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Sally Carthew on

Mario Petrucci

You can visit Mario Petrucci’s Internet site at

This piece is 2.500 words or about six printed pages long.

How many poets hold a PhD in physics? Hard to say on a global scale — but British poet Mario Petrucci is one of them. Thirteen years ago Petrucci abandoned research opportunities in fibre optics ‘to find my feet as an organic gardener and take the precipitous plunge as a poet’.

His entry in the 2003 International Who’s Who of Poetry reads like a directory of UK and Irish poetry awards — including the prestigious 2003 Daily Telegraph/ Arvon International Poetry Award and the Irish Perpetual Trophy.

Now taking the UK literary scene by storm, Petrucci has had over 500 poems, essays and critical articles published. One of his four collections of poems, The Stamina of Sheep, won the Essex Best Fiction Award in 2003.

In 1999 he was the first ever poet-in-residence at the Imperial War Museum London and is still the Museum’s literacy consultant. He has also evolved two literary theories and is a driving force behind ShadoWork, an experimental London performance group.

Petrucci’s Daily Telegraph / Arvon Prize-winning entry, ‘Half Life’, is at the heart of a book-length poem Heavy Water. In this, victims of Chernobyl speak their courage and their pain. He describes the fallout from atomic testing and nuclear accidents as ‘an invisible dagger’ causing thousands of cancer deaths across the globe annually, due to the half life of the nuclear debris. He is painfully aware that Chernobyl is ‘still alive in the air we use to talk about it, in the blood we use to think about it’.

The toll from Chernobyl is difficult to estimate, Petrucci says, and the thousands of extra cancer deaths each year may continue for thousands of years. A massive region around Chernobyl is now contaminated. It is divided into a number of ‘zones’, some of which are closed off, ‘though there have been (it seems) “tours” of selected areas’. Heavy Water will be released by Enitharmon Press ( in April to coincide with the 18th anniversary of the disaster.

Not surprisingly, Petrucci is profoundly interested in how science and writing meet. Whether or not a writer has scientific training, Petrucci sees an overlap between them. Writers, like scientists, ‘have to attempt to look beneath surfaces... Writers don’t have the same tools as science, scientists don’t have the same tools as writers. The opportunities are different, but the disciplines overlap rather than merely touch at the borders.’

Like many writers, he started his career as a teacher. He taught high school science after taking his first degree in physics from Cambridge. Continuing with post-graduate study, he became a research physicist, completing a PhD in opto-electronics at University College, London.

By 1989-90 he had felt ‘burned out in the scientific direction’ and was also ‘affected by events in his personal life’ — notably the death of his father. ‘Science has many answers — but it did not have answers for me at that time.’

In fact, Petrucci was becoming increasingly excited about the possibilities of the written and spoken word. He could perceive ‘a vast unexplored sea of literature... To paraphrase Einstein, physics was for me like picking up a pebble here and there when a great ocean lay beyond.’

As his interests began to shift, he also completed post graduate studies in the departments of Environment and Literature at Middlesex University, gaining first class honours in ecology and the environment.

How has being a scientist impacted on his writing? ‘Scientific training gives you a way of looking at the world, a way of being precise, a desire to discover exactly what it is that’s there... which is not always the thing that presents itself. That skill spills over into writing. It’s a great bonus.’

He points out that ‘the scientific way of looking at the world is beginning to enter public consciousness. In the 19th century only a few writers, like Coleridge, possessed a profound knowledge of science — now many writers are flying above the cloud line.’

He sees the issues for the next ten to 100 years as being technology related — nuclear waste, genetically modified food, cloning, ecology. This is another area, he says, in which writers and scientists share common ground. Both will have to address these issues.

Inevitably those affected by the downside of technology will usually be the bystanders, ordinary people, like those whose voices ring out in Petrucci’s Heavy Water. The poem was ‘born of an urge to remember’. It is partly a counterbalance to what Petrucci sees as the present Western trend to not only undervalue history but to disregard histories of ordinary people or ‘the Other’.

The Chernobyl disaster of 26 April 1986 was more than a decade past being ‘hot news in the West’, when it ‘accidentally’ resurfaced for Petrucci early in 2002. After a dull day filling in tax forms, he leafed through a library book his Brisbane-born fiance Anne Prouse had sitting on her bedside table. It was Svetlana Alexievitch’s searing book, Voices from Chernobyl, consisting of first hand accounts from people who were drafted in to help and of nearby villagers, including their children, who suffered from the fallout.

