Pascale Petit is one of the most acclaimed poets residing in the UK today, she has released seven poetry collections, her seventh titled Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe, 2017) which was selected as a Poetry Book Society Choice and was the basis of most of our conversation. Pascale has been shortlisted for the T.S Eliot prize four times and her books have been translated into many languages such as French and Chinese.
Theresa- I read your poetry collection Mama Amazonica and I think it’s absolutely incredible, it’s probably a relief it’s all out.
Pascale- Thank you thank you, thanks very much for the compliment [laughs]. It took me two years I think, I actually started writing it immediately I finished my previous collection.
Theresa- That was quite immediate, some writers prefer to take breaks especially after writing something as demanding as a collection, I’m guessing you are already writing a new collection?
Pascale - I cannot bear not to be writing, it’s completely necessary to me, but I do spend a lot of my time not writing because of teaching, doing readings and things. I write in the early mornings, between 4 or 5 to 7.
Theresa- I am fast asleep at that time
Theresa- The inclusion of surrealism, animals and wilderness is very present in your poems, when writing this particular collection did you set the poems about your mother’s mental illness in the Amazon forest because it was a familiar and safe space or did you have other reasons?
Pascale- I had all kinds of reasons, I can tell you that in the moment I had the idea to take my mother to the Amazon forest, because for me it changed her, it changed the way I felt about her. In the past I was always terrified of her. It completely changed her from being an icy person who frightens me to someone quite luxuriant. My mother was always a close subject which made it difficult to write about her, so turning her into an area that is vast [Amazon Rainforest] made sense as it is a dangerous place but also a place I love.
Theresa- Why was this collection important for you to write?
Pascale- I felt it was important for me to write about women who are abused and raped and mistreated. I don’t think my story is of particular interest but it’s something that is my concern and this was my way of writing about that.
Theresa- The title poem, ‘Mama Amazonica’ is the first poem in the book, I love that the poem will surprise the reader by introducing your mother as a baby, and you the mother singing her lullabies in the rainforest. There is an immediate change of power dynamic, what did that signify for you?
Pascale- I don’t think I made a decision, but once the image of the giant water lily came to me in the poem ‘Mama Amazonica’ I followed through. There is an anecdote of babies placed on them, putting my mother on the giant water lily represented the precariousness and vulnerability of a baby and hence my mother in that position.
Theresa- My favourite poem is definitely Anaconda, “she calls her depression Anaconda/she is all tail, pure crush force” This poem is violent, it ends with your mother being dissolved in the monster’s juices, it carries a delicate anger, how do you go about editing not just the poems but your anger?
Pascale- Hmmm anger, I don’t think I’m an angry person [laughs]
Theresa- I know, you are one of the calmest people I have ever met.
Pascale– I didn’t set out to write an angry poem, I’m not sure I did that much editing on the Anaconda poem, the editing was more in relation to form so much of the decisions were more to do with visually representing the movement of a snake.
I don’t think I thought of it as violent, I wanted the poem to be powerful because my mother’s mental illness was powerful and it did destroy her.
Theresa- The poems in the book are majorly comprised of couplets, triplets and free form, visually every poem was slithering in some ways, representative of your love for snakes, how did you decide the form that was best for each poem?
Pascale- Couplets are a dance between two people, in this case a dance between my mother and I. In this book I write longer poems which is a new departure for me, in my previous book I rarely went over the page. The imagery in the poems are quite dense, I wanted to give them space so the reader does not get tangled within the jungle. In the longer poems I am jumping between images, such as in ‘Jaguar Girl’, the line ‘ she’s a rainforest / in a straitjacket...’ that needs to stand on its own to be absorbed on its own.
Theresa- Going back to your mother, was she ever aware that you wrote about her?
Pascale- when I first started writing poems they weren’t very personal, eventually they started getting personal, at that point my mother and I were estranged, I didn’t really tell her I was writing poems about her. Her writing therapy tutor at the hospital had come across my work and told her, I think she called or wrote me to say she heard I had a book coming out. The only thing I did was keep some poems separate from her so she wouldn’t see all of them, so as not to hurt her.
Theresa- Would you describe the writing of this book as a therapeutic process or a painful one?
Pascale- Well, therapeutic in that there is an end result where there is a changed mother and also a book of my art and that for me is therapeutic, I feel that I hopefully have honoured her in some ways by writing a book about what things were like for her, which I couldn’t have done before.
Theresa- Last question, when you finished writing this collection how did you celebrate?
Pascale- I don’t remember how I did, I’m sure I did once Neil Astley from Bloodaxe confirmed publication. I expect we bought a very special bottle of wine and drank it with dinner at home. I did celebrate when I received news of the Poetry Book Society Choice – that was a wonderful surprise and came at the end of a horrible week.