Pascale Petit interview, with John Hoppenthaler
Pascale, you began your career in art as a visual artist and trained as a sculptor at the Royal College of Art in London. I often make the case to my students that the writing of poetry, in some ways, is very much akin to sculpting. I’m interested to hear how your training as a sculptor may have influenced your approach to writing poems, if at all.
I wonder if you mean that writing a poem is like carving, that the living figure inside a block of inert stone can be found by whittling away chips of dead words? I didn’t make traditional sculptures, wasn’t a carver, but my training as a sculptor was formative for my writing. I see my poems as an extension of my sculpting – as rooms or installations I can walk into and be surrounded by. I want to create my own worlds as I did when I was a visual artist. I also need to shape the poem as an object or cluster of objects. It may be a found object, but my shaping of the object is close to how I worked as a sculptor. I aim for an effect where the object has a clean outline and shape, without superfluous words, so in that way it is like carving.
When I was a sculptor my materials were mixed media, often found objects, mainly from the natural world, such as seafans, bird nests, dragonflies, hummingbirds, hawthorns, glass. I also made life casts from female figures and brought disparate elements together. For example, I made a translucent resin cast of a female figure and placed iridescent beetles around her womb and in her glassy resin-cast brain. I still do that in poems: clash disparate images together, as in my poem ‘The Strait-Jackets’, where I place forty hummingbirds wrapped in swaddling cloths, inside a suitcase and take them to my father to enact a ritual. So, as sculpting for me was collecting things and finding meaningful combinations of them, that’s still what I’m up to in poems.
In an interview with Katrina Naomi in 2010, you say, “The writing of the poems is like play, playing and fun . . . .” Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, claims, “Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children.” Given that you often write about subject matter that is emotionally fraught, I wonder if thinking of the poetic process not as “hard work” but as play might have value in two ways. First, as the “parent” of a poem, looking at it as play perhaps allows for a healthier relationship with our poems? Second, if we look at, and buy into, the process as being play, perhaps our poetry will be more vital and complex, or to use a term you’ve used elsewhere, more “dynamic?” Thoughts?
As a child play for me was a means of escape. When I grew up play developed into creativity— the making of alternative worlds I could find refuge in, that I could be myself in. That process grew and grew, and as I became an artist the world of the poem or image had to be rich and livable in, fully sensed and multi-layered so that it was very real and very safe. For me the initial writing process is serious play. I try to get into a trance state where I become unaware of the outside world. I used to do that as a visual artist – I’d be in my studio fully immersed in what I was doing to the extent that I wouldn’t hear the phone ring or if someone called me I would not hear them. I’d taught myself to get into this state when I lived at home with my mother as a child, then as a teenager. I needed to block her out. The process had to be play, which meant feeling happy and free, not disapproved of or dominated. Not made to feel that I had to be who she wanted me to be, or let her destroy me. This alternative me was secret. So it was the opposite of what you describe: play wasn’t my parents engaging with me, it was my way of disengaging with them. They didn’t play with me and I didn’t want them to.
As an adult, it is important to me that my poems are as dynamic as I can make them. The more alive I can make them the more I can vanish into them and the longer I can stay in their worlds. Of course later comes the hard work, and I do work hard at the editing/revising. Less play then, but I like it when I re-write the poem and re-introduce the playful, joyful, part of the process—breathe new life into it if it’s not quite sprung into life beforehand. I hope that this quest for vibrancy has larger implications, that I’m trying to preserve the natural world in its happier state in some of my poems. I’d like my poems, or books, to be zoos or botanical gardens, or national parks, where species can be preserved in their primitive unpolluted state. But that’s not happened yet, there’s still the human psychodrama taking centre stage.
Much has already been asked and answered elsewhere about your father poems, so I will leave it to those who wish more information on that to find those interviews; however, to pose a question related to the mechanisms I see at work in many of your poems, including the father poems, it seems to me that transformation and/or shape-shifting is a theme with which your poems often concern themselves. For example, in the quite gothic poem, “ Effigy,” the rotten corpse of the father figure is, by poem’s end (via the artistic process) transformed into a father who “speaks with the tenderness of flowers.”
