I looked forward to Pascale Petit's launch of her new collection 'What the Water Gave Me' so much that I thought I may be disappointed, but in fact it was even more stunning than expected. There was standing room only in the unusual venue - a basement in the converted Horse Hospital near Russell Square.
Audience members were shoulder-to-shoulder, leaning close to hear each other in an excited buzz of conversation before and after the performance, but when Pascale read the silence was filled with the thrill her poems inspire. Each of the poems in this collection is inspired by a piece of art by Frida Kahlo, and Pascale describes this artist as having turned pain into paint.
Pascale has taken this one step further and turned pain into paint and then into poetry. The poems are in the voice of Kahlo, and some give voice to the paintings, while some are 'parallels' as Pascale called them. It's not a simple task writing a poem based on a painting as most poets have discovered at one time or another. And yet somehow Pascale has found a muse in Frida Kahlo and writes poems that come from one work of art to create another.
Kahlo's paintings have a visceral effect on those who are most taken by her work, and Pascale's poetry also inspires this response in a reader or listener. I've heard some people tell me they 'just don't get it', but if you do respond to Pascale's poetry it's electrifying. When I discovered Pascale's poetry through her collection 'The Zoo Father' I knew I had found a poet who could create a passionate response in me, as Roddy Lumsden has recently described the effect some writing can have on us.
The amazing thing about 'The Zoo Father' was that every poem had that effect. Sometimes a moment here or there in a poem can 'give us that whoosh' as Andrew Motion puts it. If a couple of poems in a collection can do that then I'm pleased to have read it. But with 'The Zoo Father' this happens in poem after poem. That kind of consistency isn't often achieved, and shows poetry that's on another level.
I did wonder if 'The Zoo Father' was so exceptional that it wouldn't be repeated, but 'What the Water Gave Me' proves that the consistency isn't just from poem to poem, but also from collection to collection. It was a special treat for the audience in The Horse Hospital to hear Pascale read some of these poems, accompanied with a visual display of the Kahlo paintings.
I do wonder sometimes if I should tone down my admiration for Pascale's work, but, having thought about it, I decided to write this blog to say how wonderful it is now to have women poets who can inspire us with this standard of writing. When I was starting out as an aspiring writer in my teens it was very different. There seemed to be so few women poets in anthologies, nobody as a role model because Plath had writing of a high quality but wasn't somebody I wanted to emulate. Plath was the only recent woman writer I saw in books, and even she wasn't alive by the time I was reading anthologies.
There were plenty of women poets in Victorian times and into the early part of the Twentieth Century, so it's not true when some people say there were 'few women poets pre 1960s or 70s'. For some reason we seem to have stifled them just at the time I was looking for women writers as inspiration, and I won't go into the reasons for it in this blog.
Perhaps Pascale Petit is the most inspirational for me, and perhaps for others it's one of the other excellent women poets we have at the moment, which isn't to say men can't or don't enjoy their work! But I don't think men might understand what it was like for some of us as teenagers to be writing poetry and sensing an absence of women in poetry.
Frida Kahlo has given inspiration to Pascale Petit, and in her turn Pascale passes that inspiration on to many more of us. We're so lucky now to have such an active circuit of poetry readings and open mics, which also wasn't the case when I was starting out. Pascale teaches poetry workshops in the Tate, and other well-known poets also give workshops. So we can meet these figures in a way that wasn't possible when I was younger, and I really recommend taking advantage of the opportunity.