. The French imagination is much more open to the Amazon. In England, if you write poems about India or Africa, places where there have been colonies, there is more empathy, whereas South America is too removed. Before the day of researching online, I found that Paris had all the ethnographic books I could not get in the UK.
Pascale: When I used to visit my father, at the end of his life, he was living just by the zoo in the Jardin des Plantes. There was a black jaguar, and a gold female jaguar. They were in very small cages at that point.
Pascale: The experience was one of the highlights of my life. I absolutely worship them. I have read everything you could possibly read about the jaguar. When I stayed in Paris I would go to see Aramis the jaguar and Simara, his young girlfriend, every day, not long before closing time. They would feed them, then he would spring into action.
Alice: One of the pleasures of Mama Amazonica is that you translate the experience of the Amazon into words that make a 5D environment for the reader. Do you think the fact that your mind has had to move through different languages has helped you in the way that you are able to realize yourself as a poet?
Pascale: Thank you for saying that. I do aim to do that. I had never thought of it being to do with the fact that I had to move from language to language when I was a child. I always thought that it was because I was an artist, and I still need to make sculptures in my books, and installations, and environments that people walk into. I need to make them very physical and very real. That is always a tussle with language. Language has to be strong enough to reconstruct the images and sounds and sensory details to surround the reader.
Alice: Finally, I know you're deeply engaged in judging. You've just judged the Manchester Poetry Prize. You're judging the National Poetry Competition. But what lies beyond this in 2018 in terms of plans for your own works?
Pascale: I have a project on the go. I think all that I would say is that one of the main themes is foreign-ness. It partly comes out of Brexit. It's partly because I had to get British nationality. It partly comes out of my Welsh grandmother, who brought me up. She was born in India. She was half Indian but it was a family secret. It's hard to get any facts at all about this because it's very covered up. But those are my plans for this year.