Riveted, Petrucci read a section of the book each day and wrote poems in response. The poems were, in the main, simply the stories those ordinary people were telling him through the pages of the book. He holed himself up in his study for two months, day and night, producing 82 pieces which he soon realised were all parts of one long poem. He later wrote in an article in the NSW Writers’ Centre Newsletter Newswrite: ‘Alexievitch demonstrates that most sensitive of instruments, a fine and uninvasive sensibility which permits the testaments of ordinary people to pass onto the page in such a way as to concentrate and amplify them into the realm of the extraordinary.’

Petrucci acknowledges his immense debt to Alexievich, referring to a harrowing quote from her book: ‘If the scientist knows nothing, if the writers know nothing, then it is for us to help them with our lives and our death.’ Surrendering to the ‘uncommonly eloquent common voices’ that were speaking to him so powerfully an insistently, Petrucci felt that in composing Heavy Water ‘three-quarters of the writing was already done’ for him. Unambiguous accolades can be few and far between on the British poetry scene, but not so on the day the London’s Daily Telegraph carried its award results. Petrucci’s winning poem was described there by the judge’s as: ‘Heartfelt, ambitious and alive’. Reading his completed manuscript one cannot help but note how Heavy Water juxtaposes the ordinary with the extraordinary and how, like Alexievitch, Petrucci can render the ordinary extraordinary. Here is a brief excerpt from the poem:

I still believed I could save him. Milk, soup, kisses. As if
he could digest the touch of my lips, feel my making of broth

in his dissolving heart-chambers. When his breath shut,
when he began to cool — then — I called for family. It was

almost a miracle, the Doctors said. Four times the fatal dose
and he nearly turned round.

Asked whether the role of poets in the twenty-first century was to be historians, Petrucci says he is ‘very wary of anything that talks of itself in terms of its role’. He says if there were a role for poets it would be ‘to be themselves’. Things that poets do can make us aware of ‘the presence of the Other’ or ‘draw attention to important issues we’re forgetting to look at, or perhaps even to the more fundamental problem of no longer knowing how to look’.

He adds: ‘Most writers have some sense of history — which our civilisation is losing. Society is shedding its attachment to history. Popular culture is not concerned with the past. Music and TV, as a whole, are not concerned with history. Our Western culture is busily compressing itself into the present moment.’

Getting back to the role of poets. ‘Great writers distend the moment — some into the past, some in spirit, others into the future.’ Enthused, he quotes Milan Kundera: ‘The important thing for people is not to forget. As Kundera says: “The struggle of people is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. ’

Petrucci moves on to discuss a phenomenon he experienced, which science does not yet have answers for. ‘Writing Heavy Water was less like composition than dictation. Those men and women. The innocent courage of their children. Once I’d heard them, I couldn’t remain silent. They continued to speak to me beyond the point where Alexievitch’s book stopped.’

Petrucci believes he somehow tapped into ‘information that does not come to us through the senses. Although I did not have any direct experience of Chernobyl, when I read my poems to Russian people they tell me: THAT is exactly what it was like!’

‘I believe that there is some higher plane where such things are possible — whether it can be measured, or whether it is psychic or spiritual... I don’t think the concept of the Muses came from nothing. The Muses may well be a metaphor for tapping in to this higher plane. Perhaps we have in us an imprint for this part of the human experience, or perhaps it is a spiritual phenomenon, an opening channel we haven’t fully come to recognise yet. The whole of literature is riddled with voices heard or dreamed of. Poems come to you — but you have to make sure you’re able to hear.’

Over the past 12 years Petrucci has forged new connections between poetry, history, ecology, physics, performance and visual art. With his academic background it is not surprising that he has also evolved two new poetry theories: Poeclectics and literARTure.

Poeclectics is the trend ‘among contemporary British poets to adopt a variety of voices and styles in their work... they both generate and respond to different characters, personalities and voices through the aesthetic medium of poems’. Poeclectics has its roots partly in Modernism, where ‘poets began to use different languages and perspectives in their writing in much more prominent and experimental ways. This is linked to the complexity of modern consciousness. Emotions can be difficult to identify — and (in any case) poets are not always talking simply about themselves. They adopt masks. Personae. But those masks and personae are strange in that they sometimes help you to see the writer more clearly.’

