LIFE’S BLOOD: an interview with Marcella Polain

Posted on March 12, 2013 by in Lighthouse Yarns

Marcella Polain, author photo

Marcella Polain was born in Singapore and immigrated to Perth when she was two years old, with her Armenian mother and Irish father. She has a background in theatre and screen writing, and now lectures in the Writing Program at Edith Cowan University. Polain was founding WA editor for the national poetry journal Blue Dog, and has been poetry editor for Westerly and was inaugural editor for Indigo. Her first poetry collection, Dumbstruck, won the Anne Elder Prize; her second, Each Clear Night, was short-listed for the West Australian Premier’s Poetry Prize. Polain has published essays on writing and completed her PhD at the University of Western Australia in 2006. She has recently completed a third poetry collection, Therapy like Fish. Interviewer: former student of Polain’s, Jas Shenstone.

INTERVIEWER

People seem to have a fascination for a writer’s process. Some perhaps are hoping for inspiration and others may just enjoy the behind-the-scenes glimpse of how a writer works. How do you approach a new idea, a fresh page?

POLAIN

My process is long and unruly. I have tried to make it more orderly but if I plan a lot before I start writing the words just die on the page. For me, there is something necessary about not-knowing that in some way energises the language. So I seem to have two ways of approaching a new idea. In one (and this is usually with bigger works like novels) I have a vague sense of the story that may have bubbled away for years, and I begin when I feel the impulse physically. It may sound odd but the only way I can describe it is this: a buzz of anticipation (as if I am looking forward to a special occasion), an actual leaning forward of the body, a sensation in my chest and throat as if I am about to speak, sometimes a tingling at the back of my head. I need to listen to my body. If I do take my queue from it, the writing begins quite well, and there is often a pleasing balance of not-knowing and control. The other way I write is to begin with no idea and no physical sensation. I simply set aside time and sit down and write the first half-decent line or sentence that I think of.

That’s where the two begins become one quite similar process, because in both I just follow my nose, writing from one line/sentence to the next and the next, looking to be guided by the words already on the page. Hemingway said we should write one true sentence. (He didn’t mean factual.) That’s what I try to do. Then take my queue from that sentence and write the next true sentence it suggests. Pretty soon I will have the beginning of something. It may be the idea I brought into the process or it may be one the process has uncovered. If it’s the former (borne of the first way I begin) then I most likely have a guiding sense of its form and subject. If it’s the latter (borne of the second way) I most likely don’t yet know anything about it apart from what’s now on the page. The more I write of a piece, the more alike the experiences become: writing always into the unknown, one true line or sentence at a time, to uncover what I am trying to say. I usually work in fragments that, for a long time, can seem as if they have no connections. This is a deep imaginative, creative and intellectual challenge; it’s fabulous problem-solving. It is important to remain calm, acknowledging anxiety about all the not-knowing for what it is, and have faith enough to keep going. In the middle of novels, which take me years, writing feels more a test of desire, faith and perseverance than anything else: how much do I want this?; how important is this to me?

INTERVIEWER

Are there any sentences in your own work—or someone else’s—that stand out for you, true sentences that have lasted and stayed with you?

POLAIN

Many, but I have a poor memory for such things. They arrest me and I read them over and over, get a physical reaction – breathless, skin-tingling, tears – and think I will remember them but don’t. Now I try to use a little sticky-note to mark them as I read. But then I run out of notes or forget to keep some with me; anyway, all my books with sticky notes are in my work office where I keep my favourites and I am home without them!

INTERVIEWER

You write poetry and prose.  Have you or have you ever wanted to write a play or a script?

POLAIN

I spent several years writing plays and scripts as a theatre arts undergrad at Curtin and film student at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney, then working as a freelance scriptwriter. I had a play professionally produced and sold a script but I pretty quickly realised two things: 1) Film was not for me, as I don’t like relinquishing control of my work; and 2) I needed a steady income to have some material comfort.  So I went back to uni and became a teacher instead.

INTERVIEWER

When you were a child did you want to be a writer? Were you encouraged to write?

POLAIN

I always wanted to be writer. At home this was actively discouraged. But I was encouraged by a couple of wonderful teachers. It is very hard when a child with a calling is treated badly over it by his/her family, but perhaps it is a good test of will. Perhaps that is a stupid thing to say because I am sure we lose a lot of artists in this way.

INTERVIEWER

What are you writing at the moment?

POLAIN

I’m finishing a novel-length manuscript.  I’m also writing a few essays, which is unusual for me. I’m looking forward to returning to poetry.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find films influential to your writing?

POLAIN

I love cinema. The narrative of films doesn’t influence me but the cinematography, the visual images, do.

INTERVIEWER

Would you say words or images are more important when you’re coming up with an idea for something to write?

POLAIN

Hmm. That’s a good question. Given my last answer, I’d expect I would say images but I think it’s words. It’s their rhythm, tone, diction. It’s what is not said. Often overheard dialogue sparks something. Although, I do store up visual images and use them once I start writing. Often as detail for character and place.  Does that make sense?

INTERVIEWER

What brings you back to the blank page?  What gives you the courage to keep writing?

POLAIN

I think I write to find out what I think, to see what will happen, to see what I can make, to get a message across, to give a voice to someone, to investigate something. How can anyone live and not experience many things each day that would drive them to that blank page? What would life be like without making art? I wouldn’t want to live. Its life’s blood to me.

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