FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
PASCALE PETIT: When I was a child I used to run away to the woods. I wanted to live in a hedge or under tree roots. Later, as a teenager, the teacher read out Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and I immediately knew then that I wanted to become a poet, that I could hide in poetry, as in a birding hide. Here was a safe place, and its bird and its song could save my life. Here was a beautiful place to survive. Later still, I discovered a book called Waterfalls of the World, and there, at the centre, was Angel Falls, one kilometre high, towering over the Amazon rainforest like a god. I’ve spent 25 years obsessively writing poems about those forests, and I’ve often wondered why.
I grew up with my half-Indian grandmother in mid-Wales and she had what seemed to me an enormous garden full of animals, after my unhappy infancy in Paris. Animals became more and more important to me as I got older. I realised that the creatures that had been my friends are endangered, as is their habitat. It was my grandmother who told me tales of tigers when she was a child in India, and now that I’ve observed them in their homes, I’ve fallen in love with the wildlife of the Indian subcontinent.
FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
PP: I first felt I wanted to be a poet when I heard Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, it was an instant conversion. But I was sixteen then, and I didn’t publish my first collection until I was forty-four. What happened in between? I trained as a sculptor and visual art took priority. Eventually, I realised I was getting more out of metaphor and images with words than with raw materials, and I stopped making visual art completely to concentrate on writing. Except, I didn’t really stop being a sculptor, because in my poems I worked on imagery until poems felt that they were like paintings, sculptures, installations that I could walk into. It took me decades to find ways to do this, and I always had Keats’ example as my aim – to create a forest the reader could walk into and see and hear even in the dark, my model was his ‘Darkling I listen’.
I first felt I was getting somewhere as a poet when I wrote my second collection, The Zoo Father, because to write it I had to get into a trance, and it was both terrifying and playful, a journey into the unknown. I’d already been to the Amazon rainforest twice, and tried to describe it in my first collection, but there was too much foliage. The abusive parents that have featured so prominently in my work came to the fore in The Zoo Father, and became a study of human nature and its place in the natural world, an examination of evil, love, and redemption, and how nature can heal us. Nature came to my rescue as a child, and it will always be at my core. In my seventh collection, Mama Amazonica, the Amazon is an abused and mentally ill mother in a psychiatric ward, so the wild and the human have merged. The mother is ‘a rainforest / in a straitjacket’, and this time I researched by two trips to the Peruvian Amazon, and saw a wild jaguar!
When I finished Mama Amazonica I was ready to go to India to find the jungles of my grandmother’s stories. I knew nothing about them, so the forests of Ranthambore in Rajasthan, near where she was born, and the national parks of Madhya Pradesh in Central India, were a revelation. I did not expect to see so many animals and birds! It was like landing in paradise – a paradise patrolled by forest guards who live in the jungle without guns, protecting their beloved fauna and trees, paid little for their heroic work. So along with my joy at the wildlife came terror of just how threatened it was. The more I wrote the more I learnt about the extent of poaching and deforestation, and how catastrophic it is for elephant herds, for example, who lose their migration corridors, and how this brings them into conflict with the local peoples. It was impossible to write about the bounty without an awareness of issues such as animal trade, poverty and climate crisis.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
PP: It is a dream come true, an incredible surprise and a confidence boost. I’m never satisfied with my work, and to think that the judges shortlisted Tiger Girl is thrilling and a huge affirmation, considering how many wonderful collections are currently being published. Thank you to all of you at the Forward Arts Foundation, to the judges and to my amazing publisher Bloodaxe. It’s important to me that Tiger Girl finds readers, and not only poets but new readers to poetry, especially at this time of the pandemic when I can’t travel to give readings, so this will help.
FAF: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?
PP: For twenty-five years I’ve been obsessed with the Amazon rainforest, so Tiger Girl is a major change for me, as it’s set in the jungles of India. I started writing Tiger Girl to explore my grandmother’s Indian heritage, and her stories of her close encounter with a tiger as an infant. When I went to Central India’s forests, following in her footsteps, I was stunned by the abundance of wildlife. But I was horror-struck at how threatened it is, not just the charismatic megafauna such as tigers and elephants, but the owls and songbirds too. And this is what forms the main substance of my collection – poems on poaching and deforestation. The book begins and ends with fire, and flames are threaded through it, as the world’s forests were burning at that time, but there are echoes of our current crisis, animals poached and tortured for the animal trade, and there’s even an account of pangolin eating.
My favourite poem is ‘In the Forest’ because writing it was easy and felt like I was in a dream. I’m also fond of ‘Green Bee-eater’ because it’s simple and hopeful, a foil to the tragedies. I spent time in several tiger reserves, but revisited Bandhavgarh National Park the most, and in my book, I wanted to conjure the forest not just with words but in the structure – so the more substantial poems about trees, tigers, elephants and so on are interspersed with the fantastical bird life and gentle deer. Smaller poems, sometimes with fancy forms, flash through the pages as the birds and deer did through clearings.
It’s also a book that explores a happier time in my childhood, with my grandmother and her garden, and imagines what it must have been like for her, secretly half-Indian in rural Wales, her reputation as the local witch. She was my saviour, and I’m celebrating her and agedness too.
FAF: At this moment, the world has been turned upside down by Covid-19. How do you think these extraordinary times will affect your readers’ response to your work?
PP: The poaching and torture of animals is a key cause of Covid-19, our current pandemic. Deforestation, wildfires, the shrinking of wild places, all contribute to animal ill-health, concentration of viruses, and transmission from species to species, to humans. The causes of poaching and animal trade are complex and linked to poverty. I hope Tiger Girl draws attention to this and how our endangered wild is endangering all life on the planet including ourselves. At the same time, I hope readers will enjoy the awe of nature, which is something I wanted to capture – how can we destroy such wonders?
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
PP: I love Les Murray for his integrity, the sprawl of his vision, and his extraordinary empathy with animals. I admire Pablo Neruda, the breadth and exuberance of his oeuvre. And I love Selima Hill for her inventiveness and originality, her lines shock and surprise. There is an incredible richness of poets now, too many to mention, but I’m particularly excited by the work of Natalie Diaz, Suji Kwock Kim, and Ilya Kaminsky. The three Complete Works projects are irrevocably transforming British poetics – a welcome opening up.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
PP: I had longings to go back to India, to see the Black Ghost of Nagarhole, the black leopard in Karnataka State. Before I fell for jaguars and tigers, my first love was leopards, and I didn’t see any on my tiger trips, but I did see lots of tigers and so much else so I was extremely lucky! Leopards are shyer, and hide from tigers, and they live up trees! I wanted to observe them, but now I don’t know if this will ever be possible. Still, I am so grateful I got to be within touching distance of a tigress.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
PP: Write what is true for you, what only you can write, not what you think you should write. Go into it deeply, and remember to play. Don’t worry about forcing yourself to diversify, let other poets write about their various subjects, they will provide variety. You write about what you need to write about, what you must write about. Ignore fashion. You might eventually be the fashion, but don’t follow fashion. And read. Read for pleasure then reread to learn techniques, to remind yourself what is possible in this magical art form. Read widely, not just your coterie or generation, not just your language. Translation is lifeblood.