Image by Kaido Vainomaa

Pascale Petit

b. 1953


No other British poet I am aware of can match the powerful mythic imagination of Pascale Petit - Les Murray

Fauverie IV (Black Jaguar)

Pascale Petit

What the Water Gave Me (VI)

Pascale Petit

Self-Portrait with Fire Ants

Pascale Petit

The Strait-jackets

Pascale Petit

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About Pascale Petit

Pascale Petit was born in Paris, grew up in Wales and France, and now lives in London, where she tutors poetry in the galleries of Tate Modern and at the Poetry School, which she co-founded. She graduated from the Royal College of Art and spent the first part of her life as a sculptor before concentrating on poetry, and her writing takes much from visual art – the vivid, painterly images make for what Ruth Padel has called “hard hitting, palette-knife evocation”. Her first book, Heart of a Deer (Enitharmon) appeared in 1998 and announced the arrival of a fiercely imaginative new voice – whose mythic confessionalism is rooted in the natural world. Her second work, The Zoo Father (Seren, 2001), garnered much critical acclaim and a TS Eliot prize nomination, and Petit was selected as a Next Generation poet. A poem from this collection, ‘The Strait-Jackets’ (featured here), was shortlisted for the Forward prize for best single poem. Petit has published a further four collections, and received two more TS Eliot prize nominations, the most recent being for What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo (Seren, 2010), which responds to the works of the Mexican surrealist painter. A new collection, Fauverie (Seren), which is due in September 2014, takes the Jardin des Plantes zoo in Paris as its eponymous big-cat house, though it also works with notions of art practice crucial to her previous work: ‘Fauverie’ evokes the Fauves, a group of French painters who used raw colour straight from the tube. It also builds upon the notions of childhood trauma and the legacy of a dying father explored in The Zoo Father. A selection from Fauverie won the 2013 Manchester Poetry Prize, and judges praised the “unreproducible bite of her images”.

There is something of the cumulative effect of layering paint over a stark white canvas – in Petit’s case the starkness is the rawness of trauma – of mixing ‘the blue sting [and] the red ache’. In 'The Strait-Jackets’, the poet curates forty hummingbirds around her incapacitated father, so that he ‘can see their changing colours’ – the room brightens and his breathing improves for the fleeting few moments the birds are allowed to roam free. Her poems often locate feeling in a clearly articulated natural agent or conceit – ‘Self-Portrait with Fire Ants’ sees a father’s lack manifested in ‘a mask of fire ants’ which smother the abandoned speaker; only the father as ‘giant anteater’ can clear them, but that brings with it new, more sinister problems. And in ‘Emmanuel’, the largest bell in the Notre-Dame cathedral comes to accommodate a father’s ‘badness’ in its great mass; the palpability of its unflinching ‘F sharp’ and the aftermath of its ‘hum’ is a sound more absolute than anything ‘he said / and didn’t say’. Petit reveals in her introduction to this recording that she has in fact been up to the Emmanuel bell and touched it – and this tactility, its ‘bronze weight’, she sculpts so well out of the language. The poem ends in proclamation, but the poet remains measured in her reading voice – a voice that never overblows the confessional element of its subject matter; though impassioned, it is one of syllabic pace and care. Hers is a voice we can learn much from – confident with the advice she gives us on reading her poems, but always compassionate and inquisitive in tone, to ask, as she does in ‘Fauverie IV (Black Jaguar)’ – ‘what vet could take / a scalpel to this / dreaming universe?’ 

Her recording was made on 19 November 2013 at The Soundhouse, London, and was produced by Anne Rosenfeld.

Pascale Petit's favourite poetry sayings:

“the smoulder // of black rosettes / a zoo of sub-atoms / I try to tame -” -  ‘Sleeping Black Jaguar’, Pascale Petit

“It’s wonderful, there’s nothing else like it, you write in a trance. And the trance is completely addictive.” - Les Murray

“I like to write with raw colour, working on the truth and tune of my lines, until they feel like a chant with some primitive quality, something of childhood.” - Pascale Petit

“This is hunting and the poem is a new species of creature, a new specimen of the life outside your own." – Ted Hughes

“Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you to write. This above all, ask yourself in the stillest hour of night: Must I write?” – Rainer Maria Rilke

Selected bibliography

Fauverie, Seren, (forthcoming) 2014  

What the Water Gave Me: Poems After Frida Kahlo, Seren,...

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The Treekeeper's Tale, Seren, 2008

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The Huntress, Seren, 2005  

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The Zoo Father, Seren, 2001  

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Heart of a Deer, Enitharmon, 1998

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Prizes

New London Writer's Award The Zoo Father 2001

(Shortlist) Forward Prize for Single Poem 'The Straight-Jackets' 2001

Prize website

(Shortlist) TS Eliot Prize The Huntress 2005

(Shortlist) TS Eliot Prize What the Water Gave Me 2011

(Shortlist) Wales Book of the Year What the Water Gave Me 2011

Manchester Poetry Prize Portfolio of five poems from Fauverie 2013

Books by Pascale Petit