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April 12, 2007

Pascale Petit: Writing Poems from Rape and Abuse

Follow-up to The Difficult Task of Telling My Story: Pascale Petit's Poetry from Women Writing Rape: The Blog

The Zoo Father by Pascale Petit

The poet, Pascale Petit, has kindly written a poetic statement for publication on this blog. We want to thank her for allowing us to reproduce it here.

Pascale Petit is a French/Welsh poet whose second and third collections, The Huntress and The Zoo Father, were both shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize and were Books of the Year in the Times Literary Supplement. Pascale has been selected as one of the Next Generation Poets. Les Murray writes of her: “No other British poet I am aware of can match the powerful mythic imagination of Pascale Petit.”

Writing Poems from Rape and Abuse

When writing The Zoo Father I was not interested in just writing about rape or abuse, what I wanted was to make art. Until I could find a way of doing that I couldn’t write. Before I wrote it I had an eight-month block. It was only when I visited the Ménagerie in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes with its Amazonian species that I could see how I could make portraits of my father and myself through those animals. As Sharon Olds has said, I know that no one is interested in what happened to me as a child. What readers might be interested in is how I make art out of such difficult material.

Another difficulty is that this raw material can look dangerously close to bad poetry, to over-written, over-emotional poems about personal experiences, often not rendered freshly. There is a close resemblance between ‘art brut’ on the one hand – and I was interested in making raw art ¬– and a mere outpouring of self-expression. Another barrier is the problem of politeness: it is not considered good manners to write so critically of one’s parents, and is not even polite to talk about these taboo subjects. That’s a lot to go against.

I had different problems when writing about my mother’s abuse, which was mental, though possibly more damaging. This abuse is intangible and therefore harder to write about concretely. Mental rape, the terrorisation or invasion of children’s or vulnerable people’s minds, is a global issue and I hope that my explorations in The Huntress have some relevance, however small, to how the first world terrorises and invades the third world, the tactics it uses to enslave weaker or poorer nations. My central theme in that book is power abuse and terrorisation of one human being by another as well as an in depth exploration of my relationship with my mother. The point Zoe Brigley made about the Lithuanian poet who had suffered at the hands of the KGB was that he told me he found my poem cathartic, even though it was so personal.

In writing The Wounded Deer – Fourteen poems after Frida Kahlo I was free from the difficulties of writing autobiography. I sometimes give readings of these poems with projections of the paintings and I don’t feel so exposed afterwards as I do after giving readings from The Zoo Father and The Huntress . I was not writing about myself but the Mexican painter, someone far from my cultural background.

Or was I? Central to that pamphlet – and the full-length collection I am writing now, The Thorn Necklace (with the paintings) – is the trauma when Kahlo was seriously injured as a teenager in a street accident. Her vagina and spine were literally skewered by the handrail of a bus. She was raped by a chance accident, by an object. There are no notions of blame. So I was free to write about its repercussions throughout her life. “Telling it as it is” through a persona reduces the embarrassment factor. However raw or graphic the details of physical or mental distress, they are here under the guise of an icon who has already transmuted her suffering into art. I also write about the abuse of the natural world, and another collection I am working on now has the endangered coast redwoods of California as its focus.

April 11, 2007

The Difficult Task of Telling My Story: Pascale Petit's Poetry

Pascale Petit

The Welsh-French poet, Pascale Petit, is frank in interview in discussing the pain and difficulty of her childhood. As a girl, she suffered an abusive father and a mentally ill mother. In interview, Petit writes of the difficulty in writing about personal history: ‘In the UK, very personal intense poetry is treated with suspicion by some. However, I write what I am compelled to write, and hope that explorations of my childhood “private hell” are of relevance to readers.’ Fellow Welsh poet, Deryn Rees-Jones, also recognises the problem of writing confessionally and summarises the politics of it in her recent study, Consorting with Angels :

The woman who confesses is frequently read as testifying only to her anguish and her own “weakness”; she is simply revealing the awfulness of femininity which was known to be there all along, and which, in the most simplistic terms has led to her oppression in the first place. And it is here that we see the exact nature of the problem: for if the woman poet does remain silent, if the awfulness of her confessional truth is such that it will only oppress her further, she is left where she started and cannot speak at all. Alternatively, she can speak a version of self which also confirms a certain kind of femininity – that of beauty passivity, orderliness and self-control – but which nevertheless fails to “tell it like it is”. (Deryn Rees-Jones, 25)

The question is, how is the woman poet to ‘tell it like it is’ as Rees-Jones puts it and yet avoid such negative connotations. Can the woman who suffers rape or abuse manage to tell her own story without being seen as self-indulgent?

Petit answers this problem by moving towards communication, dialogue and knowledge of others. She states: ‘There are entire countries undergoing private hells much worse than mine, but in a first world country this is sometimes forgotten’. Petit continues providing an anecdote about the view of others about her poetry:

I was in Lithuania recently, and someone there at a conference compared my poem ‘My Father’s Body’ (where I shrink him to reduce his power) to a Lithuanian regaining power over a KGB agent. He said the particularity of the content of that poem wasn’t important. What was important was what the poem was doing, and how readers could relate it to injustices in their own lives.

The ‘particularity’ of the poem is transcended here for the Lithuanian, a male subject of an other sex and an other culture, yet it is clear that he understands the injustice described by the poem. This idea of cross-cultural, gender crossing exchanges in Petit’s poetry are integral to the kind of confessions that she presents. Empathy is at the heart of her poetics. Consequently in her recent collections, Petit has identified her experience of sexual abuse as a child not only with the destruction of nature (the Amazon rainforest), but also with the oppression of minor cultures (indigenous tribes in Latin America) and cult figures of suffering (the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo). By adopting the mask of another cultural tradition or another woman’s life, Petit disciplines the emotional content of her poems and she makes her depiction of ‘private wars’ as relevant as public conflicts.

For further information, please see Petit’s website:
Or see this link for a list of web resources on Petit:



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