When the white ermine wings
like a book of frost
I understood the colours of vowels
the black, red, saffron signs
Antennae grew from my forehead,
I felt lift-off
not even an exoskeleton to protect me
Oana-Teodora Ionescu: Your poetry is very modern and keeps pace with the present times. The first part of your book is dedicated to nature and to the people who have fought to preserve it. Do you believe poetry is powerful enough to raise awareness on ecological matters such as global warming or the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources?
Pascale Petit: Thank you for seeing it as modern and for translating my book! Whether it raises awareness on ecological matters I’m not sure. I suspect that people who read poetry are already aware of the plight of the world’s forests. Although it would be gratifying to think that poetry is read by a wider readership and therefore changes some minds in the UK at least the readership is quite small.
I don’t think of my poems as having messages. I write them because I am compelled to. What I was after was to describe the feeling of listening and attending, of being in the coast redwood forest in the presence of these vast 2,000-year-old beings, which was hard to capture because of the clichés associated with these trees, the outworn media eco-speak. I do have some faith in poetry having the power to advance language and perceptions, having the potential to not follow media awareness but to lead it, through linguistic and imagistic freshness.
OTI: You dedicated the poem 'Treesitter' to “eco-warrior” Julia Butterfly Hill, who treesat Luna, a giant redwood for two years without coming down, in order to save it, but you also wrote a similar poem, 'The Treekeeper’s Tale', where you use the word “guardian”. Why did you feel the need to use two words that practically stand for the same reality?
PP: A treesitter is a contemporary term for someone who lives up a tree to save it from loggers whereas a guardian is a broader term. These poems were two different takes on the double themes of saving the forest and of loneliness. I wrote ‘The Treekeeper’s Tale’ in the voice of a hermit, as hermits used to live inside lightning-struck hollow redwoods. Hermits intrigue me and when I was a child I was going to be one when I grew up. I lived with my grandmother in mid-Wales then and spent most of my days hiding up trees or inside hedges; they were my secret huts. When I was a teenager and had to live with my mother I thought I would become a reclusive hermit in a hut with a lot of books (probably to get away from her!). I’m also very interested in the hermits of Tang Dynasty China, who were usually poets. When my first marriage ended I spent thirteen years alone. That solitude was both bad and good and in that time my writing improved. As for the word "guardian" it has special connotations for me. I remember my grandmother having to write that she was my guardian on school forms and how I gradually became aware that this was different from ‘parent’. The hermit who lives in the giant tree is its guardian spirit as she was mine.
I wrote ‘Treesitter’ after reading Julia Butterfly Hill’s book Luna, her account of her treesit. Her descriptions of being right at the top (2,000 feet up!) in all weathers – gales, blizzards, a spring dawn – are enthralling. I was also moved by her tenacity and loneliness during that time.
OTI: I noticed that in some of your poems ('The Treekeeper’s Tale', 'Portrait of a Coast Redwood Forest with Mandolin', 'Nature Singer', 'Creation of the Trees') music goes hand in hand with nature and art. Do you use music as a catalyst for creation?
I usually write in silence. I love the quiet and when neighbours are noisy I wear earplugs. I am not a very musical person and know little about it, but I like the idea of music and of the correspondences between the arts and all living things. My favourite sound is birdsong. The ‘Nature Singer’ was Charles Kellogg who learned how to use his larynx like a bird’s syrinx and spent all his time in the woods, acquiring powers with his voice such as how to control a flame. ‘Portrait of a Coast Redwood’ is loosely based on Braque’s late studio paintings, especially the ones that feature a semi-abstract mandolin. ‘Creation of the Trees’ is after the painting 'Harmony' by Remedios Varo where she is in the studio creating natural objects such as gems and leaves from musical notes on her stave. I liked her synthesis of music and art.
When I wrote these poems I was influenced by the musicologist Joscelyn Godwin’s books such as Harmony of the Spheres: Source Book of Pythagorean Tradition in Music and Harmonies of Heaven and Earth: Mysticism in Music from Antiquity to the Avant-Garde (Inner Traditions Bear and Company, 1993, 1995).
OTI: 'Exiled Elm' is the shortest poem in your book, however, it has a very strong message. Personally, I read it as a metaphor of the search for new beginnings. Could the uprooted tree be a metaphor of everyman?
PP: What a lovely idea and thank you for suggesting it. I hope so. I have always been uprooted and when I was young felt that I must be from another planet, so that sensation is behind this poem. I wrote it very quickly, in response to a commission by the sculptor Jilly Sutton, who asked for a poem which had to be exactly twenty-five words, to be engraved in a spiral around a young elm tree she was carving for an exhibition. The elm tree had died of Dutch elm disease. The sculpture has beetles (and other insects) around its trunk, as beetles are the source of the disease. The sculpture sold for a lot of money and it’s strange to think of my poem around its trunk in some mansion. I hadn’t thought of the poem being a search for new beginnings, I just visualized it flying through space searching for a new home.
