I met Pascale Petit while studying at Oxford, and we became friends over the course of the single trimester she tutored me. My own preoccupations with contemporary indigenous poetries and my upbringing in Mexico very obviously overlap with her interest in and study of Amazon and Aztec mythologies, which she explores extensively in her collections The Zoo Father and The Huntress. Named a Next Generation Poet by the Poetry Book Society, her collections have twice been nominated for the TS Eliot Prize, as well as having been selected as Books of the Year by the TLS and Independent. She has traveled widely to write and perform, and has also worked extensively in literary translation. I particularly admire her translations of Chinese Misty Poet Yang Lian, who now lives in London.
In 2004 she published a chapbook of poems about Frida Kahlo, The Wounded Deer, which marked the beginning of her exploration of the painter’s life in poetry. This May Wales-based Seren released What the Water Gave Me (£8.99), a full length collection of poems exploring the life of Frida Kahlo. Already glowingly reviewed by Ruth Padel in The Guardian, WTWGM continues to garner critical praise.
Though we seldom see each other in person, we do maintain a regular electronic correspondence, and it was a pleasure to discuss Petit’s latest collection by email. Coincidentally Pascale Petit has also been selected by Molossus contributing editor Sudeep Sen for the next installment of his World Poetry Portfolio series, which will include several poems excerpted from her new collection.
So, first the obvious. Why Frida Kahlo?
What the Water Gave Me is a sequence of fifty-two poems, each based on one of Kahlo’s paintings. When I was at the Royal College of Art, training as a sculptor, a tutor said my studio reminded him of her home, the Casa Azul, and he suggested I should take a closer look at her paintings. Though I’d noticed her personal, bold and sometimes shocking style, I didn’t really know her work well. It didn’t occur to me to write poems in her voice until I was finishing The Zoo Father, my second collection, in 2000. I must have been reading about the bus crash she suffered when she was a teenager, and how the injuries from that caused her lifelong pain, which she depicted and transcended in her art. I saw a connection with the poems in The Zoo Father, which is also about transcending childhood trauma.
I wrote the first two poems ‘Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (I)’ and ‘Remembrance of an Open Wound’, on the same day. Both narrate the violence of the accident and how the bus handrail pierced her abdomen and exited her vagina. It seemed to be a kind of rape with no one to blame. I could use the images of the bus and tramcar colliding and the gold dust that splashed over her from her fellow passenger. Afterwards she told people this accident was how she lost her virginity.
A few years later I saw her painting ‘Self-Portrait with Monkey’ (the one with the dark leaf background, that Madonna owns,) in the exhibition Surrealism: Desire Unbound at Tate Modern (2002) and was struck by how alive she looked in it, gazing defiantly out at the viewer. I wanted to try to capture that. In 2005 I published a pamphlet of fourteen of these poems in The Wounded Deer and it was launched in Tate Modern’s Frida Kahlo exhibition. It was an unforgettable experience to read surrounded by the paintings. I didn’t then think I would write any more of these poems and a few years passed before I did.
You’re both a visual artist and a poet, and you’ve written and talked extensively about the relationship between the two disciplines. How did your personal experience in both fields intersect or engage each other in What the Water Gave Me?
I was a sculptor but I don’t make visual art any more. As an artist I used intense colour, often on transparent materials such as glass, fiberglass and resin casts. I made translucent female figures with parts of their abdomens exposed so you could see their reproductive organs. I placed iridescent beetles (gifts from the Natural History Museum), and tropical butterflies on their glass-like sexual organs. I also made installations of glass structures crisscrossed with brightly painted thorn branches, and there were hummingbirds inside domes and boxes, a warbler, a blue tit, eggs, nests, dragonflies, and so on. So some of Kahlo’s imagery was already there in my work, even before I’d fully explored her pictures.
When I started writing the Frida poems, it felt like I was making my own ‘paintings’ after hers. Not exact replicas, but my versions. Except that they were made with words. Ever since I stopped being a visual artist it’s been important to me that my poems are physical – solidly made and visualisable, and I’m aware of the objects embedded or suspended in them. My sculptures were transparent, but there were also arcs of colour – glass tendrils drawn out of the kiln, and hawthorn branches that I collected and painted bright blue, green or red. Perhaps the lines of the poems are these arcs, around the face, body, nest or bird in the composition.
I love the idea of the biography in verse. Here you include interpretations of Kahlo’s work, reflections on her lifelong physical pain and tumultuous life with Diego Rivera, and more. It seems like the appropriate form of biography for another artist, especially such an iconic painter. Can you reflect on that?
