May 07, 2006

Pascale Petit and Exile?

The Heart of A Deer by Pascale PetitThis week I am giving a paper at the postgraduate symposium. The topic will be exile and I am thinking specifically about the poet, Pascale Petit. Like many modern writers, Petit has a dual nationality – Welsh and French – and she is one of many Welsh women poets who have turned away from traditional tropes and approaches in Welsh literature. Petit is probably the most radical in that she does not follow the maxim, 'Write about what you know'.

Rather Petit turns to other models:

I don’t compare myself to [Yeats, Eliot, Larkin or Hughes], though I think one of the reasons I don’t is because they’re men. And they’re the standard of excellence – I mean, male poets are the standard.óPascale Petit in interview.

Here Petit is responding to a question which asks how she relates to male literary greats: Yeats, Eliot, Larkin, Hughes. Petit rejects these models specifically because they are male. Is this due to anxiety of influence (or authorship as Gilbert and Gubar pose it) or is it more than this? Is Petit suggesting that male and female poetry is essentially different? Petit goes on to qualify her statement. She describes such male poets as 'the standard of excellence'. Such poets belong to canonising literary critics, not to her, or so it seems in this statement.

Petit continues estranging herself even further from a male English (and in the case of Yeats – Irish) tradition:

Apart from the gender thing, there’s also the fact that I’m not British, and haven’t looked to British poetry for models. I’ve looked more to America, Europe, Australia. So, to try and answer you: I don’t have British roots, nor any firm roots. óPascale Petit in interview.

In addition to her thoughts on gender, Petit also adds further comments that deal with her cultural outlook. As a Welsh/French subject, she doesn't feel herself to be British. I find it interesting that she describes herself in this way as if her identity is not linked in any way to any idea of Britishness. Rather Petit looks to Europe, Australia and particularly America (possibly referring to the continent of Latin America rather than the US). Petit, then, feels estranged from her roots and has an outward looking view regarding models and poetics.

Interestingly, although Petit has estranged herself culturally, she has been described as confessional:

I write what I am compelled to write, and hope that explorations of my childhood ‘private hell’ are of relevance to readers. There are entire countries undergoing private hells much worse than mine, but in a first world country this is sometimes forgotten.óPascale Petit in interview

Petit is forthright in talking about the disturbing experiences of her childhood, yet she expresses anxiety about the reader's response. In juxtaposition with her previous comment, she makes her difficult experience into a macrocosmic event that includes an entire country. Specifically the kind of country that she is talking about manifests itself in her work in her use of Latin American landscapes, cultures and heroes. The way that she talks about her poetics here suggests that perhaps the strategy of including the exigencies of developing countries has a double purpose. It simultaneously eludes the problems of writing confesssionally and privileges the models and cultures of the devloping world.


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  1. Madeleine Wood

    Hi Zoe, that's really interesting. Without knowing Petit's poetry, what you've written makes me think about the inevitable 'foreigness' of our childhoods – childhood will always be the internal 'other'. As pure speculation, its almost as if locating her confessional within a foreign latin landscape emphasises the uncanniness of the original traumatic experiences, in a sense they will always be other to herself, irresolvable to any sense of 'home'.

    07 May 2006, 13:39

  2. Thanks for this. I haven't looked at it so much from a psychoanalytical viewpoint, although I did touch on trauma in some reading. Would you suggest anything in particular to read up on this subject?

    07 May 2006, 17:24

  3. Freud's 'Ratman' case history is quite interesting in relation to the link between childhood and the unconscious, Freud saying 'the unconscious [...] was the infantile; it was that part of the self which had separated off from it in infancy' (p.177 of SE. Volume X). Otherwise his work on memory is very interesting: he claims that we can't access unmediated childhood scenes, only the 'screen memories' which encrypt our childhood desires (see, 'The Psychopathology of Everyday Life'). His analysis of Leonardo Da Vinci's life and art explores the same issues (with some slightly bizzarre conclusions at times I have to say!).

    07 May 2006, 18:01

  4. P.S but what is quite effective in Freud's analysis of Leonardo is the dialogue he creates between childhood trauma and artistic modes.

    07 May 2006, 18:06

  5. Right, thanks for this. I'll look up these references. I am a little nervous about using psychoanalysis to analyse Petit, but this stuff looks very useful.

    08 May 2006, 17:11

  6. I don't blame you at all for feeling that way, using psychoanalysis involves a delicate balancing act as it can so easily sound a bit (or very) naff! Hopefully my work isn't, but I do worry sometimes.

    08 May 2006, 18:58

  7. That's the balance isn't it. But actually I have always been attracted to psychoanalysis. In June I'm giving a paper at a conference on Virginia Woolf and silence. I use RD Laing's The Divided Self and specifically his essay on self-consciousness. I compare Mrs Dalloway with Sasha in Jean Rhys' Good Morning, Midnight .

    09 May 2006, 09:30

  8. Wow, that sounds really interesting. I love Jean Rhys and Virginia Woolf, and R.D. Laing is also one of my favourite analysts. Which conference is it? I'm glad I'm not alone in my interest in psychoanalysis, I always feel really apologetic about it which I shouldn't obviously. Lots of people (particularly my non–english literature friends) are quite prejudiced against it.

    09 May 2006, 11:36

  9. By the way, didn't mean to suggest that your use of psychoanalysis would be naff – just meant that it was always my own fear that my work would sound unconvincing when tackling psychoanalytic theory…

    09 May 2006, 11:40

  10. Yes I get that feeling from people often too – the prejudice against psychoanalysis. (And don't worry! I didn't think that you were talking about me particularly.) But you shouldn't worry about what other people think so much. Building up your own relationship with a text and interpreting it via your own interests and frames is most important. Everyone has their worries though. I find it difficult sometimes to separate academic and creative writing and so I guess my worry would be that sometimes I use free–association too much in my academic writing. Btw the conference is in Birmingham – celebrating Virginia Woolf.

    09 May 2006, 11:50

  11. That's good advice. I do need to be more confident about my work. After all, we must all be doing something right or we wouldn't be where we are now. Is really helpful having interaction with other PhD students and exchanging ideas, as it is always something I have lacked in the past, and think it has made lack confidence when talking about my work. Am very tempted by the Virginia Woolf conference, she is a bit out of my period now unfortunately, but she is one of my favourite writers (although I love Jean Rhys even more). Spent many happy days reading her books one after another when I was 18.

    09 May 2006, 12:35


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