I don’t really know why I’m so obsessed with shape-shifting; it’s something that happens instinctively when I write. But thinking about it now, and of shape-shifters in Ovid for example, it’s often used as a means of escape—Daphne turning into a tree to escape rape, Philomela changing into a nightingale to avenge herself of rape. Transformation is essential to my poetics. I’m not interested in just giving the reader a slice of life, in flat realism. When I wrote my second collection, The Zoo Father, I had writer’s block for the first eight months after my father contacted me. I hadn’t seen him since I was eight and I discovered he was living in Paris hooked to an oxygen concentrator as he was dying of emphysema. The realities of his drab flat couldn’t spark poems for me. It was only when I went to the Jardin des Plantes zoo and saw Amazonian animals there that I suddenly saw how I could write about him, through the animal masks of species I had encountered during my travels in the Venezuelan Amazon. I could make him beautiful by turning him into creatures I love. But I didn’t know that that might be why I was doing that, I was just following my nose.
‘Effigy’ grew out of my discovery of the Musée du quai Branly. This is a new ethnographic museum that opened near the Eiffel Tower, just where I used to play as a child when we lived in the boulevard de Grenelle. My brother and I used to play in the Champs de Mars, so the museum has a particular resonance for me. When I visited my dying father fifteen years ago, I used to go to the Musée de l’Homme, my favourite museum. That museum closed for renovation for years, so it was exciting to discover another one. The display the poem refers to is a group of Rambaramp effigies from Malekula, Vanuatu, and the details in the poem follow closely the physical regalia of the effigies and the rituals of funerals in that culture. The figures are very male, and the rituals occur in the men’s house, forbidden to women. The last line came as a surprise. I was so pleased that I made my father speak with the tenderness of flowers! It’s as if I forgive him in that line.
You frequently teach poetry workshops at a variety of places. How does the teaching process inform, or intersect with, the writing of your own poetry?
I teach a lot—all freelance. Usually when I teach I put all my efforts into helping the participants to write poems they are pleased with—that surprise them. I put much energy into that and compile copious visual as well as textual materials for them. One thing that directly feeds into my own writing is that I’m always on the lookout for new influences, new discoveries of poets, to share with students, to excite them into writing in new ways. These new discoveries help me to develop as well. I don’t often write when I’m setting exercises for them, because I’d have to get into that trance/play state and not be in charge! But occasionally it does happen. I’ve been teaching courses at Tate Modern for eight years now, we work in the galleries when they are closed to the public—I imagine the influence of those close encounters with so much contemporary art might reverberate in my work in the future.
Most of our readers are more familiar with the U.S. poetry scene than they are of the UK scene. What should our readers know about the UK scene these days in terms of period style, poetry’s place in culture, etc.? And, as one who views our scene from abroad, what comments might you make about what you see afoot over here?
That’s a big question! The UK poetry scene used to be quite conservative but it has opened up. I think one of the forces opening it up is a project started by Bernardine Evaristo and coordinated by Nathalie Teitler. It’s called The Complete Works and so far there have been two in the series. It was initiated to redress the imbalance of the lack of diversity in British poetry and is a programme to develop Black and Asian poets. I’ve been privileged to mentor two outstanding poets for this. They both live in London but Mir Mahfuz Ali came from Bangladesh and Warsan Shire is Kenyan born and Somali. I think all The Complete Works poets (there are ten in each series) are bringing new aesthetics to British poetry.
I remember a time when it was only the preserve of white upper and middle class men. Thankfully, that has changed. The editor of the publishing house Bloodaxe Books, Neil Astley, has also done a great deal to introduce a wealth of women poets, though he maintains this is without positive discrimination, just due to the sheer quality and range of work by women. So these two elements—the diversifying and the rise of women’s poetry—are making the art form more relevant to British society.
I’d also say there is a resistance to magical realism and surrealism, a tendency towards realism, but there are exceptions. Moniza Alvi and Selima Hill are notable surrealists. There’s also a reticence about displaying strong emotions, a preference for feelings to be politely tucked away under the guise of irony. But the rise of poets from other heritages and cultures, and the rise of women poets, is slowly changing that.