OTI: In an interview given to Professor Vianu in 2003, you say that one of the reasons you started writing poetry was to escape from your mother. However, the mother figure is a recurrent image especially in the second part, 'Afterlives'. Is poetry a way of facing your rival-mother on your own territory?
PP: Yes I started writing to escape from her into my own world. One of the things poetry may be for me is a way to face her on my territory rather than in her home or in hospital where I felt in her power. When I bring her into my created world I can change her into images I can control. So in ‘The Bee Mother’ she is a queen bee and I’m a worker bee (I had to do all the housework when I was lived with her as a teenager). We can enact bee-sized battles and I can stand up to her and for myself in this form.
OTI: The entire book stands under the sign of surrealism; you take your inspiration not only from Remedios Varo, but also from René Magritte, whose constant shift between reality and illusion was attributed by psychoanalysts to his mother’s early death . Do you believe the relationship with your parents had an influence on your style?
That’s an interesting thought. Perhaps I rebelled against realism because the so-called ‘real’ world was not habitable for me as a child. I don’t believe there is such a thing as common realism and that when people write in that style they are making a mistaken assumption that I share their perception of reality. Surrealism or magical realism, or as the exiled Chinese poet Yang Lian would call it, ‘deep-reality’, are closer to my perception of the world. In my childhood everything always shifted: I moved from country to country, from home to home, from carer to carer (or guardian), from school to school. Life was surreal! My mother had a severe mental illness and I didn’t realize this until later, so at the time it seemed that it was normal to shift seamlessly from an apparent reality to an illusion. She was also domineering and insisted I felt what she felt all the time, so all this empathy made my own identity weak except when I made art.
The issue of art and empathy is an interesting one, and perhaps, although I have a strong sense of self when I start writing a poem, hopefully Keats’ ‘negative capability’ kicks in once I get going and lose myself, but in a voluntary and pleasurable way, not enforced.
OTI: You wrote three poems inspired by Varo that you named 'Creation of…'. In 'Creation of the Himalayas' there is a verse that draws my attention: “We weigh nothing, and our cloth when it’s new weighs less than us before it sets in its stone cage.” How should the unsubstantial be read here?
PP: I love Remedios Varo’s paintings and first came across them in Mexico City. The gold liquid cloth the embroiderers are creating becomes stone when it falls to earth. While still inside the earth it is molten then it sets into earth’s rock crust. In Varo’s painting ‘Embroidering Earth’s Mantle’, which the poem is based on, the embroidering nuns are working in a turret in the sky and the mantle is pouring out like waterfalls. I like the idea that stone might originate from ether and be originally weightless (that is, not bound by the force of gravity). And perhaps it does, if we think of the earth being made from stardust. But when I wrote that line I didn’t think it through like this; the line came and it felt right. What I did feel though is that the earth, beautiful as it is, is a kind of cage for our bodies and I was writing about a yearning for other origins.
Recently someone asked to use this poem ‘Creation of the Himalayas’ as a eulogy at a funeral for a friend who had set out to vanish on Everest. I’m pleased they found the poem useful at this laying-to-rest ceremony.
OTI: If you were to summarize each part of your book in one word or idea, what would those words or ideas be and why?
PP: I titled the four sections of my book ‘The Treekeeper’s Tale’, ‘Afterlives’, ‘War Horse’ and ‘The Chrysanthemum Lantern’. These phrases for me sum up each part. ‘The Treekeeper’s Tale’ because it’s a series of stories by various treekeepers (as in zookeeper) – a treesitter, a nature singer, a canopy explorer, a hermit, and one or two of the tales are told by the trees themselves.
The second and longest section, ‘Afterlives’, contains poems which one way or another deal with afterlives: excavated horses, warriors, a shaman girl retrieved from permafrost, an excavated boat in Galilee, a second marriage, places and parents revisited, and so on. I have always been fascinated by how life unfolds and how unpredictable it is, how miraculous reprises and afterlives are offered, how utterly strange it all is, the tricks and turns of fate.
With ‘War Horse’ I liked the phrase, and it marries life force (the horse) with death force (war). Franz Marc’s blue horse paintings with their luminous colours and portrayal of innocence are a sharp contrast to his experience of World War One. The poems draw phrases from his letters sent to his wife from the front where he was a dispatch rider. He did not describe the horror, not wishing to upset her, but only the quiet moments when he observed horses and he was riding through the forest. He also wrote about his theories on painting and music. She wrote back to him with intricate details of their country idyll and the deer and horses there. I wanted to superimpose this tenderness over the violent reality he was dealing with, to counter violence with art and nature.
