LAP: Tell us about your journey as a writer.
PP: I’d always written poems, although I wasn’t very good. I was a sculptor at the Royal College of Art but found it too hard physically. I realized I could make things with words better than I could with materials. I transitioned, teaching Gaia projects in schools, and then I stopped sculpting altogether.
Making poems, for me, needs to be physical, organic, sensory, perhaps a leftover from creating worlds to escape into, and trying to capture the natural world in its wild state in case it vanishes.
My first book started with my first obsession, waterfalls. I learned about Angel Falls in Venezuela – the highest waterfall in the world – and went there twice, flew over it, canoed to the base.
Looking at it was like looking at my god. From that my interest grew in the Amazon rainforests and the tribal people who live there, everything they know, their incredible myths.
My next obsession was jaguars. I was spending time in Paris writing and watching jaguars at the zoo. I went to the Peruvian Amazon and saw harpy eagles, king vultures, and even a jaguar in the wild! In Mama Amazonica I wrote about the Amazon as my abused and mentally distressed mother.
LAP: How do you explore a sense of place and belonging through your work?
PP: I was always displaced as a child and didn’t feel I belonged. I was drawn to the Amazon because I felt an affinity with it, and I decided to go to India because I’d started writing a collection about my grandmother, Tiger Girl. She’d told me stories about being in a cot in a tent when a tiger entered. So I read about tigers, realized how threatened they are.
I fell in love with India, its forests, wildlife and national parks. You can’t get all your information from books. For example, you would never know that trees give out smells to discourage predators. One of the most incredible things was the feeling of being in a theater when prey animals spot the tiger or leopard and begin to make their operatic alarm calls.
LAP: Do you think eco-poetry has a role in communicating the urgency of the environmental crisis?
PP: Recently I have begun considering myself an eco-poet. If I’m writing a poem about somewhere, I have to go there and absorb things to the roots of my being. I’ve always been struck by the wonder of the natural world.
I wrote a poem in the voice of the beast of Bodmin Moor, speaking through the landscape. I’m frightened that animals are going to disappear. I think I have a duty to write about these things.
LAP: What role do you feel diverse voices might play in this?
PP: I am extremely interested in this. I lead workshops on looking at non-Euro-centric views about nature and eco-poetry. These are bringing fresh air into British nature poetry, of which there is a wonderful tradition. I’ve always been excited by what other cultural outlooks bring to nature’s poetry. There are many new and exciting voices.
LAP: Do you have any advice for new or emerging poets with an interest in land and nature?
PP: Don’t follow the fashion. Be the fashion! Write about whatever you find exciting. Look for your own way to write form. Books can go a long way, but it’s not the same as immersing yourself in a place. Smell it, get the breath of it. Finally, don’t just read British poets or poets of your own generation. Read widely, including poetry from other cultures about the natural world.
Pascale Petit’s eighth collection, Tiger Girl (Bloodaxe Books, 2020), was shortlisted for the Forward Prize and for Wales Book of the Year. Her seventh collection of her, Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe Books, 2017), won the inaugural Laurel Prize for eco-poetry and the RSL’s Ondaatje Prize and was a Poetry Book Society Choice.
This article first appeared in Resurgence & Ecologist magazine, out now. Listen to Pascale share her poetry by Ella as part of The Resurgence Trust’s Acorn Poetry Festival on 11 June. Buy tickets online.