Another conversation. This time with the fascinating poet, Pascale Petit, who has spent the best part of the last ten years researching the life and paintings of Frida Kahlo.
Her collection, What The Water Gave Me, (Seren) is the result. And below I talked to her about the book and the process of writing it.
SH The poems of What The Water Gave Me are absorbing in their physicality, wrought and muscular in imagery and narrative, which suits the subject of Frida Kahlo and her paintings perfectly. I know you trained as a visual artist, so am interested to hear more of your thinking about the relatonship between visual art and poetry.
PP When I gave up making sculptures and installations to concentrate on poetry, I needed to bring the physicality of 3D work to a poem. I was used to creating my own world in the studio, working inside an installation to shape it. I did a lot of grinding with the grinderette, sanding and manipulating materials until they began to suspend disbelief, for me and hopefully for others. As an artist my concerns were often with the female figure and experience, and this has continued into my poetry. I was interested in the body and in pain as a subject for sculptures, and this is one of the main themes of this book. Writing poems about Frida Kahlo’s paintings allowed me to inhabit her world as an artist, to try to recreate the paintings about pain with words, as well as capture her vitality. I’d always used bright colours in my sculptures so enjoyed playing with her vibrant palette.
Her range is narrow, and I enjoyed that depth rather than breadth of subject matter. I like to explore one subject or set of images, to go deeper into them each time. It was a challenge to search for different words or permutations of words for her recurring images, especially the self-portraits and menagerie. I wonder if visual artists worry less about repeating subjects than poets? Take Bill Viola for example, there’s always water or fire in each video installation – he mines his obsessions and I relish that persistence.
SH And also how you balance between the physical and metaphysical strands that interweave the poems?
PP I’m glad you find metaphysical strands, because that ultimately is what I’m interested in, though expressed through the senses. Frida Kahlo was very well read and had beliefs about the interconnectedness of all living things, which I share. I wouldn’t be interested in a purely physical or empirical world, there has to be a spiritual dimension to it for me. But I didn’t set out to say anything in particular, just to imbue the poems with the ideas about the natural world that informed her paintings, to be true to her, and to convey her life force. My aim is to make my poems as alive as I can and she seemed to be a good subject to help me do that. I’ll never forget when I saw Self-Portrait with Monkey in the flesh (the dark green one Madonna owns), her eyes looked right into me as if she was still alive.
SH Frida Kahlo and her work have occupied a prominant position in the mythologising of artist and creation for many decades, how did you approach writing about such an iconic painter and her paintings?
PP The first poem I wrote, ten years ago, was ‘Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (I)’, and the same day I also wrote ‘Remembrance of an Open Wound’. I thought that writing about the paintings of these titles might be a way for me to write about trauma and sex. I had just finished writing The Zoo Father, my second collection, which is about the legacy of child abuse. Kahlo suffered a near-fatal street accident when she was a teenager, when a bus handrail pierced her abdomen and exited her vagina. This accident, which was a kind of rape, left her disabled and unable to have children. I identified with this but thought I could explore the subject through the imagery of the accident, without having to be confessional.
SH At what stage did you realise the poems would make up an entire collection?
PP I’d written fourteen and published them in a pamphlet The Wounded Deer in 2005, and thought that was it. Then in 2006 I started looking at her paintings again. I’d been to Mexico a few times and seen Without Hope in the Dolores Olmedo Museum in Mexico City. I wrote a poem in response to that and then wrote my first ‘What the Water Gave Me’ poem – a little one about her daughter being the bathwater. There are six about the title painting now, but that little poem seemed to open things up again, make them fluid. I wanted to write more about the bathwater – it’s a strange painting which I can look at for hours, its subject seems to be the imagination, with all those scenes from her life and paintings floating around her legs like daydreams. She used to leave dinner parties to lie in her bath to soothe her back, so I also think of it as a painting about trauma and healing. It’s also very interesting because it’s a self-portrait without her face, we only see her legs and feet, but sense the head where we are, where the viewer is, looking down on them. Her body is fragmented and in a way her ego is out of the frame, which is a kind of release. I wrote about that release (brought about by paint) in my fifth ‘What the Water Gave Me (V)’ poem.
SH You say these do not intend to be a verse biography, although the poems sparkle with the inclusion of many details of her life. How much did the biographical details help or hinder the writing of the poems?
PP In my author’s note I say that it’s not a comprehensive verse biography, but it is biographical through the paintings. I used the frame of her life as the structure of the book, from pre-birth to death, and the poems are roughly chronological in order. They chart her polio as a child, the street accident, her marriage to Diego Rivera, her miscarriages, his infidelities, her self-portraits, portraits of animals and other people, her still lives, her divorce and remarriage to Diego, the increasing pain she suffered from her injuries, her many surgeries and treatments, then her death.
My main focus was the accident and its aftermath and how she used art to withstand and transform pain as she underwent surgeries and treatments for her chronic conditions. This is what engrossed me. Lots of details of her life are missing in my collection as there was no point in my dutifully including everything; that wasn’t what I was after. So I was never hindered by those. The biography was a structure to give the book a story and a plot. I loved reading all the books that have been written about her.
SH Within the theme of the book, and the close refernce to the paintins, the poems are hugely varied in style and tone. What poetry did you read when you were writing these poems?
PP Over the ten years I read very widely. I travelled a lot, including to Mexico, Nepal, Kazakhstan, China and Israel. I read a lot of work in translation, particularly by Alfonsina Storni, Amir Or, Zhai Yongming, Yang Lian, Ferenc Juhász, Paul Celan. I think the styles and tones must be varied because of the long time it took to write the book, but also because I brought different moods to it. I wanted to portray her despair and her electric joie-de-vivre. I also read a great deal of natural history and nonfiction books. The Three Halves of Ino Moxo: Teachings of the Wizard of the Upper Amazon by César Calvo is a key book, with fascinating notions about the original fertile power of language. I like his idea about a word being a well which contains oceans, about words being chants or spells.
SH As a reader, reading the collection is a rich jungle-like experience, with a humidity of unfamiliar plants and creatures soaking my consciousness, at times this was almost suffocating, at others expansive and liberating. How did you experience it as the writer?
PP It was liberating. I love jungles, luxuriance, finding the names of new plants and fruits. I did have to research Mexican food and fruit, and how to pronounce them! Last week I saw some pitahayas in my local international supermarket, they called them dragon fruit – their Chinese name, I was pleased to see that they do look like leafy wombs as I described them in a poem.
SH Thank you, Pascale, for the expansive insight into the book, and for the huge reading list I now have!
Good luck for the launch of Thursday June 17 - at the Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury. If you'd like to go, please contact Victoria Humphreys.
There will also be launch readings at the Hay Festival on 2 June, Lancaster Litfest on 23 June, Ledbury Festival on 3 July, Birmingham Book Festival on 7 October, Manchester Literature Festival and Sheffield Off the Shelf Festival (both) on 19 October, and the Durham Book Festival on 23/24 October. Most events will be illustrated.