As for what I make of the US poetry scene: it’s an unknown quantity, which makes it extremely enticing! I keep discovering exciting new (to me) poets and I know there’s so many more, a much vaster array than in the UK. Some of the poetry feels more expansive, and there’s still wilderness to respond to. Any wilderness in Britain is relatively small, though Scotland has its grandeur. I think the landscape affects the poetry, makes it larger or smaller. UK poems tend to be more compact, like a field or garden, whereas many American poems I come across have a sense of sprawl and ruggedness. The smaller scale is not bad of course; I love the compression of the beautifully made sonnet. But I also love wild poems with long lines where I can feel the fresh air. I’m a big fan of First Nation poets—Joy Harjo, and a recent discovery, the electric poems of Natalie Diaz.
You’re very much a world traveller. With your next book, Fauverie, due in September of 2014, can we expect that you’ll visit the U.S. for readings?
I hope to visit the US soon—no definite plans yet, but it’s been three years since my last visit and I’d love to do a reading tour for Fauverie. Thanks for asking, and thank you for interviewing me and for publishing these five poems from the collection.
The day I cremated my father
I let my feet, which had been
pacing for three days and nights,
drag me into the cat-house, to where
the lion threw himself against his bars
demanding more horseflesh from the keeper.
Then he collapsed onto the straw
until someone roared back at him
and he leapt up to paw at the crowd.
I didn’t think it was decent to stay there
the day of my father’s funeral,
my hand still smarting from when
I’d touched him in the coffin,
that bruise-mark on his cheek
like raw meat. My old friends the pumas
chewed quietly on their bones
while the lion rose from the floor
and opened his jaws wide as Notre-Dame—
his breath like incense, his tongue a red nave
leading me through the fire of his mane.
When the surgeon clamps back the flesh
and saws through your sternum
that’s my chance to look,
to see your heart naked
before the scalpel makes its tearing sound
through your right lung, where it’s
tar-black, colour of a secret night
I can touch without gloves.
Lord of the Night
My father crept into the storeroom—
right up to my camp-bed.
He closed the door so gently
even the spider didn’t hear.
He took out a handkerchief
and whispered that darkness
was wrapped up inside it,
passed it over my face.
Then he released a hummingbird.
The air vibrated,
I saw colours I had no name for
and a long needle-beak
that he pierced through my tongue
to keep me quiet.
My Father’s Wardrobe
In the late afternoon he begins his toilette—
he has limestone pyjamas threaded with fossils,
a nightshirt of catacombs through which his dreams drip.
He has a dressing gown woven with petrol fumes, between its folds
echo car-horns and the murmur of tourists.
He tries on the long rail of awakening suits.
He dresses from the quarries that built Paris.
He wears a cathedral cloak with chimera eyes.
His raincoat is stuccoed with spouting gargoyles.
He has trousers that are stained glass windows,
casting shadows like candied fruit as he walks.
His cravat is a knotted métro train,
one tie is an escalator, another a fountain
with Saint-Michel fighting Satan.
A carousel turns silently between his knees
and in it a boy is singing on a lacquered foal.
He has a shirt of hotel fronts
and a waistcoat of bridges under which bateaux mouches glide.
He emerges from the trapdoors of nightclubs
in a wedding suit of pavements that steam in the sun
and in it he marries the dawn.
He has a jacket made of wind-blown newspapers,
and a cocktail suit of cigarette smoke
with balconies for pockets. And sometimes
he wears a suit of ash that scatters when he moves.
I sat in my hut until you were ready—
father of earth and hemp, cobweb hair.
It was I who built the platform where your corpse rotted.
I waited fifteen years
until your skull was clean
before I pressed clay over your face
and painted it with tongo dye.
Because you would not say sorry
I placed your effigy in the men’s house.
I braved the slit entrance.
I passed the poles mounted with flying foxes,
danced with croton leaves.
I watched the spirit puppets,
stuck the spear into the pig’s heart.
No woman is allowed to do this.
Boar tusks gore to the truth,
looped around your cane arms.
A pig’s jawbone is honest,
kauri resin doesn’t lie.
Plant fibres don’t avoid words.
Your bark belt and treefern torso
bear your penis-sheath proudly
here, in the Musée du quai Branly,
where you stand in a glass case.
This man is my father,
he speaks with the tenderness of flowers.
Photo Credit: Kaido Vainomaa