‘Poeclectics is not just about what is happening in poetry, it is about the way you look at ‘the Other’. It is natural to explore different personalities, alternate states of being, new voices. Those voices can act like lenses, like sonic spectacles. Because, especially when one is neck deep in one’s own time, it can be so very hard to see. Or to hear.’

As poet-in-residence at the Imperial War Museum in London, Petrucci was able to give full expression to literARTure — a melding of literature with the visual to catalyse both. In a Poetry Hunt entitled ‘Search and Create’, poems were displayed so as to simultaneously re-shape the viewing space of the war artefacts and to stretch and stimulate the viewers’ imaginations.

Petrucci has always been interested in the land, and in war. He was born in 1958 in Lambeth, London, to farming Italian parents who had fled Italy’s war-ravaged Monte Cassino after World War II. Petrucci remembers having to adapt to two cultures from early childhood.

‘Growing up with an Italian family was absolutely formative. They would sit around the table at night playing cards, nattering away in Italian and Anglo-Italian “pidgin”. Going to school I had a sense of being peripheral and this has fuelled the Poeclectic side of my work. I had a feeling of moving through different phases that many people, perhaps, don’t have. At school I was an English Italian boy; at home I was an Italian English boy. I had to be a hybrid. As a writer drawing on this experience, I seem able to take different perspectives on board and I am comfortable adopting a range of personae. In fact, I might have done okay on stage. Actually, that’s rather how I see poetry — as a vital, interactive play.’

Petrucci maintains contact with his homeland. ‘The land always heals us’, he says. ‘It is what we are made of..’ He acknowledges the agonies, as well as the opportunities, for rural people who are displaced. He watched his parents struggle with city life and with English. Sometimes they would get creative when they did not know a word. His father once asked for a cock-a-doodle-doo when the word for chicken eluded him. ‘If you don’t possess a language, you are dispossessed. I still work hard at the English language. It is possibly the one thing I most actively study.’

Petrucci was first published at age nine in his school magazine — a short story about an Italian village with an illustration of a chicken run earned him three gold stars. Like many adolescents he was moved to write poetry, and at age 16 wrote a short lyrical poem about the nature of consciousness. ‘I felt I was brushing shoulders with Byron, Shelley and Keats, they were within reach — I could hear them.’

He is quick to point out that he has not always written poetry, that it isn’t the sole focus in his life. ‘I think of myself as a person who writes poetry, not as a poet who consumes the self and its experience for his art. There are periods in your life when it is good just to live’, he says.

I met Petrucci at the NSW Writers’ Centre, Rozelle, during one of these periods in March 2003. He had come to Australia to visit his fiance Anne Prouse’s parents, to work and holiday on the Gold Coast and ‘enjoy the simple things’, such as ‘monster barbecues and watching cricket’. Petrucci met Anne on a writing course near Oxford. Anne had gone to England to ‘travel and work in London’. The $A15,000 in prize money from the Daily Telegraph/ Arvon Award came in handy for their trip. In fact, the couple were also scouting to explore the possibilities of Petrucci being able to write here. ‘I’m always interested in alternatives to making ends meet “up over” in England’, he says. ‘As a writer your income is precarious and your changes of fortune sobering’. But Petrucci hadn’t reckoned on ‘the sheer alcohol-equivalent of a twilit evening in the outback’. On the spur of the moment he proposed marriage to Anne ‘in the vast night of Uluru, under a mad fizz of stars, bubbly and desert flies’.

The workshop Petrucci ran at the NSW Writers’ Centre, entitled ‘Poetry and freeze dried penguins’, was one of his ‘chosen moments’ as professional poet in Australia. Another was his reading at the Brett Whitely Gallery in Sydney. My dominant first impression of Petrucci was of someone charged with energy and enthusiasm — someone totally engaged — whether in conversation or in giving a workshop to budding poets.

Asked what his greatest passion is Petrucci answered ‘being alive and paying attention’. For Petrucci, poetry is a way of doing both and ‘enhances both’. ‘If I hadn’t emerged Catholic, I might have been a Zen Buddhist... I probably am anyway!’

Buddhism is said to be the science of mind, so perhaps this brings him full circle.

Sally Carthew is a journalist/ editor turned poet/ fiction writer. She has written for publications including The Australian and GEO. Her poetry publishing projects include The Book of Poets on the Heath. Her present passion is postmodernism, which she is studying in a Masters course at Deakin University.

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