I called the last section ‘The Chrysanthemum Lantern’ to conjure the difference of Chinese culture, and the otherworldliness of that particular poem. Translating these four poets, Du Fu, Yang Lian, Zhou Zan and Zhai Yongming was a privilege, allowing me insights into new imaginations and traditions.
OTI: You teach creative writing, so I assume you get in contact with young poets who want to improve their skills. What should a young poet always bear in mind?
PP: I think imagination can be taught as well as craft. Imaginations can be excited, expanded, enriched. I suggest to beginning poets that they write about what they really want to write about rather than what they think they should write about. I encourage them to engage in serious play, keep it enjoyable, and not to bore themselves in any part of their poems or they will bore the reader. To outpace the inner censor so as to open the channels. To research if it helps them to discover and develop ideas and language, keep notebooks and collect words and lines. I advise them to use all the senses fully and be particular and precise, to use language freshly and surprise themselves. To be free in first drafts but ruthless in editing. Not to be content with partial achievement in a poem, to recast, rewrite and pay attention to detail in the editing so the poem looks cared for. Most of all to read, read, read – classical and contemporary poetry, in their own language and in translation, and other books, whatever feeds their imaginations. I also say these things to myself when I’m trying to write!
OTI: In the same interview (Lidia Vianu, 2003) you said that the Amazonian indigenous cultures had a big influence on your work. What made you choose the Amazon?
PP: The Amazon chose me. I saw a photo of Angel Falls in the remote Lost World of the Venezuelan Amazon and fell in love with the photo. The book it was in was called Waterfalls of the World and Angel Falls was like a wondrous and remotest friend in a book of friends. I went into a travel agent’s to ask if there was a way of getting there and went on my own, twice. The table mountains that surround it felt like home.
I became obsessed with the cloud forest and rainforest and the people who live there – the Pemon tribe, their myths and beliefs about the waterfalls and plateaus. I researched all the Amazonian tribes, especially their rituals and chants. Not long after my second trip to the Lost World I dreamt I was at the base of Angel Falls and my father’s face appeared in the swirling mists. I hadn’t thought about him for years and had not seen or heard from him since he’d vanished when I was eight. A few days after this dream I received a letter from him telling me he was dying and wanted to make contact. So the Amazon is inextricably linked with him in my mind. I think I am also drawn to it because it evokes my Welsh grandmother’s huge garden where I was happy as a child.
OTI: You took part in the Poet to Poet translation project and also in the first Chinese/English Yellow Mountain Poetry Festival. You translated a number of Chinese poets into English. Did you have to make any cultural concessions while translating the poems?
PP: In Zhou Zan’s poem ‘Jay’ I inserted an extra line “who understood the language of birds’ because I thought few UK readers would know who Gong Ye-chang was while a Chinese reader would know what she was referring to. I also cut a couple of her lines from the end of ‘Scapecat’, which in English didn’t add anything extra to the poem.
In Yang Lian’s poems I decided to use conventional punctuation instead of the space gaps which a lot of Chinese poets use in lieu of commas, dashes and full stops. His poems can be quite inaccessible in parts (“Make the reader work!” he urged me) but I did attempt to make more transitions between his (wonderfully) juxtaposed images to render the meaning clearer, hopefully without compromising the original.
OTI: You said that the “Sanctuary word aeries” in ‘Osprey Nests’ could be interpreted as a metaphor for writing. Have you ever felt the need to write your own ars poetica in which to concentrate the essential aspects of your poetry?
PP: My ars poetica is always in flux and so is my poetry so I haven’t done that.
What I said about that line “sanctuary word aeries” was that the osprey’s nest in this poem is a sanctuary. This refuge is made of words and is also a nest. This aerie/ nest is a sanctuary made of words, so here I’m broadening the poem out to be a metaphor for writing. My writing is a sanctuary, not in its subject matter, but in its art-making. Making art is my way of transforming the mess of experience into nest-like shapes of words. I’m thinking of Keats’ letter in which he suggested that a person can create airy citadels, his “two-and-thirty Pallaces” in his mind. “Any Man may like the spider spin from his own inwards his own airy Citadel with the fine web of his soul, full of Symbols for his spiritual eye”. Writing started out as taking refuge in art from a scary home but hopefully might offer refuge to others now.
Of course in this poem these airy citadels against harm might have new implications, such as the threatened ospreys and biosphere.
OTI: Besides writing, what other projects are you involved in at the moment?
PP: Just teaching. I tutor at Tate Modern, teaching poetry writing courses in the galleries in the evening when it’s quiet and the gallery is closed to the general public, which is a wonderful privilege. We use the artworks as starting points for poems. But I suppose this is writing too, it’s my whole world. I love travelling but that again is usually explorations for writing or translation projects.
OTI: Do you feel you have to thank someone for helping you become what you are today?
PP: I am grateful to my maternal grandmother for her love and love of nature.