LIDIA VIANU -- PASCALE PETIT
Your definition of a Desperado poet suits me
Interview with PASCALE PETIT (born 20 December 1953), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: After reading The Zoo Father I can only say poetry with a story behind lyricism is the strongest. Whether this is a personal, private story or an assumed, very often cultured (intertextual) one makes all the difference. I have learned from the best Desperado poets (as I call them, but I will try to explain the idea soon) that private hell makes the best of poems. Biography is important. Not many poets resort to it, though; not any more. Women poets used to be very generous with their own experiences. Do you think biography and poetry go hand in hand?
PASCALE PETIT: Thank you for your generous comments! In the UK, very personal intense poetry is treated with suspicion by some. However, I write what I am compelled to write, and hope that explorations of my childhood ‘private hell’ are of relevance to readers. There are entire countries undergoing private hells much worse than mine, but in a first world country this is sometimes forgotten. I write about oppression from both my parents, though The Zoo Father focuses on my father. I was in Lithuania recently, and someone there at a conference compared my poem ‘My Father’s Body’ (where I shrink him to reduce his power) to a Lithuanian regaining power over a KGB agent. He said the particularity of the content of that poem wasn’t important. What was important was what the poem was doing, and how readers could relate it to injustices in their own lives. I think when a poet has strong personal subject matter to work with, then they’ve got something to write about, and that helps to make poems vivid. Of course it’s how they write about it that really counts. There’s a stigma attached to ‘confessional’ poetry here, so generally, people – women included – steer clear of it if at all possible.
LV. Desperado poetry has many features, one of them being the need of all these poets to be similar in dissimilarity, to become their own trend. I do not find the label Postmodernism apt or significant any longer, and am trying to find another way of putting it. You are a Desperado poet, I think, because of the violence of your words and emotions, because you are brave enough to use all words that are often avoided, because you charge language with a tension of the heart that almost breaks the page. The unbearable is, to my mind, a Desperado aim. You reach that point. Would this description of your poetry as Desperado make you accept the label for yourself?
PP. Yes, your definition of a Desperado poet suits me. My poetry is a poetry of extremes, I’ve never been one for lukewarmth. Tension too – nothing relaxed about the homes I describe. I hope tension creates drama, that I create dramatic tension, that I somehow transform uncomfortable tension into highly charged art. Isn’t a lot of human experience unbearable? I find art is a wonderful release from that.
LV. Since I know very little about you, when were you born? What was your education? What is your profession? I understand you grew up in France. I understand that ‘zoo’ father means animal instincts running loose. Is this your own story?
PP. I was born in Paris, grew up in France and Wales. My happiest childhood memories are of living with my grandmother in Mid-Wales (she was half Welsh/Irish and half Asian Indian). My memories of Paris are grim. When I was a teenager I lived with my mother in South Wales and that was awful. From an early age I decided to become an artist and/or poet. I refused to look for more sensible options, even though I came from a poor family. I went to art school and ended up becoming a sculptor though I was also writing poems. I did my MA in sculpture at the Royal College of Art. Eventually I stopped making sculptures and concentrated on poems. I am also poetry editor of Poetry London. The Zoo Father is my story, though much altered. ‘Zoo’ father does not mean ‘animal instincts running loose’! Animals are cruel but good! It’s human instincts that are the problem, human instincts running loose.
LV. Your respect for your reader is remarkable. Your lines are both clear and ambiguous. You convey but never confess. I somehow know the experience you are writing about, although the facts of the story remain hidden. This is true poetry. What brought you to literature? Why did you feel the need to write poetry? Why poetry and not fiction?
PP. From teenage onwards, I knew my life was about creating alternative worlds where I could live luxuriously, like Keats’ mansions in the mind. I knew what he meant and that that was what I had to make. I started doing this when I lived with my mother, to escape from her. I think poems do this better than fiction. In any case, life is stranger than fiction. I’m interested in strangeness. Having been a sculptor, I do have a need to make my poems solidly, to shape them as one would a sculpture, to make them self-contained and physical, as real as possible. The alternative world must be at least as real as the ‘real’ world, to invite me, and then the reader, in.
LV. This volume is a dialogue with your own image of a dying, then dead father. The experience of death is somehow an explanation of your hopelessness: you talk without hoping for an answer, although each word fervently wishes it. You write a mute poetry, if that can be said about such eloquent verse. When everything is said and done, there is still a poignant core of silence needing to be spelled out. The reader follows this diary of memories and suffering (past and present) with one question in mind: How has she come out of it? Who is she now? Who are you now, after this volume uttered by an ‘I’ who is denied all answers?
PP. When my father contacted me, I hadn’t seen him for thirty-five years and I had no expectation of ever doing so. When I went to visit him I discovered he was dying of emphysema. He was on an oxygen machine. Breathing was hard, talking even more so. I was disappointed with how little he told me about his life. So the poems were a substitute, a dialogue as you say. I was appalled and fascinated by the breathing struggle, and also saw it as the Amazon struggling to breathe. How did I come out of it? Who am I now? Not anyone much until the next book has a strong shape. I tend to live through the art, which isn’t very sensible. My next book has a number of explorations, but one thing I want to do in it is write about my mother in a way that satisfies me. The closest I’ve got so far is in a sequence of her as a rattlesnake – the plumed serpent – she was scary and is much harder to write about than my father. Psychological abuse is harder to write about than sexual abuse, but in many ways it’s worse. Talking about terrorism – much to my surprise, I find I’m now writing poems about 9/11, after a recent visit to New York. And I’ve written a sequence of poems about Frida Kahlo, which feels rather like I’ve sneaked off to do some painting, though of course I’m pretending they’re hers!