It’s a strange kind of biography, half her, and half me disguised as her, which was great fun to do! I loved pretending to be her. There was so much I could identify with. I’d been through a long period of illness and isolation so could relate to her months of being bed-bound and her loneliness (she said she painted her self-portraits because she was always alone). I don’t have children and I’d never written about that, but explored this subject through her, her inability to bring a child to term because of injuries as a result of the accident. I enjoyed depicting her troubled relationship with Diego, her jealousy and sense of betrayal when he had his affairs. It was much better than me writing about myself, made those common human sorrows more vivid and somehow joyful (because she turned them into colourful art). I should say though that, however much I was putting myself into her persona, I kept to the facts as rigorously as I knew them. The poems had to be true to Kahlo and sound like her.
What Kahlo biographies did you read? What else did you do to research your poems?
I started with the Hayden Herrera Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, and Kahlo’s fabulous diary The Diary of Frida Kahlo, and Martha Zamora’s The Letters of Frida Kahlo: Cartas Apasionadas. I spent a lot of time in the Hispanic and Luso Brazilian Council library in Hyde Park, devouring all their books about her. And of course I went to visit the Casa Azul, back in 2000 when I started writing the poems, and all the museums for her and Diego Rivera in Mexico City. Later, more books were published which I found very helpful: Gannit Ankori’s Imaging her Selves: Frida Kahlo’s Poetics of Identity and Fragmentation (particularly good on the painting What the Water Gave Me), and Magdalena Rosenzweig’s Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress: Frida’s Wardrobe, which was written after the unsealing of her bathroom and dressing room. I’d been disappointed the bathroom was sealed up when I visited her Blue House, but here were evocative descriptions of her bath and clothes. I went back to Coyoacán a few times. I also went to the nearby Pedregal, to see the volcanic plain that forms so many backgrounds in her paintings of her broken body, the fissured landscape mirroring her scars, and although it’s now a built up area, you can still see outcrops of volcanic rock here and there around the drug baron mansions.
You bring sexuality into your poems with very sharp images—I’m thinking of “Whenever we make love, you say / it’s like fucking a crash – / I bring the bus with me into the bedroom”—and that reminds me of some of your earlier work. I see it as a sort of incursion into the mythologies you build up in the work, and, I suppose, part of the mythologies, too. That said, I wonder how this collection, and especially the process behind it, might have been similar or different to other books.
My preoccupations in What the Water Gave Me are quite similar to those in The Zoo Father. Both books are about overcoming childhood trauma and at the heart of them is sexual damage. It was useful for me to write as someone else but still explore the transforming of pain into art. Kahlo’s paintings were a vehicle to expand these explorations into more adult concerns such as marriage, surgery and miscarriage, and there might be less of the embarrassment of so-called ‘confessional’ poems. The Zoo Father and The Huntress are often read as autobiography, however much I’ve mythologised them with Amazonian and Aztec rituals. In What the Water Gave Me I’m confessing the biography of an icon, an extraordinary woman who turned herself into myth. My previous book The Treekeeper’s Tale is different I think. In it, the natural world, which is always a strong presence in my poems, takes more centre stage.
With such a thematic collection, I also wonder how you knew when to stop. Especially with a life as full of little details as Frida’s—from her early accident to her later dog Señor Xólotl.
Stopping was hard. There are still paintings I haven’t written about. Each poem has the title of a painting and I regret that some are missing, and there is much about her life I left out, because it wasn’t of such interest to me. I could have gone on and made a bigger book, but I’d already taken ten years, so thought it best to stop. I wonder if I will write any more. I resist that prospect, for now at least.
What are you working on now? What are you reading, watching, listening to?
I’m writing my first novel. And I’ve started writing some new poems, but I don’t want to talk about the novel, and the poems are linked to it so I won’t talk about them either – it’s too early. Almost all my current reading is research for the novel. But I’m also reading in preparation for the next Poetry from Art course I teach at Tate Modern, when we’ll start off in the Gauguin exhibition, so I’m reading his journals and letters from the South Seas and the myths of Tahiti. Recent exhibitions I’ve been fascinated by include Annette Messager’s The Messengers, and Surreal Friends in the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, especially the paintings by another of my favourite Spanish/Mexican painters Remedios Varo, whose work I first encountered in Mexico and whose paintings I wrote about in The Treekeeper’s Tale. I also loved Francis Alÿs’ powerful video Tornado in his recent exhibition at Tate Modern.