LV. Your poems are clear in style, even though their intention is hardly ever revealed. I mean to say that a reader can easily make sense of what you say, although understanding your imagery is a totally different matter. Like all good poets, you use clear language in order to veil an elusive meaning, the one truth that you will never be willing to utter. What is your attitude versus those contemporary poets whom one can hardly understand? One can read some poems and never be able to put words together, never make sense, find the subject and the predicate, share a common form of communication. In short, what do you think about poets who could not care less about their readers, who do not express themselves clearly enough?
PP. I’m pleased you find my poems clear. I wanted the story to be clear, and the poems as accessible as possible. I don’t understand why some poets wish to be obscure – life’s complicated enough. I think clarity is important, the reader should be able to glide over the surface, and choose whether to dive into the depths.
LV. Is literary criticism necessary to poetry today? Is scholarly criticism any help to the understanding of a poem? Is literary criticism supposed to parrot abstract terms that demonstrate a mathematical theory of the critic, instead of finding new words for each poet, instead of becoming itself part of literature? Should criticism be literature or not?
PP. I don’t read much literary criticism, so am not qualified to comment on it. I’m not really interested in academia. Most of my reading is non-fiction (natural history etc.) and poetry. When a really good poet writes literary criticism then it’s a valuable contribution, but I’m not sure it’s ‘necessary to poetry today’. Isn’t it poems that comment on poetry today, as well as all the other stuff they do?
LV. What poets are your literary friends? Whom do you feel you would like to be grouped with?
PP. My ideal literary friends would be: Les Murray, Peter Redgrove, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, Robert Minhinnick, Tomas Transtromer, Selima Hill, Sujata Bhatt, and many, many others whose work I admire.
LV. You belong to the new generation of poets, for whom Eliot is a remote influence, if at all. Who influenced you? What helped you find your own poetic voice?
PP. I don’t think I have direct influences among my contemporaries. As a teenager, I was into Keats, Coleridge, Shakespeare (the plays). I adored them. I was in love with Keats. Then I was influenced by the French symbolists – Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Mallarmé. To this day I still like a poet to have a system of symbols, an image-bank that furnishes his/her world. By far the biggest influence on my work is Amazonian indigenous cultures. I’ve travelled twice to Venezuela, and read everything I can find on the Amazon – its ethnobotany, fauna, shamanism, initiation rites, myths.
LV. What are the characteristic features of poetry today, in your opinion? What makes your poems so very different from Yeats, Eliot, even Larkin or Hughes?
PP. The first question is too big! It’s marvellously various! And I’ve not much thought about the second. I don’t compare myself to them, though I think one of the reasons I don’t is because they’re men. And they’re the standard of excellence – I mean, male poets are the standard. Apart from the gender thing, there’s also the fact that I’m not British, and haven’t looked to British poetry for models. I’ve looked more to America, Europe, Australia… So, to try and answer you: I don’t have British roots, nor any firm roots, I’m an outsider; I don’t try to vie with the male tradition – I just do my own thing. The poet I’m closest to in your list is Hughes, because of his passion for the natural world and exploration of violence, and his myth-making. It seems immodest to even compare myself to him, but I guess one contrast with him is that I look out of Britain for my imagery and landscapes, and his language is more Anglo-Saxon than mine, muscular maybe, while what I’m after is a kind of chant.
LV. I have read quite a number of remarkable women poets the last few years. Would you say feminine poetry has come to maturity, has developed as never before? Would it be correct to state that one feature of Desperado poetry is the coming of age of feminine verse?
PP. Yes! After the struggles of feminism, women poets are now much more relaxed, and ambitious. At last!
LV. When included in an anthology, which of your poems would you recommend and why?
PP. I’m always interested to see which of my poems editors pick. I have my favourites – poems in The Zoo Father that I read most at readings, because I feel they have that ‘chant’ quality, and are therefore easier to read. These are: ‘The Strait-Jackets’, ‘Self-Portrait with Fire Ants’, ‘The Ant Glove’, and ‘Self-Portrait as a Yanomami Daughter’. These poems also tell the story clearly, however mysterious the imagery.
LV. Are interviews helpful? Can they build a bridge between poet and reader?
PP. It is fascinating reading interviews with poets or artists, just to see how their minds work, and how they make their art. So in that way I think interviews are useful.
LV. Can you think of a question that you would have liked to be asked but have not?
PP. No, sorry.
LV. If you had any power over your life and work, how would you arrange them, what would you make happen?
PP. Less money worries or money-making work getting in the way. I’d like to be much physically stronger so I could do a lot more without getting tired, like travel freely in very remote places. And I’d like a cure for insomnia!
LV. Is this third millennium a favourable age for poetry? Do you see an increase in the number of poetry readers in the near future?
PP. There’ll be more leisure time but will people want to make the effort of reading poetry? Depends how it’s taught at schools.
LV. Can the internet help promoting poetry? Is an internet page a useful idea to the poets who would like to probe other poetic manners, to the writers who want to contact others, to the readers who see their way into a poet’s work after reading an internet interview?
PP. Yes, the internet helps, particularly as it’s global. I resisted it for a long time, and find it so useful now, but I do wonder about the long term alienating effects of people researching and working on a screen rather than physically.
LV. Is the screen going to defeat the book?
PP. As long as there are poets – no, the screen can’t compete with the pleasure of reading a real book.
January 1, 2003